Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Reality of Abuse

In May, 2010, I included the following paragraph in a blog posting about some of the reasons for the strong resistance to the use of Facilitated Communication:

"In some cases where a nonverbal child is finally given an effective means of communication we find that what they really want to tell us is not at all pleasant. Some children, and adults, when introduced to FC, started reporting instances of mistreatment or abuse. Without going into great detail about all the chaos this has caused, I ask you to consider the reality. We know many kids are abused, we know many reports of abuse turn out to be untrue, we know these situations are always complex, and always unpleasant. Add to that the sad reality that a child who is unable to speak, who likely presents serious challenges behaviorally, and who has the need for many different adult caretakers in their lifetime, is a particularly vulnerable target for a potential abuser. It's a sure recipe for possible abuse. And unfortunately, it is all too easy to make sure we never have to deal with such a situation - if we don't allow the use of FC."

Reports of child abuse - in its many forms - have been in the news a lot recently, but it's still a subject we really do not like to talk, or think, about. It happens, we all know that, and if we let ourselves think a little more, we would probably agree it happens far more often than we hear about.

In my early, heady days with Facilitated Communication, the subject didn't come up. I could easily tell people that not one single child had reported any sort of abuse to me in our many fun and exciting conversations. The closest we came would have to be those kids who reported sadly that someone important in their life failed to accept what I was trying to tell them and still treated them as if they were "retarded." (Their term invariably; I no longer used that label). It was frustrating, sometimes leading to angry outbursts, and of course something we worked diligently to change. But it wasn't really anything I would call "abuse."

And then, one day it happened. A child who meant a lot to me, one who trusted me to be there when needed, inserted a comment in the middle of a conversation we were having that sent up all sort of red flags. I was stunned and at a loss as to what to do.

This was the first, but it wasn't the last, and I think it's important to protect everyone's privacy in this matter, so I will avoid giving details. Suffice it to say, going forward with information like this is NOT easy. The very idea that a facilitator would even think of making up something like this is impossible for me to comprehend. Starting with school staff (teachers, aides) and moving up the line to social workers, psychologists, administrators, police officers, lawyers or judges -- no one knew what to do with information that was revealed in this way. Everyone suffered, and of course this includes most of all the children, their families, and anyone being accused of abuse of any kind.

Many, many mistakes were made in those early days, but I personally was lucky. The people I dealt with were largely supportive and helpful, moving forward cautiously and showing great respect for the various children involved. Were the cases resolved adequately? I wish I could give a strong affirmative answer to that; but we simply did not have enough accurate information to be absolutely sure of some of the situations. We may have failed some kids and their families. In some other cases with which I am familiar major disruptions to families and lives occurred. I have no idea what the truth is in those cases, except to know much pain was caused.

I continue to think about the larger picture. If kids are being abused, they deserve our help to put an immediate end to the situation and to help them deal with the trauma, not just in the present but for the long-term. If a person is accused of abuse, they have the right of presumed innocence until/unless proven guilty. At the same time, schools, agencies, institutions, and all involved in the criminal or legal system or social services need intense education and support so that cases - when reported by any individual and by any means - are handled properly.

What we cannot do is ignore a child's cry for help. We cannot take away their means of communication - or deny them access in the first place - because we don't want to hear what they might have to say. And if any type of abuse is reported by any child at any time in their lives and by any means of communication, the trusted people in their lives cannot simply push aside what they are trying to tell us. We owe them a fair and complete investigation, no matter how painful this might be.

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