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Can We Ever Get “Freeh” From Child Abuse?

Posted Jul 14 2012 11:17am

Yesterday instead of accomplishing the myriad of things on my to-do list, I spent hours reading the Freeh Report. There were many reasons that I wanted to read through all 287 pages. I work at Penn State and wanted to know how things had gone so horribly wrong. I am a psychiatrist and have had to make a number of mandated reports. And I am a mother.

I remember when the charges against Sandusky were first announced in the beginning of November. I was dropping my son off at a Model UN camp, where the only person he knew was a counselor that he had met the summer before. It felt eerie, leaving him at the hotel and I reinforced my instructions.  “Call me”, if he had any concerns or questions. I then drove to another conference where I was involved in a presentation about Ethics and Eating Disorders. Yes, we had to admit, as Penn State’s ethical failings dominated the news, we’re from Penn State and we’re speaking about ethics.

Now with this report, here are some of my thoughts and on-going concerns.

  1. It was gratifying to see that the report was thorough and is out there for the public to read and discuss. Too much of the time, child abuse continues because of the shroud of secrecy. To stop child abuse, we need to be aware that is it happening. We need to understand the warning signs. We need to be willing to take a stand and protect our children.
  2. It was concerning to become aware of a culture that kept individuals from reporting what they knew. What culture had to be in place that could cause three janitors who witnessed concerning events to fear they would lose their jobs if they attempted to report what they saw? But this is a concern in many aspects of our culture. Who has the power? Who will be believed?
  3. It was troubling that in 1998 when a mother brought her concerns forward and individuals appeared to proceed with a report, nothing was done even though agencies that are supposed to help protect children’s welfares were involved. This is upsetting to me. I have had similar challenges. How do we help children when we report their story of abuse and the parents convince the agency that no wrong has occurred, but then won’t bring the child back in for treatment because we authored the report? It puts physicians, at times, in difficult situations. We need to report, but then we might lose the child from treatment. We might lose them from the chance to get the help they need. If through the report and investigation, we could be assured that treatment and protection would be offered to the child that could be an acceptable risk. But often, the reports are closed without any clear intervention, such has what happened with Sandusky in 1998.

Yet this blog is designed to offer journaling prompts. So how do we take this material and write towards health?

Well…..

  • First clearly, if you have been a victim of child abuse, if you feel comfortable, you can write about the event and look at the emotional impact it has had on your life. The individuals who I work with, who have suffered from abuse, often have a great difficulty trusting others. (Very understandable.) Do you know someone who has been abused? How did that affect their lives? Or take a moment to write about subtle forms of abuse either in your family or in the work culture. Have you had individuals who made you feel bad about yourself? Have you felt powerless to stop someone from emotionally, physically or sexually using and/or abusing you? There are times in relationships that we feel like we don’t have the power to speak up. Write about a time when you didn’t feel like you could express yourself. A time when you didn’t feel like you could draw the necessary boundaries to make yourself feel safe. What happened? How could you change things now?
  • Write about feeling powerless. What does that mean for you? How do you define power? What helps you feel powerful? Sometimes we equate money or fame with power, but we can each become powerful in our own lives. We do this by understanding what is important to us, how to stay true to our values, how to, at times, say “no” to others.
  • Write about the boundaries that you feel are important in your life. Do you feel that you can tell someone when you don’t want to do something? Can you set limits? If not, what holds you back? Sometimes we are worried about disappointing others. But we need to keep in mind—are we disappointing ourselves? Are we going against our own values? Journal about your values. What is important to you?
  • The report described a culture of silence. Journal about aspects of “culture” in your life. Are you able to speak up in your family? If you have disagreed with someone in the past, how was that received? What is the culture at your work? Are you able to express your opinions? Do you feel that you are taken seriously? Journal about your experience of the difference cultural situations in your life.
  • Take this time to journal about our culture in general. The other day in my journaling group, a young woman raised the question about how can she recover from her eating disorder when our culture gives so many messages about appearance, etc., which make people feel bad about themselves. We discussed that for ads to be successful they often need to make us feel bad about ourselves so that we’ll buy the product to get whatever promised benefit. What messages are you receiving from our culture? Write fast, don’t think too much, write past your inner censor to discover what you are absorbing…Our culture tells me….keep repeating that stem to find the underlying messages that you are living with. Now work to challenge them.
  • And finally, write about an issue that you feel passionate about. Write or speak up. We need to start discussions about bullying and child abuse and rape and how to help keep people safe. Ignoring and pushing these issues away is not going to help. We know that abuse happens. Silence fosters it. Let’s write opinions or talk with each other. We can’t let silence and harm continue.

So, go….

Write On!

Martha Peaslee Levine, MD

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