Believing Reports of Abuse in the Wake of the Dr. Blasey Ford/Kavanaugh Fiasco
Why the response to Dr. Blasey Ford frightens me about child abuse reporting
By no means is this meant to be political. I repeat: THIS IS NOT MEANT TO BE POLITICAL! I try to stay out of politics, but my heart has been aching about this and I’m so concerned about how these recent events will impact future reports of child abuse.
Social Media Reactions Fostering Doubt
Granted, there has been a lot of support for Dr. Blasey Ford; however, there are many who doubt Dr. Blasey Ford’s report of assault because she waited several years to report and she has difficulty recollecting details.
My worry? If people have difficulty believing this educated woman who has studied the effects of trauma and understands the neurological mechanisms that accompany trauma, HOW IN THE WORLD COULD A CHILD, with their limited vocabulary and communication abilities, CONVINCE OTHERS OF ABUSE THAT OCCURRED?! Don’t just dismiss it as being completely different, hear me out. I’ve been a child psychologist working on child maltreatment cases for over a decade. This is what it’s like now…
Reporting of Child Abuse
I’ve been involved in many cases where reports of child abuse were dismissed or minimized because the accused perpetrator of harm was considered an “outstanding citizen of the community” and “someone who would never hurt a fly.” One of my favorite sayings is, “Even Manson was charismatic and likable.”
Without hard evidence, how is a child to be believed? The first lady stated that hard evidence is needed. This is not always possible. Does that mean we dismiss the allegation? Signs of physical harm may not be present, like in the instance of sexual petting, fellatio, exposure to pornography, having the child masturbate the adult, etc. Also, take incest for instance, the savvy adult will say things to minimize the child’s allegations of abuse.
Excuses are trademarks of a perpetrator
Perpetrators will RARELY come out and confess, especially if they have a lot to lose. Instead, they will provide many excuses and try to paint themselves as harmless. They say that they had to bathe the child, and it was a harmless misplacement of the hand or finger. If the other parent is aligned with the accused, there is even more doubt about the child’s allegations.
For teenagers, it becomes an even more entangled web as the accused will blame the teen for the abuse that occurred, saying they were seduced, lured by the minor, or the abuser will say there was a mistake in identity because they were too inebriated to tell the difference and thought the child was actually their spouse (yes, this excuse was actually given…on more than one case). The act is minimized. Others will feel sorry for the poor alleged perpetrator who faces risk of losing careers and their families. Meanwhile, the victim is tormented for the rest of their lives.
My heart ached as these victims witnessed Dr. Blasey Ford being dismissed while a person with greater status and power was supported by so many. Worse, the victim was made to feel belittled and was ridiculed for coming forward. The victim was chastised for things they could not control.
As a professional who has heard so many children tell me, “I told but no one believed so I gave up” or “I told and others in school found out so now they call me a slut.”
My heart ached seeing the news. I sit here and cry as I write because I know this will affect the work I do. I know other victims will feel even more reluctant to share their story. It will be that much harder for me to encourage a victim to name their abuser and pursue criminal charges. This will take the work of advocates ten steps back in the advancement we are trying to make in empowering victims to come forward. I remember the teens I worked with who cried in my office and desperately did not want to testify in court because they didn’t want to face the parent who harmed them and they didn’t want others to judge them, worried that they won’t be believed.
One teen I worked with was abused by a foster parent, and again, was afraid to come forward because the other foster parent felt the teen seduced her partner. She was a teen. She was vulnerable. She did not dress suggestively. She was shy, reserved, and harbored a lot of self-doubt. She did well in school, excelled in her sport, and was involved in extra-curricular activities. Just when she thought she had the family she wished for, she was abused and then cast out. Would she be believed if she came forward? What if the foster parent was a person involved in the church, a man of God with children of his own, who volunteered his time to community service, and others looked at him with admiration? Would the child still be believed? She did not have hard evidence.
Using the Child as a Pawn
There were those who BELIEVED Dr. Blasey Ford (or parts of her story) BUT felt she was maybe being used as a pawn for political purposes. This removed her credibility.
Similarly, although there is no political gain with children making accusations, there are so many instances of children coming forward with allegations of abuse only to be accused that the child was instructed to make those allegations of abuse by an estranged parent or caregiver with ulterior motives. They will also say the child is making the allegations for attention or because the child was angry at the parent.
Again, similar to those who report rape, the incidence of false reports is actually very low. It is estimated that 5 to 10% are false allegations (Finkelhor, 1997). Think about it, with all the negative attention that abuse/rape come with, and the judgement others make on the victim, would anyone really want to put themselves through that process?
Trauma and Memory
Have you ever just wanted to forget about the worst, most embarrassing situation you’ve ever been through? Did you want to just crawl into bed and disappear? Think about it. The most shame and hurt you’ve EVER felt. Wondering if you could have done something to have prevented or stopped the shameful event. You never feel the same again. You try to avoid talking about it. You pretend it never happened because then maybe, just maybe, you can convince yourself that it was just a nightmare and it didn’t really happen. Then, you were asked to talk about it suddenly, or something happens that triggers the memory. Even if you try to force yourself to stop thinking about it, your gut and your physical being reacts and reminds you it happened. It was real. Your nightmares also remind you of the trauma you went through. Why would anyone want to come forward and have to relive the trauma?
Watching the unfolding of the Dr. Blasey Ford case may have triggered many. And now, with the outcome of the traumatic ordeal, victims/survivors may experience anger, sadness, hopelessness, and/or confusion. The child who has not reported may feel even more reluctant to come forward. Will we always be overruled by those who are seen as more powerful? Will abusers with power continue to get away with their crimes? How do we instill courage in those who have little to no credibility as children often do, especially when they have been raised with intimidation and groomed in self-doubt?
Some questioned why Dr. Blasey Ford was only able to remember parts of the abuse but not others. If you’ve worked in trauma, or experienced trauma, you’d understand. We are programed to quickly learn, internalize, and recall things and events that pose as a danger. Our senses help sear memories into our brain even when we wish to forget. The primitive parts of our brains quickly take in information obtained through our senses to help us avoid dangerous situations in the future. The fight, flight, freeze response forces us to remember certain things that are related to the trauma such as the smells, things we heard, the features of an individual. It’s a funny process because sometimes we cannot choose what to remember. Our brain does it for us, often times without us knowing.
The memories then emerge when something triggers it, warning us that we may be potentially entering a dangerous situation. Trauma creates so many difficult emotions that a traumatized individual wants to forget every aspect of the memory and block it out. When asked to recall the memory, it can be difficult as emotions, fear, and shame can come flooding back, yet, mundane details may not be readily available for recollection. The victim may have an easier time recalling the smell of the perpetrator’s cologne, the painful burn of facial stubble like sandpaper rubbing into their face, or the pattern of the curtain in the room as the victim tried desperately to focus on something other than the painful sexual assault that was occurring.
If you were ever spanked as a child, you may remember the implement used, your feeling of fear at the time, your parent’s anger and the shame you felt afterward. You may also remember the room or area of the house it occurred. If someone was to ask you other details, like the year it happened, you would try to remember but may not be exact. You may not remember what your parent was wearing. You may not remember the exact address of your home if you moved around a lot. You may not even remember the reason for the spanking only that it happened.
Due to the age of the child, time and details may be difficult to establish. Obtaining detailed information on the traumatic event makes it difficult to prosecute. Dr. Blasey Ford could not recall details and others concluded that she must have been fabricating the story or that her memory of the actual perpetrator was a case of mistake in identity. One could say that it is different for children where they are expected to have some trouble with memory whereas adults are not; however, difficulty with recollection is still used against the child.
The outcome of this case, is going to impact other victims and will likely dissuade others from coming forward. We have praised Dr. Blasey Ford for coming forward and having the courage to stand up for herself despite all the negative media and threats she and her family received. She remained poised and she had her reputation of being an educated woman. Despite her credibility, she was vilified. The reality is that there is always the risk of a victim facing the same onslaught of verbal punches from others. Allegations of dishonesty, judgment by others, and threats for coming forward continue; I’ve had victims refuse to testify because of this. Can’t say I really blame them. The way our society treats victims really sucks. Powerful, famous individuals are untouchable because of their status. Is it possible for them to be toppled by relatively unknown individuals, even when it’s more than one accuser? There is hope…it’s being done…note the Cosby case.
It takes courage
It takes courage to come forward. I pray that others focus more on the COURAGE of Dr. Blasey Ford rather than the backlash she received. I hope other victims can see the tremendous support Dr. Blasey Ford received rather than the accusations against her. The outcome may not have been what we hoped, but the composure and courage to do the right thing is something I pray will continue for the sake of the children watching. I also pray that those who read this will choose to be more compassionate to victims who come forward and choose first to believe rather than ridicule or dismiss.
If you’ve managed to read up to this point. Thank you. Thank you for taking the time and caring. Please help others to come forward by sharing this and other posts that let hidden survivors know that they are not alone. If you so feel inclined, please leave a comment, an emoticon, your story, your thoughts about this subject. If we work together, WE CAN AND WILL MAKE A CHANGE! I’m never giving up on our children. I know you won’t either.