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Breaking the Surface

Chris had been on my caseload for eight months and, of the hundred-odd clients assigned to me, he was one of the lowest priority cases — he had a place to stay, a program to go to, and he was able to use the bus by himself. I had helped connect him to some resources, got his disability benefits transferred to Peel Region, and sent in an application for housing that, with luck, would come through before he was eligible for an old-age home. While Chris was low on my list of worries, there were some issues with his aunt. When he had first moved in with her family, she was a model of competence and was ready to do anything to help her nephew. But after a few months, the reality of that responsibility started to settle in on her, and the smooth veneer of concern was stripping off to reveal the warped wood underneath. At least once a week, Aunt Olga was on the phone to me with another complaint about Chris. He drank (one beer). He smoked. He used drugs (aspirin). He was skipping school (on reading week). Finally, she demanded a group home placement for Chris or she was going to send him back to the boarding house in Kingston. One of the home support workers confided in me that Chris seemed terrified of his aunt. Not that Chris would have been hard to terrify, but by then I had seen enough of Aunt Olga’s bad side to sympathize with him . It wasn’t a joke that people in Peel could (and often did) die of old age waiting for the kind of group home placement Aunt Olga was demanding. Most people with intellectual disabilities lived with their families. But Chris didn’t have any other family to live with, so I was going to have to come up with something — and soon. In May, we caught two strokes of luck. First, Chris’s prevocational course at the local community college included a work placement. Chris was the top of his class and his teacher was really impressed with his willingness to work. When Chris couldn’t find a placement, the teacher helped set him up with one. The supervisor was also impressed. Chris’s placement turned into a full-time job that paid enough for him to have a place of his own . Then my friend Barbara and her husband agreed to rent Chris a basement apartment in their new home, a big brick two-story dwelling that backed onto a greenbelt where they saw deer from their bedroom windows in the mornings. I had known Barbara for ten years, since she was a single mother with a disabled daughter, Annie, struggling to pay rent on a two-bedroom apartment. This was her dream house and it felt good to see her and Annie there. We arranged for a home visit to see the place and introduce Chris . I brought Chris over after supper, and Barbara had been baking. The kitchen smelled wonderful, and Barbara offered Chris some cookies. Her husband, Arthur, introduced himself affably before going off to work. The rest of us sat around the kitchen table. Barb’s daughter came in to check out the new guy, and the cookies. Annie was like a big cuddly puppy in human form. She loved practically everyone, and Chris seemed to really enjoy the attention from her. He warmed to Barbara as well; she was very reassuring about the living arrangements, and I explained anything I felt he didn’t understand. The basement was set up with its own bathroom and kitchen, and it was clean and spacious. Chris’s bedroom was a big, homey family room, already furnished with a fireplace, a big-screen TV, and living room furniture that Barbara had left for him. He had his own entrance through the garage and a lock on his door. He walked around like the master of his domain, laying out his new life in his mind as he planned out his bachelor pad with his bed in the corner. I was mentally checking Chris off as an active issue on my casefile. Job placement — done. Residential placement — done. I was doing a little victory dance in my head. Looking back, I think I was being a bit naive. . If you blow up a balloon underwater, you can give yourself an insane headache. I’m not recommending it — the point is that while the balloon is underwater, it can hold in a lot of air pressure because the water pressure outside the balloon equalizes it. But if you take the balloon out of the water and into the air, the outside pressure lessens and the balloon expands, and usually explodes. People who have a lot of pressure inside are the same: difficulties in their lives can distract from and “hold down” inner issues. Until, of course, their lives improve. I could almost see Chris’s personality expanding as he moved into his new apartment. Although I didn’t know it at the time, what I was seeing was a balloon breaking the surface.

The Young Man Who Did Everything Right

I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a true story, and a terrible one, but it is important for me to tell and for you to hear. Not long ago, in the city of Toronto, there was a boy who loved hockey. His team, The Maple Leafs, played at the stadium near his home, but he couldn’t afford tickets to go see them. But a man who worked at the stadium made friends with the boy, and let him in to see games and practices. The boy was really grateful to his new friend, and would help him with his work at the stadium. They would hang out together and talk man talk, which made the boy feel important. After a while, the boy’s new friend started saying and doing things that made the boy feel uncomfortable and confused. They started talking about sex a lot, and the man showed him pictures of people having sex. The boy didn’t want to hurt his friend’s feelings, and besides, this was probably what grown-up guys talk about . Then the man started touching the boy, and getting the boy to touch him. The boy was pretty scared by this time. He was ashamed to ask anybody about what was happening, and pretty sure he would get in trouble if anyone found out. By now, he was afraid of his new friend, but it was hard to get away from him. So this went on for a long time. Finally, the boy decided he would stop going to see the man. He was afraid the man would come after him, or tell his parents or friends. But nothing happened. He was free. The boy thought this would make him feel better, but it didn’t. He thought about what had happened all the time, and it made him feel sick. He even had nightmares. It wouldn’t go away. He couldn’t concentrate at school, and didn’t want to hang out with his friends any more. He even started taking drugs to make the feelings stop. His parents worried about the changes; this wasn’t like him. But he was afraid to tell them what was wrong . Years passed, and the boy became a young man. He finally got angry about what had happened to his life, and found the courage to make changes. He told his parents, and they got him help. He went into therapy, and got off drugs. He was finally feeling good about himself. And then he did a very brave thing. He went to the police, and told them about the man at Maple Leaf Gardens. And an amazing thing happened, When the news came out, other young men came forward. More than sixty of them, all abused by the man in the same way. The police charged the man with twenty-four counts of indecency, one for each victim who could prove his case. The man was put on trial. And he was convicted. The young man was thrilled. He had done everything right. He had cleaned himself up, gone to therapy, straightened his life around. And now he had brought his abuser to justice. He had won, not only for himself but for all the other victims. The television and newspapers were calling him a hero, and he felt like a hero. Then the man was sentenced . To two years in jail. Not two years per rape. Not two years per victim. Two years. A few days later, the young man, who had done everything right, jumped off a railroad bridge and killed himself. The Moral of the Story: Many of you will recognize the story of Martin Kruze. For those who don’t, I recommend the book Gardens of Shame by Cathy Vine and Paul Challen. But Martin’s story is also the story of so many other boys, and girls, and I wanted them to recognize themselves in the character. Because the young man who did everything right actually did two things wrong. First, he expected the system to work for him. It is mind-boggling that a society which abhors child sexual abuse (and rightly so) should be so terrible at dealing with it. But there it is. Second, he gave up. The betrayal implicit in that sentence broke him. Understandable, but a terrible waste of everything he had accomplished up till then. The sentencing of George Stuckless provoked the kind of outrage that the death of George Floyd has recently stirred up. Instead of mourning Martin Kruze, crowds could have been marching behind him, demanding changes to laws and systems that fail to protect children. Because the moral of the story is this: change is needed to address child sexual abuse. And change happens when it is forced on systems by pressure from citizens. Martin Kruze did the most important thing right: he came out and identified himself as a victim of abuse. That is step one for every survivor of abuse who wants to make a change for the next generation. You can’t make changes from inside the closet.

"Creepy Guys in Vans"

“Mom would say, ‘if some creepy old man grabs you, scream and yell and throw yourself on the ground.’ But no one ever said if your uncle touches your penis or aunt puts her finger up your butt, scream, run, come tell somebody. No one ever said that. Never ever. The only people you ever worried about molesting you were creep guys in vans.” This quote from Dr. Kelli Palfy’s book, Men Too, illustrates the difficulty faced by eighty percent of child abuse victims. Their abusers aren’t “creepy guys in vans.” Their abusers are family friends, pastors, teachers, relatives, siblings, or even their own parents. And our system of protecting them from abuse is not addressing this reality. Most children don’t get sufficient information to know what abuse is. Think back to your own childhood. Your family was your frame of reference for what was normal. It’s the same in incestuous families. Many children have no idea that what is happening with a parent or sibling isn’t what happens with everyone else’s family. It is still damaging to them, but there is no basis for them to question it. Young children may not have a vocabulary to explain what is happening. Parents tend to use euphemisms for the parts that would be involved in abuse, and that can be confusing when the child tries to tell. One little girl reportedly told a teacher that her uncle kept licking her cookie. It was months before the teacher found out that “cookie” was what the child had learned to call her genitals. Most children don’t discuss sex with adults. I had one talk with my mom about sex. I’d just started my first period. She gave me a pad, showed me where to put the used pads so nobody saw them, and that was it. The only sex education I got in school was the famous “separate the girls from the boys” assembly done by the school nurse. Thank God for it, though – at least I knew what a period was. Many abused children reported that they couldn’t talk to their parents about what had happened to them. They were too ashamed, and in some cases blamed themselves for the abuse. They also felt that they would get in trouble for what had happened, that their parents disapproved of sex and would be mad at them. Others worried that the parents would be hurt or upset, and kept quiet to protect them. And the children actually being abused by parents would pretty much be limited in who they could tell. Many adults won’t get involved. In another section of Men Too, a survivor remembers telling a teacher at the school where the coach was molesting him. The teacher downplayed it and told him not to mention it to anyone else. As it turned out, the teacher (at a Catholic school) was also abusing children; and the coach had been moved around to thirteen different schools to avoid abuse allegations. Even in less shady circumstances, children have less credibility than adults. Almost all survivors have stories of trying to tell adults, or suspecting that other adults knew and were ignoring the situation. And molestors, instead of driving around in vans looking creepy, tend to make themselves trusted members of the community, above suspicion. They often make friends with the parents before approaching the victim, to reduce the chances of the child either telling or being believed. So, let us say that these three issues are the main roadblocks to children reporting sexual abuse. Using this information, we should be able to design a model to: 1) Educate children about personal boundaries, and what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. 2) Provide a space where the child can discuss concerns in confidence. 3) Ensure that the adult who has received the report will take appropriate action. And I have some ideas about what that would look like. I’ll discuss them in the next blog.

The Child Abuse Survivors' Monument

This sculpture was designed to commemorate the courage of childhood abuse survivors, has been sitting in its creator’s front yard for twenty years for lack of a home. You might be interested in knowing about the statue on the front cover. It was created by Dr. Michael Irving, a sculptor and the survivor of horrific child abuse himself. He is also a therapist (current title: well-being and quality of life coach), and Chris has been seeing him for years. If I was Chris’s first godsend, Dr. Irving was definitely his second. But more about that in another book. The statue we used for our cover is titled “Reaching Out.” It is one of two figures designed for the Child Abuse Survivor Monument, a project Dr. Irving has been promoting for the past twenty years. He felt that, since there are memorials to soldiers and other heroes, the courageous people who are fighting their secret battles to survive child sexual abuse should be validated with a monument as well. It would also promote discussion of a subject that desperately needs more public consideration. Dr. Irving has been trying to find public space for his monument, approaching municipalities, universities, and other public bodies without success. He is currently discussing a site with a college north of Toronto. The monument consists of two identical statues flanking a fountain. The most interesting feature of each statue is the pattern of quilt squares on its front and back. There over two hundred of them, each one designed by a survivor of childhood abuse. The square contains a cast of the person’s hand, and words and other figures which express that person’s struggle. There are blank squares included in the pattern: the monument is designed so viewers who wish to participate can dip their hands in the water, then leave their own handprints on a blank square. The inside of each statue also contains space for thousands of paper handprints, letters, poems, and other contributions from survivors all over North America and abroad. If you want to know more about Dr. Irving and the Child Abuse Survivor Monument, you can go to One remarkable facet of this website is the “monument and quilt squares” feature, which allows you to click on any square on the statue’s picture and see that quilt square up close. There is also the opportunity for survivors to send in handprints, etc., to be included inside the monuments. You have the opportunity to support the project, if you wish, by signing the petition to find the project a home. Dr. Irving’s campaign would benefit from people demonstrating interest in the Child Abuse Survivor Monument, and it would be a wonderful way to get involved in supporting people like Chris.

The Children Behind The Wall

The statue on the cover of the book is called “Reaching Out,” and it was created by Dr. Michael Irving, a sculptor and abuse survivor who became Chris’s therapist. For years, while Chris was too ill to take the subway by himself, I would drop him off at Dr. Irving’s house (his office was in the back), and take a few minutes to study the massive sculpture sitting in his front yard. It sat there for years, while Dr. Irving tried to interest various organizations in sponsoring a memorial to abuse victims. On one trip to pick Chris up from therapy, I brought my grandsons along; we were all going back to my house afterward. Kevin was nine years old, and Shawn was four, and they were both fascinated by the statue. They circled it several times; Shawn playfully measured his hands against the handprints in the squares, while Kevin studied the designs and words with a puzzled look. Finally, he turned to me and asked, “What are the pictures about?” I opened my mouth to answer him, and I swear the words froze in my throat. I was looking at two children who had been loved and cared for all their lives, who had probably not even been spanked as far as I knew. How could I explain that the squares represented children who had been molested by adults, some of them by their own mothers and fathers? How could I describe what “molesting” meant to children who may not even have much of a concept of sex? Would they even be able to understand what I was explaining? And if they did, what would it do to their view of the world – their innocence, if you wanted to call it that? I can’t remember what lame explanation I finally blurted out, but the feeling stayed with me. I could suddenly understand the parents who worried about sex education in schools, even though as a parent I had not been concerned about it. Knowledge is a responsibility, and it can be scary to burden a child with that particular knowledge. Then I remembered a study I had read about while working with speech-impaired clients. The people in the study used symbol boards to communicate. At first, there were no symbols for genitals or sexual terms. After the board makers belatedly added those symbols, they found that people overwhelmingly used them – to report sexual abuse! It wasn’t being reported because there were no words to describe the experiences. Like the board makers, I felt more comfortable keeping a wall between my grandchildren and the difficult subject of sexuality, especially sexual abuse. The problem is that there are children on the other side of that wall, children who are horribly aware that something very bad is happening to them but who lack the words to express what was happening, or the understanding that it is not normal or okay. And if the price of our children’s “innocence” and our own comfort is to sacrifice the innocence, safety, and futures of these other children, then it is a price we do not have a right to negotiate. That is the very definition of a devil’s bargain. As I was mulling this over, my four-year-old grandson called, “Nana! Come look!” He showed me one of the squares, and exclaimed proudly, “Look! That hand is the same size as mine!” #childabuse

For Little Tony

Forty-five years ago, my first experience with child abuse left me with questions about society’s attitudes, and a sense of guilt that I carry to this day. When I was eighteen, I moved out on my own to go to college and to try out my brand-new adulthood. I rented a room from a fellow student in my Psychology class, a middle-aged woman who was the coolest person imaginable. Marnie was married to a black man – this was the seventies, folks, and they were literally the first mixed-race couple I’d ever met. They had an eight-year-old son named Tony, after his father. A pregnant girl and her boyfriend were renting another room. And there were always people staying at her house; it was like a mini-commune, which was, again, very cool in the seventies. Marnie was larger than life: she was a big woman and she owned it, with flamboyant clothes and makeup and a sexy attitude. She loved being the center of attention, and I loved hearing her outrageous stories about her life. Big Tony, her husband was a cop, and he was tall, muscular, and intimidating-looking. But I don’t remember him talking to any of us except Marnie; he would just watch TV, eat supper, and go to bed. Little Tony was a quiet kid, and it took a while for him to warm up to me. I remember the first time he smiled at me, because it took me by surprise: it was such a lovely, warm smile, and it occurred to me that he didn’t do it often enough. At eighteen, I was unimaginably naïve. I’d always been a bookworm and an introvert, and there were things living under rocks that had more life experience than I did. But after a while, I started wondering about Marnie. For one thing, she was adamant that our professor had been coming on to her, propositioning her in the elevator or whenever they were alone. This guy was easily sixty years old, which was obviously much too old to be interested in sex. Also, he was a long-haired, sandal-wearing guru type, very spiritual and easily the least sleazy person I’d ever met. I started taking Marnie with a grain of salt. And some of her stories were a bit weird. For instance, she told me that Little Tony would come into the bedroom when she and Big Tony were making love, and try to get between them. She laughed and said that he would get a tiny erection while it was happening. I felt that she probably shouldn’t have allowed this, but I didn’t know much about other families. Mine wasn’t physically affectionate; my mother hugged me once, and I thought she was having a seizure or something. But I never even suspected that people might get sexual with children. So it just seemed odd. I noticed that Marnie didn’t give Little Tony a lot of attention. I’m the oldest of seven children, so it was natural that I would mother him a little. Over the few months that I was there, he began to warm up to me quite a bit. If Marnie was aware of it, she didn’t seem to care. Until one morning at breakfast, when I was giving Little Tony some cereal. We were just sitting at the table, talking, and Marnie roared in. She screamed at Tony, “Why are you wearing those shorts? I didn’t tell you to wear shorts!” We both just gaped at her. Then she grabbed Little Tony by the arm and dragged him into his bedroom. I was in shock: Marnie had never acted remotely like this before. I followed them to the bedroom door. Marnie had thrown Little Tony onto the bed, still ranting at the top of her voice. Then She got a belt, I don’t know where from, and started strapping the child full force across his back while he was screaming, “No, Mommy! No, Mommy!” I ran into the living room, where Big Tony was sitting on the couch watching television. We could both hear the screams and the slapping of the belt, going on and on, but he sat there like a statue. This confused me even more; by now I had no idea how to respond to the situation. I grabbed the phone on the side table, called my mother and, with Little Tony’s screams ringing in the background, begged her to come get me. I snatched up my purse and ran for the front door, and waited outside at the curb, shaking all over. And if that was the biggest shock of my young life, what happened next was the second biggest. When my mother picked me up, I told her what had happened. It seemed obvious to me that we had to call the police about this. And then my mother told me that we were doing no such thing. I told her again, in terrifying detail, what I had seen Marnie doing to the child, sure that she just didn’t understand how bad it was. My mother repeated that we were not calling the police. We didn’t talk any more about it. When we got home, I went to the bedroom and just sat there. I had never been so confused in my life, before or since. My mother was a good person. We were never hit as children. How could she just let such a thing happen to a child and not do something about it? And why did I just stand there and watch Marnie brutally beat her child and not grab the strap from her, or yell at her, or something? I wasn’t afraid of Marnie, although Big Tony was pretty scary. But that wasn’t why I didn’t do anything. What was wrong with me? I never called the police. Little Tony stayed int that home with his crazy parents for the rest of his childhood as far as I know. I never found out what had happened to him, although with all the research I have done on abused children, I can make an educated guess. I’d had it in my power to change that for him, and I didn’t do it. And I still can’t really understand why. And you could blame it on the times. My mother grew up in a time where parents could beat their kids and call it their right as parents. Even in the seventies, reporting child abuse was not a legal requirement for professionals, as it is now. But I think it is more than that. I read a study in which teachers at a public elementary school were given training on reporting suspected child abuse among their students. They were educated on what to look for, role played the process for making a report, understood their legal responsibilities to report, and appeared to be very enthusiastic about the training overall. But over the following year, not one report of child abuse came from that school. It may be hard to accept that we as a society do not stand up for vulnerable children, but it is crucial that we acknowledge this situation. That is always the first step in changing it. In future blog articles, I will talk about specific actions that we as individuals, as groups, as voters, and as a society, I am doing this, in part, because I still owe a debt to Little Tony for my failure to help him. I think that there are enough of us out there who are tired of accruing such debts, and who want to change things. I would like to hear from you.