Monday, April 17, 2006

What the British Can Do To End Child Abuse

By Lloyd deMause

Speech to be given in London on Mar. 27, 2006 for the Winnicott Memorial Lecture at Kings College

That Donald Winnicott treated many abused children is evident from his opening statement of his essay on treating children saying when they come to him he often finds them "clinging to mother in dread of the white-coated doctor who will surely be a monster who eats children." [1] He even sometimes admitted that children's fears were results of what he termed "the mother's unconscious (repressed) hate of the child." [2] Still, since he mainly only saw parents and children in his office and in clinics, where mothers tended not to openly abuse their children, and since he relied for his child abuse figures on grossly understated British official statistics that claimed only a tiny percentage of children were abused, he regularly stated in his writings that "most babies get good-enough care," and "the majority of babies have their basic needs met." [3] In fact, Winnicott is most often remembered for coining the "good-enough mother" concept.

This "good-enough mother" notion was foremost in my mind when, five decades ago, I began intensive historical research for my book The History of Childhood. Working with dozens of other psychohistorians, I was astonished to conclude that, as the opening words of my book put it,

The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized and sexually abused.[4]

I have been so impressed with the overwhelming evidence in the primary source documents I have spent my life studying for the ubiquity of severe historical child abuse and neglect that I have offered a prize for anyone who could find a mother prior to the 18th century anywhere in the world who could be called a "good-enough mother" — the definition of which being a mother who would not today be thrown in jail for child abuse. No one has yet claimed the prize.

In the three decades since my first book on the history of childhood appeared, over a hundred books and articles by myself and my fellow psychohistorians have been published — most of them in my Journal of Psychohistory — giving overwhelming evidence of the truth of this astonishing view of how common child abuse has been throughout history. According to Judith Issroff's new book on Winnicott and Bowlby, it was only after my work appeared that British psychoanalysts were able to "recognize how prevalent the incidence of actual abuse, neglect and torture" has been and still is in the U.K.[5] I hope today to present to you reliable evidence that abusive childrearing remains the norm for most of children in the world, even for the majority of British children today. I will then describe some new programs that have been shown to be have dramatically reduced child abuse and neglect, along with all of its violent and costly consequences for society.


Historical studies of widespread British sexual abuse in the modern period are familiar enough to historians, but what is most surprising is how recently — not until the 1960s — child prostitutes in England were considered anything but "wild," "depraved," "sinful" and "tarts," blaming the victims for the crimes against them. It is one thing to hear British men in 1900 give excuses in the Old Bailey that they simply had to have intercourse with little children because "that was the only way they could be cured of venereal disease," since it was commonly believed that children absorbed the disease.[6] It is another thing to read a book published in 2002 entitled Knowledge of Evil: Child Prostitution and Child Sexual Abuse in Twentieth-Century England [7] report on all the current defenses of the sexual uses of children and tentatively conclude: "It is the contention of this publication that child prostitution is a form of child abuse."

It has admittedly been quite a while since Beatrice Webb and other British writers reported that they had found the sexual abuse of young girls by their fathers and brothers was so common in British families that the girls often joked about their babies as being products of incest,"[8] yet the practice remains common enough because of official government opposition to providing social workers to investigate families. As one Member of Parliament put it recently, "we need more policemen and fewer social workers [so] we can get back to the Victorian days of discipline." [9] Similarly, the rape of boys in British public schools, "with the full knowledge and collusion, even the approval, of their elders…where older boys and even teachers had younger boys as their 'bitches' to use sexually"[10] has — along with the infamous "English vice" of "erotic flagellation" of children in school — been recently outlawed, but it continues behind the scenes nonetheless.[11] The most accurate recent study of child sexual abuse in the U.K. asked college students if they had been abused as children, and 59% of women and 27% of men reported having been sexually abused as children.[12] This is even higher than the most accurate studies of Americans, which found that 45 percent of girls and 30 percent of boys admitted to having been sexually abused.[13] That all these figures are underdisclosures is admitted, since (a) some of those interviewed would have lied about being abused, since it is considered shameful, (b) some would have repressed their early sexual abuse, (c) the universe interviewed was a higher social class, since people in jails, poor areas and immigrants were not interviewed, and they regularly have much higher rates of victimization, and (d) the one-third who refused to be interviewed undoubtedly had higher victimization rates.[14] These four factors should bring the accurate U.K. figures for childhood sexual assault today to at least two-thirds of girls and one-third of boys — certainly an eye-opening conclusion when compared with a recent survey of British doctors who believed the child sexual abuse rate was probably less than one percent![15]

The rate of British physical abuse of children is even higher than the rate of sexual abuse. The Newson studies in both 1958 and 1985 found from interviewing the mothers that two-thirds of them said they were routinely hitting helpless infants in the first year of their lives, about the same proportion as in the U.S.[16] They were surprised that there was no improvement in the 27 years between their two studies. Again, they point out this figure is understated, saying "Obviously we are not so na├»ve as to think that mothers will never tell us lies of attempt to whitewash their actions."[17] In addition, their studies do not cover many immigrant groups, which usually have higher rates of physical abuse. By the time the children are four years old, they found that "hardly anyone was never smacking their four-year-old and only a quarter overall were smacking less than once a week."[18] By the time the children reached four "only 3% had not been smacked, on the average of at least once a week…most a good deal more often."[19] Boys were hit twice as often as girls, and mothers hit far more often than fathers, since they were the primary caretakers.[20] Hitting or threatening with implements — straps, belts, canes, sticks — was used on 91% of boys and 59% of girls. The rates of physical child abuse in the U.K. were about the same as those of the U.S.,[21] but far higher than the rates of most other West European nations.[22] In the past 25 years, 16 European nations have outlawed the corporal punishment of children, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has recently called upon all the other European nations to make Europe "a corporal punishment-free zone for children." Hungary, the Netherlands, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia are about to join the abolitionist states, and others are considering doing so.

The results of outlawing the hitting of children are dramatic. In Sweden, the first country to abolish corporal punishment of children by everyone, not only has public support for hitting children— even in its mildest forms — been reduced from 53% to only 11%, but in addition only 6% of younger Swedes today say they support corporal punishment.[23] Practice in Sweden, as well as attitude, has changed as well, with only 3% of school children saying they had been slapped by their parents, and only one child in 25 years having been killed by their parent. The results of this dramatic decrease in hitting have been spectacular. The number of children needing social work care has decreased by 26%, the number of youth convicted of theft declined by 21%, the rates of alcohol and drug abuse by youths have declined dramatically, and the rate of youth suicide has also declined. What is most astonishing is that in Sweden and in other countries outlawing the hitting of children the populations actually began by being in favor of corporal punishment, but after their legislatures passed their anti-hitting law despite this pro-hitting mood the general public gradually became more and more opposed to corporal punishment, without any dramatic intrusion by the state into family life. There was simply a shift in what was considered a "good" parent from one who used what was termed "appropriate corporal punishment" (witness the current British debate as to what is "reasonable chatisement" of little children) to one in which professionals could feel comfortable in recommending alternative methods without feeling that they were trespassing on private family matters. Advisors to parents from British social agencies and children's centers can leave behind their usual time-consuming legal battles and instead provide parents with what the Swedes call "a contact person…whose role it is to provide friendship and support to the family on a voluntary, preventive basis."[24]

I saw the dramatic results of what a program of outlawing hitting and of providing real support for parents can actually do when I recently toured Austria giving a speech on "The Childhood Origins of the Holocaust."[25] I began by giving the massive evidence accumulated by myself and my fellow psychohistorians on child abuse in Germany and Austria during the first half of the 20th century. Parents killed their newborn over a third of the time, so that siblings watched their mothers strangle babies and throw them in latrines. Breastfeeding was infrequent, so infant mortality rates ranged up to 58%. During their first year of life, infants were bound up tight with swaddling bandages and rarely changed, left in their own feces and urine, covered with lice and other vermin and hung on a peg on the wall. Parents routinely called their little children "lice" and "useless eaters" because they didn't contribute to the family income. Battering was routine from birth, "to stop them from being a 'tyrant,' so that one is master of the child forever." Parents were often described as being in a "righteous rage" while they "hammered obedience" into their children. When the children were five or so they were sent out to be servants, where beating and sexual abuse was the rule. That these children became "time bombs" ready to explode as adults was not surprising.

During the Weimar period, a phobic group-fantasy became so widespread that the population was convinced that their blood was about to be infected by lice, which had to be exterminated in order to save the nation's bloodstream from being poisoned — re-experiencing the fear of poisonous lice they had as helpless, swaddled infants. First tens of thousands of homeless children were exterminated as "useless eaters" in the first gas chambers and crematorium ovens, in the 1920s, before the Holocaust began. Then Jews began to be called "the lice of civilized mankind" (Goebbels) and "parasites on the body of other peoples who had to be exterminated" (Hitler). Projecting their own feelings as babies in their shit-bandages onto Jews, Austrians and Germans rounded them up and put them into death camps, telling them: "You'll be eaten by lice, you'll rot in your own shit. You are all going to die." Every name their parents called them as children they repeated with the Jews, who were termed in official documents "useless eaters" and "filthy lice who were infecting our pure blood." As they locked Jews into the death camps, they called them" you filthy shitface," and threw them into latrine pits, forcing feces into their mouths. As Himmler put it, the Holocaust "is exactly like delousing. The removal of lice is not an ideological question, but a matter of hygiene."

After WWII ended, even though economic recovery made family life difficult in Central Europe, by 1960 German and Austrian mothers began to be given help by the state in their childrearing tasks, and the traditional authoritarian model of the family that had been going on for centuries changed rapidly. In 1964, for instance, 80 percent of German and Austrian parents admitted to beating their children, but for the past decade there has been a law against hitting children which has improved childrearing so much that careful personality studies today show both Germans and Austrians are now less abusive toward children and less authoritarian in personality than British and Americans. Mothers are today given paid leave for up to three years when they have their children, and now feel able to show love and support for the independence of their growing children that would have shocked their grandparents. This and other state-supported help to parents has led to a less violent, more humane society, one that is rarely anti-Semitic and even to a great extent is beyond the kind of violent nationalism that led to WWII. After all, studies of the effect of abusive childrearing since Adorno's Authoritarian Personality studies have shown how harsh childrearing leads to fearful, violent adults who repeat their early abuse in politics and wars. The recent studies of Milburn at the University of Massachusetts show individuals who reported high levels of childhood punishment held far more punitive political attitudes, including a more consistent use of military force to settle disputes.[26] It is not surprising, therefore, that the Austrians I met regularly on my speaking tour considered themselves not as nationalist Austria-first political actors but as Europeans — even just as humans — and were far more peaceful politically than most people in my own country.


There are three additional programs beyond anti-hitting laws and financial and assistance that have been shown to drastically reduce child abuse in their areas. All have been regularly reported upon in my Journal of Psychohistory (a recent issue of which I have set out free for those of you who wish to learn more about the subject of ending child abuse.) The first is what have been called Community Parenting Centers, like the one started 23 years ago in Boulder, Colorado. Their mission is "to relieve isolation, reduce the stress of parenting and prevent child abuse and neglect by providing outreach and a place where families can receive support, education and develop a sense of community"[27] Unlike the British Sure Start centers — which are more day care oriented and aim mainly at helping poor parents find child care while they work — Community Parenting Centers (a) give lectures by more experienced parents for new parents, (b) have play groups for children with puppet shows that demonstrate parent-child interactions, (c) give post-partum depression assistance, (d) provide help for immigrants and unmarried mothers, (e) give talks on how to set limits for toddlers, and (f) even have free home visits to new mothers by volunteers who give pediatric and psychological help. The centers are free to all and quite inexpensive to run, especially since it has been shown that for every dollar invested in better parenting by the Center the state saves over a hundred dollars in later costs of social services, hospital costs and jails. The reduction of child abuse in Boulder and in other centers, such as the Parent Child Center Network in Vermont and the Hawaii Healthy Start Program, has been substantial.[28]

A second child support program is the Home Visiting Programs run in Boulder and several other cities that visit weekly in their homes mothers who have shown by their fears of handling their newborn that they are potentially abusive and need more help in parenting. Home Visiting is preventive, not intrusive; it is not at all the same as social workers visiting homes to see if they need to remove the children to protect them. It involves paraprofessionals who can visit hundreds of families and who can give person-to-person help in working through emotional problems. In Colorado, the cost of operating both the Community Parenting Centers and Home Visiting Program is estimated can be covered by a 0.1% "Children's Sales Tax,"[29] surely a tiny amount when one recognizes that the costs to society of a career criminal or drug user is about $2 million for each youth who has been abused as a child.[30]

A third effective program in parenting was recently started in New York City by Margaret R. Kind, M.D., a psychiatrist, who taught a course on parenting in the city school system to 30 high school classes. It is, of course, revealing of our priorities that although parenting is one of the most important jobs in every nation in the world, there has until now never been as far as I am aware any actual courses teaching it in any school. Students taking Kind's course learn about children's needs for love, attachment, commitment, admiration, toleration and empathy, and learn how to have discipline without distress-causing punishment, discomfort or physical pain. Students are surprised to learn how important early relationships are to the infant, and go through the parenting stages with an excellent textbook, The Six Stages of Parenthood. They are frequently surprised by how much time caring for an infant takes, and begin during their teens to plan their own lives so they can be available to the child as they grow up. What is most promising is how enthusiastic the students are about taking the course. I myself read a large stack of their final comments about the course, and they not only praised how much they learned both what to do and what not to do, even if it was different than what their parents did, but they wrote things like, "Now I can be a successful parent! I was not sure before that I could" and "I think more people should have the opportunity to take a course like this, and avoid a lot of mistakes…mistakes that are a matter of life and death." As Kind puts it, "The students loved the course, and they, themselves, suggested that it be mandated to be taught to all high school students! Their enthusiasm was remarkable, well expressed, and gratifying."[31]


But isn't the British "Sure Start" program enough to protect children? With three billion pounds directed to help 400,000 children in over 500 local Sure Start programs, isn't this enough to reduce child abuse and neglect? Unfortunately, the statistics show no effect so far on child abuse rates, or even on child poverty or learning, according to the official Birkbeck College study, which recently found "no discernible developmental, language or behavioural differences" in Sure Start areas after 18 months of programs.[32] Of course, it is much too early to see measurable results from such a recent effort, but since Sure Start's main goals were stated as "enabling parents to work…reducing crime rates and reducing child poverty"[33] — not "reducing child abuse" — it cannot be expected to be effective in ending parental abuse of their children. Indeed, Parliament just voted to keep "clause 56" of the Children's Bill which allowed "reasonable punishment" in hitting children, which is interpreted to send out the dangerous message to parents: "carry on smacking, but don't leave a physical mark." [34] Still, the transformation of Sure Start programs into Children's Centres that is now under way in some of the most deprived neighborhoods is a positive step toward eventually turning them into real Parenting Centers and Home Visiting Programs, as I suggested earlier. This could turn the Sure Start program into a real effort to end child abuse and neglect rather than being embroiled in British child daycare agendas designed to support maternal employment. Even the Sure Start Maternity Grants, though tiny (only five hundred pounds), are a beginning, and can be expanded to at least a year's support for new mothers. Plus, the current Children's Centers, though badly underfunded, have begun to reach out to families with some home visiting and parenting classes in deprived areas. In twenty of the Sure Start Children's Centres the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is involved in a "FULL STOP Campaign" to give helpful advice to new parents to "protect babies by encouraging parents to think about and prepare for the stresses of parenting before their baby is born."[35] Beginnings are being made, and could be turned into results in ending child abuse. Even the preschool programs could be expanded into real efforts at ending child abuse, as they have been in many of the publicly-supported preschool programs beginning to proliferate in the U.S.[36] The costs of these new programs are, as I have said, low compared to the many billions of pounds of direct costs from child abuse now estimated by the British National Commission on the Prevention of Child Abuse,[37] plus the indirect costs of social workers, adoption expenses, police and jails to handle the other results of child abuse. The end of child abuse could eventually mean the end of much of the criminal system. As James Gilligan, a prison psychiatrist who has spent his life interviewing criminals, puts his findings:

"In the course of my work with the most violent men in maximum-security settings, not a day goes by that I do not hear reports of how these men were victimized during childhood. Physical violence, neglect, abandonment, rejection, sexual exploitation, and violation occurred on a scale so extreme, so bizarre, and so frequent that one cannot fail to see that the men who occupy the extreme end of the continuum of violent behavior in adulthood occupied an extreme end of the continuum of violent child abuse earlier in life. As children, these men were shot, axed, scalded, beaten, strangled, tortured, drugged, starved, suffocated, set on fire, thrown out of windows, raped, or prostituted by mothers who were their pimps.[38]

Obviously the costs of improving child care are small compared to the enormous costs of the crimes produced by creating time bombs rather than useful citizens. Even the costs of the mental health system are a result of child abuse. As Brett Kahr found when he began to work in the back wards of a British psychiatric hospital with people diagnosed as "schizophrenics,"

"I soon discovered that many of my patients had experienced profound death threats and attempts on their lives in childhood…One of my patients first entered a psychiatric hospital at the age of eighteen because his mother kept chasing him around the family home wielding a carving knife and shouting, 'I will kill him. I will kill him.'"[39]

Brett's insights have recently been confirmed major studies showing that the overwhelming majority of schizophrenics and other serious psychiatric patients were horribly abused as children and that their hallucinations were simply flashbacks to dissociated early abusive events.[40] Saving the costs of child abuse involved in maintaining psychiatric hospitals and the additional costs of other emotional disorders such as depression adds to the results to be expected as the programs I have suggested become implemented.

The problem in ending child abuse, therefore, isn't funds. It is attitude. As one British child care expert put it:

"Britain has no explicit 'family policy.' There is a contradiction between the belief that the State should not encroach upon the autonomy of the family and its perceived duty to ensure that family care of dependents and socialization of the young is adequately conducted. By acting indirectly, abstaining from proclamation of general objectives for the family, and intervening only against families which can be defined as malfunctioning or in need, the State has been able to minimize controversy regarding its intrusions."[41]
The ban on corporal punishment in Sweden in 1979, followed by its intensive public education campaigns, has by now made parental use of corporal punishment a rarity and the use of implements virtually unheard-of. [42] England is now at the point of parenting evolution that Sweden was in 1979. If the suggestions I have made are followed, the 25 years it took Sweden to virtually eliminate physical and sexual abuse of children should be able to be reduced measurably. The time is ripe. England's child protection system must move beyond punishment to prevention. Our children need not be turned into time bombs. We can now for the first time in our long, violent history make our world safe to live in. All that is needed is the will to finally raise our precious children without abuse.

Lloyd deMause is Director of The Institute for Psychohistory, President of the International Psychohistorical Association, Editor of The Journal of Psychohistory and author of seven books including The History of Childhood and The Emotional Life of Nations.

Source: No Spank.Net

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