Dark Horror of Child Abuse Increasingly Brought to Public Light in West Europe
The British public was horrified not long ago by the courtroom disclosure that a 4-year-old girl named Jasmine had been beaten to death by her stepfather.
Jasmine had not died as the result of a single attack. For the last 10 months of her life, she had been brutalized consistently and had suffered 40 injuries to her head and body. When she died, she weighed only 23 pounds. A pathologist’s report said she was the victim of “repeated episodes of severe physical violence and chronic, severe neglect.”
Jasmine’s case reflects the growing awareness of child abuse in much of Western Europe. Times correspondents in Britain and on the Continent have found that, as in the United States, public attention is being focused increasingly on the plight of physical and psychological assault, much of it sexual.
Child abuse has long been a virtually unmentionable subject here, enshrouded in greater secrecy than in the United States, perhaps because of a widespread feeling described by Dr. Ernesto Caffo, a child psychiatrist in Bologna, Italy.
“I think the reason child abuse has only been brought to public attention in the last five years,” he said, “is that the family has always been considered a sacred haven for children, and institutions were thought to be things that one simply could not trust.”
Taking their lead from their American counterparts, though, child welfare officials throughout Europe are bringing the problem of child abuse into the open to study the phenomenon, intervene on behalf of the victims and and, in some cases, to punish the guilty. Still, researchers agree that official figures, where available, do not really reflect the extent of the problem. Large numbers of cases continue to go unreported.
In Britain, at least one child a week dies at home at the hands of its parents, according to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It is estimated that there were at least 50,000 cases of child abuse in Britain last year.
“We’ve learned to recognize the problem earlier,” Sue Creighton of the society said recently. “Social workers who deal with the problem of child abuse have gained more expertise, and, as they do so, we hope to reduce the scope of the problem.”
In the Netherlands, Klaas Kooyman, head of the Agency for Mishandled Children, said more than 3,000 child abuse cases were reported last year but added that secrecy surrounds the subject and there were undoubtedly more.
“In the United States,” he said, “it is mandatory to report cases of child beating, but here it is voluntary, so we know that many cases are not reported.”
The authorities estimate that 50,000 children are abused every year in France, and that about 700 of them die. In France, too, not every case is reported, but the wall of silence is being torn down as the result of medical conferences and a publicity campaign by the Ministry of Welfare.
One reason for the silence is the fact that family matters have always been regarded as strictly private. Marie Jose Chombart de Lauwe, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research, put it like this: “The French child is considered the property of the parents, and, in the past, outside interference was not tolerated.”
Jean Claude Chesnais of the National Institute for Demographic Studies in Paris contended, “The number of abused children is actually decreasing in Western nations, including France, but the awareness of the problem is becoming more acute.”
In West Germany, statistics indicate that about 30,000 children may have been the victims of child abuse last year. Volunteer organizations suggest that there were thousands of additional cases that were not reported.
Walter Wilken, director of the Society for the Protection of Children, in Hanover, said: “Victims in the United States speak openly about child abuse. Here they just don’t talk.”
Yet when the West German women’s magazine Brigitte published an article about sexual abuse of children and asked for reader response, the result was an avalanche of mail.
“We were overwhelmed,” said the magazine’s editor, Angelika Gardina-Suertel. “We didn’t think women would talk about such things.”
In Sweden, one of the most progressive countries in terms of social legislation, there are no official figures on child abuse. Still, about 500 children were taken from their parents last year, presumably for abuse or neglect of some kind. Moreover, about 15,000 children--1% of the child population--are under state supervision or in foster homes. An estimated 10 to 15 children were beaten to death last year.
Barbro Joberger, a writer for Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest morning paper, said: “Child abuse is a hot topic here. You can touch it. You can see it. Yet no one wants to do anything with it.”
In Sweden as in other European countries, most authorities are not sure whether the incidence of child abuse is on the rise, or whether it is simply attracting more attention because of publicity. Louise Sylwander, a counselor at the Children’s Rights in Society Organization, said that “since 1981, with all the attention focused on the problem of sexual abuse, we have seen an explosion in the number of cases reported.”
In Finland, there are about 500 cases a year of severe child abuse, according to Toevo Ronka, program director of the Mannerheim League of Child Welfare in Helsinki. But he said there may be “as many as 15,000 incidents of all kinds.”
“It’s one of the biggest problems our country faces,” he added. “The numbers haven’t gone down in the last 10 years. They keep rising.”
In Italy, the problem of child abuse is surfacing after being kept out of sight for many years. Unofficial estimates suggest that as many as 15,000 children are maltreated each year and that 2,000 die from abuse or careless accidents.
Alessandro Vassallo, who runs a center for mistreated children in Milan, said, “I would put the real figure of victims of child abuse 10 times higher than the official one.”
In Spain, Juan Pundik, president of Filium, an association founded to prevent violence to children, estimates that 40,000 children may be abused each year, but he admits that this is no more than a guess.
“It is only in the new, democratic Spain that some of these problems are coming to light,” he said. “Before, children were the exclusive property of the family. But that isn’t the case any more. Spaniards are more aware today that violence and aggression are not necessary for the disciplining of children, and the statistics may reflect the changing concept of what constitutes child abuse.”
In some West European countries, the press has spotlighted flagrant examples of child abuse:
--Nimes, France: A tiny girl arrived at a hospital in a state of shock, her skull, an arm and a leg fractured, her body covered with bruises. Her young mother and the mother’s boyfriend said they were unable to cope with financial and emotional problems. According to a psychiatrist, the couple vented their frustrations by battering the child.
--Rome: A teen-aged girl walked into a neighborhood police station to report she had been beaten by her mother’s live-in boyfriend, and that the mother and boyfriend wanted her to become a prostitute. They had already forced her 9-year-old sister into prostitution.
--Naples: A 58-year-old laborer was arrested for continually raping his two daughters. When arrested, he expressed surprise that he had broken the law.
The sexual abuse of children, the authorities say, is a shocking aspect of a depressing subject.
“In Britain, concern about sexual abuse of children is growing,” said Michele Elliott, director of London’s Child Assault Prevention Program. “In the past 10 years, the number of reported cases has increased considerably. It is estimated that at least one in 10 adults was sexually abused as a child, although some studies have placed the figure much higher. A million children in this country can expect to be sexually assaulted by the age of 15.”
Elliott, who has just published a guide on combatting child sexual abuse, said it is crucial that from an early age children be taught how to avoid assault--both from strangers and from adults who are known to them. She suggests that in as many as 75% of the cases of sexual abuse, the adults are known to the children.
In France, about 1,000 official complaints of sexual abuse of children under 15 are filed every year, and unreported cases are estimated to be many times that number.
French officials say that the disappearence of sexual taboos in contemporary society has relieved parents of the feelings of guilt about sex and that some are no longer restrained from sexually abusing their children.
Experts all across Western Europe generally agree that child abuse is a consequence of family stress brought on by the changing nature of the family, plus economic hardship accentuated by unemployment.
“Ireland is a small country with more than a million children under the age of 15,” said Colette Delaney, executive officer of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. “Many come from families where there is unemployment, poor housing and overcrowding. Situations like these lead to frustration and strain on young parents. This can place the children in the family unit at risk for both physical and mental abuse.”
In Germany, child abuse is attributed in large part to high levels of unemployment.
“There are definite parallels with the economic situation,” said Walter Wilken, director of the Society for the Protection of Children. “Child abuse is a symptom of families under stress.”
Still, though reported incidents tend to be more frequent at the lower end of the economic scale, child abuse cuts across class and economic lines.
In Milan, social worker Vassallo said: “Contrary to common belief, child-abuse cases are not all from the lower-class families, but can be found in middle-class social strata, too. Whereas the lower-class family is less likely to keep a bruised child out of school, because there is no room at home, an upper-class family will hide the injured child at home until he’s presentable again.”
Jacqueline Lemouel, judge of the children’s court in Paris, said: “We know that child abuse affects all classes. The main difference is that in the affluent classes everything is taken care of within the family. The abused child is sent to an uncle, an aunt or grandparents. When hospitalization is necessary, the abused child is generally sent to a private clinic, which often fails to report the case to the authorities.
“But cases of abused children from working-class families are widely known in the neighborhood. If hospitalized, the victims are generally sent to a public hospital, where the case is more likely to be reported to the police or a social worker.”
In many cases, German researchers say, child abuse occurs in families that are socially isolated as well as economically deprived. So volunteer groups urge families in trouble to put aside inhibitions and call on neighbors for assistance.
Brigitta Ling, a children’s ombudsman in Sweden, also calls attention to the factor of isolation.
“When people move to the city from the countryside,” she said, “they become increasingly isolated, and that is a risk for children. In the countryside, villagers surrounding you serve as a kind of extended family. You can talk about your problems and not take it out on your children.”
In France, officials believe that most child-abuse problems are found in families with immature parents who feel inadequate. This situation, they say, is aggravated by the stress caused by family tension related to financial difficulties and overcrowding, among other factors.
Research also suggests that boys and premature babies are often singled out as targets because they may be harder to handle or cry more often. And specialists point out that many parental abusers were themselves victims as children of battering by other members of the family.
In Italy, Dr. Caffo, the child psychiatrist, says that regional differences also play a role in child abuse.
“In the north,” he said, “there are more problems relating to family psychology, marriages going wrong, negligence toward children. In the south, there is still a tendency to regard the child as an object to be fashioned in the image of the parents.”
A Moral Duty
In some cases, tradition can be a factor. An official of the U.N. Children’s Fund said that “if you have a society where corporal punishment is forbidden, you are likely to have less child abuse than a society in which parents feel it is a moral duty to chasten children with physical punishment.”
What are the authorities in Western Europe doing about the problem?
“We believe,” Ireland’s Delaney said, “that prevention is better than cure when dealing with child abuse. We cannot solve all the serious social problems that exist, but our family center workers can seek to cooperate with families before the problems have become so serious as to result in cruelty.
“People must feel that there is somewhere in their own local community, a place to which they could go for friendly advice and support, to help them overcome the problems of modern family life.”
In France, too, the emphasis is on prevention rather than punishment. Social workers are urged to detect families prone to violence and to set up counseling early on to help parents get through difficult periods.
“We want to break the solitude of the parents,” a Paris psychiatrist, Elisabeth Hadijiski, said.
In England, the names of child abusers--and molesters--are placed on local registries so that welfare officials and private volunteer groups can monitor repeat offenders. The authorities also try to reduce the sense of aloneness felt by some families.
“Social isolation is clearly one of the most preventable stress factors, and we can all help by being good neighbors,” said Alan Gilmour, director of the Society for Cruelty to Children. “Ironically, many of the families who most need the support are difficult to like, and seem ungrateful and hostile to offers of help. In some cases, professional involvement seems the only answer.”
Many European authorities say they are learning techniques in dealing with child abuse developed in the United States, where authorities have been concerned with the problem in a more systematic way for a longer period.
One of the most delicate problems is deciding whether to remove an abused child from the home, since most countries in Western Europe have laws permitting children to be taken from parents if necessary.
“Sometimes it can be terribly damaging to remove the child or the father in cases of battering or sex abuse,” said London’s Sue Creighton. “The child may feel guilty and the family deprived of the breadwinner. The rest of the family may blame the victim for the loss of a father.”
Dr. Pierre Strauss of the French Information System on Child Abuse said: “When possible, relations between the parents and child must be maintained. Even if the child is taken temporarily away from the parents, they still continue to enjoy their parental rights. In the medium or long run, the child will face an identity crisis in relation to his natural parents. That is why, in the majority of cases, the child remains with his family or keeps in touch with them.”
Nearly everyone agrees on the need for an expanded information program directed at parents and social workers. In France, West Germany, Holland, Ireland, Spain, Scandinavia and Britain, a special effort is being made to produce information that highlights the problems.
Counseling centers are being set up to provide instructions on recognizing child abuse, as distinct from accidental injuries, so that there can be an earlier identification of the problem.
Contributing to this story were reporters Tyler Marshall in Bonn and Ben Sherwood in Paris and researchers Alice Sedar in Paris and Janet Stobart in Rome.