Sunday, January 27, 1985
(1985) Experts on sexual child abuse try to defuse the time bombs
Experts on sexual child abuse try to defuse the time bombs
By John Crewdson
Chicago Tribune - January 27, 1985
Can people who sexually abuse children, or who fear that they may one day do so, be persuaded to seek help on their own before being reported by their victims?
Fifteen leading child-abuse experts from this country and Canada gathered in Racine last week to explore the question and to suggest strategies for persuading abusers to turn themselves in.
The conference, sponsored by the Chicago-based National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, marked the first major effort to address prevention of sexual child abuse at the source.
"UP UNTIL NOW, prevention of sexual abuse has meant almost exclusively teaching children to protect themselves," said David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire sociologist. "But we need to recognize that there are limitations to that approach."
Roland Summit, a psychiatrist at the University of California at Los Angeles, added, "We cannot hold the lambs responsible to battle the wolves."
The strategies considered in the three-day conference ranged from a public-service campaign of television, radio and magazine announcements aimed at active child abusers, to drawing up a list of "danger signals" for potential abusers, an approach similar to those for diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
Since 1976 the committee has been conducting a public-service campaign aimed at adults who abuse children physically. The theme is "Take time out --don't take it out on your kids."
Anne Cohn, committee executive director, said the group is "in the midst of designing a new campaign" to focus on sex-abuse prevention.
Among presentations at the conference was a videotape of a proposed television spot, read by actor Mike Farrell of the "M+A+S+H" television series and written by Jon Conte of the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration.
"IF YOU ARE A man and you are sexually involved with children," the announcement says, "you may be saying to yourself, 'She likes it,' or 'He asked for it,' or 'I'm teaching her about sex.'
"You're lying to yourself. Real men are not involved sexually with children. If there's any part of you that really cares about that child, stop it. Get help now."
Though the experts agreed that some abusers might respond to such appeals, none was optimistic that public-service messages would be likely to persuade many abusers to give themselves up.
For one thing, they noted, many abusers have managed to rationalize their behavior by convincing themselves that they are not harming their victims.
For another, because mental health professionals in all states are required by law to report abuse suspects to authorities, an abuser who seeks psychiatric help is likely to run the risk of a criminal conviction and a jail sentence.
"EVERYBODY IN L.A. is getting jail terms now," said Kee MacFarlane, a Los Angeles therapist who works with sex-abuse victims.
"In L.A., there's only one place to self-report, and that's to the cops. There is nothing else. The (Police Department) is not exactly the place to get help as a sex offender."
Another barrier is the belief of many child abusers "that their risk of getting caught really is extraordinarily low," according to Finkelhor, something he termed "an accurate perception."
Other experts pointed out that some cities' limited experiments with getting abusers to self-report have been largely unavailing.
A FAR MORE promising approach, according to many at the conference, might be to target those who think they have abusive tendencies but who have not begun to abuse children sexually.
Several experts suggested that the compulsion to abuse becomes stronger as an abuser acquires more victims and that it would be far easier to treat someone who had not begun to act out abusive tendencies.
In such cases, asking an individual to seek help before he begins abusing would amount to "asking them to give up something they don't want in the first place," said Judith Becker, an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University.
Such an approach might work in part, Finkelhor said, because of "the fact that many potential molesters are middle-class individuals with good jobs, homes and reputations and a great deal to lose."
MANY OF THE experts said that not all sexual child abusers are adults. "Our message needs to be targeted at a much younger population," Cohn said.
"People don't become sex abusers the day they reach 21. This is a problem that has its roots in childhood and adolescence. What we need to do is reach out to those young people."
Most adults who abuse children sexually were themselves abused as children, according to several studies.
Though research on the question is far from complete, recent data suggest that many adult abusers committed their first act of sexual abuse as teenagers or earlier.
FOR EXAMPLE, the average age of 79 nonadult sex abusers was 15, and the youngest was 11, in a study conducted by Joyce Thomas of Children's Hospital National Medical Center in Washington.
Not surprisingly, researchers say, substantial percentages of juvenile sex offenders also are victims of sexual abuse. "I really don't know what you can find in a 7-year-old that makes them do sexual violence to a 2-year-old if they haven't had that in their own backgrounds," MacFarlane said.
"We don't want to argue that every victim will turn into a criminal," Summit said, "but we do want to argue that society would do well to spend money on treating adolescent offenders."
Because most child sex-abuse victims who become adolescent sex abusers never received therapy for the psychological harm, identifying and treating them as they go from victim to victimizer presents what Canadian psychologist Vernon Quinsey termed "a precious moment for intervention."