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Articles and Essays

Sharing the Blame for Child Abuse

Stanford associate professor Carol Delaney has a four-letter word for people who brutalize children. The word is male.


"No one is stating the obvious," Delaney declared in a letter to The Chronicle ("Crimes are by males," Aug. 5). Citing the graphic string of high- profile child abductions and murders in recent months, she added: "These hideous crimes are being committed by men."

"What has gone so wrong in the rearing of males in this society?" Delaney asked. "I am disappointed by the silence of decent men who are not taking this on as a men's problem."


Delaney stopped short of saying what's probably on the minds of many cable news viewers these days. Males are violent because violence is masculine; females are the ones who suffer. Conversely, female brutality is rare and almost always unintentional - the result of provocation, mental illness, or various "situational" factors that cause women to believe violence is their only option.


The consensus for these beliefs runs deep in post-feminist America. We could just embrace them as self-evident truths and start from there, except for a niggling complication. The beliefs aren't supported by facts.


To the contrary, empirical data from numerous studies decisively challenges the notion that child abuse in America is exclusively -- or even primarily -- a men's problem. "Women commit the majority of child homicides in the United States, a greater share of physical child abuse, an equal rate of sibling violence and assaults on the elderly, about a quarter of child sexual abuse, an overwhelming share of the killings of newborns, and a fair preponderance of spousal assaults," writes feminist author and crime journalist Patricia Pearson in her book "When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence. "

A study by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System found that approximately 879,000 children were victims of child maltreatment in 2000. Based on reports provided by U.S. child protective services agencies, 60 percent of perpetrators were females and 40 percent were males. The Department of Health and Human Services reached a similar conclusion for the prior year: "Female parents were identified as the perpetrators of neglect and physical abuse for the highest percentage of child victims."

Powerful cultural prejudice works against recognizing abusive women as a widespread malaise. For instance, a Washington state human services professional reported that an accused female offender was brought before a judge who dismissed the case, declaring, "Women don't do things like this." Boston psychologist Laurie Goldman, who analyzed how society minimizes the scale and impact of female sexual abuse, initially located only one woman offender willing to discuss what she had done. Goldman knew from reliable sources that female perpetrators were getting treatment, but clinic administrators insisted that no such women were under their care.


Pearson says women in Western culture learned to express their bids for power in ways concealed from men. Paradoxically, many women also learned to hide their capacity for aggressive violence from themselves, "as if half the population of the globe consisted of saintly stoics who never succumbed to fury, frustration, or greed," she writes in "When She Was Bad."


If shining the spotlight on female perpetrators is overdue, it doesn't warrant holding male offenders less accountable. Fathers were responsible for 22 percent of sexual abuse in 2000, according to the NCANDS study mentioned above. So Carol Delaney's question waits. Why haven't decent American men as a whole accepted responsibility for the ghastly murders of Polly Klaas and Samantha Runnion?

Probably for the same reason decent American women didn't collectively confess to the wanton killing of Michael and Alex Smith. Remember them? They died horrendous deaths strapped to their car seats after their mother, Susan Smith, deliberately released the emergency brake on her car and let it roll into a South Carolina lake. Smith stood on the shore and watched as the car containing her defenseless sons disappeared under the water's surface.


If David Westerfield's murder of Danielle van Dam is a collective men's problem, does it follow that Smith's drowning of her young sons is a collective women's problem? Not unless we're ready to head down the road to full-blown ideological idiocy.


Still, collective responsibility has its place. As a culture, let's start by recognizing Westerfield and Smith as two faces of the same sadistic beast, concealed by gender wars that will end only when we're ready to see the universal face of human cruelty. In the meantime, maybe a minimum requirement for "decent" persons could be the refusal to exploit the tragedy of exploited children from the sanctuary of great universities.



San Francisco Chronicle

August 28, 2002