Only a few people would probably remember Victoria Adjo Climbié and Kyria Ishaq. And the furore over Baby P, which brought to light how, in Britain alone, “three children a week are dying of abuse or neglect at the hands of parents or guardians” has all but faded away. Thousands of stories remain untold, ironically, sometimes, because those who could do something about it do not even notice what is going on right under their noses, be they parents or educators.
Child abuse is not “just” about the stereotypical dirty old man in the playground, playing spider to the fly. It usually happens within the four walls of the family home, the very place where a child’s rights include being loved, nurtured, fed, and clothed, or, by extension, in those places where we mistakenly think our children are safe.
Children may suffer neglect as well as physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Typically, different types of abuse obtain in conjunction with one another more often than they exist alone. Sexually-abused children are often neglected and physically-abused children are also being emotionally abused.
There are times when, because of conflicting timetables, workload, illness or other commitments, we have to leave our children in the care of others.
Recent statistics indicate that, on average, there is at least one case of child abuse a day in Malta. Even if you would never plead guilty to abusing your child through neglect – because you work all God’s hours to give him everything (except, perhaps, the love he craves) – there are some red flags that may indicate that not all is well between your child and his alternative carers.
A child winces when you raise your hand to cover your mouth as you yawn. His demeanour changes at the sound of approaching footsteps.
He throws a tantrum when you mention a particular relative at whose house he will have to sleep over because you are going abroad on business…
Consider when a child who spends time in someone else’s care:
1. Appears constantly on edge, as if fearing what may happen.
2. Appears to have changed his eating and sleeping patterns.
3. Becomes aggressive, excessively withdrawn, compliant or passive.
4. Becomes tearful or throws tantrums at the least provocation.
5. Behaves in an over-the-top way in a given situation.
6. Behaves precociously, reverts to infantile habits, or self-harms.
7. Boasts, albeit in jest, that he has watched pornography.
8. Bullies children who are weaker or is cruel towards pets.
9. Develops medical problems (herpes, gum or teeth problems, dermatitis, etc).
10. Develops pruritus, a nervous tic, or repetitive behaviour.
11. Has an odd smell, or downright BO, when he returns from his visit.
12. Has bruises or other marks, explained away as falls, or bumps.
13. Has difficulty concentrating and occasionally daydreams.
14. Has not done his homework because he was not adequately supervised.
15. Is ambivalent when asked how he spent his time away from home.
16. Is in possession of gifts that he tries to conceal.
17. Now refuses to allow you to bathe him.
18. Rarely contributes comments during family discussions.
19. Refuses alternative carer(s), saying he is old enough to look after himself.
20. Says that so-and-so “allows” him to drink alcohol.
If sexual abuse is involved, there will be additional red flags, including a sudden, sophisticated or unusual sexual nous. A child, apart from having experiencing difficulty walking or sitting, may suddenly refuse to change for PE lessons in front of his peers, with a vehemence that may even cause his teachers to contact you.
Children may even run away from home or play truant from school. They may have nightmares or start wetting the bed. Appetite may be affected too; bulimia and anorexia may be a child’s subconscious effort to “cleanse” himself or become unattractive to his predator.
We strive to teach children that nobody may touch their “private body”, that they must respect authority figures and that they must avoid “tricky people”. Unfortunately, here “stranger danger” ceases to exist per se because sexual abuse, like other abuse, is usually carried out by people whom the child knows well. We, as parents, strive to give our kids all they could possibly need, and want, and more, ironically, perhaps, while someone else is ruining them physically, emotionally and mentally while we earn the money to be able to do so.
Victims of child abuse exist in a locked cage. They are told that they are bad children and, therefore, deserve to be abused instead of being sent to prison or to hell. They are threatened that the family will break up if they tell. Sometimes, they are asked whether they would rather the abuse happened to younger siblings.
Consider when an adult to whom you entrust your child:
1. Appears over-eager to look after him, even when it is not necessary.
2. Appears reluctant to hand over your child back when you call for him.
3. Appears to be depressed or admits being on medication.
4. Asks whether he may use physical punishment if your child misbehaves.
5. Bawls out, slaps, spanks or smacks your children as if they were his own.
6. Behaves irrationally, perhaps because of substance abuse.
7. Behaves possessively, alienating the child from other children.
8. Demands total devotion from your child, playing on his emotions.
9. Denies the existence of any problems or lies about them.
10. Either offers no explanation for your child’s injury or explains it away glibly.
11. Finds fault with whatever your child does or, conversely, praises him effusively.
12. Has a history of being abused as a child.
13. Insists that when children are inherently evil, they deserve punishment,
14. Insists that the child sorely tests one’s patience but that he adores him anyway.
15. Intimates that he is doing the child and the parent a favour by offering care.
16. Rarely, if ever, looks the child in the eye, except as what could be a “secret signal”.
17. Seeks out your child for care, attention and emotional needs rather than his partner.
18. Seems oblivious to the child’s needs, calling him a big baby and similar names.
19. Touches the child as one would touch an inanimate object.
20. Tries to bribe or steal the child’s affections from his parent(s).
This is a wake-up call; let’s not allow an obsession with materialism to place our children in jeopardy.
A pious fool is he who sees a child struggling in water and says: I’ll take off my tefillin and then save the child (Talmud Jerushalmi: Sota).