Believing women and children

akidYears ago, when I began interviewing people at organizations that are using the results from the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study to change their practices, I talked with a representative of SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). She said a very interesting thing that stuck with me. The ACE Study, which published its first findings in 1998, confirmed what many people had already suspected or who believed “what women were telling us,” she said.

Women addicted to alcohol or other drugs and/or who had mental illness said that their problems originated in abuse they experienced as children.

“Consumers were coming into our system and telling us this,” said the SAMHSA rep. “I don’t know that they were heard.” The rates of trauma

the women were reporting seemed too high to be believed, she said — until the ACE Study was published. It showed that childhood adversity was surprisingly common, even in middle class families. It showed that rarely was there just one type of childhood trauma happening in a family — if there was one type of abuse (verbal), there was an 87% chance that there was another type (alcoholic parent). And childhood trauma resulted in adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence.

Because of the ACE Study and other work in developing trauma-informed practices, SAMHSA began believing women, and has for a long time. But the issue of not believing women….and children…..keeps popping up.  A couple of recent items had me thinking about this issue again.


Dr. Jodi Death

A study from Australia found that young girls were just as likely to be sexually abused by clergy as young boys.

Dr Jodi Death from QUT’s Crime and Justice Research Centre  [Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia] said the results…contradicted previous studies showing young boys were more likely to be sexually assaulted in the church.

“Past studies, which have relied on the church’s data, have shown that boys are represented in about 80 per cent of sexual abuse cases, but we saw an almost even split (49 percent male and 51 per cent female),” Dr Death said.

“It may be because traditionally women and girls had a lesser position and voice in the church so the abuse against girls is less likely to be recorded.”

Although most of the participants related experiences with priests, others cited being abused by clergy in other denominations as well. Death said that in 60 percent of the cases, the clergy had focused on children from troubled families with domestic violence or alcohol abuse.

“It appears there was a very deliberate guise of offering help and support to vulnerable mothers in order to get access to young children,” she was quoted in a press release.

Here are the basic results from the report — Death_Survivors_report_1May2013 —

– The onset of abuse occurred at an earlier age for female participants than male participants
– Participants most commonly (41 per cent) waited 20+ years before disclosing their abuse.
– 54 per cent of people who officially reported the abuse did so with police. 53 per cent of these cases resulted in official investigations
– 71 per cent of single perpetrator abuse occurred between 1961 and 1985
– 37 percent of participants experienced occasional (16 per cent) or frequent (21 per cent) incidents of abuse over a long period of time. Only 17 per cent of participants recorded a single incident.
– The perpetrator of abuse was most commonly (40 per cent) identified as a priest
– 25 per cent of incidents of sexual abuse took place primarily at school, 19 per cent at the perpetrator’s house and 14 per cent at the home of the survivor.

Another study written up on found that 90 percent of medical specialists who treat pre-school children with ADHD “do not follow treatment guidelines recently issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics”.

“It is unclear why so many physicians who specialize in the management of ADHD — child neurologists, psychiatrists and developmental pediatricians — fail to comply with recently published treatment guidelines,” said Andrew Adesman, MD, senior investigator and chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park. “With the AAP now extending its diagnosis and treatment guidelines down to preschoolers, it is likely that more young children will be diagnosed with ADHD even before entering kindergarten. Primary care physicians and pediatric specialists should recommend behavior therapy as the first line treatment.”

This is a more subtle version of not believing children. Children, especially pre-school children, don’t have the language skills to say “I’m traumatized when I see my mother being abused” or “I’m terrified because my dad drinks too much and then screams at me and locks me in my room alone” or “My mom’s so depressed that she doesn’t hug me at all and I’m starving for attention and love” or “My uncle is sneaking into our bedroom at night and doing things to my sister that makes her scared and cry and it’s terrifying me.”

Instead, children act out or withdraw or act frightened — and all these reactions can lead to the inability to pay attention to adults, to be hyperactive, even to scream and rage in frustration.

Their behavior can be regarded as symptoms of a troubled family, or a family that doesn’t know how to decode a child’s experiences or needs. Which is why another recent study found that parent behavioral therapy was more effective than medication at helping preschoolers at risk for ADHD, as well as those who were diagnosed with ADHD. Medications for ADHD don’t address the reason for the ADHD — they just censor a child’s behavior.

As I mentioned in a previous post about last year’s Psychotropic Summit, which addressed the over-use of mind-altering medications for children and youth in foster care:

Labeling children’s fear, hyperactivity, excessive disobedience or nightmares as “disorders” has people reaching for mood- and mind-altering drugs as a first and, sometimes, only resort, especially with kids in foster care and group and residential homes.

“Sometimes the kids are just doing what human beings are wired to do under immense traumatic stress. We just don’t understand it, and call it mental illness,” says Charles Wilson, senior director of the  Chadwick Center for Children & Families at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, CA.

Giving children drugs to control their behavior can also be seen as another way of not believing them. Because if you do, then you can’t ignore them or blame them alone for their behavior. You have to look at what’s leading them to their behavior. To the extent that this involves looking into the dark corners of our respected institutions or acknowledging and addressing the very common childhood adversity in families or grappling with a system that’s broken, this becomes inconvenient, unsettling and perhaps costly…but only in the short term.

16 responses

  1. Your study should include the fact that women and children aren’t listened to but have no voices in family court. If HHS funding is readily available for fathers usually abusers and pedophiles, I’d think loving fathers want to minimize trauma, but this is not what happens across the country. As soon as I complained of the abuse the children had and continued to receive, as soon as we all complained that’s when all these “professionals” all affiliated together with the Afcc- judges and lawyers too, that’s when things went downhill. I have not seen my kids in almost a year. I am a teacher. I have PTSD S a result of not so much the abusive marriage I was in an what I was complicit in allowing my former husband abuse our children, but the way he continues to abuse by proxy. I had to pay 6200 in docked pay for days off of court. Who is going to help these kids? I know of 84 other people who are in similar situations I. This tiny state of Commecticut. So they damaged kids will have these greedy professionals to help them for years with damage they made! Sidney Horowitz told my children to forget about abuse. Google “Washington times connecticut court employees face ethical dilemna.” Google Washington times guardian ad litem destroys connecticut family. Click on part one at the top to read first story. Destruction of a family will be disneyesque.


    • All good points, Susan. Thank you for commenting. Many family courts aren’t protecting children. Many, luckily, are. Eventually, I’ll be looking into the differences between the two and how communities can heal their dysfunctional family courts.


      • Zero to Three has started a Safe Babies Court Teams Project (found here: “The Safe Babies Court Teams works towards [their] goals by training professionals, providing resources , encouraging collaboration between existing community service providers in Court Teams sites, and increasing parent-child contact, mental health capacity and placement stability in the Court Team sites. Thus far, two evaluations indicate that the Court Teams Project is experiencing success in reaching its goals.”

        Also, Miami-Dade County in Florida has created a Baby Court Team that I believe initiated the interest from Zero to Three. They involve an infant mental health specialist and child-parent psychotherapy in a teen parent program. I know Tallahassee has started a Baby Court Team and two pilot projects are beginning in other areas around the state.

        So we are trying to move forward in regards to the court system. There needs to be more trauma-informed care (TIC) training and an understanding of what exactly TIC looks like.


      • I found your reponse particularly interesting and enlightening because there is a huge problem with custody courts failing to protect children in domestic violence cases. Accordingly it is so good to hear about programs that were developed to better protect children. One of the biggest problems we see is courts are so anxious to keep (abusive) fathers in children’s lives that they often minimize or deny true allegations of abuse. One reason the medical research based on the ACES study so excites me is that it should create an urgency to reform so many of the flawed practices and inadequately training that permeate our custody courts. I was wondering to what extent your program responds to domestic violence as differentiated from child abuse and the widespread failure of courts to believe the allegations of protective mothers about domestic violence and child abuse. The recent study released by the US Dept. of Justice by Dr. Daniel Saunders found that evaluators, judges and lawyers with inadequate dv training tended to believe the myth that mothers frequently make false allegations. This is an important factor in courts’ failure to believe true allegations and thus place children in jeopardy.

        Liked by 1 person

      • April, When I see programs like the one you mentioned, I see hope….I can only hope that those who receive the grants for such programs will use the funds in order to protect future generations, utilizing evidence based practice. I have no doubt that the creators of systems like the “Baby Courts” have the best interests of children in mind. I looked through the site, and overall, I am hopeful. But I also have questions.
        1.) Many children are placed in foster care because a violent father is residing in the home, even when a non violent mother is also residing in the home. I have worked with MANY women who were ordered by CPS to cease all contact with the abuser. If the moms refuse to “remove” the abusive father from the home, then CPS threatens to remove the child/children and place them into foster care, for the mother’s “failure to protect.” But as soon as the mother tries to move away, or restrict the abuser from having access to the children, the abusive father files motions with the family court, accusing the mother of “junk science,” such as “Parental Alienation” or “Malicious Mother Syndrome.” Essentially, these are labels given to abused mothers in order for the abusive father to gain legal and tactical advantages. And they WORK. Even though “Parental Alienation Syndrome” and “Malicious Mother Syndrome” have been thoroughly debunked and REJECTED by the scientific communities as dangerous legal maneuvers, they continue to be used to take children from protective parents and place them with abusers (most often the father, in these cases). My question: Are such issues being addressed within such programs? It appears to me that this program is intended to keep very young children in the homes of their primary attachment figures…..yet I did not see any indication that DV is being addressed….and how so?
        2.) Are there any protections in place to keep such programs from being “overtaken” by the same “associations” that have taken control of the Family Courts and have led to the current crisis? For example, the AFCC (that Susan briefly mentioned above)? How can supporters verify that such programs are, in fact, working for the “best interests of the children”?


  2. I have become interested in the ACE studies and related research in the context of the problems we see in the custody courts. They have a particularly poor response to domestic violence and child sexual abuse allegations and it seems to me that the research about the enormous harm of exposing children to domestic violence and child abuse strongly supports taking these allegations more seriously. The Saunders’ study that was previously mentioned found that evaluators and other court professionals with inadequate training tended to believe the myth that women frequently make false allegations and this leads to recommendations that harm children. That is why your article about the importance of believing women and children is so useful. I would like to see this research concerning the enormous harms to children’s health that continues the rest of their lives used to encourage courts to better protect children.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for writing this article. The topic is extremely important and affects so many different parts of society. The Department of Justice recently published a study authored by Dr. Daniel Saunders that addressed this topic, in the context of abuse allegations that arise during divorce and custody disputes, and the propensity for judges, lawyers, Guardians ad Litem, and custody evaluators to disregard women and children’s reports of abuse as either deliberately false or over exaggerated (in reality, false allegations made by women in the course of custody litigation is exceedingly rare….but the family court’s frequently assume that such allegations are false). There have been all sorts of false syndromes concocted that lawyers use that are very effective in transferring custody to an abusive parent….such as “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” or “Malicious Mother Syndrome.” Such practices simply assume that there is no credibility to the reports of abuse, and most of the time, the abuse is never investigated. I encourage you to research and write more on this topic, as it’s a plague in our family courts(and in society) and it’s getting worse.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jane, I am surprised to read what seemed like very few charges filed against the one person actually arrested … so far. This certainly seems valuable to follow.
    Also, on Sunday’s Meet the Press, I was fascinated and REALLY annoyed at what gave the appearance of “dismissal” to comments by former Rep. Jane Harman (Ca): I posted the video and a comment on Facebook:.
    “Community Awareness-See Jane Harman’s comment 1 minute in on msnbc NBC Meet the Press. She replies to: Do we need to sacrifice privacy for homeland security? Her answer is cut off by host YET punctuated by events related to finding 3 missing girls in Cleveland. Also, interesting that her photo does not come up thumbnail for this clip” titled: “Privacy may become cost of safety”:


  5. This is powerful AND continues to need attention. Alice Miller’s spirit may be behind you continuing to think about this. I heard so much growing up from 1950 on, from female relatives, about how we couldn’t really trust the emotionality of women and children … I witness this now in human service systems. Is it a case of ignoring the canary in the coal mine for our culture? Thank you for posting and please continue bringing attention to this.


    • Thanks, Linda. I think it’s interesting that Ariel Castro, the suspected kidnapper of the three women in Cleveland, was arrested on domestic violence charges in 1993, but a grand jury declined to indict. And in 2005, his ex-wife accused him of severe physical abuse and abducting their daughters when he didn’t have visitation rights. I’d like to find out if this is another case of women not being believed.


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