Children, parents and child abuse are often in the news recently. Between the #MeToo movement, incarcerated immigrant children and the usual reports of coaches, teachers, caregivers and even parents who physically, verbally, or sexually abuse children, one might wonder how children manage to live to grow up, let alone grow up sane, compassionate, self-actualizing adults. Forensic psychology is often an investigation into the why that leads to the how in the hope of practicing preventative policies that will keep not only the children but also the caregiving adults safe. Which brings us to our title question. When thinking about parents, children, caregivers and alleged criminals, how can we best protect the innocent?
The #MeToo Movement
In 2003, Tarana Burke was approached by a young woman who confided in Ms. Burke that her mother’s boyfriend was abusing her. As she searched for words, Tarana Burke eventually passed the girl along to another person who she felt would be qualified to help her. But she later thought, “Why didn’t I just say, ‘Me, too.’” That was how the Me Too movement started, as a way for girls and women to support each other through reporting and surviving abusive situations. According to statistics published in the 1980s, one in every four children will experience sexual abuse. It seemed as if the problem might be even larger.
Incarcerated Immigrant Children and Children in Orphanages
“Un brazo de distancia. Un brazo de distancia.” This is what the immigrant children in custody were told day after day. No touching was allowed, brothers and sisters were separated.
In 1989, the children in Rumanian orphanages were discovered to be in sad condition. MRI brain imaging revealed that those children had less gray matter and less white matter in their brains. Izador Ruckel, who was adopted from a Rumanian orphanage explained that they learned behavior from the adults there. When removed from their environment, the orphans reacted in unpredictable and sometimes antisocial ways.
Stories of the immigrant children who are now being returned to their parents indicate that the children who were separated from their families now show responses that can be traced directly back to their facility.
Not Just Men
Most of the recent research into psychopathy has been on adult incarcerated males, not all of whom are psychopaths. From this, Robert Hare and his associates developed the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), which included a section on charm, deception and manipulation. As the research turned to females, it is believed that it is possible that women might more skilled at hiding their behavior and manage to stay below the radar of the law. Sociological studies have indicated that abused children tend to grow up to be abusive adults, and they can be abusive toward others at a very young age.
Psychology is in many ways still a very young science, and forensic psychology even younger. Will it one day be able to answer the question of how best to protect the innocent? Is it possible to prevent toxic child care situations at all social levels? We know so little and the need for good answers could be profound.