By Julia Hecht, MD
Recently, the front page of The New York Times had a headline about the sexual abuse of deaf children by a priest at a residential school for the deaf many years ago. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of this story is the fact that these deaf children repeatedly spoke out about their abuse to no avail. As the Medical Director of a residential school for the deaf, my experience is that the sexual abuse of deaf children (girls and boys) by adults is grossly underreported. In my 11 years in this role, I saw that abuse of deaf children was actually more common outside of the school, more commonly caused by family or community members. Deaf children then came to their school where they could easily communicate and some, but not all, would report what was happening to them.
What happens when children disclose their abuse varies and ranges across a spectrum. Schools are required to contact the state’s Child Protective Services. The ideal response would be that the child receives a “safe house” interview by an appropriate, trained professional who is fluent in the child’s mode of communication and can accurately and directly document the child’s story of abuse. Child Protective Services would then work with the family to create a safe situation for the child. In my professional practice, I have never seen this happen. Usually, what happens is an effort that is compromised by communication inaccessibility.
Scenarios in the Real World
The best outcome I’ve seen is when families are preserved by caring family members who step up and remove the child from the dangerous situation. The “best” (not optimal but better than the norm) safe house scenarios I’ve seen are when interpreters are called to facilitate communication with the interviewer and child during investigation. Sometimes another trusted adult, such as a teacher, will be present. This is often considered appropriate for “meeting the child’s needs,” but it does alter the genuine safe house protocol because there is no direct communication between the child and trained interviewer.
Another best-case scenario is arrest of the perpetrator(s). However, when the family is disrupted in this way, too often the deaf or hard of hearing child does not receive the therapeutic support to deal with the situation. There may be anger and denial within the family, and it may be directed at the child, who is further isolated. The most frustrating and ineffective outcomes are “lack of evidence” determinations of children with bruises who have described being beaten by adults. I have spoken with investigators who know something happened to the child but had no way to determine who the perpetrator was, and so no changes in the child’s situation can be implemented. Unfortunately, I have seen reports disappear or fail to be investigated. I have also seen parents pull children from the school before an investigation can take place. In all situations where I have seen a meaningful measure of safety achieved for the child, it has been because of other family members who have intervened on his or her behalf.
What Keeps Us from Action?
This subject is very emotionally difficult for adults for a number of reasons. Some of us have been traumatized ourselves as children, or attacked as adults. Others feel uncomfortable with the sexual aspect or helpless to make a difference through ignorance or lack of resources. These emotional obstacles are primary barriers to helping child victims. Therefore, unless a child is acting out and creating a disturbance, there is the lack of motivation to address what has happened. When a child continues to be victimized in an unsafe environment after making a disclosure, “learned helplessness” takes over and a child will silently cope.
Another barrier arises in situations when everyone involved is a hearing person except the child. Imagine how the situation is influenced when Social Services can communicate directly with adult perpetrator but not the abused child. Without the ability to represent the story from his or her own personal perspective in his/her mode of communication, the deck is stacked against the child’s credibility and s/he may never truly be “heard.”
Finally, opportunities for therapy and healing are usually non-existent, scarce or inadequate. This is due to a combination of lack of funding, few deaf community members who are trained to deal with this subject, and even denial of the extent of the problem. The emotional wounds are buried. Later, these wounds can surface as emotional problems, addiction, and abusive relationships. Some victims will later become perpetrators, continuing the ripple effect of abuse, and the problem grows within the community.
Deaf Community Response
My experience within the deaf community (as an ASL-fluent hearing professional and as someone who socializes in this community) is that all of the above barriers and more exist. Some deaf communities have been “scandalized” by exposure of abuse in residential schools. Suddenly, the School for the Deaf is on the front page of the local paper, and the association is made in the minds of the hearing community who know nothing else about the school. Fear of exposure and harsh judgment can contribute to denial within the institution. This fear is not neutralized by the knowledge that the deaf school is usually the safe haven.
Awareness is only the first step…we must stay focused on the solution. Otherwise, it is easy to become overwhelmed with despair. The barriers that I’ve enumerated are not insurmountable. Whenever this difficult subject rises to public consciousness the soil is again fertile for change and inroads. I am so pleased to see that the Hands & Voices community is addressing this issue. What can we all do to help?
- Coordinate with State Commissions for the Deaf to put this on the agenda. They are influential in needs assessments and funding allocation within the deaf community.
- Collaborate with local rape crisis centers to identify, train and/or recruit “first responders” who can communicate in sign language with victims and are sensitized to the unique needs of a case involving a child with hearing loss.
- Ask specifically about the protocol at your child’s school for responding to abuse disclosures. What is done? Is the staff trained in this area and by whom? How are reports followed up?
- Learn about treatment options like art therapy and play therapy that can be effective in healing child trauma. Create collaborations with art therapy and deaf education programs for specialized cross-disciplinary training. Set up scholarships for deaf college students who want to be art and play therapists.
- Advocate for your schools to implement quality abuse prevention programs with students and families.
- Promote early exposure to language and age appropriate language development, which are crucial in prevention. Children with language delay are at greater risk for abuse.
- Finally, and most importantly, do not let your own discomfort be a barrier to your child’s safety. Get help for your own trauma and break the cycle. Decide that you’ll be part of the solution.
- We can do this.
Editor’s note: The OUR Children’s Safety Project continues to gather interested professionals and parents to raise awareness, recognize best practices, and assist in halting the damage of child abuse and neglect for our deaf and hard of hearing children. For more information, click on the link at www.cohandsandvoices.organd join us at http://deafed-childabuse-neglect-col.wiki.educ.msu.edu/