New Theory on Child Abuse Prevention Grows on You

We have this sense that evil forces threaten to overrun us.

Street crime seems unstoppable. Husbands punch their wives. People shoot each other. Parents abuse their children.

The recitation of that kind of violence has become a cliche--and with it comes a grudging acceptance that we can't reverse the tide.

But if you just want to talk theory for a minute, what if as a society we could stop it?

Imagine a cop standing on every street corner. Common sense says crime would go down. Imagine if all guns were banned. The number of people getting shot would go way down.

So, theoretically, we perhaps could reduce crime in the streets and general mayhem to more acceptable levels. We just don't want to pay for that many police officers, or, others would argue, we don't want such an omnipresent police presence in our society. Others don't want to ban guns.

As long as we're theorizing, what about child abuse? In 1985, the county recorded 11,440 cases of families in which child abuse was suspected. In 1990, the figure was 15,200, and in 1991 it was 16,500. Clearly, we're not getting a handle on the problem.

What if society arrived at a consensus that child abuse should be rooted out? What if we quit thinking about it as some abstract social ill and thought about what actually happens inside these homes? What if everyone bought into the proven research that an abused child who doesn't get help has a good likelihood of becoming an abusive parent, or that many abused children wind up engaged in other forms of crime or social misconduct that costs society dearly?

In other words, if we really cared, could we stop it or at least put a major dent in it?

Irene Briggs and Nat Glover see the child-abuse problem close up, she as a supervisor in child-abuse intervention and he as a deputy district attorney who prosecutes abusers. More than most, they know the entire landscape of child abuse is littered with damaged and sometimes ruined lives.

So, how to get at the problem? Both are believers in the worthwhileness of family counseling but lament that that often happens only after abuse has occurred. What's frustrating, Briggs said, is knowing that early intervention can salvage lives. And with continuing funding restraints, preventive programs often are sacrificed for much-needed programs that provide after-the-fact help.

Briggs wants to try something else.

"If I were the king of parenting, I think we should be teaching parenting classes to children, starting in elementary school," she said. "They need to know what it's like to be a parent and learn how to be a parent when they're a child."

Could they realistically grasp that idea? "Why not?" she said. "We have kids becoming parents at the age of 8 or 9. It's a scary thought, but it's true. When you have a child becoming a parent, you're not going to have good parenting."

As a prosecutor, Glover is not exactly a bleeding heart. He said society needs to accept that there are just some bad people out there and not always be looking for excuses for their behavior.

However, he said of the education idea: " . . . A lot of this (abusive behavior) is learned behavior, and if you start teaching kids when they're young then they learn the appropriate way to do it. They may not follow it, but at least if you get some of them to follow it, your society is much better off than it was before."

Child abuse cases are nightmares for prosecutors, who often are faced with some of their most difficult decisions on whether they can make a case against a suspect.

Talking of the pressures put on kids who must testify or report their parents, Glover said: "That kid is so torn between being a victim and having to tell on his parents. That's got to be the most serious emotional trauma a kid can go through to make a decision like that, but constantly in these cases, that's a decision that has to be made."

Ray Gallagher, the supervisor of the county's Child Abuse Registry, also thinks the schools could help. "I wish there were classes in schools because being parents is the thing we're least prepared for, but it's the most important thing we do in life."

He said early elementary students could be taught basics of human interaction and personal development and then, as they matured, be given more sophisticated classes in child development and parenting issues.

Gallagher conceded that such an approach would require a major change in a school's curriculum but said the idea "makes sense to me because we learn everything else in school but how to get along with others and how to be a parent."

I know, I know, children are supposed to learn these things at home. But history has shown us they don't, and that society pays the hefty tab for that failing.

"Believe it or not," Briggs said, "most families (with abuse problems) are cooperative. They acknowledge that something might have happened that is not OK or that their discipline is too extensive . . . that they want help."

That says to me that people want to stop, that they want to change their behavior.

What if there were a way to implant that kind of thinking in them while they're young?

Imagine a society where 6-year-olds weren't abused by their fathers. Or where children never learned behavior patterns that affected the rest of their lives?

Pretty wild theory, huh?

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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