Child abuse and the Family Court

And then on Tuesday I read this article about worrying problems within the Family Court of Australia.

There are many things I could say about this article. Firstly it’s extremely well researched and written. What really caught my attention was the focus on abuse. The article focuses on the issue of false accusation, that is, the parent who wrongly and maliciously accuses the other parent of abusing the child.

Much was made of the difficulty of assessing claims of abuse, sexual and violent. Apparently, the court relies on the testimony of “single experts” who determine the veracity of the claims and make recommendations about custody and contact with parents. Much lamenting, a lot of it from children who’ve come out the other end of the system, is aired about the difficulties facing these auditors of horror.

Here’s the thing. I’m completely unqualified in matters of child welfare. I don’t work with kids, and never have. And yet I couldn’t help but wonder – how hard is it to assess claims of abuse?

And then I sat down and wrote this list of ‘alarm bells’ in twenty minutes. I’ll say right now that this list deals with children experiencing violent abuse. I don’t feel confident about making any judgement or statements about children at risk or experiencing sexual abuse. You might think this is facile or poorly thought through, to which I’d say – show me the alternative.

My list is not exhaustive, and it’s not proscriptive – many completely normal children will exhibit some of these characteristics. But if they start ticking off a number of them then I’d be worried. And of course, many victims of abuse don’t give any indication of their circumstances. But many do. Here’s my list of shit that makes the hairs on my neck stand on end;

  • Child doesn’t complain about discomfort – being too cold, or hungry etc.,
  • Child flinches around perpetrator and is therefore not often seen at public events, school concerts etc., with adult
  • Child doesn’t have sleepovers at their house
  • Bedwetting
  • Child doesn’t want to go home after school or from friend’s houses
  • Blames themselves for problems or shortcomings inappropriately and internalises fault quickly and at a much younger age than other children (normal children develop a sense of self-awareness that enables the concept of fault. Abused children arrive at it sooner)
  • Missing longer periods from school with little or no explanation 
  • recurrent stress related illness and conditions, like shingles
  • child talks negatively about themselves – ‘I’m stupid etc.,’
  • Uses inappropriate adult phrases and intonation with friends.
  • obsessive compulsive or repetitive behaviours for comfort, stimming, rocking, picking at skin or hair
  • Invisible friends at an older age
  • Clingyness with teachers or other adults. Ingratiating behaviour. Attention seeking.
  • Expressions of anger/rage that cloud ability to think through problems (schoolwork etc.,) – a ‘rage cloud’ that precludes thought
  • Inordinately fearful of challenges, overly risk averse (simple climbing or gymnastics exercises for instance)
  • Feeling like bad things will happen in ordinary places, for instance, disproportionate worrying about someone drowning at the public swimming pool. Child feels like ‘lightning rod’ for very bad events
  • Child tries to placate conflicts, tries to ‘hose down’ situations i.e spats between other kids in the playground
  • Dental – does the child have broken teeth?
  • Sharing bed with siblings. Does the child have recurrent nits? (Obviously many kids have this problem but it can open up the question)
  • Child is overly obsessed with friendships with animals, develops extremely close relationships with them. Is unusually devastated when sick or injured animals die.
  • Dental – is there evidence of excessive grinding?
  • Is the child malnourished? Complains of sore stomach or stomach pains?