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Fathering after Domestic Violence?

Jack Kammer 78x100

This is a guest blog from NFI Program Support Consultant Jack Kammer, MSW. In 2012 Jack was named Outstanding Recent Graduate at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

A powerful idea in domestic violence circles is that a man, but not a woman, who has been abusive is disqualified as a loving parent. The mere allegation, to say nothing of the actual abuse (no matter how minor,) can prevent a father from having a role in his children’s lives. But there is reason to believe that idea may be fading.

On August 22, 2012, National Public Radio carried a report about efforts in New Haven, Connecticut to engage fathers in the lives of Head Start children. Predictably, the specter of male abusiveness came up. But this time NPR quoted Fernando Mederos, Ed.D., Director of Fatherhood Engagement in the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. He said, “What we owe [abused] women is to say to them, ‘What are your concerns about him and is there any way of having him involved with your kids in a safe way, even in a helpful way?’”

NFI understands that domestic violence is an important topic that deserves serious attention. But we sometimes get a bit weary of having domestic violence be the first thing that comes to people’s minds when we mention fathers in families. NFI works to make sure that men have the skills, confidence and support they need to be strong, confident, loving fathers, and we wish to highlight the sexism that paints fathers far too broadly and far too indelibly with the family violence brush.

The scientific evidence about domestic violence makes quite clear that it is a two-way street between women and men. We can argue whether the balance is 50-50, 60-40 or 35-65, but women as well as men can feel the unhealthy impulse toward power and control, the factors that contribute to domestic violence. And the evidence also calls into serious question the ready notion that when women are physically violent towards men it is only in self-defense; in fact, significant science suggests that women initiate more domestic violence than men do. (The annotated bibliography maintained by Martin Fiebert at the University of California, Long Beach, is a good place to start your own investigation of the science around domestic violence.)

Now, having said that, NFI readily acknowledges that when domestic violence involves serious injury, women are somewhere between three and seven times more likely than men to be the victims. And having said that, it is important to point out that most domestic violence – especially under the very broad and vague definitions propounded by some DV activists – does not involve serious injury. Furthermore, most men are not involved in domestic violence at all.

So, back to the initial question: Can a man who has been abusive be a loving parent? NFI is firmly committed to the idea that for most fathers, the answer can be a resounding yes, to the benefit of children, mothers, fathers, your agency and entire communities alike. NFI products such as our 24/7 Dad  and InsideOut Dad curricula and our Understanding Domestic Violence FatherTopics Workshop all help to provide fathers with the skills they need to understand and be understood by their partners through healthy, compassionate, nonviolent communication.

What do you think?

What Was Missing in Sandusky Case? Fathers

SanduskyJerry Sandusky was found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse a week ago. Despite the verdict, important questions should continue to be asked. Why didn’t the assistant football coaches do something? Why didn’t the school administration do something? But the biggest, most pointed question is, “How in the world was Sandusky able to prey on so many young boys for so long?”

From our perspective, Sandusky would not have been able to do what he did had he not had access to so many boys growing up in father-absent homes.

Ronnie Polaneczky of the Philadelphia Inquirer brings up this point in her column, Sandusky case underscores importance of fathers. She asks, "What if so many of Sandusky's victims hadn't needed father figures in the first place?" She answers her own question: “This never would've happened.”

Sandusky intentionally surrounded himself with children from homes that didn’t have involved fathers by starting a foundation, The Second Mile, dedicated to helping boys from “disadvantaged” homes.

Polanecksky writes, “I'd bet my own dad's hypertension meds that Sandusky never would've groomed those Second Milers for sex had the children had active fathers whose wrath Sandusky might've feared.”

Of Sandusky's known victims, six had no father in their lives and three admitted to never having known their dads. On the witness stand, many of the boys said they thought of Sandusky as the father they'd never had.

One boy said, he (Sandusky) "treated me like a son in front of other people.” Another victim testified, "I looked at Jerry as kind of a father figure...I didn't want to lose somebody actually paying attention to me."

NFI understands children have an innate need for their fathers’ affirmation and attention. “Children have a hole in their soul the shape of their fathers,” says NFI President Roland Warren. And we know from decades of research that fathers matter. Whether a father is in the home and involved or not changes just about everything – for good or ill.

Sadly, folks like Sandusky know this and prey on children with absent fathers. Like drug dealers or gang leaders, they exploit what they recognize as a weakness or vulnerability in a child craving adult male attention.

To note, this is what DC sniper Lee Malvo said about how John Muhammad caught him up in his web: “Anything he asked me to do I'd do. He knew I didn't have a father. He knew my weaknesses and what was missing.”

We also know through social science research that children from father-absent homes are far more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse than those growing up in two-parent families.

Economics will not fix this problem. Needy children exist in wealthy homes, too. Only a society willing to educate and train up a generation on the importance of fatherhood can change this problem.

In other words, we need to get to the root by asking the most-pointed question more often: “Why were these kid’s victimized?” More often than not, the answer is going to be because their fathers weren’t there to protect them physically and emotionally.

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What the Penn State Scandal Tells Us: We Don't Care About the Sexual Abuse of Boys

Most of the commentary about the sex abuse scandal at Penn State University is what one would expect. Penn State football fans debate the fairness of the abrupt firing of their beloved coach; the Penn State board of directors talks about its need to hastily handle this public relations nightmare and restore the university’s storied reputation. The pundits on TV and radio pontificate while pointing their fingers and shaking their fists, questioning how Jerry Sandusky could get away with so much abuse of so many boys for so long.

Certainly, this makes good fodder for the 24-hour news cycle. And it may even assuage our collective need to understand what happened. However, this sexual abuse scandal confirms a much broader problem that has become increasingly evident to me. One that says less about Penn State than it does about our culture.

We don’t care about the sexual abuse of boys.

Consider just a few of the allegations in the Sandusky situation:

  • A janitor observed Sandusky the showers at the Penn State football building with a young boy pinned up against the wall, preforming oral sex on the boy. The janitor immediately tells others on the janitorial staff, including his supervisor. In fact, another janitor also sees Sandusky with the boy. Despite all of this, no one makes a report of the incident.
  • A 28-year-old Penn State graduate assistant enters the locker room at the football building. In the shower, he sees a naked boy, who he estimates to be about 10 years old, being sodomized by a naked Sandusky. Although he tells Paterno the next day, at the time, he does nothing to stop Sandusky.
Now, replace the word “boy” in the above instances with “girl.” Do you think that two janitors would fail to stop Sandusky from sexually assaulting a little girl? I think not. What about the graduate assistant? He was a former Penn State football player. No doubt, he would have used his best form tackling technique on Sandusky to stop him from raping a little girl.

And, consider how differently the Penn State administrators, who were told by Paterno about Sandusky’s behavior, would have responded if the victims were girls. Would they have stood idly by for years? No. They would have taken immediate action rather than risk being on the receiving end of the wrath of celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, NOW, and numerous women’s groups on campus. They would have reasoned that Penn State getting a reputation as a university that did not protect girls and women would have deeply negative consequences for years to come.

Not only that, they would probably take proactive steps to show the public that Penn State is dedicated to becoming a place that is safe for girls and women. They would start a new research center, and host forums, events, and marches to show their solidarity with the community of women. What will Penn State do to show it is a safe place for boys?

Boys have no advocacy groups to fight for them. Baby seals, pit bulls, and trees do, it seems. No matter how young and vulnerable, boys are expected to fend for themselves.

According to Prevent Child Abuse America, the sexual abuse of boys is under-reported and under-treated. Although the sexual abuse of girls has been widely studied, little research has been done on the abuse of boys. Accordingly, we don’t know nearly as much about it as we should. But, what we do know is quite troubling.

First, boys at the highest risk are younger than thirteen years of age, nonwhite, of lower socioeconomic status, and live in father-absent homes. (Alas, it is no surprise that Sandusky founded an agency that would provide him easy access to troubled boys from broken homes.) Second, sexually abused boys seem to experience more severe and complex consequences than girls in respect to emotional and behavioral problems. Yet, as a culture, much like the Penn State janitors and the graduate assistant, we see what is happening, have the ability to help, but we do nothing.

As is typical with all sex scandals, in time they move from the front page to the back page; from being the lead story to a minor mention; we move on and we forget. But our boys need our help to protect them from the Jerry Sandusky’s of the world and, when they become prey, to help them heal.

But first of all, they need us to care.

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