“It’s all fabrication,” the social worker said when I relayed what the children had told me. And the judge refused to admit into evidence the psychologist’s report on the emotional harm they have suffered. “Hearsay!”
How can we prevent domestic violence if our society refuses to listen to children?
Allan G. Johnson’s fascinating study The Gender Knot tackles the complexity of male “privilege” embedded in our society’s culture. "Privilege" is any unearned advantage available to members of one social category but systemically denied to others.
Because of this embedded privilege, Johnson explains, what a man says has greater credibility than what a woman says, even when they’re making the same point. If a man and woman disagree, embedded privilege causes the man’s position to seem more “reasonable,” especially to someone who doesn’t have all the facts.
The idea of embedded privilege as a systemic influence on credibility ties into the Lucifer Effect: even good people may do bad things if the “system” supports and encourages the evil. So if greater credibility is an unearned advantage available to men but systemically denied to women and children, people tend to believe the man if there are no witnesses to his violence and emotional abuse (no witnesses, of course, except the victims of his violence).
It was not until I encountered these children that I fully understood how male privilege affects credibility and perpetuates the evil of domestic violence in our society.
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I take seriously my commitment to affirm the inherent worth of every person: men, women, and children. As I got to know these children and their mother, it quickly became apparent that the kids are in distress and fear every time they see their father. Angry outbursts, yelling, arm-twisting, vicious criticism and condemnation seem to alternate with ostracism that amounts to emotional neglect.
So I encouraged the mother, who is a loving and nurturing parent, to take the kids to a good child psychologist.
Child psychologists today have an array of reliable measures of children’s emotional distress. These tests are commonly in use and have been thoroughly verified. A report based on these tests is ordinarily accepted by our legal system as a measure of a child’s emotional state. So a psychologist doesn’t have to ask for “stories” about what a parent might have done; the tests pick up the consequences of parental abuse because the child’s responses differ from responses by emotionally healthy children.
The results for these children? A “red flag” that something was very wrong in their interactions with their father.
But the judge wasn’t interested.
The social worker wasn’t interested, either, especially after the judge wasn’t interested. And the social worker did not want to hear about her department’s three-year case file documenting this particular father’s behavior and recommending that all visitation be supervised. The file was closed two years ago when supervised visitation began. “Closed is closed,” the new social worker said.
And today is a new day, apparently, even without new findings.
The judge’s comment on the two-year-old recommendation for supervised visitation: “That’s ancient history.” So Dad, unsupervised, sees the kids three times a week.
The police report on the father’s arm-twisting: “a parenting issue.”
The father explained to the police officer that the children ran away from him, and the only way he could keep his 15-year-old daughter with him was to hold her by the arm. The 15-year-old said she had taken her siblings to hide in a public restroom while she phoned for help after their father’s angry outburst. When he found them he grabbed her arm and savagely twisted it up behind her back.
The police told the children they have to stay with their Dad and do what he says.
At all points, the “system” accords credibility to the father and doesn’t take the children and their mother seriously. Even reception of a psychologist’s report is tainted by the systemic difference in credibility.
I despair. In the middle of the night, I awaken to the sad and fearful faces of these beautiful children. I pray for a change in the “system”; for some official to take them seriously.
Embedded privilege has trapped these children in silence and suffering. It also sustains and encourages the father’s behavior. Until the “system” presumes equal credibility of the children, their mother, and the children’s psychologist, the system will not undertake any credible investigation of his parenting.
In a way, the police are right. It is a “parenting issue.” It’s also a public policy issue.
And it ought to keep us all awake at night.
A number of remarks in this story having nothing to do with the specific case of abuse were troubling, to me as examples of little more than simple prejudice.
EXAMPLE: "people tend to believe the man if there are no witnesses to his violence and emotional abuse (no witnesses, of course, except the victims of his violence)."
UNTRUE -- This is a over-generalization. I live in Virigina & happened to discuss this issue with an attorney helping us (me & my wife) complete the adoption of an infant. At the time I overheard her discussing something about the basic law in regard to a custody case. It boiled down to that if a women can show any signs of credible abuse, such as a minor bruise, the law tends to proceed along the presumption that she is correct & the husband is the abuser. At least in Virginia.
I got into this same discussion with an attorney that was doing our wills & he gave the example of a custody battle in which the husband & wife had separated, but were sharing custody (alternating a week or two at each parent's home). The father called the attorney & said the wife was on her way to pick up the son, but something in her voice put the husband on guard & made him uneasy. The attorney related that he told the husband to:
a) do NOT exit the house when the wife arrives,
b) put the child (about 10 yrs old) on the front porch and close the door when the wife arrives, and
c) tape/video record everything from the moment her car comes into sight until she departs.
In Virginia one can surrepticiously record any conversation in which one is a participant. Magnetic tape is preferred & admissible as tampering is next to impossible to create undetected.
The husband did this and later that day was arrested on allegations of spousal physical brutality that occured when she collected their child.
Despite the evidence this went to the judge who had to let the husband go given the overwhelming proof.
When the good Reverend relates the following:
"Angry outbursts, yelling, arm-twisting, vicious criticism and condemnation seem to alternate with ostracism that amounts to emotional neglect."
...which can undoubtedly be a very damaging situation, one still needs PROOF to act.
Knowing the truth & proving the truth are very different. And getting action AFTER a social worker's case was closed ought to be a clue that extraordinary measures are needed to effect an action -- not less of the same!!!!!!
And what kids don't have a conflict with one or the other or both parents at some point? From the judge's perspective, after [probably years of] hearing cases of physical brutality, all sorts of perversions, etc. Plus stuff like the above, being confronted with a moody, emotional parent prone to tantrums probably doesn't sound like much -- especially if the only "evidence" is that stress indictors show up on a psych test (especially if the police investigated, if briefly, and found nothing of concern).
If this is a problem, why not tape/video record it? Even if the state's laws mandate that recordings must be done only if all parties are aware (a minority of states), the recording could be made from a public area, like a sidewalk near an open window (at which point sounds in in the public domain & not subject to privacy; ditto for events in a public place where an expectation of privacy cannot be assumed). This takes time & effort, but is compelling.
Resorting to overgeneralizations, at great length, about a male-dominated society smacks of laziness & scapegoating to someone like me that sees exactly the opposite elsewhere. The problem is getting compelling & admissible facts, not blaming a social gender bias.
I've also heard of cases that, on the surface, appear like the one described, but on close examination the apparent victim (female or male) is a highly neurotic personality and the spouse exhibiting the outbursts etc. is venting in what can loosly be described as a frustration reaction. As a minister visiting the family you are in a position to be fooled (though this is far less likely than the perception described).
For an example in a corporate setting see the book, "The Power of Persuasion," by R. Ray Funkhouser -- the example of the Laboratory (the new manager, perceived as the solution, was in fact the problem). This is not common, but far from rare in any environment.
Last bit on gender bias -- this sort of scapegoating is commonly chosen by minorities that feel oppressed, rightly or wrongly so. But this sort of thing occurs everywhere in numerous contexts: a better manager passed over for promotion because the one selected went to the boss's high school, was younger, was of the same religion, etc. etc. Those of us in non-minority groups deal with such prejudice all the time & we learn coping tactics to overcome/win or to tolerate it. When I you encounter blame placed on some prejudicial factor (male gender dominance in this case) the real benefit seems to sort of justification for a kind of fatalistic surrender -- 'well, we tried, but were doomed due to this or that prejudice...so we just give up & complain.'
Has the Reverend pursued giving the kids counseling or training in interpersonal coping techniques aka the "How to deal with a difficult boss/co-worker" variety available in the bookstores, etc.? No matter how neurotic the father may be, there are techniques a child can learn & use to mitigate the problem -- and being able to exert even minor control over the situation will work wonders for their self-esteem.
By KF | Posted on September 21, 2007, 2:31 pm
Although you advance a few valid points, I sense a certain condescending attitude coming through, "the Reverend" is a person with a name, but more than that you dismiss complaints of minorities, including women, as mere justifications for fatalistic non-action, when you as a non-minority person are proud to be able to take actions to correct perceived injustices instead of just complaining.
You have power, you have options that they do not by virtue of the entitlements that are associated with your Majority group status. It is easy to dismiss the position of the Other, by ignoring the Situational constraints on their actions, which constrain what they can do, or the negative expectancies developed from the failures they have experienced in trying to make a difference.
Your last point seems OK, until one considers WHO is going to give the kids counseling and coping training, or buy them the appropriate books, or get them to read them, or be sure they got the right message from them. It takes time, energy, commitment, and resources that many parents, regardless of their social status, do not have readily available.
But thanks for contributing to this discussion, such diversity of views is definitely welcomed.
By zimbardo | Posted on October 11, 2007, 5:12 am
What both KF and Brooks show is systems breaking down. Why, given the tape showing the father not even meeting the mother at the door, would a prosecutor pursue this? With prior abuse, and a court order for supervised visits, would the next judge refuse to change a situation where the vists were UNsupervised? I understand that the systems are overwhelmed with the amount of work, but this all leads to the systemic/situaltional evil Dr. Z outlines and the failure on the part of others to get involved. Often the defense tactic of a lawyer trying to defend one accused of violenc or rape is to make the victim seem in soem ways at fault for the situation. This is both a defense tactic and a holdover from when women were second-class citizens. THe idea that we have moved past that is to ignore the fact that today sexism/racism, rather than overt as in the past, is hidden by its practitioners to avoid trouble with the law.
The fact that most abusers are also previously victims of abuse themselves fails to serve the fathers in these cases as well. If they were to recieve help, studies show, then the abuse stops and the family can recover (at least to some extent) from these nightmares as a family.
By Jason | Posted on October 5, 2008, 1:46 pm
I live in Virginia and a taped conversation is not admitted as evidence unless both parties consent to the conversation. If they leave a message on a machine it is considered evidence. My ex would start arguments and tape them without my knowledge. Not admitted. The reason being is this - many play only the conversations that benefit their case. It is a form of manipulation where the taper can control the conditions of the situation.
In addition I find it unethical. People argue. When people argue they are emotional and may say things they don't mean or may be being manipulated while they are in such a state. If you don't like the way you argue with a person - don't engage communication with that person anymore. Leave the relationship. When the government does wire-tapping, most of the time, the information collected is done in an empirical way which is why those tapes can be admitted into evidence. A tape of a distraught father or mother lacks objectivity.