By Angela Smith
I had the privilege of interviewing 51-year old survivor, Scott Walker, last week. He is a survivor of both domestic and institutionalized abuse. You can listen to that interview by visiting www.heal-online.org/swalker.mp3. Walker discussed his abusive home life and the lies and manipulations of his parents that resulted in his being spirited away to group homes for much of his youth. Walker's story is far from unique.
I have spoken to very few parents who have truly exercised every responsible and reasonable option prior to seeking institutionalization for their children. I have seen interviews with parents who had their children taken from them by the State and the State subjecting those same children to abusive institutions. One instance was of a mother whose daughter had stomach cancer. The doctors did not test for cancer and stated they found nothing wrong. The last doctor reported the mother to Child Protective Services, suspecting she suffered Munchausen by proxy. Munchausen by proxy is a mental disorder in which a caregiver intentionally makes a ward ill in order to get attention or sympathy from others. The State investigated and took the daughter away. They placed the daughter in a residential treatment facility. After two years of complaining to the residential treatment center that she continued to have stomach pains, they took her to a doctor. And, she had advanced stomach cancer. Even after the mother and daughter were reunited, the State refused to apologize or admit error. The residential treatment center stated they believed her complaints were a symptom of mental illness or delusion brought on by the mother's non-existent Munchausen by proxy. And, so her illness was not properly diagnosed nor treated in a timely manner.
In another instance, a father had been raping his daughter and she reported him to her school counselor at public school. The counselor reported it to the police and Child Protective Services. The report to police and Child Protective Services was not acted upon immediately. Days after the victim made the report to her counselor, her father sent her to a residential treatment center to avoid investigation and prosecution of his crimes. The girl spent over a year in residential treatment before someone at the program believed she might be telling the truth and called the school counselor to verify. After spending a year in an environment being called a bad kid and told the rapes didn't happen, the truth came out and the father was prosecuted. But, this is one of the few cases where the truth saw the light of day.
It is not unusual for parents to be neglectful and/or abusive towards their children. And, sometimes the neglect and/or abuse is not obvious. Some parents "play the victim" and find ways to make everyone else the "fall guy" for their own misdeeds and faults. I've spoken with parents by phone and in person who neglect their children and emotionally abuse their children in my presence. I often struggle with the best way to respond to such a situation and weigh the risks versus the benefits of saying something or reporting these abuses. For instance, one parent, with whom I have spoken frequently, often yells at her children and neglects their needs. She is more concerned with her own need for attention and unable to give the needed attention and affection to her children. This same parent institutionalized one of her older children and has almost exhibited Munchausen by proxy in inventing a disease for her older child and then blaming her own lack of responsibility and attentive parenting on the institution itself. The institution/program was definitely abusive. But, this parent fails to accept responsibility in her choice to send her child away in the first place and wants all of the attention and sympathy for herself.
In other situations, I've witnessed parents lie about their children or hate their children because they are gay or have some "imperfection" that the parent can't accept. Some parents have stated they will institutionalize their child if they receive less than an A in every course in school. And, I've known victims of institutionalized abuse who were enrolled in a program simply for getting an A-/B+ on a report card. Many parents reading this blog will likely agree that such is extreme and absurd. But, the larger problem is that the programs will accept children on any basis and will not refuse any new enrollment because it means cash to them. So, we have a system where children can't win.
Often good, well-adjusted kids, are sent to programs for some absurd reason that most people would think is ridiculous. But, once enrolled, the programs know that they must get "dirt" or manufacture "dirt" on an otherwise good kid if the money and enrollment is to be "justified" and to continue for a long-period until the cash cow is milked dry. Children are forced to write letters confessing to things they've never tried nor done that would make any character on HBO's "Oz" look saintly. And, neglectful and hateful parents believe the false confessions or go along with them in order to get out of being responsible for their child for as long as possible.
Neglect is the most under-reported form of child abuse and is not always apparent. Children can be neglected physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. And, the markers are not always easy to read. They can take the form of a child who stays quiet and out of the way. Or, they can take the form of a child who acts out in order to get "negative attention". As Scott Walker stated in our interview, children who act out are doing it for a reason. And, it is up to the adults in a child's life to find out the reason and address the underlying problem. When we institutionalize our children, we are abandoning them and neglecting them. We are showing clearly a disinterest in their lives and an unwillingness to bond with and understand them. Children deserve much better from us.
I would recommend parents spend less time on Facebook or commenting on "America's Got Talent" and more time getting to know, understand, and love their children. It is easy to send a stranger away. And, it is difficult to send away someone you truly love, appreciate, and respect. Please take time to know your children and give them the attention they need and support they deserve. Start by being honest with yourself and with your children. Remember respect is showing consideration for the thoughts and feelings of others and that it should always be mutual. And, don't use fear as a means of controlling children. Children learn what they live and live what they learn. Live by example and be a source of love, honesty, respect, and compassion. This will benefit you and enrich your life and the lives around you for a lifetime.