Friday, June 29, 2012

Sandusky found guilty: More lessons

The jury found Jerry Sandusky guilty on 45 of 48 criminal counts last week, and Sandusky was remanded to custody to await sentencing. The defense team has already announced it would appeal (not surprising), and Sandusky has continued to insist that he is "innocent" (also not surprising). What follows is a couple of more lessons to be learned from this high profile case.

In contrast to most cases of child abuse perpetrated by fathers who are NOT sexual predators, Sandusky is clearly a sexual predator. Sandusky's continuing denial of his guilt, and in fact, his reportedly adamant insistence that he is innocent in the face of the overwhelming evidence of his guilt that he witnessed during the trial is another hallmark of a sexual predator: lack of remorse and empathy. Very few people truly understand that Sandusky really believes that he is innocent of any crime,  regardless of the testimony of all the witnesses and the jury's verdict. It is this fundamental flaw, the inability to recognize that his actions were wrong and damaging to his victims, that makes the Jerry Sanduskys of the world so dangerous for children.

In contrast to the predators, who are a small but malignant minority of the population of child abusers, I have evaluated and treated many perpetrators of sexual abuse (and their victims). What is striking about so many of these men is that they are emotionally needy and immature, and that at some point, during treatment, they will (usually) acknowledge their own behavior and tearfully admit that they knew it was wrong but felt compelled to commit the abuse. The rationalizations (it was loving or she needed it) for the abuse generally do NOT last long once treatment has uncovered the the underlying motivation (usually unmet needs to be loved, believe it or not). These men know what they did was wrong, and are able to acknowledge that what they did was harmful to the child. A combination of substance abuse, stressors like marital discord and financial difficulties, job loss or physical disability all combine to create the circumstances where normal boundaries disappear and normal self control evaporates. The abuse is an unhealthy and damaging reaction to a series of stressful events. These guys are not charismatic, nor smooth, nor seen by the community at large as "saints". These men are child abusers,certainly, but they are not predators.

It is the lack of empathy (and remorse), the hallmarks of psychopathy, that make these sexual predators so dangerous to children. Regardless of the outward appearance of selfless concern for kids, these men don't do anything out of a sense of altruism. Everything they do is designed to get them what they want, and what sexual predators want is easy access to children that they can groom to be their victims, opportunities to exploit the children without danger of being caught, and enough perceived power and authority to make the threats needed to keep the kids quiet afterwards have some real and lasting effect. When interviewed, these predators are smart enough to know that what they did was illegal, but they don't really believe it was wrong. That's the first lesson: not all abusers are sexual predators, and the two groups are NOT the same.

Lesson number two: the testimony of the wife of a sexual predator about his character has almost no probative value. These men are incapable of genuine intimacy, and NEVER let anyone get close to them, let alone get to truly know them. Spouses hold no special status for a psychopath, and are actually just part of the "window dressing" in their PR campaign to appear to be normal. Spouses of these men frequently "fill in the blanks" and make assumptions about their husband's behaviors and motivations, based on their own naive view of the world, and completely miss or ignore the signals that would indicate something amiss. Many of these women have been victims of abuse or neglect themselves, and have a huge "blind spot" when it comes to signals indicating abuse. It is precisely that blind spot that made them good choices as spouses for the predators, because they recognize that their wives are incapable of "ratting them out". So when these spouses testify that they never saw anything suspicious, it really doesn't mean what it would if a normal wife testified about her husband's character. These wives are unwitting accomplices to their husband's crimes.

The good news is that the Sandusky trial has raised the level of awareness of sexual predators, especially for those who run large organizations that deal with children, and could lead to greater protection for children who could be potential victims. As I said in my last post, we all need to pay attention when vulnerable children have just a little too much private time with any adult who  is not a loving parent.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Sandusky trial: Lessons for divorced moms with sons

The graphic, heart-wrenching testimony of witnesses and victims in the Sandusky trial this week has prompted me to highlight some important lessons about sexual predators and the children who become their victims. Divorced moms with sons face particular challenges as parents, and the Sandusky case is the realization of a mother's worst fears. A few of the most important lessons follow.

The testimony of the victims this week highlights some of the typical features of the sexual predators of young children. Many are charismatic, successful, in responsible positions teaching or supervising children, often described (as Sandusky was) as having "a heart of gold" because of their public demonstrations of concern for vulnerable or disadvantaged children, and frequently married men, some with families. There is rarely only one victim unless the predator is young, inexperienced, and impulsive. For most predators, there are a series of victims over a long period of time, years or even decades. The most important take-away: these are NOT the creepy old men in raincoats who jump out of the bushes. These guys are quite literally wolves in sheep's clothing.

Most sexual predators of children work at developing opportunities to victimize children. The behavior is very much like a wolf stalking a vulnerable young deer and waiting for an opportunity to separate it from the herd. Sandusky appears to be prototypical. He had a job which gave him access to children away from their parents. He started a non-profit organization which gave him even more access to kids, and easy access to the  most vulnerable children. He cultivated relationships with a few of the most vulnerable children by giving them time, attention, and unique opportunities which required the kids to be alone with him away from other adults and children. He was publicly affectionate (but not too affectionate so as not to arouse suspicions) with his victims and with other kids in his care. He created private moments with these children and gradually increased the level of both affection and pressure to engage in sexual behavior that confused and paralyzed these vulnerable kids. Then he threatened them with the loss of his affection and of their special opportunities to keep them quiet.

Children of divorce are particularly vulnerable when fathers fail to remain engaged with their kids, boys or girls. The trauma of divorce is magnified greatly when the ongoing conflict between parents is resolved by the dad withdrawing from the conflict and failing to regularly and faithfully exercise his right to visitation. These kids who have been abandoned by their dads are particularly vulnerable to being exploited and victimized.

Lessons for divorced moms-- the red flags...

1. There is NO good reason for a coach to shower with a young child, especially alone. Ever.

2. There is NO good reason for a coach  or teacher to have a young child in their home overnight for a "sleepover". Ever.

3. There is NO good reason for a coach or teacher to take ONE child out of town to a school event and spend ANY time alone with them in a hotel room. Period.

4. When a child reports something that sounds even remotely sexual about an interaction with some adult or teacher, BELIEVE them. (More than 95% of children's sexual abuse reports, outside of divorce litigation, are confirmed sooner or later.)

Children hide real incidents of sexual abuse for years and will suffer in silence out of fear and loyalty. Most abusers are people that the children know, not strangers. It is not unusual for children who have been victimized to make an outcry and then recant, in fact, it's almost routine.

Moms who take the time to listen to their children, and are sensitive to the distress in their children, will eventually find out if their kids have been victimized. Unfortunately, many single moms, especially those who are literally raising their kids alone, are so busy just surviving that they don't have the time to listen carefully to their kids, and the kids know it.

It is important for those of us who care about kids to be alert to those signals that an adult is "just too interested" in children who are vulnerable. When some adult is just too affectionate with a child, pay attention. When you know the child comes from divorced family, especially if the dad is not actively involved with his kids, pay close attention. These vulnerable kids need us to protect them.

Note: Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 counts, remanded to custody, and will be sentenced in the near future. One juror commented that the verdict "was never in doubt".

Monday, June 11, 2012

Research Update: Stress is Connected to Decreased Brain Volumes in Children

A new study published this month in the Journal of Neuroscience has profound implications for children of divorce. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Richard Davidson and Seth Pollak, examined the brains of a group of children using fMRI and compiled a detailed stressful life events history from their parents. Examining the brain scans revealed that both white matter (the connections between brain areas) and the gray matter (the cells that 'do the math') were LOWER in volume in children with greater levels of stress in their life history. This finding was particularly evident in the anterior cingulate portion of pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain in the very front of the head that is responsible for "working memory". (Journal of Neuroscience , June 6, 2012)

As we know, divorce is a process and not an event. The period of time leading up to the divorce is a very stressful time for families, and the divorce process itself is particularly difficult for children. Children of divorce are frequently observed to be "absent minded" or "distracted" during and after the divorce, and this new research documents the physical changes that are taking place in the brains of these children that are evident in their behavior, particularly changes in their school performance.  The decreases in the volume of both white and gray matter in the brain found in these children with more stressful life histories now provides a neuroscience foundation for the findings of the psychological research on children of divorce. Divorce is one of the most stressful life events for children but it certainly isn't the only one.  Ongoing family violence, substance abuse, and neglect can all have deleterious effects on the brain development of young children, and profound effects on their emotional and intellectual, as well as social development.

The good news is that much of the new research on brain development is also finding that the brains of both children and adults is remarkably plastic, that is, capable of remarkable recovery and re-growth of new tissue when the conditions improve.  The challenge for professionals involved in resolving family disputes and working "in the best interest of the children" is to find solutions that lead to rapid reductions in the stress levels of the family so that the children's brains can begin to grow again and regain the volumes of both gray and white matter that characterize healthy growing brains. For some families that means therapy and reconciliation for the parents that leads to a new pattern of better communication and lower stress levels.

For other families, when untreated mental illness or personality disorders in one or both parents make new behavior patterns in the family unlikely, a quick and low conflict divorce may be the avenue to lower stress that will allow the children to recover their lost brain function most quickly. At this point, we don't know how much stress for how long will lead to permanent and irreversible brain changes in children of divorce, but as this new line of brain scan-driven research develops, we will know more. Stay tuned.

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