Systems Theory and Incest/Sexual Abuse of Children: Focus on Families and Communities
Note: I added a section to the article (V. Analysis) to this class assignment. This section "knocks" systems theory a little, as well as other firmly held beliefs.
This paper will examine two systems - families and communities - and how each contribute to the problem of incest/sexual abuse of children.
There are, however, many determinants of incest/sexual abuse that will not be discussed here. "According to Diane Russell (The Secret Trauma) and David Finkelhor (Child Sexual Abuse) 95% of the perpetrators of girls are men and 80% of the perpetrators of boys are men." (Bass and Davis, 1988, p. 96) Therefore, this paper will concentrate on fathers as offenders. Although boys are sexually abused as well as girls, the research done so far to date is mostly based on girls. Sexual abuse of boys is equally as important as that of girls. Most of this paper reflects the research on girls, however.
Definition of Incest
This definition expands the traditional definition of incest to include sexual abuse by anyone who has authority or power over the child. This definition of incest includes as perpetrators: immediate/extended family members, babysitters, school teachers, scout masters, priests/ministers, etc. "Incest between an adult and a related child or adolescent is now recognized as the most prevalent form of child sexual abuse and as one with great potential for damage to the child." (Courtois, 1988, p.12) For the purpose of this paper, only incest in the family will be discussed. What is paramount is the imbalance of power.
Approximately one out of four American women have been sexually abused as children, most by someone they knew. "Newer research...indicates that as many as 38% of women are molested in childhood. There are many acknowledged problems with even this research, but the greatest is this: what is not remembered cannot be reported. It is my (Blume's) experience that fewer than half of the women who experience this trauma later remember or identify it as abuse. Therefore, it is not unlikely that more than half of all women are survivors of childhood sexual trauma." (Blume, 1990, xiv)
II. A. FAMILIES
1. Structure of
"The systems approach to human behavior...make two general substantive assumptions: (1) The state or condition of a system, at any one point in time, is a function of the interaction between it and the environment in which it operates. (2) Change and conflict are always evident in a system. Individuals both influence their environments and are influenced by them. Processes of mutual influence generate change and development." (Longres, 1990. p. 19) Each person in a family is part of the whole system. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A family can be thought of as a "holon, simultaneously a whole and a part of a larger system." (Longres, 1990, p. 266) Interaction (communication) between the parts is what brings the system to life. The study of the family must begin with the relationship and interactions each member has to each other. In systems theory, higher levels can control lower levels. The individual members are both unique individuals and part family at the same time. "The family is a bounded system in interaction with its environment. Within the family boundary are its members and their roles, norms, values, traditions, and goals, plus other elements that distinguish one family from another and the social environment ...families whose boundaries are open and flexible are the most healthy." (Longres, 1990, p. 274)
There are three subsystems in a family system: parents, parent-child, and siblings. The power structure in healthy families is hierarchical, with the parents sharing equal power and children having input in a democratic fashion. Yet, it is clear the parents are parents, and children are children. While status refers to the position and implies rank in a social hierarchy, "role refers to the more dynamic aspects of the position, it is more to do with what the people in various positions do or are expected to do...In the family, individuals only exist within the context of the roles and statuses they occupy." (Longres, 1990, p. 322)
Unhealthy family systems have (almost) closed boundaries with fixed and rigid connections or no connections whatsoever. Almost everything is fixed and rigid: goals, roles and relationships, and rules and norms. Unhealthy family systems don't have equal power, the higher level subsystem (father) usually rules and the lower level subsystems (mother/children) are subservient. The father can rule his family and limit their behavior. He can effectively block healthy adaptations by limiting the behaviors/roles of family members and by isolating the family system from the community. "The family, like all systems, relate through a process called feedback. It is the feedback loops that maintain the system functioning...In closed systems families the feedback loops are negative and work to keep the system frozen and unchanging. This is called dynamics homeostasis... Feedback is also maintained in families by (overt and covert) rules that govern the system...positive feedback can break up the frozen status quo of a system. Positive feedback challenges destructive and unexamined rules, both overt and covert." (Bradshaw, 1988, p. 29-30)
John Bradshaw demonstrated the concept of dynamic homeostatic principle by using a mobile of a family. After starting the mobile, it always stops in the same place. "An open family system could be illustrated by keeping the mobile in gentle motion all the time." (Bradshaw, 1988, p. 30)
Virginia Satir also used the analogy of a mobile to illustrate how the family members are interrelated. In making a family mobile, all members of the family must be taken into consideration and arranged accordingly in order to balance the mobile. (Satir, 1988, p. 137) "All families are in balance. The question is: what is the cost to each family member to maintain that balance?" (Satir, 1988, p. 139)
For a family to be healthy, fathers and mothers must have a good sense of who they are, evidenced by good communication skills, healthy ego boundaries, and flexible roles. Each parent must be healthy in order to have healthy relationships. Intimacy requires that power be shared in the relationship. Since children don't have equality with their parents, the nature of the parental-child relationship is not (nor should it be) intimate. "If the marriage is functional, the children have a chance to be fully functional. If the marriage is dysfunctional, the family members are stressed and adapt dysfunctionally." (Bradshaw, 1988, p. 31)
Krugman (1987) discussed the concept of triangulation across generations as the basic pattern in the organization and transmission of family violence. He noted: "In effect, it means that adults take it out on children when they cannot manage tension and conflict themselves..." a "...pattern commonly associated with sexual abuse, the child is elevated into the parental hierarchy and the system stabilized through role reversal...The child may also be assigned the role of surrogate parent for the other children or, in the case of father-daughter incest, the role of surrogate wife." (Krugman, 1987, p.139)
II A. FAMILIES
2. Rules and norms of the family
"The most important attribute of a social system is the social norms which hold it together. Norms consist of all the agreements, formal or informal, explicit or implicit, which regulate and give order and purpose to a system...Social norms are experienced by individuals as expectations, the expectations of other people as well as the expectations that emerge from the self as a function of participation with other people...Norms evolve through democratic as well as nondemocratic processes." (Longres, 1990, p. 35) Families are the primary social system that socializes children about rules and norms of the family and of the society. Children inherit the rules and norms that their parents internalized from their families of origin and through their parents' interaction with their environment. In order for a marriage to be healthy there has to be some compromise and eventual consensus about which rules and norms will be used by the family. Children readily accept most rules and norms because they want and need to belong to their family. Children are considered "good" if they obey. To disobey is to "rock the boat" and to risk being considered "bad" or "crazy". In dysfunctional family systems, members often have to sacrifice their individual identities and relinquish boundaries to maintain the survival of the system.
David L. Calof has identified a number of family proscriptions, injunctions, and victims scripts in an incestuous family. They are listed here in a somewhat abbreviated form:
The family maintains its homeostasis through rigid rules/norms and family members take on adaptive but dysfunctional roles.
II. B. COMMUNITIES
1. Status of women and children
"Status refers to the value of the position. Among the most common criteria used to determine status are: prestige, wealth, and authority. A position has a higher status if its occupants have more prestige, are wealthier, and are able to wield authority." (Davis, 1986, p. 544) Women and children have little of these three criteria for status.
Women are discriminated against in the workplace. A woman earns approximately 70 cents for every dollar a man makes. Jobs that are available to her are mostly low-paying and dead-ended. It is no wonder that most women are "bare-foot, pregnant, and the in the kitchen".
If women divorce their perpetrator husbands they may end up on welfare if they have no job skills or limited job skills. She may enter the dreaded "cycle of poverty" and doom her offspring. If she works, she probably won't find a job that pays enough to pay for child-care. She may be wary of leaving her children with a babysitter who may be a perpetrator. Most communities don't provide child-care at reasonable costs to working mothers. Some women feel they have no choice but to stay in a relationship with a perpetrator and try their best to prevent further victimization of their children.
The divorce rate is approaching 50% (Longres, 1990, p. 287) which translates into a lot of mothers dating and some eventually remarrying. While dating, mother may be bringing in men who may prey upon her children if they get the opportunity.
"As some researchers have begun to suspect, it may be the case that a growing number of stepfathers are really `smart pedophiles', men who marry divorced or single women with families as a way of getting close to children." (Crewdson, 1988, p. 31)
Women and children have been traditionally the property of men to do with as they wish. (The idea of a woman much less a child having rights to their own body is indeed a new idea.) Communities vary in the degree in which they tolerate domestic violence but "the house is still the man's castle."
Society as a whole tolerates if not out-right condones, "double standards" (i.e., men can be sexually active, but women must not be). Society as a whole believes in the sex-role stereotypes. Girl babies wear pink and boy babies wear blue. Girls play with dolls and boys play with trucks. Women are passive and seductive, while men are aggressive and dominating. The sex-role stereotyping translates into women being viewed as sex objects are treated accordingly not only in the home but at work and in the community-at-large.
"The degree to which each institution..." is helpful to women in crisis "reflects the degree to which it was influenced or controlled by women." (Herman, 1981, p. 211)
"Sexual victimization may be as common as it is in our society because of its degree of male supremacy. It is one way in which men, the dominant status group, control women. To maintain control, men need a vehicle by which women can be punished, brought into line, and socialized to a subordinate status. Sexual victimization and the threat of it are useful in keeping women intimidated (Brownmiller, 1975). Inevitably the process starts in childhood with the victimization of girl children... The cultural beliefs that underpin the male-dominated system contribute to making women and children sexually vulnerable." (Finkelhor, 1979, p. 29-30) "...(T)he oppression of women as wives and workers promotes the sexual victimization of their daughters." (Finkelhor, 1979, p. 148)
The dominant society blames its victims. The child is blamed for her (his) sexual abuse: "they asked for it or they didn't say `no'". The mother is blamed for not protecting the child: " where was she? or she wasn't taking care of her husband's needs". When a female child grows up she is likely to marry someone like her father because she doesn't know what normal men are like. She is often uncomfortable around healthy males. She confuses sex and love. She is often revictimized in adulthood and she is once again blamed. It is no wonder that victims/survivors don't report victimization and revictimization. They know that they will be blamed.
Incest victims are often labeled crazy and are discriminated against in the workplace, by health insurance companies, and the criminal justice system.
II. B. COMMUNITIES
2. Criminal justice system
The criminal justice system is a part of the larger patriarchal system which sympathizes with the male perpetrator and blames the victim or the victim's mother. Since most perpetrators of child sexual abuse are men, women and children can't expect to get much help from the criminal justice system. According to a recent Lexington Herald-Leader poll, "only one in a hundred said their molesters were convicted." (The Courier Journal, Dec. 2, 1991, p. A2)
Men in general are believed more than women and definitely more than children. It is not enough to merely prove that a child has been molested. Because there are seldom any witnesses, the identity of the molester is difficult to prove. "Even when conclusive medical evidence does exist, sexual abuse cases end up resting on the testimony of the children involved. When those children are too young to testify, there is likely to be no case at all... Many abusers have figured out what prosecutors already know, that it's open season on very young children." (Crewdson, 1988, p. 162)
Judges frequently refuse to allow expert testimony of social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists who can shed light on the extent and consequences of child sexual abuse. Refusal to accept substantiating testimony contributes to "a shared negative hallucination" that sexual abuse of children is rare. ( Goodwin, 1985, p. 14)
"Despite all the attention being paid by lawyers to the defense of those accused of child abuse, most child abusers never go to trial. In many cities it is not unusual for 90 or even 95 percent to plead guilty, and almost nowhere is the figure lower than 70 percent." (Crewdson, 1988, p. 168)
The criminal justice system is operating on an erroneous assumption - that an incestuous father is only perpetrating against his own family, not someone else's children. While some incestuous men have sex only with their own children, according to one study (Abel, 1983), "at least 44%, abuse children outside the home during the time they are having sexual contact with their own children." (Conte, 1987, p. 256)
If convicted of incest/sexual abuse the perpetrator isn't given much punishment. All too often, after a brief and ineffectual sex offender's program, the perpetrator may be given a clean bill of health by a typically male therapist who reassures the perpetrator's wife that it won't happen again.
Child protection agencies often remove the children from the family and place them in foster homes. This victimizes the child - it takes her away from the family and may put her at risk for revictimization while in the foster home. The criminal justice system needs to be changed so that victims aren't revictimized by the system and offenders are held accountable. A task force that represents a broad cross-section of community resources needs to be formed in each community to coordinate their efforts towards making the criminal justice system more effective in handling child abuse cases.
III. A. The family is a subsystem of the community.
III. B. Relevance of basic systemic variables.
"Put together all the existing families and you have society. It is as simple as that. Whatever kind of training took place in the individual family will be reflected in the kind of society that these families create. And institutions such as schools, churches, businesses, and governments are, by and large, extensions of family form to nonfamily forms." (Satir, 1988, p. 360)
Family members take on roles in the family such as wife and mother, father and husband, daughter and sister, and son and brother. When the family goes out into the community the parents take on roles as workers, citizens, volunteers, etc. while children take on roles as students, friends, etc. There are role expectations placed on each member within the family and on the roles they take in the community. Role expectations are a form of social control.
"The most important attribute of a social system is the social norms which hold it together. Norms consist of all the agreements, formal and informal, explicit or implicit, which regulate and give order and purpose to a system, be it a primary or secondary group...Norms give stability and a sense of unity to social systems, but they are also a major source of conflict in social systems." (Longres, 1990, p. 35)
Families have rules and norms that regulate the behaviors of its members. These rules and norms give the family stability but at the expense of the rights of individual members. In the incestuous family, it is at the expense of women and children.
The family system, like all systems, needs to interact with its individual members and members of the larger systems to have "dynamic growth" and stay healthy. The energy exchange across boundaries provides linkage between the systems. Open systems allow energy throughput: closed systems interact little with other systems. Over time, systems develop patterns of interaction with other systems based on the energy exchange and feedback it receives. These patterns are flexible if the system is open and inflexible if the system is closed.
Intervention activities by the social worker is at the boundary interfaces. Unhealthy systems need to allow for interaction and feedback to occur to break up their rigid patterns of interacting. For example, when a family is court ordered to receive family counseling, the family boundaries are forced open to some extent. The individual members and the family as a system may then receive corrective feedback.
IV. Social Work Values and/or Task of Social Work
The social work profession is dedicated to the values of human dignity, personal autonomy, self-realization and self- determination. These are the very areas that victims are the most severely damaged.
In order to be effective in identifying and treating victims of child sexual abuse, the social worker needs to be knowledgeable about the characteristics, aftereffects, and treatment strategies relevant to this issue. Many social workers are in full denial about how prevalent incest is: they mirror the denial of the larger society. Intervention activities should ideally include the victim, the "silent partner", and the perpetrator. "In recent years a number of social services agencies have been seeking to keep the family intact, particularly when all three of the members involved (husband, wife and victim) express a desire to maintain the family. A typical intervention requires the father's removal from the home for a period of six months to a year, during which time all family members are involved in individual treatment." (Zastrow, 1986, p. 202) The goal of keeping the family intact should never take precedence over keeping the children safe from abuse. One caveat is that the children may be pressured into agreeing to keep the family together even when it is not in their best interests.
Intervention activities may also include referral to appropriate individual and/or family counseling services, securing emergency shelter if necessary, referral to medical and legal services, and advocacy for clients. Because it is a very complex issue, the social worker needs to be able to coordinate an array of community services.
More specific recommendations for counseling family members are:
(1) Therapists could use eco-maps to help parents identify relationship problems, patterns of interaction or social isolation, community resources, and improve social functioning.
(2) Guidelines for Perpetrators,
(4) Tasks for family therapy include: promoting the equality of husband and wife, identifying and correcting dysfunctional family rules, improving communication in the family, and helping the family maintain healthy boundaries.
(5) Individual therapy of victims need to incorporate: empowerment, affirmation, and unconditional acceptance. In addition, the victim needs to know that she (he) is not to blame and may need to learn about healthy boundaries for herself (himself) and others. The sooner an abused child receives therapy, the better. "Approximately 40% of all victims/survivors suffer aftereffects serious enough to require therapy in adulthood. (Browne and Finkelhor, 1986)." (Courtois, 1988, p.6) It is also recommended that self-help and support groups be utilized by those adults recovering from childhood sexual abuse.
In the area of prevention, the social worker can provide education to the community and work with citizens groups for legislation to address child sexual abuse. Educating the child to say "no!" is not enough. "Finally, the responsibility we all bear to protect the defenseless falls on the shoulders of the recovering incest survivor as well. She (he) must face the reality that she (he) holds information whose withholding keeps others at risk. No perpetrator stops on his (her) own. In breaking the secret, she (he) has finally, the power to break the chain." (Blume, 1990, p. 72-73)
In a healthy family, each person has access to certain rights.
"For the locus of the problem (incest) is ultimately in the structure of the family. As long as the fathers rule but do not nurture, as long as the mothers nurture but do not rule, the conditions favoring the development of father-daughter incest will prevail." (Herman, 1981, p. 206) "When men no longer rule their families, they may learn for the first time what it means to belong to one." (Herman, 1981, p. 218)
One very interesting fact is that 150 years ago "puberty for women occurred at about age 17." (Bradshaw, 1988, p. 14) Men probably thought that once a woman reached puberty she was approachable sexually and was emotionally mature enough to handle sexual relations. The problem is that today the average age of puberty for girls is about age 12. She isn't mature enough to handle sexual relationships and men still consider puberty the landmark.
The traditional ways of viewing the perpetrator of child sexual abuse as either fixated or regressed and classifying the abuse as either incestuous or pedophilic abuse are being challenged. Many perpetrators have characteristics of both fixated and regressed offenders.
Conte identifies denial, sexual arousal, sexual fantasies, cognitive distortions, social skills deficits, and other psychological and social problems as more useful dimensions for understanding why adults sexually abuse children.
Systems theory identifies interaction between family members as the major source of the dysfunctional family system. No one gets emotionally ill alone. Yet, obviously, a husband (or wife) could indeed bring the dysfunctional behavior (i.e., addictions and pedophilia) to the marriage (from his dysfunctional family of origin). The husband (wife) may not exhibit this behavior until after children are born. Additional stress from various environmental sources may be the "straw that breaks the camels back". The family may unwittingly adjust to the addict's problem. "Like other addictions and mental illness, the homeostatic bond preserves and protects their behavior. (Neill and Kniskerm, 1982 and Dahl, 1983) The pathology is rooted in the interaction of the two different systems: the family system and the individual's addictive system." (Carnes, 1989, p. 104) Addictions to alcohol/drugs also plays a major role in the sexual abuse of children. Alcohol serves as a disinhibitor and increases the chances that the social taboo (taboo = social control) against incest will be broken. Alcoholism/chemical dependency provides the offenders with a convenient excuse that feeds into their minimization and rationalizations of their actions and the severity of the consequences on the child victim. Therefore, social workers need to do primary prevention work by assessing clients with chemical dependency problems. A past history of child abuse or child sexual abuse is an indicator that should raise "red flags". Or, if the client witnessed domestic violence as a child (this is child abuse) then this too should raise "red flags".
The role of denial , repression, and dissociation in individual, family, and community systems can't be underestimated. These mental processes are learned early in life, are deeply entrenched, and are protecting and preserving the systems. Denial, repression and dissociation provide immediate relief from pain, are substitutes for healthy coping skills, and are used to avoid change. I believe these mental processes explain why some people have poorly differentiated perceptual-cognitive systems as described by Gochman. (Gochman, 1968, p. 492) These mental processes need to be addressed by the social worker who aims to improve the systems' functioning.
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Zastrow, Charles. (1990). Introduction to Social Welfare - Social Problems, Services, and Current Issues - 4th Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
By: Patricia D. McClendon, MSSW candidate
Date: Fall 1991
Written By Patricia McClendon - www.clinicalsocialwork.com - 01-01-91