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Sibling Abuse

I'm about halfway done with the promised post about "A Tale of Two Men Who Spoke in Shul and Incurred ALG's Considerable Wrath," [update: see here] but the act of putting it down as written words is pissing me off so much that it's going to take a little longer until it's presentable.

In the meantime, moving on to a lighter, less emotion-laden, volatile topic...sibling abuse! (Just kidding. Not about the topic. About the way I just characterized it.) This will also fulfill AMG's request that I read and summarize more articles for people who are too lazy to read them in the original.

So the front page of this past Tuesday's Science Times had an article about sibling abuse. When I saw the article, I was surprised and happy and sad all at once. In the spring of 2002, I wrote a long paper about sibling abuse for a Women's Studies class. It was a combination of a literature review and suggestions for ways to stop it or at least prosecute it using the criminal justice and social service agencies. The statistics that I uncovered about the violence perpetrated by children against other children were shocking and horrific. [Here is the bibliography for part of the paper.]

Important note: There is a difference between sibling abuse and "healthy sibling conflict," and I am not suggesting that in an ideal world, siblings would not fight at all. (I would prefer that they use words rather than fists to fight, but I also wouldn't call it abuse every time fists are involved.) I think that fighting with siblings can be an important part of growing up--I mean, come on, that's how you learn to fight fair with the rest of the world! Moving right along, then...

At the time that I wrote the paper, I noted that it was a severely under-studied topic. Spousal abuse (a.k.a. domestic violence, previously known as "wife-beating") is, sadly, old hat, and task forces, coalitions, and special police units have been formed to try to stop it. There is still a lot of work to be done, but most people at least recognize that it is both morally wrong and criminal to physically abuse your spouse. (Emotional and verbal abuse are also problematic but less acknowledged.) Child abuse was hitting the headlines in a major way during that spring, mostly in the form of pedophilic priests. From a legal standpoint, there were issues of statutes of limitation, and from a psychological standpoint, people have long questioned the ability of children to testify truthfully. (Side note: Interesting website with data related to child abuse and neglect.)

But acknowlegement of sibling abuse was and is still taboo for a lot of reasons. Most of those reasons are also reasons why discussion of spousal abuse and general child abuse were also once taboo. To wit:
  1. It's normal for siblings to hit each other; it's a natural part of growing up; all siblings experience sibling rivalry, etc. (This is like what some people used to think about domestic violence--that it was normal, right, or acceptable for a man to hit his wife, sometimes for no reason at all, sometimes because she had not done her wifely duty in some way.)
  2. Can you really trust a child to understand what's going on and tell the truth? (This is like the questioning of children's accounts of abuse when they've been abused by adults.)
But a third reason why it was taboo was that parents often feel culpable or ashamed for letting sibling abuse begin and continue in their families, so they don't acknowledge it in any way. If nobody outside the family really knows the extent of the abuse, then there are no adult advocates to stand up for both the abuser and the abused. This is different from other forms of child abuse, where there's at least a chance that one of two parents will figure out what's going on and try to stop it themselves and even try to put the abuser in jail. In sibling abuse cases, parents have already proven either incapable of stopping it or refusal to stop it (for whatever reason), and there are therefore one or two fewer advocates to protect the child.

I wrote that there are no advocates to stand up for "both the abuser and the abused," because I think that both need protection, although in different ways. In many cases, I think that a child who is abusive is a victim as well as a perpetrator. The abuser is a victim because something is causing the child to be abusive, because I'm pretty sure that most children weren't born with the need to physically beat up on their siblings, or if they were, they were also born with the self-control to not do that. I'm not saying that the child was abused him/herself, but that something seems to have been missing from his or her life and that lack is causing violent outbursts.

Note that I think that line "the abuser is also a victim" is easier to accept for abusive children than for abusive adults. While it's true that many adult abusers were abused as children and are therefore also victims, I would expect a grown adult to recognize the problem and seek help before taking it out on someone else. I would not necessarily expect that maturity from a 7, 10, or 12-year-old. Thus, an adult is needed to step in and intervene. The abusive child is also a victim of any adults in his or her life who do not step in to stop the abuse (which is necessarily detrimental to the abuser as well as the abused). By not intervening, some adult, somewhere, is responsible for it continuing because only an adult is in a position to stop it.

The fact that both the abusive child and the abused child are both victims makes it hard to deal with--it's hard to find someone to blame when everyone involved is a minor. There's nobody to put in jail. It's so complicated and involves the interpersonal dynamics of whole families. Who wants to step into that? No one. (I think that all situations of abuse involve the interpersonal dynamics of whole families, but there is usually an immediate, obvious party to blame in domestic violence and child abuse cases.)

In addition to the vast psychological muck surrounding situations of sibling abuse, there is no clear legal mandate for intervention. This was one of the main focuses of my paper. There is a much clearer mandate for the state to step in and stop abuse when it is perpetrated by an adult than by a child. Is it illegal for a 10 year old to cause weekly nosebleeds to an 8 year old? Bruises? Scratches? Hair-pulling? Intimidation? Constant threats of violence? I don't know. The state probably doesn't think so, so what right does it have to send social workers to a home where it happens?

Anyway, from reading the article, it seems that not much has changed in the field between 2002 and 2006. This makes me sad. I hope that the article changes that, at least by raising awareness if nothing else.

(Aside: Letters in response to the article published online on March 7, 2006.)

When I think about going to law school, this is what I think about. After I took this Women's Studies class and wrote this paper (which I enjoyed tremendously), I even took a few practice LSATs and did passably well. But my desire never to set foot in a classroom again, or at least not for awhile, overrode my urge to right wrongs and eradicate (or at least minimize) injustice in the world. Maybe my feelings about school and amassing enormous amounts of debt will change one day, or maybe I'll figure out ways to right wrongs and eradicate injustice that don't involve spending vast sums of money and several years on more schooling.


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