Prof.dr.sc. Gordana Buljan Flander delivered a talk under the title: "The role of the system in parental manipulation of children in divorce – are we participating in child abuse?", and Domagoj Štimac, MD, chief physician, delivered a talk under the title "Evaluating child and adolescent victims of crime – can we meet their needs and fulfill the court requirements at the same time?". Coauthors of that paper were Renata Ćorić Špoljar, clinical psychologist, and Ella Selak Bagarić, psychologist.
On the occasion of public lecture held by Karen Woodall, Ph.D. and Nick Woodall “Understanding and Working with Children and Families Affected by Parental Alienation: Hearing the Authentic Voice of the Child and Interventing to Help Recovery” organized by Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center and the Association of Youth Judges, Family Judges and Child and Youth Experts in Zagreb, Nick Woodall and Center’s psychologist Mia Roje Đapić were guests on Studio 4 HRT on July 9th, 2019, on the topic of child abuse and child protection:
Who should report abuse and how to protect children?
Mia Roje Đapić: Not only experts but all Croatian citizens, we are all morally and legally obliged to report any suspicion of inappropriate child treatment. People often make the mistake of thinking that they have to conduct their own investigation, that they have to be sure that some abuse is happening, and then notify the Social Welfare Center. This is not true. None of us have the authority nor should we investigate. There are certain institutions for this – they are the Social Welfare Center and the police. Many say centers do nothing, but the Center cannot do anything if they do not know the problem exists. So, always and without delay, when there is some suspicion of maladaptive behaviour or child abuse, these are institutions we are obliged to inform, that can enter the family and that can really help both child perpetrators and child victims as well as their families. The point is not only to report, but also to inform so the families will get some help and support they clearly need.
The latest example of a two-year-old boy admitted to children’s hospital, with regard to the boy’s injuries: is it possible that no one knew what was going on in that family?
Mia Roje Đapić: I cannot talk about a particular boy because I haven’tt seen him, but what I can tell you is that it is very rare for someone not to notice when it comes to serious forms of physical abuse, especially if the child has visible injuries.
But if it is possible that he had visible injuries, fractures, scars from putting down cigarettes on the skin, how is it possible that no one noticed it, how is it possible that at the hospital where he had to be or somewhere else no one reacted?
Mia Roje Đapić: Are you asking why they didn’t notice or why they didn’t react? These are two separate things. If a child has visible injuries on the body, of course people in his environment noticed it. Of course, there are pediatricians and kindergarten teachers and nurseries, and neighbors, therefore experts, but also laics in child’s environment who should react.
Why people don’t react is a much bigger question. We should react both legally, ethically, and professionally, therefore in every sense. I think people like to close their eyes in front of childhood suffering: firstly, no one likes to believe that someone is doing this to a child. Our guest Nick Woodall says “it’s the same if a child’s bone breaks or his heart breaks.” We as a society, react to physical violence and even sexual violence. We react less to emotional abuse, which has the same consequences on children. It is much more shocking to see a child who has broken bones and has scars on his body than to imagine how abused the child feels. Abuse is abuse. And as much as we can perhaps understand the reasons why someone doesn’t report, why someone doesn’t react, that is no excuse; this is an explanation but not a justification, and neither of us is amnestied from the responsibility of noticing such a thing as not reacting for the protection of the child.
Of course, psychological abuse is also harder to notice. Can something like this happen in your country? How is this handled in England?
Nick Woodall: I think we need to recognize that problems like this exist in every single country. In the UK we sometimes have cases as difficult as those in Croatia. So, people don’t report such abuse, they don’t notice and then problems like these happen. But I think it’s interesting and you just touched on the often invisible abuse. So we can see physical injuries, but emotional injuries are a lot harder to see. And I think it’s common for us to say in public that people can see a child who’s dressed up nicely and goes to school, and it seems like that child is perfectly fine and nobody abuses him. However, what we do know is that child abuse occurs at every level of society in every country in the world.
How important is cooperation within the system?
Nick Woodall: I think it’s important for all different professionals and all different agencies to work together. As you said, it is also important for the general public to cooperate in this. I’m not talking about spying here, but simply that there can be problems that are often hidden. One of the things that is very important to us at Family Separation Clinic in London is to think about the consequences a child suffers when their parents divorce. I don’t think anyone wants us to go back to a time when people couldn’t divorce. However, we must recognize that when adults divorce, children are the ones who have to deal with the consequences. We, as professionals, also have to deal with how children feel when their parents are divorced, and otherwise we have to accept that children of divorced parents can face big problems that can be acute and can last well into adulthood. We are talking about, for example, cases of parental alienation – these are cases where children are pathologically biased towards one parent and in that case they reject the other parent, and this is very unnatural for the child. We come into this world almost pre-programmed to make long lasting relationships with both parents, and when separation comes, a new world emerges where it is sometimes impossible for a child to be closely connected with both parents. And it’s very problematic, and it’s also very difficult to recognize.
As for the schools themselves, there are only a few cases reported per year in Croatia. Do institutions, especially schools, cover such cases so they don’t seem so bad?
Mia Roje Đapić: I think it’s not good to point finger at anyone individually. So it’s not just the schools. We, for the purposes of some of the lectures we had, asked the Welfare Centers for information on how much information they received from schools, kindergartens and healthcare related to child violence and child abuse. From healthcare institutions, there are less than 10 reports per year for suspected domestic violence. That’s too few. Where healthcare responds better is the suspicion on neglect, as it is very clear whether or not someone is bringing a child to a doctor. Of course it is not a real number and it is not a realistic number. So not only doctors, but also psychologists, kindergartens, all the citizens who are involved.
Instead of taking the position that schools are covering it up, let’s say that it is likely that many in society and professionals, even non-professionals, are in some way covering it up, not recognizing, not reacting. And I think that is the point- when this kind of situation comes up, this escalation of violence, except that it fills the front pages of newspapers or portals- we really ask ourselves what can we do differently, what can we do tomorrow, what can you, what can I, what can do anyone watching this show, who is the child in our environrment in need of help, and that when terrible things already happen to children, to take the best out of it for the future, that is, that it serves us as an additional stimulus for knowledge, for sensitization and for actively acting in the direction of both our legal and personal duty.
One of the main reasons we wanted to organize the lecture of Karen Woodall, Ph.D. and Nick Woodall dealing with the emotional abuse of children in parental divorce in the form of child alienation is just that we, as a Center, encounter various colleagues in Croatia who don’t have education and knowledge on this subject. When it comes to abuse or when it comes to a high-conflict divorce, they immediately send the child to the Center and say ”I work with children, I don’t feel like working with parents, I don’t feel like working with the whole system… I don’t feel like going to court or corresponding with the social welfare centers.”
But this is the only way to get these things right. How do neighbors, schools, healthcare and such systems respond in the UK and how many such cases actually come from the system? We are talking about both physical and emotional abuse.
Nick Woodall: I think it’s really hard to express that in numbers, because these cases are very often hidden from view. The difficulty we face is that people don’t want to interfere. They think “it has nothing to do with me”. I think this is one of the big obstacles, which is on the way of getting things resolved. I also think that kindergarten groups, schools, and other institutions where people interact, have the opportunity to notice such things early and can then intervene at a time when it can help. We have to keep an eye on it. We need to have information sharing services that are open. Let’s not get to the stage where things get really difficult for children and when they are already in really big problems. Because we can spot them at an early stage, before the problem forms roots.
How difficult is psychological abuse for a child comparing it to physical abuse? How important is it for the child to be removed from the abuser as a matter of urgency, especially when parents are the abusers?
Nick Woodall: I think the problem with psychological abuse is that even a child can hardly understand it. When you talk about a child who has been physically abused, it is easy to see the marks of cigarette or a broken arm, you can recognize that it is wrong, and the child can see it because they already realize that they wouldn’t do it to someone else. So it has a frame of reference that the child can work with and with which the therapist can mediate towards the child, which is quite simple. It becomes more complicated when the child abuser is at the same time the child’s parent, and it is even more complex when it comes to emotional harm, because children are dependent on their parents for their parents to care for them. And when parents don’t do it, then it really scares the kids. Well, kids can pretend their parents aren’t really abusing them at all, and then that’s actually a bigger problem for the child.
Is it important, then, to remove a child from such a family as an emergency? What to do? We know there are very strict laws in the United States and the United Kingdom and children are urgently removed from such family.
Nick Woodall: It depends on the case. What is important to understand is each child’s unique experience. In the most severe cases, it is absolutely crucial to remove the child from such environment. But there are also some cases that are less severe if we notice them early enough, and then it is possible to work within the family, so without removal from the family, the family is restructured without damaging the child. But what is absolutely crucial is that the courts monitor everything that happens. Because it is the court that has the power to bring change, meaning psychologists and psychotherapists can recognize the problem, they can start working, but we can only do it if there is a court overseeing it, because at the root of all these problems is the difference in power between two parents. One parent has power over the other parent, and also power over the child. That is why the courts have to step in and tell them we are taking that power from you because you are harming your child. If you continue to do so, we will remove that child and probably give it to another parent.
What is the role of psychologists in this case and what is the experience in Croatia, how quickly do Croatian courts respond to these situations?
Mia Roje Đapić: There is no universal answer to that question. What our law says is that all cases concerning children should take precedence and should be dealt with quickly. In practice, I have examples when this is indeed the case, but we also have different examples, especially when it comes to emotional abuse, the long-term development of parents, that the emotional abuse of a child can last 7,8,10 years… before it is resolved. And it is only when a child comes to adolescence and has serious behavioral problems, whether towards others, or some kind of self-aggression and suicide attempt, that we all jump on our feet and wonder what happened to that child. Psychologist’s role should primarily be counseling and therapy with the child and the parents. But for a psychologist to do the job, we need system’s support. Just like Nick Woodall said, he and Karen Woodall,Ph.D, his life and work partner, we learned a very good expression that the court should be a “superparent”, like a parent to parents who abuse the child or cannot agree or deal with any problematic situation for the child. If we have a court decision then it is actually much easier to work. Some people function exclusively under system pressure. Maybe some parent doesn’t have an authentic desire to change, maybe they don’t have some empathetic, natural need to change for that kid, but under the pressure of the system, they can function better. That is why I am glad that, in the education of experts, the lecture we will have tomorrow, the Association of Youth Judges is also participating, led by Lana Petö Kujundžić,Ph.D., therefore, not only the Center or mental health professionals, but also the judiciary participates in the organization of this lecture.
How dangerous is it when public figures get involved in some cases and take sides?
Mia Roje Đapić: I think people start with good intention, I have no doubt about that. However, none of us have all the information about a case other than the people who work on that particular case. So, I think it can be benevolent on one hand and it can be dangerous on the other hand and cause harm because we have neither enough knowledge nor information on the consequences that certain public appearances can then cause.