ABC’s 20/20 aired a documentary on November 19 entitled Escape from a House of Horror in which Diane Sawyer interviewed two young women who described their lives and their escape from living for decades in a family where all the children were horrifically abused. We learn how a family of 13 children were starved, beaten, chained to beds, lived in filth and were never allowed out of the house. Because so much was captured in photos and videos, viewers were exposed to many graphic scenes and descriptions of the atrocities these children endured, from the oldest child who was in her late 20s down to the youngest who was just a few years old.
The parents were experts at concealing what was happening behind closed doors and the children had no opportunities to tell anyone what they were experiencing. In fact, these children had no way to know that this was not the way children were supposed to be treated. It was the 17-year-old child who finally escaped the house and used a cell phone she had found to call 911 to finally bring authorities into the home where they discovered the horrific facts of these children’s lives.
Of course, this is an exceptionally dramatic case of child abuse and neglect but perhaps there are some lessons for all of us to learn from an extreme story like this.
The thing about child abuse and neglect is that it usually happens behind closed doors, most often in the home environment. Children often don’t know they are being abused or neglected because the life they are experiencing is all they know and therefore believe that it is normal. And even if they know that something isn’t right, they can be terrified to share the realities with other adults in their lives. What a horrible dilemma for child to be in!
As most of us know there is now research that shows that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) first uncovered in studies done in the 1990s and repeated hundreds of times with similar outcomes make it an irrefutable fact that the adverse experiences of childhood profoundly affect the physical, emotional and mental health of these children in their adult lives. We also know that the transgenerational nature of childhood trauma perpetuates cycles of abuse and neglect. Often parents are doing to their children what was done to them. In many ways it should not be about blaming as much as appreciating the realities of these cycles of abuse and neglect that can be perpetuated throughout generations.
Tragic stories like the one the 20/20 documentary reveal, along with all the millions of experiences of abuse and neglect that have occurred for hundreds of years to children in every category of socioeconomic status and geographic location, raise more questions than offer answers or solutions.
How do we stop the cycles of abuse and neglect? How do we even know which children we see playing in parks, climbing on school buses or are playing with our own children and look outwardly happy actually are experiencing abuse and/or neglect in their own homes?
A show like this 20/20 special can raise our awareness and deepen our appreciation that we cannot trust our abilities to recognize children who are being abused or neglected behind closed doors. It is important to not assume that everyone who looks happy on the outside is actually happy and healthy on the inside.
What can we do to change things? In my experience in working with parents in developing a parenting education curriculum many years ago, I have learned that comprehensive, research-based and nurturing parenting education is a way to interrupt those family legacies of abuse and neglect. I dream of a world where we could bring trauma-informed parenting education to communities everywhere.
Parents can also do some of their own work on learning about healthy parenting practices by reading books like What Happened to You? By Bruce Perry and Oprah and Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us about the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans by Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD as well as many other classic books on parenting. Parents can check out the many resources on Google, being careful consumers to ensure that what they are reading is research-based. Parents can form their own networks of support among their friends to discuss parenting practices and share some of their personal stories.
The 20/20 show also highlighted how the systems that exist to care for the well-being of children totally failed the children rescued from their abusive and neglectful family. Their investigation showed organizations like The Division of Victims Services and various foster care agencies that placed several of the 13 children in homes perpetuated the children’s’ experiences of pain of abuse and neglect at the hands of the adults who were supposed to care for them.
Dr. Sandra Bloom in her new model called Creating PRESENCE helps organizations become trauma-informed, trauma-responsive and trauma-resilient. We can all encourage social service organizations to check out this important training program.
As I write this, I think about those of you who have your own history of abuse and/or neglect growing up, things that happened to you behind closed doors that at the time you may not have recognized as being abnormal. Perhaps it wasn’t until you became an adult that you realized you had been victimized and traumatized as a child. Please know that you never deserved that kind of treatment and especially know that you have the right and obligation to do the work to address your unresolved trauma.
You have the power to interrupt whatever legacies of abuse and/or neglect that existed in your family by raising your awareness and understanding those legacies and replacing them with healthy parenting practices. Make sure you include educating yourself on the nature of trauma and consider finding a good trauma-informed therapist to work with. Collectively and individually, we have the power to find better ways to protect children from the abuses that can be going on every day behind closed doors.
Invitation for Reflection
- Notice your reactions to reading this blog, including thoughts, feelings and sensations in your body. These can be exceptionally strong if you have personally experienced abuse and/or neglect as a child.
- Consider ways you might promote greater awareness of the issues around abuse and/or neglect that are occurring every day behind closed doors.
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute