The Professional Response to Child Sexual Abuse: Whose Interests Are Served?-Comment/reply

By Fincham, Frank D.; Beach, Steven R. H. et al. | Family Relations, July 1994 | Go to article overview

The Professional Response to Child Sexual Abuse: Whose Interests Are Served?-Comment/reply


Fincham, Frank D., Beach, Steven R. H., Moore, Thom, Diener, Carol, et al., Family Relations


Few images are more painful to us today than those of the sexual molestation of innocent children. So painful, in fact, that such injury has in modern times evoked a most primitive defense mechanism--denial (cf. Olafson, Corwin, & Summit, 1993). Fortunately, over the last two decades this coping strategy has become less viable with increasing awareness of child abuse. For example, child abuse reporting laws were passed in every state between 1963 and 1967; Congress passed the landmark Child Abuse and Treatment Act in 1973 establishing, among other things, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect and the current child protective system; and media coverage of child abuse is at a historic high (45 million viewers watched Scared Silent on September 4, 1992, the first nonnews event covered simultaneously in prime time by different networks [Rowe, 1992]). Across relevant professions, interest in child maltreatment has skyrocketed--a recent search of a data base in psychology (PSYCHLIT) for the past 6 years yielded 1,193 journal articles under the descriptor child sexual abuse. Combined with numerous books, conference papers, professional seminars, and so on, the professional response to this particular form of child abuse is overwhelming to the neophyte. These developments suggest that the harsh reality of child sexual abuse has been at last recognized and that a broad coalition has formed to address this problem.

Although the end of our denial of child sexual abuse is overdue, it would be premature to celebrate the results of our fledgling efforts to "do something" about child sexual abuse. Unfortunately, the same discomfort that led to denial of the problem in previous years may lead to premature acceptance of current responses and remedies. That is, we are now in danger of uncritically embracing whatever is offered as a remedy, even though it is not at all clear that we should be comforted by the "something" that is being done about this tragic phenomenon. On the contrary, the major premise of this article is that there is cause for considerable concern in regard to the professional response to child sexual abuse at both the applied, especially child protection services (CPS), and research levels. This article therefore raises numerous disquieting issues regarding the potential for harm resulting from the professional response to child sexual abuse. Although the images that result are sometimes as painful as the images of abused children, we must not fall victim to a new denial that allows us to participate in the (unwitting) disservice to and even harming of children and families by professionals. The paucity of inquiry on the potential harmdoing of professionals in the prodigious child maltreatment literature suggests that one form of denial may have been replaced by another.

This article begins by offering a brief sketch of some problems in the current state of professional practice and research. Following this sketch, we ask what maintains current practices and identify reinforcement contingencies that shape professional behavior and impede change in the professional response to child sexual abuse. In the final major section, we identify some actions that individual researchers and practitioners can take to make a difference in this field. The article concludes by calling for an end to our denial and for critical self-scrutiny of our professional actions.

IS THERE A PROBLEM? A SNAPSHOT

The overview provided in this section is necessarily incomplete, as the complexity of the topic cannot be done justice with such a brief sketch. Moreover, this sketch attempts to provide a counterpoint to the dominant view in the literature by providing a perspective seldom found in it. By attempting to introduce more balance into the literature, it is not our intent to deny or diminish positive contributions made by professionals in responding to child sexual abuse, but to facilitate much needed critical self-scrutiny. …

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