LIFE

Bad kids or bad homes?

A TV documentary on abuse prompts authorities to seize two children

D'ARCY JENISH May 2 1994
LIFE

Bad kids or bad homes?

A TV documentary on abuse prompts authorities to seize two children

D'ARCY JENISH May 2 1994

Bad kids or bad homes?

LIFE

A TV documentary on abuse prompts authorities to seize two children

D'ARCY JENISH

Mike is a 45-year-old welder, his wife, Karen, a 29-year-old receptionist. Based on appearances, they are average middle-class Canadians.

They have two kids. They drive a late-model van. They live in a contemporary townhouse in Hamilton. In mid-April, however, the CBC’s the 5th estate broadcast a powerful, at times disturbing, documentary, titled The Trouble with Evan, which portrayed Mike and Karen, and their children, 11-year-old Evan and seven-year-old Kimberly, as a severely dysfunctional family. The documentary was prepared from 200 hours of footage shot on two tiny black-and-white video cameras that the 5th estate placed in the family home, with the approval of the couple, whose family name has not been revealed. The footage, especially scene after scene of the parents heaping verbal abuse on Evan, profoundly shocked thousands of viewers and provided child care workers with a rare and disturbing firsthand glimpse of the corrosive effects on children of emotional mistreatment. “When we started looking at the tapes we were quite astonished,” said 5th estate host Linden MacIntyre. ‘We grew more and more shocked at. every tape.”

Children’s Aid Society (CAS) workers in Hamilton were upset as well. Three days after the program aired, they seized Evan and Kimberly and placed them in foster homes—a turn of events their parents could not have anticipated when they agreed to three months of taping starting in early January. The cameras captured numerous disputes between Evan and his parents over issues such as shoplifting, smoking and misbehavior at school. Most of the conflicts ended with an enraged Mike screaming and swearing at his stepson, Evan, or threatening and humiliating him. In presenting its report, the 5th estate juxtaposed the powerful footage of family fights with interviews it conducted with teenagers convicted of crimes under the Young Offenders Act, many of whom talked of similarly abusive experiences as children. The producers included young offenders in the program because many child care workers believe there is a direct link between childhood abuse and antisocial behavior in later life.

Besides raising troubling questions about child abuse, the program raised ethical concerns about the role of journalists who film the private lives of ordinary people. Are they there simply to make a good program, or do they have another responsibility to the participants? MacIntyre insisted that the 5th estate had violated no professional codes of conduct, noting that Mike and Karen had continually reconfirmed their co-operation by reloading the camera with tapes. Peter Desbarats, dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of Western Ontario in London, said that modem television is full of examples of average citizens revealing intimate details of their personal lives. “I’m always amazed at what people will talk about on programs like Oprah,” said Desbarats, 60. “It has become an accepted form of therapy. But someone of my generation is horrified by that.”

Among child care professionals, the program aroused interest for its graphic presentation of an extremely damaging form of child abuse that is also difficult for outsiders to detect. Dr. Eric Hood, senior psychiatrist at the Family Court Clinic at Toronto’s Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, said that children rarely complain to anyone about emotional and verbal abuse. The problem also escapes detection

because most child care workers are trained to look for physical and sexual abuse, which often leave wounds, broken bones or scars. “The abuse has to be pretty ghastly for kids to squeal on their parents,” said Hood. “Kids tend to idealize their parents.”

Many child care experts also contend that, in the face of budget cutbacks, they can only respond to the most serious cases of physical and sexual abuse. Douglas Brown, executive director of the Children’s Assessment and Treatment Centre in Burlington, serving several communities just west of Toronto, said that although his specialists treated 900 youngsters last year, they could have worked with three times as many if they had been given adequate resources. Charles Cunningham, a psychologist at Chedoke-McMaster Hospitals in Hamilton, Mike and Karen’s community, said that provincial studies show that five of six families who require professional help to resolve conflicts with their children are not re ceiving assistance. Many families from low-income or ethnic backgrounds are reluctant to seek help, he said. But in other cases, treatment is unavailable due to financial constraints.

Although emotional abuse may be difficult to detect and treat, most child care experts agree that it can be extremely damaging. Ju-

dith Coldoff, a psychologist with a private practice in Toronto, said that verbal abuse of the kind portrayed on the 5th estate can leave a child feeling worthless. Many children try to shield themselves by becoming withdrawn or unresponsive when their parents attack them verbally. But Coldoff and others contend that children retain the negative messages, as well as the accompanying pain and humiliation, as hidden memories, and that those experiences frequently turn abused children into abusive parents. “Their memories are like tapes buried in the subconscious that are waiting to be played,” said Hood. “When they get stressed as parents, the raw

stuff comes out like a script they didn’t even know was in them.”

The pain, humiliation and frustration stemming from extreme verbal abuse frequently turn to rage and find an outlet in crime, some psychologists contend. For his documentary, MacIntyre interviewed several young offenders enrolled in the Portage Program, a treatment centre in Elora, Ont., 85 km northwest of Toronto, for teenagers with drug, alcohol or

behavioral problems. Wearing masks to conceal their identities, the teenagers told excruciatingly sad stories of childhood abuse and young lives ruined. “Broken bones heal, bruises go away, scars and stitches aren’t that bad,” said one young man. “It’s the stuff inside that hurts the most. The mental and verbal abuse was three times harder to accept or deal with than the physical abuse ever was.” One young offender recalled being put in his bedroom for an entire week with nothing but a book. He felt lonely and rejected, as though he had been placed in a cell without bars. “Nobody cared for me,” he said. “I had to rebel.”

Some social workers and psychologists who

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watched The Trouble with Evan said that the boy’s behavior is typical of badly abused children. He has been caught shoplifting, smoking and stealing money from his parents and has been suspended from school for unprovoked attacks on classmates. In one particularly harrowing moment captured on camera, Mike and Karen tell Evan that he is no longer a member of the family, that he cannot share their meals or participate in family vacations. They don’t care whether he goes to school or whether he comes home at night, they tell him.

Mike ends another lecture by swearing at Evan and calling him a “lard arse,” then screaming, “if you don’t like it,

there’s the f-g door.”

Ironically, the tapes were made while Mike and Karen, who in more rational moments clearly recognize their shortcomings, were attending parenting classes in a futile effort to improve their skills. Barbara Burrows, who runs a counselling service called Positive Parenting in Burlington, says that most people can find the source of their own anger and frustration as parents in childhood events. One young mother who became unusually enraged when her four-yearold son pushed over his little sister eventually recalled being bullied by her older brother, Burrows said. “She was very, very angry at her brother as a child but it was buried and forgotten,” said Burrows.

“When her son gave her daughter a shove, it was like a replay from her childhood and she wanted to throttle her son.”

Some publicly funded social agencies have only recently begun offering parenting courses as a means of reaching the broadest possible audience at a time when budgets

are being cut. Cunningham said that the Chedoke-McMaster Child and Family Centre runs a 10to 14-week program aimed at parents who are in the early stages of troublesome relationships with their children. He said that the objective is to prevent the

conflicts from deepening to the point where a family needs individual counselling. Parents discuss their problems in support groups, watch videos on parenting skills and try to develop solutions to recurring conflicts. “Our professional resources are shrinking each year,” said Cunningham. “Even for families seeking help, the resources are very scarce.” Unfortunately, the financial and human resources required to combat child abuse are being cut at a time when the scope of the problem is becoming more apparent. Coldoff and many other psychologists believe that sexual and physical abuse are rampant in society, and verbal abuse is even more commonplace. Some experts said that the most disturbing aspect of the 5th estate documentary was that almost all parents will see something of themselves in Mike and Karen. “There’s a little bit of this family in all of us,” said Burrows. We all have those moments of rage.” All that separate the good parents from abusive parents, they say, is the frequency and the severity of the rage—and the ability to deal with it without inflicting damage on the child. It is a skill that CAS workers will want to see in Mike and Karen before they can consider returning two children to their care.

D’ARCY JENISH