Behind the lines of a war on children.
“The narcissist quality of an offender is ‘I get to do whatever I want to do, no matter what happens to you.’ ”
Nancy Hagman, Lutheran Services of Florida therapist
Abusers have a combination of risk factors
By Kimberly Blair
Don’t expect to find a one-size-fits-all explanation as to why one person versus another crosses the moral line and slams a baby’s head against a wall, scalds a toddler in hot water for soiling her panties or starves their children.
Prosecutors who send abusers to prison, therapists who work with abused children, anger management coaches working with parents, social workers in the trenches; they each seem to have their own take on what pushes a mother, father or caregiver to abuse a child.
Some of them blame personality disorders like narcissism, or point to mental illness or even an aggression gene.
Yet most of the professionals agree there’s a set of prevalent risk factors that all too often trigger abusive behavior among some people, including otherwise loving parents. Overwhelming social-economic pressures, past abuse, immaturity, lack of parenting or coping skills, and even anger management are blamed on pushing some caregivers to abuse children in our community — including some of the worst cases in which children are maimed, disabled or killed.
“I hate to use the words ‘what causes someone to abuse,'” said DaMonica Rivas, Florida Department of Children and Families, Northwest Region communications director.
“Child abuse is a complex problem and has many contributing factors that lead up to physical abuse or neglect,” she said. “Poverty, stress, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness and the cycle of abuse can all be considered contributing factors. While physical abuse is more visible, other forms of abuse (emotional, sexual and negligence) could still occur.”
Many people living in this modern society have some of the risk factors that spark abuse, but most don’t cross that line. Those who abuse often have a combination of several risk factors, said a physician who has provided examinations on abused children.
“So when you start piling those (risk factors) up on top of each other, the risk for the child goes up,” she said. “Economic risk, relationship instability and drug abuse. Drug abuse. Did I mention drug abuse?”
The physician, who asked to be anonymous because of the sensitivity of her work, said she cannot overstress how substance abuse plays a role in child abuse in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
Alcohol and substance abuse fuels episodes of loss of control or violent eruptions caregivers often channel at the weakest one in the room.
From the abuse cases professionals who were interviewed for this story are seeing, opiates and polysubtance abuse — the use of more than one addictive substance in a short amount of time — seem to be a common thread in many cases.
“Drug abuse does seem to be riddled throughout a large number of the cases we see,” the physician said. “And I wonder if it has something to do with the rise in opiate addiction. A lot of times we don’t know what substances the caregivers are battling with. A lot of times the kids will tell us. They will describe what it looks like, and we can piece it together and kind of figure out what it is. Sometimes, the caregivers will submit to a drug test and you can tell.”
Don’t get hung up on any one trait, however. Not all drug users are child abusers and not all child abusers are drug users.
Nancy Hagman, a therapist who works for Lutheran Services of Florida and provides counseling for abused children at Gulf Coast Kid’s House, believes a lack of respect is a key character trait in an abuser, particularly sexual abusers.
“It’s always about respect,” she said. “If you’re not respectful of the other individual, then violence or abuse will occur. The boundaries that are set have to do with respect. The narcissist quality of an offender is ‘I get to do whatever I want to do, no matter what happens to you.’ “
She and her colleagues teach parents how to recognize this trait often found in child abuse offenders so they can take measures to protect their children if they see it in a boyfriend, spouse or anyone who comes into their lives.
Poor parenting skills
In 2012, 82 percent of known child abusers were between the ages of 18 and 44 years old, with 25 percent of them between 25 and 34. And 80.3 percent of the child abusers were parents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Robert Donofrio, a retired naval officer and nurse practitioner, has spent much of his career teaching anger management techniques and working on a child protection program dealing with young military men and women who didn’t possess good parenting skills.
“We seem to have more people not having role models of how to be parents,” he said. “Parenting is a learning process.”
He explained that those who often who end up injuring or killing babies by shaking them are men who don’t have the training to deal with the situation, he said.
“If you’re 18 years old, and you don’t have training as to why a baby is crying, you may think you deal with it the same way you do with your peers and shout them down,” he said.
That shouting can escalate into “I’ll slam your head against the wall if you don’t shut up,'” Donofrio said. “Immaturity and lack of experience separates those who act and those who don’t.”
Donofrio and his program administrator, Janis Wilson, teach anger management classes in which they first help people understand anger, then help them learn coping skills to manage it.
“We all get angry,” said Wilson, who facilitates classes for women. “Being angry is one thing. How to handle that anger is what we’re trying to focus on.”
Many parents, including Donofrio, have found themselves pushed to that brink of anger where maturity, anger control and good parenting skills kick in before they lash out at their children.
“I’m a parent, a therapist and I have two master degrees and am trained to work in very intense and emotionally high-powered situations,” he said. “When my children were teenagers, frequently I had to bite my lip and talk myself down from taking it out on one of those kids. It was harder to do when they were teens as opposed to a crying baby.”
Characteristics of abusers
In 2012, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Four-fifths or 80.3 percent of child abusers were parents, 6.1 percent were relatives other than parents, and 4.2 percent were unmarried partners of parents.
82 percent of perpetrators were between the ages of 18 and 44 years. Fewer than 3 percent of perpetrators were 18 years old; 19 percent were aged 18–24 years; 40 percent were aged 25–34 years; 23 percent were aged 35–44 years; 9 percent were aged 45–54 years; and 4 percent were aged 55-75.
54 percent of perpetrators were women and 45 percent of perpetrators were men.
Why children are physically abused and/or neglected
Parents who abuse their children may love them very much but not very well. The most prevalent reasons for child abuse and neglect are:
The parents were abused as children and lacked a successful model of parenting and family life.
Immaturity, the absence of parenting preparation skills, and a lack of understanding of child development often result in the creation of unrealistic expectations for a child’s behavior. When the child fails to meet these expectations, frustration on the part of the parent may erupt in anger toward the child.
Abusing parents often feel isolated or keep themselves isolated from others. They may expect the child to satisfy their unmet emotional needs.
Financial pressures, poor housing conditions, loss of a job and the inability to provide for the needs of the family can cause parents to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope.
Alcohol and substance abuse compound the chances for loss of control and eruption of violent behavior.
Source: National Council on Child Abuse & Family Violence/ http://www.nccafv.org/child.htm
PENSACOLA News Journal