Our Failure to Protect Sexually Abused Children: Where Is Our 'Willing Suspension of Disbelief'?

By Ramaswamy, Sheila; Seshadri, Shekhar | Indian Journal of Psychiatry, April-June 2017 | Go to article overview

Our Failure to Protect Sexually Abused Children: Where Is Our 'Willing Suspension of Disbelief'?


Ramaswamy, Sheila, Seshadri, Shekhar, Indian Journal of Psychiatry


Byline: Sheila. Ramaswamy, Shekhar. Seshadri

An adolescent institutionalized boy is admitted to a hospital for behavior problems. During treatment and therapy, he disclosed that he and other children in the institution were being sexually abused by a volunteer working there. The treating team discusses the matter with the child, persuades him to allow them to report the matter to relevant authorities, and thus informs the Child Welfare Committee and the Special Juvenile Police Unit; the latter takes immediate action and arrests the volunteer, i.e., the alleged perpetrator of abuse. Following this, the institution staff come to the hospital, vent their fury on the child, ask him why he said such things about the volunteer, also pleading with the treating team to “please believe” them and stating that the child was a known liar and that the volunteer was “not that kind of person” and was incapable of abusing children. It also turns out that the child had reported the abuse earlier at the institution, wherein after some apparently desultory enquiry, the response of the institution was that “children often lie about things.”

Consider the above situation, in terms of what it means for child protection in the context of sexual abuse (CSA). In recent years, with increasing reports of CSA incidents, the discourse on CSA prevention and response has been propelled into legal, educational, medical, institutional, and public policy domains; a law against child sexual abuse has come into existence (POCSO 2012); medical and forensic protocols have been developed; schools conduct abuse prevention programs; child care institution staff are trained in identification of and systemic and psychosocial responses to child sexual abuse; the government has put forth a child protection policy as well as has mechanisms such as the Integrated Child Protection Scheme to monitor children's safety; large nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Childline have been setup to report child sexual abuse incidents; and some NGOs even exclusively work on CSA assistance and advocacy. The discourse has entered public spaces, and people's homes with social and print media providing awareness messages on the issue; innumerable conferences, workshops and meetings have been held by government departments, academic institutions, NGOs and other civil society groups to critique, discuss and disseminate information, and decide on appropriate action on CSA issues. Yet, when an individual child is abused, the story still plays out as if we live in times of pre-POCSO and no public awareness of CSA. Why is this so?

Many critiques on CSA responses focus on systemic failures to protect the child following abuse—and indeed these are legitimate: lack of protocols for CSA response in child care/educational institutions, families not knowing whom to approach when CSA happens, and poor coordination between institutions and teams providing medical, psychosocial and legal assistance to the child occur, result in poor quality assistance, and further traumatization of the child. However, there is something far more germane to child sexual abuse reporting and response: that of adult (dis) belief in the child.

Why Children Lie

Adult belief that children tell lies (i.e., not tell the truth) may easily be countered by the fact that adults tell lies too—in fact, more so than children and with less justification than children have for lying! Let us examine why children lie. In most instances, children lie to hide things, out of a fear of something or someone; they are afraid that if they tell the truth, they will not be believed and/or they will be admonished and punished. This is exactly what happens in the context of child sexual abuse also: children hide the abuse and do not report it because they are afraid they will be disbelieved and/or punished for it. …

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