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A Matter of Perspective

Monday, 31 July 2006 / Published in Discussion, Ongoing debates / 5,023 views

A Matter of Perspective

I am a licensed clinical psychologist who has been working with children for about the last ten years. I have worked with many abused children along with the agencies that aim to help them. I have first-hand and daily knowledge that physical abuse often emotionally harms children in addition to physically harming them.

I have read some of the recent discussions about the handling of Dhanurdhara Maharaja’s case. I have also read the case file. I believe Dhanurdhara Maharaja physically abused children in Vrindavan and should have been held accountable. I am in agreement with the decision he no longer initiate. Yet, I am uncomfortable with a few recurring themes I find in the material I have read: 1) The tendency to consider all abuse to be the same; 2) The view that there is a universal definition of abuse and particularly of physical abuse; and 3) The belief that inaccurate memories of abuse are rare.

1)Concerning the tendency to equate all kinds of abuse;

There are different kinds of abuse: physical, sexual, emotional, and neglect. It is worthwhile to note that the harm done to a child differs according to a many factors, including the type of abuse. The legal consequences for a convicted abuser also depend upon the type of abuse inflicted on the victim.

As a psychologist, I am required by law to report to Child Protective Services whenever I have reason to suspect that a child I see is abused. Emotional abuse falls under a different standard than other types of abuse. In checking records of reports of abuse by psychologists in Pennsylvania, emotional abuse is rarely reported. In fact, only about 1% of all proven cases of abuse involve emotional abuse. The main reason for the infrequent reporting is not that emotional abuse is rare. Rather, it is so common that the vast majority of parents I see would be investigated. The few times I have filed a report of emotional abuse, nothing happened. Child Protective Services did not take the reports seriously. This is because emotional abuse is usually treated as a lesser category of abuse. The states of Georgia and Washington do not even include emotional abuse in their child protection laws. Naturally, there are negative consequences for an emotionally abused child. Still, the prevalence of this type of abuse is so common and establishing the proof so subjective that legal intervention is much more difficult to justify.

Similarly, the child protection system deals with physical abuse very differently from sexual abuse. For example, in Pennsylvania suspected physical abuse must only be reported if it has happened within the past two years. No such limitation exists for reporting incidents of sexual abuse. The legal consequences given to an identified perpetrator of physical and sexual abuse are also different. For example, I recently interviewed a family where a step-parent admittedly broke a child’s arm while disciplining him. The step-father was subsequently required to stay out of the home for six months and complete a brief course of parenting classes. He is now back in the home with the child. In contrast, in my experience in Pennsylvania, a caregiver who had sexually abused a child would never be allowed back into the home.

Identified sex abusers are often individuals who are predatory and seek out situations where they can interact with children who they later sexually abuse. This predatory abusive behavior can be highly resistant to change even with punishment and treatment efforts. The standard recommendation is to isolate such people from children for life. This is usually not the case with people who have physically abused children.

My point is not to condone physical or emotional abuse. I believe Dhanurdhara Maharaja physically abused children and should have suffered consequences. I am saying those consequences should differ from those given for those who sexually abused children.
2)There is no universal definition of abuse, particularly of physical abuse

In my work with children, I take the position that using corporal punishment to discipline a child is rarely, if ever, helpful. I take this stance knowing that the majority of parents in this country frequently use corporal punishment and sometimes do so to the extreme. It may surprise you to know that many of my highly-educated colleagues in 2006 do not share my opinion and advocate the judicial use of a considerable amount corporal punishment with children. It is interesting to note that Jamie Fox, recent Academy Award Winner, during his acceptance speech attributed his acting success to the frequent beatings he received from his grandmother as a child.

Psychology Today carried out an anonymous survey in the late 90’s to look into the disciplinary styles of the mothers within their readership who are predominantly white middle-class mothers. The mothers were asked: “How often do you spank your son?” Most people are surprised to hear the average responder to the survey reported spanking her son about 150 times per year (about three times per week). This figure did not include the spankings the child may have received from the father. Interestingly, when I ask similar mothers in my office how they discipline their children, they typically respond: “I put them in time out.” I know such answers usually reflect a socially acceptable response by a parent influenced by current social pressures. A little more prodding often exposes the use of frequent corporal punishment in the home. Discipline with the use of frequent corporal punishment remains a norm in the United States rather than an exception.

With the frequent use of corporal punishment even today in America, one may ask the question whether differentiating between what society considers “justifiable” corporal punishment and what is considered physical abuse is clear cut and concise. Have definitions of physical abuse changed over time and according to the location of the incident? The information cited below supports the latter view.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, laws dealing with the mistreatment of children were passed in many US states, however it was not until 1974 that a federal statute defining child abuse was first enacted. (Seth C. Kalichman, Mandated Reporting of Suspected Child Abuse: Ethics, Law, and Policy. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association (1993).

Prior to the 1960’s, child protection efforts were primarily focused on homeless children and those who had not received adequate care. Beginning in the 1960’s, child protection laws first addressed a problem called “Battered Child Syndrome”, which was diagnosed through medical tests performed by physicians. Since the 1960’s, statutes have frequently changed the definitions of child abuse, as well as the regulations concerning those who are legally mandated to recognize and report such abuse. In California alone, the law has been changed at least fifteen times since its original enactment.

According to Kalichman, “Mandatory reporting laws across states invariably have several core components in common…The greatest degree of variability between laws is the way in which abuse is defined and under what conditions reporting is required.” (p.13). This is particularly true of physical abuse. Some states, like Pennsylvania, require the presence of a serious physical injury (e.g., broken bone) in order for an act to be considered physical abuse. Others, such as Delaware, consider any injury, even a minor bruise, to be physical abuse. When a child who lives in a different state comes to my office, I must be familiar with the specific definition of physical abuse in the child’s state before making a determination about whether the situation I am encountering is abuse.

At the international level, there are seventeen countries, including Sweden, Italy, Germany, and Portugal, where using any form of corporal punishment on a child is considered to be abusive. In those countries it is illegal for a parent, teacher, or caretaker to use corporal punishment. In contrast, in all fifty of the United States, it is currently legal for a parent to use corporal punishment on a child. It is also legal in 23 US states for a teacher to use corporal punishment on a child.

If, in 20 years, the United States adopted child protection laws similar to those of Sweden, would it be appropriate to hold people accountable for abuse who spank their children today (like the mothers in the survey)? The US Constitution protects citizens against retroactive criminalization of acts that were legal when committed (ex post facto laws). The key point is whether someone broke the law at the time, not whether the act committed at a different time would break the law today. It is essential to take into consideration the time and place of the acts committed.

In addition, an act may be a crime in a country but not in another. A country’s laws reflect the norms and practices of that country. We are all to some degree affected by the norms of the country in which we live. Since views about what is child abuse have changed over time and differ from country to country, the norms for discipline of children and the laws relating to child abuse in India at the time of the occurrences should be a primary factor in considering the resolution of the Dhanurdhara Swami case.

I have included at the end of this writing a few recent articles comparing views of acceptable methods of child discipline in Asia, India, and the West. Keep in mind these articles are recent and do not necessarily reflect the status of the conceptions held fifteen or twenty years ago, which were likely even less sensitive to issues of possible child abuse than that found in the articles cited below. I think even a quick skimming of the articles will alert the reader to substantial differences in opinions about discipline and child abuse among the countries examined. I include these references not to pass judgment on child-rearing practices in Asia. I believe an understanding of the differences between 21st Century America and India in the 1970’s is an important factor in arriving at a just decision in this case.

3)Inaccurate memories of abuse are not rare

It has been suggested that the only categories of false memories are: 1) those that have supposedly been recovered after having been “lost” through repression but have actually been implanted by suggestion, and 2) those that are born from a motive for money or revenge.

I propose that there a quite a few other categories of false memories, embellishments of the truth, and lies. Human society and human beings are complex and the possible motives for embellishing or misrepresenting facts are voluminous. By saying this I am not saying that I believe all the things attributed to Dhanurdhara Swami are untrue. His actions have been reprehensible. What I am saying is that I believe included among the volume of serious and real cases of child abuse are those where the facts have been embellished and some where the “facts” have been made up. Therefore the situations need to be examined case by case by unbiased and professionally trained individuals.

It has been said that only 1% of the ISKCON child abuse cases were found to be made up. I know of more than that number personally.

Consider this, I recently reviewed statistics from one local residential school for children in Philadelphia. The facility recorded 59 allegations of child abuse during the 2005-2006 school year reported by the children to the local child protection agency. The 59 cases were investigated and all 59 of them were not found to be credible when investigated by the Child Protection Agency. The motives for the allegations of child abuse by the children ranged from wanting to go home early on weekends to attempts to get out of doing a chore.

Here are some excerpts from “A Guide for Foster Parents When Facing Charges of Abuse” given to foster parents at a local agency (Dowskin, 2004). I believe the ideas relevant to the current discussion since children in gurukulas were in similar situations to foster children who often live under the care of other adults for a limited period of time and against their will before returning to their biological parent.

Q: Isn’t it true that only notorious perverts get charged with child abuse?
A: Unfortunately, it is the real abuser who often escapes detection, either through intimidation of the victim or by being very careful. If is often the innocent person, both in terms of guilt and awareness of the possibility of being charged, that find themselves formally charged with abuse.

Q: Against whom are allegations of abuse most often made?
A: For longtime foster parents it is almost an occupational hazard…This is not to say that in some situations the surrogate parent is not guilty. However, in many if not most of the situations, the charges have a definite pattern. Of greatest danger is when the child has been promised a return home and the return has been postponed or cancelled.

Here is another example of what the NJ court later found to be numerous false allegations of child abuse;

In the 1980’s, there was an apparent epidemic of child abuse cases in day care centers across the United States. One famous case occurred in Maplewood, New Jersey, where Kelly Michaels, a 23-year-old day care worker, was convicted of 115 counts of sexual abuse of pre-schoolers (see ). At the time of the investigation and trial, several people who questioned the veracity of the reports of alleged sexual abuse were ridiculed as being in denial. The defendant was later acquitted by the New Jersey Supreme Court, because the Court recognized that leading questions by the investigators influenced the children’s testimony, in flagrant breach of evidence rules. It was determined that the children in question had no repressed memories but responded to the investigators’ suggestions at the time of the investigation. The social pressure of the setting was sufficient to cause the children to create, alter, or embellish memories of actual events.

An argument could be made that young children are very impressionable, while older children or adults are much less so. However, research with adolescents and adults alike has consistently shown them to also be impressionable, adjusting their memories and even direct perceptions to social demands. There are a number of classic social psychology experiments that clearly illustrate this point and I can give references to anyone interested. Adults are definitely suggestible. People on Madison Avenue bank on this fact.

At the time the initial interviews of potential child abuse victims of Dhanurdhara Swami were conducted, I and others called attention to what we believed to be the obvious and stated bias of several of the interviewers. The objections were ignored by the child protection team administration at the time. I have no doubt this resulted in some of the interview data being biased.

My sincere request is that the current decision-making body carefully review the situation and insure that the interviews on which their current decision will rest are those where investigators were sufficiently free from the tendency and motive to lead the interviewees to a foregone conclusion. In addition, each case should be examined individually to separate the true cases of child abuse from those that have been embellished due to a variety of possible causes. I do not believe this has, as yet, actually taken place.

This will do good to the children who have been abused by Dhanurdhara Swami, the Child Protection System in ISKCON, Dhanurdhara Swami and his disciples, and even those children who may have embellished their testimony. The aim is justice, nothing more, nothing less.

Vishnugada dasa, aka James Evans, Psy.D.
International Social Work, Vol. 42, No. 1, 39-52 (1999)
Children are abused in eastern countries: a look at India
Uma A. Segal
Center for International Studies, University of Missouri, St Louis, USA
Identification of child abuse requires study of (1) adult behavior, (2) the effect on, or the reaction of, the child, and (3) the perception of the observer. This article looks at three published studies in order to explore claims that Indians do not abuse children. Research shows that (1) there is widespread use of corporal punishment, often severe, (2) children find this unacceptable and (3) Indian social workers are lacking in awareness of the problem. Attention should therefore be focused on recognition of abuse as a problem, rather than on numbers of cases.
From: Public Perceptions of Child Abuse and Neglect in Singapore (Kions, Elliot, and Tan, 1996). pp. 12-19.
Comparisons between Western and Singaporean cultures
It is important to develop a definition based on information gathered within the local context as opposed to adopting a definition established overseas, especially in the West. This is because Western countries may have cultural values that are not reflective of Singaporeans’ childrearing attitudes. There are points of departure between Western and Singaporean attitudes on a number of issues closely related to child abuse and neglect, like physical punishment and emotional expression. Yet, as will be mentioned in the following discussion, there are points of agreement as well, especially with regards to the amount of
sexuality between adults and children.

Cultures generally display a lack of tolerance for sexual relations between adults and children. Giovannoni and Becerra (1979) surveyed the community (Caucasians, Mexican-Americans and African-Americans) and professionals (paediatricians, lawyers, police and social workers) in the Los Angeles area on how seriously they viewed certain items with the potential to be considered child abuse and neglect. The respondents rated items in the sexual abuse category (e.g., fondling of genital area, showing of pornographic pictures etc.) very seriously. Roscoe (1990) got American college students to rate the same items and they rated the sexual abuse items as the most serious. Segal (1992) obtained the same results with Indian professionals. This general lack of tolerance for sexual relations between adults and children indicates that cultures are not likely to differ much with respect to what is sexual abuse.

With regards to physical punishment, the clash of the cultures is more evident. Western cultures display a lower tolerance of physical punishment. A survey of the community in Christchurch, New Zealand revealed that of five alternative punishment techniques, physical punishment was least acceptable (Blampied & Kahan, 1992). Daro & Gelles (1992) analyzed data collected from a representative sample of the public each year from 1987 to 1992, and found that the public viewed physical punishment as harmful and that the rate of spanking had declined since 1989.

However, some Asian societies have displayed a generally higher tolerance of corporal punishment. Samuda (1988), who conducted a questionnaire survey of experiences of child care and discipline among university students in Hong Kong, noted:

Traditionally, the use of physical punishment to ensure obedience has played an important role in the rearing of Chinese children once they reach 4 or 5 years. In Hong Kong today, small rattan sticks to be used for disciplining children are sold in the markets. Not surprisingly then, 46% of the questionnaire respondents reported that beating was the most severe form of physical punishment used in their homes, and 35% remember physical punishment as their most painful physical experience. From the responses, it would seem that beating is a widely used form of child discipline.

Segal (1992) observed a similar acceptance of corporal punishment among middleclass
professionals in India.

(The results of the interview survey supported) the belief that corporal punishment continues to be sanctioned in India, even among the middle class and upper-middle classes that are usually highly
educated… Surprisingly, 131 (of 319 respondents) admitted to have kicked, bitten, or hit their child with a fist, “beat up” the child or hit or tried to hit the child with an object. Even more distressing was the
finding that 9 subjects revealed that they had either threatened their children with knives or guns or had used these weapons on them.p.225)

Singaporeans find certain forms of physical punishment like light caning quite acceptable and even necessary. It should be noted, however, that corporal punishment may not always be associated with hostility to the child, but may be regarded in Asian societies as a sign of parental concern (Loh, 1990). It should be made clear that Singaporeans do not condone physical violence to children. They frown upon
excessive physical punishment. The question is what level of punishment is seen as excessive. The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate use of the cane is reported by Wong (1982):

Traditionally, the Chinese (and other races as well) use the cane as an instrument to chastise or punish a child, quite legitimately when he needs such punishment. It is sparingly used but so traditional that
provision shops sell these canes looped at one end as a handle for the adult to hold. When used in the so-called legitimate way, it is administered to the hands or feet, without eliciting any cane marks at
all. When the marks are present, especially in profusion and over the face and body, these may be a sign of irrational behaviour on the part of the adult . (p.147)

A review of (mainly legal) definitions of child abuse & neglect used in various countries is presented in Table 2.1

Table 2.1 Definitions of child abuse and neglect in various countries – continued
Country Source Definition: India
National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development (1988): Note the year of the establishment of this definition.

Child abuse and neglect is the intentional, nonaccidental injury, maltreatment of children by parents, caretakers, employers, or others including those individuals representing governmental or nongovernmental bodies which may lead to temporary or permanent impairment of their
physical, mental and psychosocial development, disability or death.
Risk Factors for Severe Child Discipline Practices in Rural India
Wanda M. Hunter, MPH1, Dipty Jain, MBBS, MSc, MD2, Laura S. Sadowski, MD, MPH1 and Antonio I. Sanhueza, MPH, MS3
1 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2 Government Medical College, Nagpur, Maharashtra, India, 3 Universidad de La Frontera, Temuco, Chile
All correspondence should be sent to Wanda M. Hunter, Department of Social Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, CB#7240, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599. E-mail: .
Objectives: To determine the type and severity of discipline practices in rural India and to identify risk and protective factors related to these practices.
Methods: Five hundred mothers, ages 18-50, participated in face-to-face interviews as part of a cross-sectional, population-based survey. One of the mother’s children was randomly selected as the referent child. The interview focused primarily on discipline practices and spousal violence. Sociodemographic characteristics, neighbor support, residential stability, and husband’s drinking behavior were also assessed.
Results: Nearly half of the mothers reported using severe verbal discipline and 42% reported using severe physical discipline. While common, severe discipline practices occurred less frequently than moderate practices and had different risk factors, notably low maternal education and spousal violence.
Conclusions: Results suggest that increased formal education for rural women in India may have the added benefit of reducing family violence, including spouse and child abuse.
From Asian Indian Empowerment , July, 2003.
Child abuse and neglect (CAN) has been a difficult topic for the West and East to confront. While the West has taken larger steps in approaching this issue, the East lags behind. Separately attacking child maltreatment in the East and in the West is difficult enough. Tackling this issue, however, in the presence of both East and West, requires much insight. Part of the challenge lies in the different perceptions of CAN by Americans and Asians.
Even in the U.S., with its complex infrastructure and democratic process, combating CAN is still relatively new. From the first reported case of child abuse in the 1800s, to the recognition of the “battered child syndrome” in the 1960s (Tower, 1999, p.12), to the 1974 Congressional enactment of the important federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, America’s take on children’s rights has slowly but persistently been established, with most efforts taking place in the past few decades. In Asia, on the other hand, abuse is still, due to cultural roots, a hard issue to tackle.
Asians have commonly believed that child abuse is only defined as extreme physical torture exerted on a child. Only in extreme cases involving such drastic physical torture from beatings in the bathtub, to abandonment of infants in coin lockers (WuDunn, 1999), to severe maternal beatings resulting in death of a four-year old son (Kyodo News Service, 2003), child abuse would be justifiably reported. More modest cases, however, are less likely to be recognized than these blatantly abusive ones. For Asian families, the general assumption is that physical punishment or discipline by striking a child does not qualify as abuse (Tran, 1997).

One Response to “A Matter of Perspective”

  1. Urmila devi dasi says :

    Dear Visnugada Prabhu,

    Please accept my obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada!

    Your article provides us with much needed information and perspective for a rational and just discussion about child protection.

    Would you kindly also give us information, perhaps in a separate article, about the kinds and degrees of sexual abuse and the ways in which such abuse is handled? It would be very helpful to understand how the definition of child sexual abuse has changed over the years, how it is understood by different cultures, and how it is understood in Vaisnava sastras. Some areas of concern are the age of consent, the definition of consent and coercion, adult-child abuse, adult-teenager abuse/behavior, and child-child behavior. For example, by the definition of child abuse current in some Western countries, marriage as described in sastra, and as practiced by our acaryas, could today be considered by some as abusive.

    Again, thank you for your contribution. I hope this meets you well and blissful.

    Your servant, Urmila devi dasi

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