the following is a research essay I did for a first year course, Canadian Social Welfare, in 2010 at George Brown College in Toronto.
While my directional analysis could have been more focused and provided more in the way of solutions, I still feel that it is worth posting here.
Childhood Sexual Abuse and Its Impact In Canada
The perpetuation of child sexual abuse in Canada has far reaching effects and consequences for its victims, its perpetrators and Canadian society as a whole. These effects are systemic in nature and include: the trauma of the individual, the family and the community to the added burdens that it places on all of society economically, judicially and through the need for added social services. I am going to illustrate the current ramifications of child sexual abuse and what is and is not being done to prevent it from occurring. Ultimately I will suggest some structural issues that I believe need to be addressed in order to move towards improving the social impact of this issue.
The victims of childhood sexual abuse share no traits but the psychological scars that form during the abuse and subsequently rise to the surface in its aftermath. Victims are both male and female; they come from every possible ethnic and racial background and cross over all strata of socioeconomic status within our
society. Often there are other mitigating social issues related to the sexual abuse of children such as broken homes, neglect, substance abuse and poverty that add to a child’s vulnerability, these factors are outside the scope of this analysis.
The great paradox of childhood sexual abuse is that, while it has become more prominent in the public consciousness, it remains shrouded in secrecy. …. Despite this prevalence, most childhood sexual abuse survivors are invisible to us, particularly given that it is estimated that fewer than half disclose their abuse to anyone. Some are silent because they fear reprisal from their abusers; others worry they will not be believed or that they will be blamed or even punished. Still others say nothing because they harbour the erroneous belief that they are responsible for their abuse. (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2008, section 2.2).
According to Public Health Canada in 2008 there were 2,607 incidences of substantiated sexual abuse reported to Canadian child welfare services (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2008). That number however, only includes those cases where Child Welfare Services have become involved and where they were able to substantiate the abuse. If we look at the number of child and youth victims of sexual offences reported to police in 2009 we get a staggering 23,650 offences committed against 8,344 victims. (Statistics Canada, 2011, page 23). Accepting that less than half of all cases are actually reported, we are looking at the annual sexual victimization of over 16,000 children and youth. A Canadian governmental report in 1984 stated that 1in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys under 18 reported unwanted sexual acts. (Badgley, C. 1984). These statistics not only suggest both a massive amount of victimization but also a colossal failure of our culture to adequately address this issue.
Childhood sexual abuse has a devastating effect on individuals who experience this type of mistreatment. The psychological impact on victims of childhood sexual abuse are multiple, ranging from increased incidence of suicide, substance abuse and mood disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression (Kinnear, 2007). These effects are often lifelong and have a profound impact on individuals and often affect the ability to make healthy relationship and lifestyle choices (Dube, Anda, Whitfield, Brown, Felitti, Dong, Giles. 2005). As a result of these psychological effects, those that have suffered the impact of sexual abuse as children, may struggle with issues around self-esteem and self-worth and have difficulty finding their place as productive members of the broader society.
Mezzo: (Family and Community)
Recent studies suggest more than 25% of all offences are carried out by a family member, 60% by someone else in the victims social network and 14% by someone who was previously a stranger. (Finkelhor, 2009). In the quarter of cases where the perpetrator is an immediate family member, the impact on the victim may be much more significant than if they were a stranger. The fallout from the discovery of the abuse often will result in the perpetrator being taken out of the home as an appropriate way in which to provide safety to the victim. The negative consequences of this, may be the possible removal of the families sole income support earner, removal of other emotional support that the abuser may have provided, the possible ending of familial relationships as well as potentially preventing the ability of the family coming together to heal from the abuse as a unit. As we have seen time and time again abusers are often trusted members of the community, from church leaders to sports coaches to teachers. When the abuses of these individuals are uncovered, communities are often torn apart as various competing perspectives from the blaming of victims, to the failure of institutions to protect children, are brought forward.
As I have already stated, the social costs of child sexual abuse are both staggering and have far reaching impacts in Canadian society. Generally there is a lack of societal dialogue around childhood sexual abuse. It is only brought into the public realm by exposure from the media and occasional through political discourse around the subject of crime and punishment. There are large numbers of people working in policing and court services dealing directly with these types of crimes. They are employed in everything from the immediate victims services available through the court system, to the corrections system, to the longer-term social services that victims will interact with while attempting to heal and recover from the various results of this victimization.
In Canada it appears that child sexual abuse is strictly looked at through a lens of law and order, where one is charged with this type of offence, handed a sentence and possibly placed in a corrections facility. The Harper government has recently introduced its Omnibus Crime Bill, “Safe Streets and Communities Act,” which includes the previously unpassed Bill C-54 which will increase, and in some cases include mandatory, minimum sentencing for a variety of sexual offenses against minors. (Library of Parliament, 2010).
While this approach plays well in the media and supports specific political agendas there really is no evidence that this will help prevent child sexual abuse or improve the lives of those victimized by it. Lastly, it is estimated that the annual cost in Canada of Child Abuse in all of its forms is $15,706,000,000. (Bowlus, A., McKenna, K.,Day, T. Wright, 2003). This includes Judicial, Social Services, Education, Health, Employment and other personal costs. The added burden on social services by victims of sexual abuse dealing with substance abuse and increased mental health issues alone is quite substantial. Given these facts it is difficult to fathom why a social issue with this amount of impact is not be addressed in a more holistic way.
How We Deal With Child Sexual Abusers:
Generally we do not do much. Looking specifically at Ontario, most sex abusers do not go to jail upon their first offence. They are rereleased back into the same community where the offence took place and possibly as a condition of probation required to take a 16 week ACT (Assertive Community Treatment) and Mindfulness relapse prevention course at CAMH (Centre for Addictions and Mental Health) in Toronto or an 8 week SORP (Sex Offender Relapse Prevention) program offered by probation and parole officers in other parts of the province. Usually upon a subsequent conviction, a child sexual abuser will go into a Provincial Correctional facility for a sentence under 2 years where they will hopefully receive some therapy and treatment, though this treatment is only offered at one facility in Ontario. It currently costs about $52,000 per year to keep an inmate in Provincial custody and about $95,000 per year in federal custody. (Statistics Canada, 2007).
The sexual abuse of children is symptomatic of deeply rooted societal values that tolerate and thereby promote the misuse of power and authority against vulnerable populations, including children. The sexual abuse of children is a pervasive social problem that can be reduced and ultimately eliminated only through comprehensive social change and culturally appropriate community development strategies. (Minister of National Health and Welfare, 1990, p.43)
Looking at the current corrections based model it appears to me that we are missing out on opportunities to address childhood sexual abuse from a social and cultural perspective. The basic fact that is usually missing from any discussion on childhood sexual abuse is that it will continue no matter what the criminal sanctions are. There have been some inroads to educating children about what is not okay for others to do to their bodies, for parents to understand their child’s risk for sexual abuse and for educators to be on the look out for specific behaviour that may be signs of abuse. The effectiveness of these strategies is debatable. A recent study found insufficient evidence to support the hypothesis that prevention efforts geared towards parents resulted in lower child sexual victimization. (PCAR, 2011).
In the last few years, experts have seen an increasing number of sexual abuse cases, despite society’s hesitancy to recognize its existence. (Crosson-Tower, C., 2005). In my opinion one of the fundamental reasons for the continuation of child sexual abuse in our society is our inability to accept our culpability for child sexual abuse and the scale at which it is occurring. According to a reanalysis of the Badgley report figures we still come up with the unconscionable statistics of one in five girls and one in ten boys being victims of sexual abuse (Ward, M., Belanger, B. 2010). Despite this level of victimization, there are still widely accepted and held beliefs that it only occurs infrequently or that it is only perpetrated by the lone pervert lurking around the playground, and not as in over 85% of cases by someone the victim knows and trusts. (Finkelhor, 2009).
From a structural perspective (Feehan, R., Boettcher, M., Quinn, K., 2009). we need to admit to ourselves that as a culture we do not really value our children, we perceive them as property and as such can and will do with them what we please, all the while preaching for their preservation. It would also appear that intrinsic to this system of abuse, is an aspect of patriarchal oppression where the abusers are predominantly male, as are those that make the laws and have the ability to change the way we as a society deal with childhood sexual abuse. We need to recognize and admit our hypocrisy, where on one hand we sexualize children and then on the other hand demonize those who find children sexual. There needs to be another way to look at the perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse because they did not just appear out of thin air. We have to accept that there will always be those who want to abuse children. If we were to acknowledge this fact and remove the fear and shame of admitting this, it is possible that more people would seek out treatment prior to acting on these impulses that sustain the status quo. As long as we turn a blind eye to the fact that childhood sexual abuse is happening at the rate that it is, and that it isn’t simply the boogie-man in the alley, it is the father, the relative, the family friend, the trusted professional, the person you didn’t suspect; we as a culture will remain complicit. Our current method of dealing with this has not changed the number of victims of sexual abuse. We need to further investigate restorative justice models as a way to both heal communities and individuals, but also as a way to promote conversation about an issue so important to our collective psychological health. Until we admit and own our collective culpability we are destined to play out this odious complacency with the belief that law and order will make it go away. All the while more and more children will pay the price for our denial.
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