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Friday, October 26, 2012

Amanda Todd's legacy - Have we really learned anything?

The tragic death of Amanda Todd is not an isolated incident, as news today carries the story of the death of Felicia Garcia. She too was apparently a victim of bullying. She made some mistakes which the news reports being related to sexual experiences with the school football team. She paid a high price.

What is interesting about these two events (and others) is the link between the "value" that we place on females as sexual objects. When they buy into that in some way, society too often condemns them for the very thing that they have been pressured into. There is a sense that the societal image of a sexual female (typically depicted as very young) is a goal that teenagers should aspire to. I wonder if we are asking why?

Felicia Garcia

In this context, then, is the further evidence of sexual exploitation that is taking place with a 20 year old Brazilian women who has sold her virginity for some $780,000. Catarina Migliorini seems to justify this as she will use some of the money for the benefit of her community. But is this something that money should be allowed to buy? She states that it is not prostitution as it is a one time event in her life that will not be repeated. However, it acts as the transferring of a female state (virginity) into a commodity. Before one suggests that there could be gender equality here, a male attempting the same thing only garnered $3000.

How can this be seen as anything up exploitation?

Part of the bullying of these girls is related to the reality that girls are a commodity to be used and abused for far too many in our society.

It is in this vein that I read a rather interesting piece of research soon to be published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. It notes:

Victims of bullying commonly experience higher rates of school absenteeism, emotional maladjustment, psychosomatic problems, poor relationships and loss of friends, low self-worth and selfesteem, and rates of depression and anxiety, in comparison to the general school population

The victims pay a price but I worry that far too often, the perpetrator does not. Child protection is primarily a family responsibility. It is there that we should find the safest place in our lives, although that is far to often not the case. But what then of those families that try to do their best to protect their children who experience bullying? What happens when they really do try to be the place of protection. Well, this research says that they may not get the external supports that they need. Brown, Aaslma & Ott note in the discussion of their research:

During the discovery stage, parents made efforts to help their youth from home before reporting victimization to the school. Parents found that advice-giving failed to resolve the bullying. Similar to what has previously been reported (Terrean-Miller, 2006), parents’ monitoring of their youth’s behavioral changes as a result of being bullied, caused them to involve school officials. What is particularly troubling from these interviews is that parents who were aware of their youth being bullied in elementary school often saw a re-emergence from the same bullies again in middle school.

Many clients that I have worked with tell me that schools typically fail to effectively address what is going on. The research goes on to note that schools typically failed to even follow through despite the existence of policies.  In my view, this constitute systemic enabling of abuse. It is further evidence that we are a long way from solving sexism (and its various forms of oppression) and inter personal violence, including bullying.

Reference for the research:

Brown, J.R., Aaslma, M.C. & Ott, M.A. (2012). The experiences of parents who report bullying youth victimization to school officials. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, In Press. DOI: 10.1177/0886260512455513

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Drug testing parents

There is little doubt that parents who are thought to abuse drugs or alcohol (or are addicted) constitute one of the most prominent groups in child welfare populations. Efforts are often made to help the parents address their usage either through therapy or more formal residential treatment programs. Yet, relapse is common when people are working their way into and on through the recovery process.

Child protection seeks to have some assurance that recovery has enough stability that it would be safe for children to be in the care of the parents. The costs of substance use can be staggering. Consider, for example, that in Alberta, it is estimated that there are 36,000 people with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and 450 babies born annually who will be affected.

The impact of substance abuse can also be seen in neglect and maltreatment of the children as the substances gain a greater hold on the life of the parent. Not all parents become addicted and not all parents who use are neglectful. One needs to think of the "functional" alcoholic. Family life may not be stellar in such a case, but child protection is often not involved.

How then is a child protection worker to get some assurance that the parent is sober. Some might argue that the worker should take the parent's word for it in the absence of any overt indication to the contrary. To do otherwise, some might see as oppression.

Anyone who works with people in recovery know that many who relapse seek to hide it. They will lie, avoid, manipulate in order to do so. Given that, in relapse, the DAMN behaviours come to the fore, why would the parent not (DAMN = deny, avoid, minimize, numb).

The rights of the child to safety trump the rights of the parent to use. particularly if their use has placed the child at risk.

Child protection has a duty of care that can be partially satisfied by drug testing. Yet that too is no panacea. Hair follicle testing tends to be more reliable than urine testing, although the latte is cheaper and faster. Urine testing is more open to manipulation.

Either way, the testing needs to be done by accredited labs.

If testing is going to be done, it should be done on a short notice, random basis to limit the opportunities for "cheating".

Drug testing needs to be used when it fits into an overall plan of case management. It also should not be done unless there is a clear connection to the child protection issues. It should never be done as a "fishing expedition" to see what might be found.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Parenting and Foster Parenting

“But the truth is,” she continues, “that parenting is really hard. It isn’t always rewarding. And it doesn’t always bring you joy. That’s OK! Who said it was kids’ job to make you happy? I think if we’re more honest about the struggles of parenting and what parenting really looks like, we can be more upfront about what we need to make everyday parenting easier.”
 That pithy comment comes from Jessica Valenti who is the author of a new book on mothering. Yes, parenting is quite challenging for pretty much all of us who have ever chosen to walk that road. It is full of ups and downs and children who must adapt to a world that may not be very welcoming. We have seen that in spades with the recent suicide of Amanda Todd, the young woman from British Columbia who was bullied extensively. While there has been much attention on her death, little energy has been given to the now grieving parents who must daily adapt to the new reality of a family system that no longer includes their daughter. They too are victims.

It was with those thoughts in mind that I read new research from Belgium by Vanschoonlandt et al. They spoke of working with foster parents who have foster children with externalizing behaviours. As pretty much any parent will tell you, defiance, aggression, rule breaking and other forms of externalizing problems can stress parents significantly. What then if the child doing that is a foster child?

Many in child protection might think of foster parents as somehow much more skilled than the average parent. After all, they have sought to take on challenging children. In my own clinical experience, this is not something that you can expect, although I have certainly met such foster parents. Indeed, I have often thought that I could not take on the challenge.

In the Belgium research, they note that foster parents also struggle with the demands of these children. It can be a daunting task. This research is suggesting that careful supports are needed if they are to be successful with these demanding children. They focused their intervention on helping foster parents to better understand attachment issues with the children in their home as well as on behaviour management techniques.

 Psycho-education about attachment enables the foster
parents to understand behaviors of their foster child and
to keep investing in the foster child (who may be
rejecting them). Furthermore, foster parents create a more
predictable environment for their foster child and apply
behavior management skills to increase desired behavior
and decrease misbehaviors. The analysis of the techniques
used by foster parents indeed showed that they combine a
positive approach with predictability and effective limit
setting. As the program developers intended, there was
limited use of negative consequences for unwanted
behaviors. More general parenting skills were also
included in the program because the developers thought
they would be of value in working with foster parents and
foster children. Increasing predictability in difficult situations
could avoid problems. Helping children in recognizing
their emotions and solving problems could increase  foster children’s emotion regulation and problem-solving
skills. Finding a balance between stimulating autonomy
and monitoring may be difficult in parenting foster children
who had become too independent or whose parents
had been over-involved (in press). 

Even with the significant training and support, however, they found that only a limited number of foster parents implemented the techniques. This helps us to understand that changing parent behaviours can be difficult. If those who are motivated to work with foster children may have either difficulty or resistance to new parenting techniques, one can only imagine the difficulties that parents in the child welfare system must face in implementing new parenting techniques!

Reference: Vanschoonlandt, F., Vanderfaillie, J., Van Holen, F., & De Maeyer, S. (2012). Development of an intervention for foster parents of young foster children with externalizing behaviour:  Theoretical basis and program description. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, In pressDOI 10.1007/s10567-012-0123-x

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Amanda Todd - the tragic story of bullying

Amanda Todd committed is dead. By her own hand. She is the victim of bullying. She poignantly told her own story on YouTube. It is a difficult watch when you know that the ultimate ending is her death some time after the video.

Her story is a reflection of values in society at large. She was vulnerable and had become disconnected. We, society, did not protect her and we, society, found more space for the bully group. We, society, failed her. We, society, fail to protect children from bullying on a daily basis. But this is not new.

Today's generation faces a much greater challenge than prior ones. Victims, in the past, could often find shelter away from their tormentors - at home typically. Today, that is not possible. Technology means that the bully can stream into a victim's life without interruption. The Amanda Todd story illustrates that.

Research tends to tell us that our bullying programs are not working. People will feel sorry for her but will then go on to bully others. Perhaps we need to frame bullying as part of a series of behaviours that fall under the tittle Inter Personal Violence (IPV). For what distinguishes bullying from other forms of IPV is just that - it is a form. There is a victim; there are perpetrators; there is harm; there is intent to harm; there is escalation in frequency and intensity and, as her story shows, there is also physical, verbal and emotional violence.

By calling it bullying, we connect to an age old view that this is something that kids do. We normalize it as part of growing up. Yet, it normalizes sexual harassment, dating violence, child abuse, workplace harassment and so on. When we accept that any form of assault is acceptable (in this case one form called bullying) we grant acceptance of the behaviors linked to it.

Families need to think about the messages that they give about what is acceptable in all forms of relationships - including with people you don't like very much. One has to wonder if the parents of those who did this to Amanda Todd are proud. As a society, are we proud of how we treated her? Or should we be putting more and more effort into treating people well.

I am reminded of the very powerful TedTalk by Jeremy Rifkin on the need for an empathic civilization. It can be seen via YouTibe and allows one to reflect on he very piece that is in individual control - how I treat those with whom I interact.

Child protection is about our every interaction as well as about the principles that we are prepared to stand up for.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sexual assault, sexual abuse -- life long stories

It is hard to read the papers or professional journals these days without being faced with the legacies that arise from sexual abuse and sexual assault. As I write this entry, the media are covering an audio statement from convicted sexual offender Jerry Sandusky. In it, he claims his ongoing innocence. Given the number of convictions, it is hard to accept his protestations that he has been wrongly convicted.

The Sandusky story is more about the failure of an institution to protect. It is certainly not the only one. But another such story is receiving widespread coverage. The Los Angeles Times carrying extensive coverage on the list of names of child abusers that the Boy Scouts of America is alleged to have improperly protected. The stories suggest that the organization simply failed to ensure that those with known records or those whose sexual abuse activities became known to the organization were properly reported, or in some cases, kept away from children.

Research being released today shows that sexual assault and rape has long term implications for the victims. These impacts are across many areas of functioning. The report on the research published by Science Daily notes that the research

shows that female victims suffer from a wide spectrum of debilitating effects that may often go unnoticed or undiagnosed...
"These findings document that victims of sexual assault, and even victims of attempted sexual assault, suffer psychological and social costs more far ranging than previously suspected," says Perilloux, who earned her Ph.D. at The University of Texas at Austin in 2011. 
There is no reason to believe that victims of sexual abuse will be any less affected.

The public may grow weary of the ever growing list of organizations that have failed to protect children. The challenge is more than that, however. It is about the ability of the public to believe in the value of societal institutions - to see their inherent worth. As more and more of them are dragged into the public eye in this way, the growing distrust attacks the credibility of institutions in general. Penn State, churches, Boy Scouts in Canada and the United States would have been seen as trustworthy in the past. The public must now wonder - who next? Child protection organizations  do not escape this scrutiny when stories of their failures come out, particularly when it results in the death or serious harm of a child.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Child abuse statistics - what's real

In the United States, child protection services have been indicating that the rates of child physical abuse have been decreasing. Critics of child protection services, as well as those who are focused on prevention services, have trumpeted these numbers. Reason to celebrate whenever there are indications that child physical abuse is decreasing.

However, a new study published on October 1 through the online version of the journal, Paediatrics, suggests that there is another way to look at the data. They focused on serious child abuse which included head injuries, burns and fractures. The data showed a modest increase of 5%.

Both sets of data are useful. The first looks at the broader picture, although it may represent a number of differences in how cases are reported to child protection agencies. Thus, it might be report affected as opposed to being a true me sure of frequency. The more recent data tells us though, that the serious cases remain a growing problem. Public policy should focus on that truth.

A question now opens - to what degree is this trend true in other countries.

Leventhal, J.M. & Gaither, J.R.. (2012)  Incidence of serious injuries due to physical abuse in the United States: 1997 to 2009Pediatrics, online, DOI:10.1542/peds.2012-0922