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June 13, 2001

Parents have only themselves to fear

Patricia Pearson
National Post

Last week, I threw this paper away like a hot potato after reading a couple of sentences related to a baby's death and abandonment in Calgary. Like most parents, I am instantly haunted by news of a child's suffering, and can't bear to learn the details. Yet I tip-toed back to the story for a second, nervous peek, because it is precisely this sort of reflexive averting of the eyes that enabled 61,000 Canadian children to be abused in 1998 before anyone had the nerve to intervene.

The 61,000 cases -- an astonishing number -- only refer to the ones in which maltreatment was substantiated by child welfare investigators, according to Health Canada, which has recently released the most comprehensive report on the incidence and characteristics of child abuse that this country has ever compiled.

Thousands more children may be at risk, but nobody is running interference on their behalf. Few people, for instance, are making anonymous calls to the authorities. Two-thirds of the cases of suspected child abuse are flagged by professionals, such as pediatricians and social workers, with a minuscule number coming from the community. In Calgary, a baby was reportedly heard crying and wailing for days within an apartment by the neighbours, but none presumed it was their business until the landlord detected a suspicious smell, and called in the doomed cops who had to find the decomposing body of 15-month-old Domenic Ryu Brown, left all alone in an empty flat.

We don't know what befell little Domenic, nor his three-month-old sister Gemini, who is missing and presumed by police to be floating in the Bow River. Their mother, Rie Fujii, has been charged with failing to properly dispose of a body.

I guess the facts will emerge in time, and those of us who have the stomach will go ahead and read them. But what is interesting is that what Canadian parents do allow themselves to be tormented by -- the spectre of pedophiles in their neighbourhood, the prospect of school violence, the horrors of a mass murder like the one that just unfolded in Japan -- are not the kinds of fates that Canadian children ought, themselves, to fear.

A friend of mine had full-blown insomnia the other night, imagining her seven-year-old son in the position of those eight Japanese schoolchildren who were stabbed to death last week in their classroom by a psychotic man, with many others wounded and still others traumatized by what they saw.

But if you read the new federal report, Child Maltreatment in Canada, you will note that these are rare perils for our children. Fewer than two per cent of the children victimized across the nation in 1998 fell into the hands of strangers. On the contrary, the most common perpetrators are biological mothers, followed by biological fathers. We also fear the wrong kinds of victimization. Only 10% of the children whose lives were investigated by child welfare authorities were being sexually abused, even though our fear of molestation and dirty old men ranks way up there on the parental hysteria scale. (I know it well. I was playing with my daughter in the woods the other day, and every time she disappeared beneath the brambles I had to quell this rush of fear that a predator would snatch her away.)

In truth, what my daughter should more correctly fear is not a quivering, leering demon in the shadows -- but me: her own mother. A far greater number of kids are physically attacked (roughly equally by their mothers and their fathers) than are sexually molested, and a greater number still are neglected.

Neglect is a scary, insidious and damaging form of child abuse that is very hard to track. It's easy for a pediatrician to spot a bruise, but a neglected child won't even be brought in for a check-up. They are invisible, and most shatteringly so to their own parents. They are left unsupervised, to wander, to scavenge, to find their way in the world, in some cases flatly rejected, in others simply ignored, by stressed-out, overwhelmed, mentally ill or drug addicted parents. They are the children who most desperately need to be seen and heard by the rest of us, to whom we must direct our gaze, and not avert it, no matter how pained or presumptuous we feel.

They need not be left alone to cry in an empty apartment. If one child has been, and it's broken our hearts, then please can we rescue the next one?

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