This year is the 50th anniversary since American pediatrician dr. Henry Kempe and his collaborators published the paper about the battered child syndrome on 7 July 1962 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. He defined the battered child syndrome as "the clinical condition in young children who have received serious physical abuse generally from a parent or foster parent".
In the Child and Youth Protection Centre of the City of Zagreb, we work with sexually abused children and their families every day. I am proud to say that here they can find a safe place where they get help and support. On the European Day on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, 18 November, we remind parents to read our publications about how to recognise and respond if the child has been sexually abused:
“It happened, what can we do now…?” Leaflet for the parents of sexually abused children
25 questions (and answers) about the procedures in identifying child abuse, for professionals
Also, to watch the Council of Europe video “Tell someone you trust” on our web-page:
The theme of child sexual abuse is difficult, it is met with resistance and a need to look elsewhere both in professionals and other people. However, it is our responsibility to admit that the problem exists, that it is certainly present in our society and that we have moral, professional and legal responsibility to act.
Grave numbers show that one in five children has been sexually abused in Croatia as well as abroad. It means that these children are in our families, our neighbourhood, schools, kindergartens, parks, doctor’s offices… “1 in 5” is not just a rough estimate by professionals who want to scare the public. The statistics is the result of many studies and meta-analyses collected by the Council of Europe which ran a five-year campaign under that title attempting to draw attention to the presence of child sexual abuse in Europe. Empirical research has also shown that only 10% of child sexual abuse cases are discovered. Even when the victims start talking about their traumatic experience, average time lapse from the time they experienced sexual abuse is 10 to 16 years. If children are silent, it does not mean they do not suffer. They are alone in their suffering. So, why are they silent?
Children do not talk because of the fear of reactions they might provoke. They are afraid that nobody will believe them, that they will be blamed and shamed, that they will “destroy the family” if the abuser is a family member, that they will not be protected, that they will be repeatedly examined and interrogated and somehow stigmatised in the society. Unfortunately, such scenarios are common in the lives of sexually abused children. It is an obligation each one of us has to change the situation for the better.
The first step for the society, people and professionals is to admit that child sexual abuse happens often, systematically and on a daily basis. The second step is to acquire knowledge about how we can respond when a child discloses sexual abuse or when we notice signs of sexual abuse in the child. The third step is to undertake all the necessary measures to protect sexually abused children in order to help them, and not to implicitly participate in abuse.
Both non-professionals and professionals often fear what will happen if they inform the institutions in charge about suspected child sexual abuse. They are concerned that reporting means responsibility for “taking children away from their parents”.
It is a myth which needs to be explained. It is a moral and legal obligation of every citizen, and especially a professional to report suspected abuse to the Social Welfare Centre and the Police, who have the right and the possibility to visit the family, collect evidence and necessary documentation, interview all involved parties and make recommendations and decisions. Only after they have collected evidence, the case is proceeded to the State Attorney, which then decides whether the case will be processed by the Court. The Judge decides whether the abuse took place or not, what the consequences for the abuser will be, and what is in the best interest of the child. Our obligation to report is not the same as taking responsibility for the life of the child and the family. However, failing to report, we can significantly affect children’s lives in the worst possible way.
I often hear about the fear that the child might be transferred from his/her family, as an argument for the failure to report reasonably suspected abuse. However, child sexual abusers are most often family members, close persons who love children, persons who build close relationships with the children who love them. Child abusers are generally not strangers who do not love them, who will grab them in the street and then rape them, which is counter-intuitive. Sexual abusers tend to build a relationship of trust with children for months, sometimes years, in order to conveniently prepare the situation for abuse, so that children keep the secret. Then, when the child discloses abuse, it may be difficult to believe that “the amazing parent” sexually exploited him/her. However, it is certainly not our job to make decisions about the truth. We have to support the child, to report our findings and entrust the institutions in charge with investigation and consequences.