Children rarely lie about abuse, but when they acknowledge what they have been through, many young people are not believed, especially if they have a history of emotional challenges, discipline problems, or past abuse. Particularly in sexual abuse cases, between the humiliation of rape kits and having police officers and strangers in a courtroom discussing a child being sexually violated, not to mention, all too often, the social stigma of making an abuse report, the stakes are too high for young people to make false abuse reports. In the rare cases that a child accuses someone of abusing him when, in fact, that person is not doing so, it is almost always the result of a child being too terrified of her actual abuser to name him and, when confronted about the abuse, claiming someone else did it as a form of attempted self-preservation.
When a child reports that he has been abused, many adults, from parents to social workers and law enforcement officials conduct a bit of a subconscious believability assessment. If the child in question has ever received a psychiatric diagnosis, she must just be crazy and making it up. If he has a history of acting out in some way, he must just be trying to gain sympathy or get out of some kind of trouble he’s in. If she has reported abuse before, then she often suffers from what I like to call the “misguided ‘boy who cried wolf’ effect.” I once went to speak to someone at a domestic violence agency who simply asked, “Weren’t you here a couple of years ago saying that someone else raped you?” The implication was that I had “cried wolf” before, so, clearly, I could not be telling the truth. The difference is, in cases such as these, the “wolf” is quite real. Here’s the problem: perpetrators of abuse are notoriously intuitive and tend to target children who are hurting, who are seen as misunderstood, both because of their perceived vulnerability and because they are less likely to be believed, should they speak out about the abuse. This is one of the primary factors that keeps rampant abuse at “treatment centers” for “troubled teens” hidden- when children report the abuse to their parents, the parents are told that their difficult, deceitful children are simply lying because they want to go home.
The problem here is that children are largely viewed as second-class citizens. Children with personal challenges are barely viewed as citizens at all. I once took a young boy I was working with and a couple of his friends out for the day. We played some games, ate a meal together, and, generally, had a fun, uneventful outing. After a couple of hours, one of the children took me aside and stated that she liked hanging out with me because I didn’t treat her like a little kid. After accepting the compliment and, of course, letting her know that I really liked spending time with her, too, I questioned what exactly it meant to be “treated like a little kid” and quickly learned from many children that it seemed to mean disrespect and dismissal of their personal autonomy, hopes, desires, and goals. Until we are able to listen to our children and show them that they are full and equal members of society who simply need a bit more guidance than older people to create successful lives for themselves, we will have a long way to go to prevent or stop child abuse.
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