The abuse factor

Child-abuseAll too often when a young person commits a violent crime he or she has some history of being abused. Granted, many people who have experienced different kinds of abuse grow into nonviolent adults. However, the simple fact remains that more often than not abuse is a factor when children or teens commit crimes.

While I acknowledge the existence of people who do not continue the cycle of abuse, I want to discuss the undeniable influence abuse has on a person’s tendency to commit acts of violence on others either as a child or later on as an adult. The way I see it, we as a society may either continue to deny this increasingly apparent common denominator, or we may opt to accept that more often than not, abuse is among the root causes.

Most people have sympathy for a person who has suffered abuse, but far fewer have compassion for a person who has experienced abuse and goes on to commit a violent act in its wake. For this reason I feel it is important to focus on the causal relationship between child abuse and violence. If we are to solve the problem of crime among juveniles we must understand exactly what it is that causes it to happen.

To illustrate this point I have decided to break down abuse by type. Child abuse comes in many forms, ranging from ongoing neglect to serious physical injury. While one might think that physical violence has the greatest influence on a person’s propensity for violence, recent studies show that psychological abuse is as damaging as some types of physical abuse.

In her fictional debut novel, Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn tackles an intriguing form of child abuse and its devastating consequences

In her fictional debut novel, Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn tackles a unique form of child abuse and its devastating consequences. Copyrighted, all rights reserved and compliant with Fair Use for educational/research purposes

Psychological Abuse

The main forms of psychological abuse include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. A study published in July of 2012 by the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, “Psychological or emotional maltreatment of children may be the most challenging and prevalent form of child abuse and neglect.” The authors of the study went on to note that this form of abuse has been linked with “disorders of attachment, developmental and educational problems, socialization problems, disruptive behavior, and later psychopathology.”

The problem with this type of abuse is that while it is the most prevalent, it is the hardest to recognize. Serious physical abuse involving obvious bodily harm or admittance to a hospital is hard to overlook, but how do people identify clear cases of psychological abuse in those they encounter?

When you stop and think about the people you know well, how many have described experiencing some form of psychological abuse at the hands of a parent, a caregiver, a family member, or even a peer? More importantly, how many people experience this kind of abuse and refrain from ever talking about it?

In my last write up I described the case of Robert Richardson. According to multiple news reports including interviews with neighbors and peers, Robert was at a minimum psychologically abused. More than one person described hearing fights that transpired in the Richardson household prior to the shooting death of Robert’s father.

A neighbor man and his wife told the media they called the police on two occasions to report verbal abuse. The neighbor stated that one of the times he called because the father threatened to kill his son. A completely different neighbor told the media she had observed the family dynamics for years. She said that his father “was always yelling and shouting at the boy.”

Lee Hirsch's The Bully Project fought the MPAA's R-rating to ensure delivery of its powerful message to a wider audience

The filmmakers behind The Bully Project’s fought the MPAA’s R-rating to ensure delivery of its powerful message to a wider audience. Copyrighted and all rights reserved. Compliant with Fair Use for educational/research purposes.

Some may dismiss these reports of negligence and psychological abuse, saying these stories are a dime a dozen or have been embellished, but you have to stop and really wonder what might have been happening in that home. Does abuse or neglect in a home warrant the death of the offending person? No. Should it encourage all of us to pay a little more attention to the children in our lives and what might be happening with them? Absolutely.

Criminology professor at the University of South Florida, Kathleen Heide, wrote a book about the role child abuse plays in cases where kids murder their parents. In addition to detailing the ways in which abuse perpetuates violence, Heide goes one step further and provides interventions for treating children who suffer abuse at the hands of parents or caregivers.

In addition to having written about the devastating effects of abuse on children, Heide has evaluated juveniles facing serious criminal charges, such as murder, at the request of attorneys. For example, she evaluated a 17-year-old girl who shot her father as he slept in his bed in 1987. She made the determination the teen had post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a combination of psychological and physical abuse – a common finding among children and teenagers exposed to abuse.

It is interesting to consider that the prosecutor involved in the above case wanted to seek the death penalty against the teenager. This was before the Supreme Court banned capital punishment for those under the age of 18. Her evaluation findings helped the defense to obtain a second-degree murder conviction that required the girl to serve part of a 17- year sentence. Instead of the death penalty.

The bottom line here is this kind of juvenile violence is preventable. This is only one example of many. Abuse ends badly any way you choose to look at it. Some abusers kill those they abuse. Sometime the abused kill their abuser. Minimally, abuse leaves a person feeling broken, incomplete, insignificant, unimportant, and unworthy of anything positive or meaningful. The abuse hampers the person’s ability to bond with others and taints their perception of self-worth.

Physical and Sexual Abuse

Physical and sexual abuse are separate forms of maltreatment, but I am including them under a single category because researchers often include both in studies examining short-term and long-term consequences of abuse.

In November of 2012, David Finkelhor and Lisa Jones released a bulletin summarizing the results of three independent studies pertaining to these issues. For quite some time a number of researchers have claimed, based on the results of studies, that sexual and physical abuse have declined in prevalence. The above authors evaluated some of the existing literature and concluded that “the case there has been a true decline in sexual abuse is stronger than the case about physical abuse.”

On one hand these reported declines are intriguing because of the steadily decreasing rate of crimes committed by juveniles. The Department of Justice indicated that juvenile arrest rates peaked in 1996 and then declined 36% by 2009. This year, the state of California experienced its lowest juvenile crime rate since 1957. The state is not sure what factors have contributed to the decrease in juvenile crime, but believe youth-oriented diversion programs have been influential.

On the other hand, findings regarding the prevalence of physical abuse in particular are not always consistent. Researchers from the Yale School of Medicine examined trends in the reporting of serious injuries resulting from child abuse for over a decade (between 1997 and 2009). The researchers obtained information for the study from the Kids’ Inpatient Database (KID). The researchers defined serious injuries as those including “head injuries, fractures, burns, open wounds, and abdominal injuries”.

The researchers determined that these injuries have increased by about 5% from 1997 to 2009. This study contradicts information from child protective services that alleges child physical abuse has dropped 55% between 1992 and 2009. A journalist for Time Magazine suggested that a possibility for these differences is that “protective services accounts for all physical abuse in their calculations – regardless of severity or age.” The authors of the Yale study focused entirely on serious injuries caused by abuse that required hospitalization.

The Yale study reported that per every 100,000 children under the age of 18, the incidence of serious child abuse has increased 4.9%. However, perhaps even more alarming is the finding that the increase was 10.9% for babies under 1 year of age.

It remains to be seen how the rising number of serious physical injuries to infants will impact the children involved or others in society.

Finally, it is worth remembering that “parents kill their children by abuse or neglect ten times as often as children kill their parents.” How’s that for a sobering reality?

A month before 15-year-old Amanda Todd took her own life she published a video on YouTube

A month before 15-year-old Amanda Todd took her own life she published a video on YouTube

Abuse by Bullying

We all know the violent consequences of bullying. Some children kill themselves to escape the pain of this psychological and sometimes physical form of torment. Others lash out in other ways by inflicting extreme violence on others. Then there are the children who are killed by those who bully them.

While not every single person who has experienced some degree of bullying takes their abuse out on themselves or others, there is no mistaking the effect this kind of abuse has on those who experience it.

For a harrowing look at the dangers of bullying watch this video describing the events that led up to 13-year-old Jared High’s suicide. This video is a must-see for anyone who has children or cares about them in a general sense. Jared’s life story and experiences with bullying are relayed on the site The site provides information about bullying and links to resources on the topic.

Amanda's peers abused her publicly on Facebook

Amanda’s peers abused her publicly on Facebook

I could linger on the topic of bullied children and teens who commit violent acts against others because we all know those cases exist. However, I really want to emphasize the increasing incidence of suicide among bullied youth. When a person takes their life because they have experienced this kind of abuse there are always people who say, “how awful”, “if only people had realized the severity of the problem,” and “how can children be so cruel to one another?”

Other people are indifferent. Apathetic. Uninterested.

The people who seem to get involved most frequently in advocating for change appear to be the survivors of this particularly cruel traumatic loss. I see so many people blaming the parents of the children who commit suicide, but this issue runs so much deeper. In Lee Hirsch’s The Bully Project (also known simply as Bully) the grieving father of a child named Tyler Long, who committed suicide after having been bullied, stated to following:

We knew why Tyler did what he did. There was no doubt in our minds. When you’re in the shower and your clothes are taken, and you have no way of getting out of the gym other than walking out naked…when you’re standing in the bathroom and you’re urinating and kids come up and push you from behind up against the stall and against the wall and you urinate on your pants…when you’re sitting in the classroom and somebody comes by and grabs your books and throws them on the floor and tells you to pick them up bitch…those are things that happened to Tyler. Did he ever come home with blood running down his face? No. It was the mental abuse and the not-so-physical abuse that Tyler endured.

Then, after describing the abuse his son experienced at the hands of his peers – in the one place parents hope is a safe environment for their children – he said this:

We can control what goes on inside those walls – inside of school – and the atmosphere has to be set completely by the administration. They all are part of the school system that’s there to protect the kids. And if they don’t…then this is what happens.

The above statement raises important questions about who is to blame in these situations. Perhaps all of us must take responsibility when the youth in our communities feel their best, and perhaps only option for escaping abuse, is to end their life permanently.

This is unacceptable. You know it, I know it, and school administrators surely know it. However, this is going to continue and escalate until we refuse to accept the status quo. I cannot emphasize enough that this has to change. Standing by and hoping someone else will fix the problem only helps to perpetuate it.

Following her suicide, a spokeswoman for Amanda's school district told the media the school knew about the video and had "support in place".

Following her suicide, a spokeswoman for Amanda’s school district told the media the school knew about the video and had “support in place”.

Some might ask: what can we really do about it? The answer is simple. Our ability to help others in need is limited only by our willingness to imagine each and every possible way we can and should help. Try to envisionhow different this world might be if each person touched by these acts of violence took it upon themselves to do something – anything – to bring about change.

Some people get it though, including children and teenagers. In Hudson, New Hampshire a group of students decided to take the matter of bullying seriously and started an anti-bullying program at school. Some of the students involved have observed the abuse that takes place in their school and find this kind of program a way to take action on behalf of others.

The above program, named the Hudson Memorial School’s Ambassadors of Hope, was a winner of the 2012 Stand Up awards. The fact is, student-driven programs such as this have the potential to save more lives than people could ever fully realize.

We can stand by and watch abuse happen or we can take action to stop it. The choice is ours.

We can stand by and watch abuse happen or we can take action to stop it. The choice is ours.

These kids are inspiring. The message they are sending to other students and to the world is powerful. And these are children doing it. What if more people followed their lead? What if you did?

If you have not seen Hirsch’s film, I recommend it. It is heartbreaking and it is shocking, but perhaps that is what it will take to get everyone’s attention and put a stop to this.