In cases of child abuse, the protection of the child is typically the concern of the state. That protection is thought of in different ways, with some arguing that the best protection for the child is to preserve the family if at all possible, through family preservation policies and practices; others argue that in abusive situations the child needs to be removed from the home Patwardhan, Hurley, Thompson, Mason & Ringle, 2017). In the book Spilled Milk by Kelly Randis, it is not just one child, but half a dozen children who are abused by a father and unprotected by a disabled mother. The child herself has to come forward and fight a system that seems to want the abuse to continue out of respect for the preservation of the family. The book is based on the true story of Randiss own situation as a child abused by her father. It was not until social services assured her that she and her siblings would be protected that she became willing to come forward and tell the truth about what was happening. In many child abuse cases, there is always an element of fear regarding what might happen if the truth should come to lightwhether it is abuse from a family member or from a trusted member of an organization like a church (Harper & Perkins, 2018; Keenan, 2013; Murray, Nguyen & Cohen, 2014). Exposing the abuse can be terrifying because of the unknown ramifications for all involved.
The Fear of the Unknown
One of the issues in Spilled Milk is the issue of reporting on an abusive parent and not knowing what will happen to the rest of the family. For the character at the center of the action, it is a terrifying prospectbut it is one quite common to the concept of reporting abuse. Many victims feel the same fear. As Randis (2013) writes, Brooke, the girl at the center of the action in the novel, is shamed by her mother for writing about the troubling experiences she has at the hands of her father in a journal. The journal is discovered and Brookes mother is embarrassed. She harasses and yells at Brooke to the point where Brooke consents to never write such things again. The mother does not question the girl as to what is going on that makes her write such things. She does not investigate. Instead, her first thought is of shame and fearembarrassment about what such things written by a girl would do to the family, to the mothers reputation. The mother is concerned about her own image and feelings. She does not give any attention to what is going on with her daughter.
Such to obvious experiences of abuse are a big mistake and a common occurrence in abusive families: there are people who live in denial about what is going on because facing the truth is too painful or cannot be fathomed. It is these types of cases that make it almost impossible for family preservation programs to work (Patwardhan et al., 2017). In order for a family preservation program to function, the entire family has to be on board with the program, openly accepting that mistakes have been made. In most cases, family preservation programs only work when the family is unintentionally being abusive, through issues such as neglect, typically caused by poverty or addiction. But in Brookes case, the abuse is much worse and it is deliberateand the mother is in denial about it. Thus, it is with great fear that Brooke even thinks about reporting on it. She is in the same shoes as many victims like herself: they do not know what will happen, and it could be that what happens after reporting is even worse than the abuse itself.
Brooke tentatively explores her options but the reaction she gets from the legal system is overwhelming. She does not find any sympathy there either. This is an important consideration that social workers should keep in mind when it comes to dealing with a potential abuse situation: victims of abuse are not going to report if they feel that they are not going to be heard or supported (Murray et al., 2014). Indeed, as Randis (2013) shows, Brooke does not fully come forward to report on her father until she feels support from a social system and is promised that her family (meaning her siblings) will be protected. The system often tries to keep a family preserved, with the abusers in place, because it is believed that the people committing the abuse can reform themselves with the right education and training (Patwardhan et al., 2017). Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. Brookes fear for herself and her sibling is a valid one and one that should be a top concern of social workers before the preservation of the whole family is taken into consideration.
The Psychology of Reporting Abuse
Why do people look the other way when it comes to reporting abuse? Harper and Perkins (2018) showed that the two theories that best explain this phenomenon are moral foundation theory and system justification theory. Those who do not turn a blind eye to abuse tend to have a clear sense of right and wrong in which care for others trumps willingness to accept harm. It is a theory that posits that in every moral quandary there will be a conflict of some type, whether it is between loyalty to a group and exposure of a wrong that brings negative attention to the group, or whether it is a conflict between accepting the authority of the abuser and wanting to expose the abuse of authority. Unless one has a strong moral foundation, one is not going to be able to address the issue of abuse appropriately (Harper & Perkins, 2018).
The other theory that explains why stakeholders turn a blind eye to abuse is systems justification theory, which posits that people find it better to maintain the status quo than to rock the boat, so to speak, by (Harper & Perkins, 2018). The failure of stakeholders to report on child abuse in church organizations is often explained by way of systems justification theory: stakeholders feel that the organization itself is justified and therefore that the stories of abuse cannot be true. It is essentially the reaction of Brookes mother when she finds the girls journal. The mother has justified the existence of the family, and the truth that Brooke tells threatens the status quo and the continued existence of that family in the mothers eyes.
The reality of course is that exposure does not have to be seen as something that brings negative attention. It can be seen as something that helps because it brings necessary support and intervention and thus attention that is positive. It is the fear of being embarrassed or harassed or of facing questions that make one uncomfortable that prevent people from talking out about abuse.
The book by Randis (2013) is thus important because it gets the subject out in the open and does not hide it. It is based on a personal true story, so the issues in the book are clearly coming from a very real place. Just reading the comments from her readers in the space provided on Amazon shows that the book has touched others who were in similar situations. The fact is that abuse is scary and provokes all manner of conflicting feelings and emotions. One is supposed to be loyal to ones family, for instance, but what happens when that family is disloyal to one and engages in abuse? What should the person feel about that? The psychology of reporting on abuse is thus one that tends to be conflicted and overwhelmed.
The current focus on protecting maltreated children is two-fold: either remove the child into foster care, or keep the family together and help the parents address the situation through counseling and other forms of support. Each is limited in its own ways, and as no two situations are the same, it is very difficult to see how one or the other might be used categorically or universally to address the issue of abuse (Patwardhan et al., 2017). Brookes family in the novel is assisted and the siblings are cared for thanks to support from social services and others who step in to intervene once Brooke . Without hat support, family preservation is not possible.
Thus, in family preservation situations, social workers have to assess the family, its needs, the danger to the child, and whether there is enough of a support system in place for the abuse to be addressed and stopped. If the home life is not supportive of addressing the wrong, then social support needs to come from somewhere else. It is not sufficient for the victims of abuse to count on counseling or training or other types of support for parents who are not committed to addressing the problems.
For Brooke, the father was ultimately sentenced to prison for his crimes. This is a type of situation that is often needed; yet because family preservation initiatives are being promoted in states across the nation, the is more emphasis placed on helping those responsible for the abuse than there is on helping those who are victims of the abuse. The cumulative risk to the family is what needs to be assessed, otherwise those who should be helping through social services end up adding to the child maltreatment (Patwardhan et al., 2017).
Child maltreatment is an issue that cannot be solved through sweeping legislation or policy making because it is an issue that must be assessed on a case by case basis. It is not just a matter of looking at the statistics related to foster care and children aging out of care and deciding that family preservation is likely to have more positive outcomes for children. Foster care may not be ideal, but it can be necessary and even crucial to a childs well-being in certain cases. Social workers have to be aware of the risks that their own approaches might place upon children in all cases (Patwardhan et al., 2017). As Randis (2013) shows, children need to feel protected.
The book by Randis (2013) tells the story of a girl who comes forward to report on her fathers abuse. Her concern is for her siblings, yet along the way she is shamed into keeping silent or led to believe that her family will be harmed if she pursues the matter. It is not until she gets the love and support she needs to feel confident that she is doing the right thing for her family and that her siblings will be protected that she finally comes forward to report on her father. For children of abuse, the fear of reporting is a real one that must be appropriately considered. Systems justification theory and moral foundation theory are helpful in understanding the fears and actions of all stakeholders in an abuse situation. For social workers, the important point to remember is that every case is going to be unique. Some cases may allow for a family preservation approach that keeps the children with the parents. Others will not. In Brookes case, the father was arrested and sent to prisonbut such an outcome would not have been possible had Brooke not first received the support she needed to report.
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Patwardhan, I., Hurley, K. D., Thompson, R. W., Mason, W. A., & Ringle, J. L. (2017).
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