Stopping Abuse Starts with Supporting Everyone Involved

Black and white photo of parent holding young child who has arm around parent's neck and a hidden faceOnce, a long time ago, I was on a crowded subway train, my nose stuck in a book to help me endure the crowds, the smells, and the noise. I had just started my job as a social worker, one of my first jobs, and I was on the way from Uptown Manhattan to the farthest end of Brooklyn, where I would visit a foster family caring for a child who had been abused. I knew a lot about child abuse literally firsthand—my parents had taught me plenty about it—and as an adult my mission was to help kids who needed someone in their corner.

So there I was on the train, enduring what would be a very long ride, when suddenly a woman started shouting at her small child, a girl about 5, and then began smacking her. Just as I was about to confront her, another woman on the train approached the yelling mother and said to her, “You look like you need some help. Anything I can do?” She spoke gently and made direct eye contact. She connected with the abusive mother.

I was shocked. How could this stranger be so kind to someone so apparently mean? How could she support the perpetrator?

I kept watching. The mother softened, loosened her hold on the child, and the child slowly began to relax as she felt the danger dissipate, at least for the moment.

Here was a real helper, I thought—not a counterfeit like me who didn’t much know what she was doing. I had wanted to swoop in and give a knockout punch to her mom. Not only would that not have helped, though, it would have meant I was an abusive person too. It would have made things worse.

I had a lot to think about. Clearly, this was my best social work lesson yet.

Over the years, as I continued working as a social worker, I saw more and more examples of child abuse. And while my top priority was always the safety and well-being of the abused, I began to understand that the people doing the abusing are also in need of help and support from their communities. Some have serious mental health conditions, some have addictions that affect their behavior, and some lack the skills and insight to be competent parentsFamily violence has a pernicious effect on the abusive person, the person being abused, and even the people who witness abuse.

Foster parents are supported by the agencies that supervise them, and rightfully so. I wondered: What if natural families had support like that? Could more families be helped to stay together? Could abuse be stopped where it starts?

Foster care is a last resort; nevertheless, it is sometimes the only answer to protect children who need better care. But with proper assistance, education, and counseling, some people under some circumstances can develop into better parents, better aware of the roots and dynamics of abuse. Keeping families intact is a worthy goal. Foster parents are supported by the agencies that supervise them, and rightfully so. I wondered: What if natural families had support like that? Could more families be helped to stay together? Could abuse be stopped where it starts?

In the years that followed, I was able to soften my rage—first to the abusive parents I saw as their social worker, more slowly to my own abusive parents. With time, thought, and a lot of practice, the political and psycho-socioeconomic factors that lead to abuse became less of a list I knew in my head and more of a reality that I understood in my heart.

I asked myself: what would I have wanted when I was a child? My family could have benefited from psychiatric intervention. I also wished that the wise and kindly woman who had taught me so much on that train ride to Brooklyn could have made weekly visits to my parents’ house in Queens and let me know that someone was looking out for us all.

So how can you help stop abuse?

Reference:

NSPCC. (n.d.). Signs, symptoms and effects of child abuse and neglect. Retrieved from https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/signs-symptoms-effects/

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • dee dee

    dee dee

    October 20th, 2016 at 8:36 AM

    I don’t know that I could have been so calm and kind with someone being so obviously abusive to their child.

  • Cammie

    Cammie

    October 20th, 2016 at 10:38 AM

    It is never an excuse but man you do get tired and cranky when you spend all day long with the kids and feel like there is no support system there for you what so ever. I know because I have had those days too when I have just had to walk away from them to keep from doing something just like that and completely losing my cool, but luckily I always had someone else I could depend on to help out during those super hard times. There are many single parents who do not have that luxury and that is something that has to be addressed too.

  • hunter y

    hunter y

    October 21st, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    The thing is though that the support has to be in place before anyone ever has to chance to get hurt. Great if you find out a parent needs help after they have abused their kid and you get them the help that they need. Fantastic.
    But in the end does this take away the abusive behavior that a child or even a spouse has already endured?
    Nope.

  • Seth

    Seth

    October 21st, 2016 at 2:09 PM

    I wish that I could say that I have never hurt anyone but that wouldn’t be the truth.
    But the truth is that I have learned from my mistakes once someone who cared enough about me took me under his wing and showed me the things that I was doing wrong and what I could do to make them right.
    I could never thank him enough for everything that he has done for me and my family.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    October 21st, 2016 at 5:22 PM

    HI Hunter-
    Sometimes you can tell ahead of time that a family will need help, but not always. With good prenatal and postnatal support you can prevent abuse, or pick up on abuse very early and stop it. The key idea is supporting families to prevent abuse as much as you can.
    And if someone is abused, that person can be helped and so can the abuser. They are both suffering. They both need support.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    October 21st, 2016 at 5:23 PM

    Cammie, thanks for you honest posting. Parenthood is a hard job and calls on all our resources. I know this first hand.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    October 21st, 2016 at 5:23 PM

    YOu’re right, DeeDee, it’s hard to stay calm and centered.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Olivia

    Olivia

    October 24th, 2016 at 8:27 AM

    I do agree that foster care should be the last resort but you know that this is the best choice for many children.
    They will be much happier and safer most of the time

  • Emmie

    Emmie

    October 24th, 2016 at 10:35 AM

    I am glad that the trend seems to be to try to get the child back with his or her biological parents but I do not apologize for saying that this is not always going to be in the best interest of the child. Sometimes they need to be permanently kept from those parents especially when you look at the harm and the endangerment that many of them have been through in those homes with those birth parents. There are lots of loving homes out there who would love to take care of a child like this but with the instinct being to try to let them go back home I can understand that there is a real hesitation for people to sign up to to foster a child.

  • Shayla

    Shayla

    October 25th, 2016 at 10:30 AM

    and what we do with or for the parents who fail to see that they even need any help?

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    October 25th, 2016 at 6:25 PM

    IT’s good to hear positive comments about foster care. Thanks Emmie and Olivia. Foster parents can be lifesavers. Parents who refuse help or even think they need any, as Shayla writes, may be dangerous, and in that case foster care is an invaluable resource.

  • Logan

    Logan

    October 27th, 2016 at 10:56 AM

    I do feel bad for the foster parents who nurture and love these children like they are their own and then they have to end up giving them back to a bad parenting environment.
    I understand that the goal is often for the child to remain with biological parents, but sometimes that is the thing that the child probably needs the least.
    I wish that we could have stronger voices for the children who need to be heard and deserve so much more than what they have been given.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    October 27th, 2016 at 1:42 PM

    HI Logan,
    That’s for sure, you said it well, the kids’ need to be heard and get what they deserve. And foster parents deserve the world too.

  • bridget

    bridget

    October 28th, 2016 at 11:51 AM

    It can be a stressful thing for so many young parents who just never have developed the coping skills that one needs to be an effective parent and they have never received anything themselves that teaches them any different.

    It is no excuse for the behavior that gets the child taken away but there has to be something done that will break that cycle.

  • Joseph

    Joseph

    October 29th, 2016 at 10:42 AM

    but we can’t help the “adult” and risk keeping a child in a dangerous situation

  • Ivory

    Ivory

    October 30th, 2016 at 8:48 AM

    I agree with Joseph.
    I think that there are too many instances of where judges have allowed the children to stay in abusive homes with little oversight all for the sake of not breaking up the home.
    I would want to do what was possible to keep the families intact as well, but too many times there are children who wind up badly hurt as a result.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    October 30th, 2016 at 1:28 PM

    Children’s welfare and well being always comes first, absolutely.

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