Passing the Buck, Then and Now

Well, the reason I have been laying low this week is that I’ve been busy trying to get my child appropriate care for his new health problem and address the problems that were created by my relying on a healthcare provider who was unfamiliar with his disorder for his treatment.  Once my rage subsided (it helped when Liam started sleeping better), I realized that my provider has a much larger problem than can be addressed with a simple attitude adjustment.

But the other thing I realized is that I have seen this behavior before.  It was a mistake to believe that the nurse wasn’t taking my child’s problem seriously because he isn’t able to talk about his symptoms.  That probably didn’t help, but the truth is that pretending a child’s problems are behavioral in nature and caused by poor character is not a new phenomenon.  Poorly-trained, unmotivated or burned-out professionals use this all the time to avoid dealing with situations that make them uncomfortable.  I should know.

I haven’t talked too much here about my history with having been a victim of child sex abuse, mostly because I just don’t know what I want to say about the experience.  But it is a gift that keeps on giving.  When I was young, I was a “good” kid up until I turned ten.  I began acting out, ignoring rules where I had been a rule-follower before.  I was obnoxious.  I know that I was unpleasant to be around.  I was peer-rejected.  Eventually I ran away from home.  I understand why my parents didn’t care to look too closely into what might have been going on with me.

But in the modern era, parents aren’t the only people tasked with intervening in child abuse.  Child care providers, teachers and therapists are all required by law to report suspected child abuse.  But they aren’t required by law to believe that child abuse is a real phenomenon.  They aren’t required by law to believe a child’s report of abuse.  They aren’t required by law to ask hard questions when families behave evasively.

I disclosed what my father was doing to: My old babysitter.  My high school guidance counselor.  A therapist my mother sent me to see after she found out I was sexually active (she didn’t attempt to get me therapy when I disclosed the abuse to her).  When I ran away, I was sent to see my middle school’s guidance counselor, whose attitude towards me was so hostile that of course I didn’t tell her anything.  I was sent to family therapy with both parents with someone else affiliated with the school system.  She observed that I could hardly say anything with my father present.  She decided to terminate therapy since I “didn’t have anything to say.”  Most of the people I’ve listed are not bad people in reality.  They aren’t even all burned out.  But few people want to believe that a parent would abuse their own child in that way.  And then those who know my father, of course have to contend with their own stereotypes of who commits child sex abuse and who doesn’t.  It’s an uncomfortable problem to deal with and often people are afraid to rock the boat.  I wonder if there isn’t a little of the bystander effect thrown in here for good measure.

In the US, we are all taught that kids are just bad.  People tell you that babies are manipulative and toddlers (and teenagers!) are impossible.  It’s almost a tradition.  I’ve been told I was bad in a lot of ways, and by people whose job it was to help me.

And yet calling Child Protective Services is probably easier than admitting you don’t know what you are doing when you are a health care professional.  I was (still am) very angry with the nurse because she was arguing with me and trying to tell me that my child was throwing screaming fits because he’s two and not because he was in pain.  She was arguing with me, as though she knows my child better than I do.  But sometimes blaming the victim is just the easiest thing for everyone to do.  It doesn’t rock the boat or cause controversy.  Passing the problem on down the line is a logical decision for someone in her position, but that doesn’t make it right.

I know what it’s like having people ignore the fact that you’re in pain and insist that there is no “good reason” why you’re acting out.  And I know what it’s like to have your family accept that and continue on.  And I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow anyone to treat my child that way.

I do hope you never have this experience with your own child.  It was important to me to write about it because I have seen it, over and over.  Healthcare and other helping professionals are not perfect, are not able to read minds.  The tricorder device that Dr. McCoy used in Star Trek to make diagnoses has yet to be invented.  If your child begins behaving “badly” or acting out in some way that’s not characteristic of them, there may be a real problem underlying the behavior.  And if the first person who evaluates your child tells you nothing is wrong, you should consider the possibility that they simply didn’t know how to find the problem.  Some helping professionals are really, really good at their jobs.  Others much less so.  If you think something may be wrong with your child, get recommendations from others and keep looking!


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