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Battered Child Syndrome –
“Why Didn’t She Tell?”

Diana McCoy, Ph.D.

A common concern when a juvenile has committed a homicide and later alleges that she or he had been abused by the deceased, often a family member, is why that child told no one despite many opportunities to have done so. This is particularly problematic when the child pointblank denies abuse to the police or his or her attorney yet later tells someone else about the abuse, often during a psychological evaluation.

An understanding of this involves an exploration of child and adolescent developmental norms, gender roles, as well as societal values and how these interplay with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the usual diagnosis when there has been severe abuse. PTSD is a mental illness resulting from very severe trauma that is perceived as life threatening. It renders the individual in a constant state of anxiety, with coping taking the form of avoiding anything that sets off thoughts of the trauma, in this case some version of abuse. Battered women and combat veterans often warrant this diagnosis as well.

A critical point for anyone working with suspected abuse victims, child or adult, male or female, is the awareness that talking about the abuse before or even after the homicide is something that someone with PTSD most definitely does not want to do. The DSM-IV lists avoidance of talking about the trauma as a symptom of PTSD. To talk about the abuse is to be reminded of behavior from a feared other that was sometimes painful, often humiliating, and always terrifying. An individual with PTSD spends significant energy each day avoiding any reminders that might trigger these unpleasant sensations. So uncomfortable are thoughts of the abuse that not talking about the abuse oftentimes takes priority over working on one’s defense with one’s attorney, a difficult concept for non-PTSD sufferers to grasp in view of the high stakes involved.

Sometimes a child may take the position that she has told you all you need to know about her horrific experiences with the deceased in order for you to mount a defense on her behalf. She may believe that telling you or anyone else the whole story in every detail should not be necessary, that what she has already told you should be sufficient for you to help her. The paradox confounding child abuse victims is that often they feel tremendous shame for having allowed the abuse to continue yet at the same time were powerless to stop it. Sometimes I will have a child write what was said or done to him or her, since saying it aloud to another person is so unbearably humiliating.

In my work with battered women I have found that the usual sequence following a homicide is to first learn from these women about psychological abuse, then physical abuse, and finally sexual abuse, with each step requiring varying amounts of time. My experience with children has been that disclosures are often in the same order but revelations come much quicker.

Young people, especially girls, are much more likely to discuss sexual abuse with a female. In a recent case in which I was involved, the credibility of a preadolescent female’s post homicide allegations of sexual abuse was called into question because she told no one about the deceased having sexually abused her after being questioned first by a roomful of male police officers, then her guardian ad litem and attorney, both men, and finally a male psychiatrist and male psychologist at the hospital where she was evaluated following the homicide.

The most obvious reason that battered children do not disclose the battering prior to the homicide is that of fear - fear that they will not be believed, fear that they will be put back into the home with the abuser and possibly killed for having told, fear that a loved one or pet will be murdered in retribution, and fear that the abuse revelation will not be kept confidential such that their peer group will learn about the abuse, something teenagers in particular seek to avoid at all costs.

Feeding the concept of fear is the poor self-esteem emanating from being repeatedly and consistently devalued over time as a result of the psychological abuse that is almost always a part of the battering package. Psychological abuse, as distinguished from emotional abuse, is a destructive pattern of consistently tearing someone down so as to shatter his or her self-concept, often putting that person in a state of constant fear, i.e., “No one cares about you,” “It doesn’t matter to anyone what I do to you,” “No one will ever miss you if I take you out back and kill you,” etc. Habitually feeling oneself to be small and inconsequential from this kind of brainwashing exacerbates the sense of the abuser as having almost superhuman powers. One little girl I interviewed haltingly told me of her stepfather’s mistreatment of her in a whisper, so sure was she that he always knew everything she said about him whether he was physically present or not.

Fear of loss of connection, even if that connection is within an abusive family, is a very powerful incentive for female victims to keep silent, with relationship being central to female emotional development (Gilligan, 1982). Despite being a victim of abuse, a female battered child will often not speak out for fear of losing the relationship with the perpetrator, especially since that individual may have alternated abuse with confusing periods of caretaking and even kindness. Maintaining relationships with others within the family is also a consideration as well as relationships that may have been established within the community, with most children these days being well aware that revelations about abuse are likely to disrupt these important affiliations.

Societal issues also come into play to enforce secrecy. It often takes years for females in our culture to sort out the fine points of what they do and do not have to tolerate in our patriarchal society, where those in power are men, the rules are made by men, and women and children are disenfranchised. Since studies indicate that in the United States every six minutes a woman is raped, every fifteen seconds a woman is beaten by her husband or partner, a female’s risk of being raped is one in four, and the risk for girls of being sexually abused by an adult is one in three, it is understandably difficult for a female child to have any assurance that she and she alone is in charge of her own body (Mirkin, 1994).

A sense of no one caring stems from being part of a dysfunctional family, where typically family members may know the child is being abused and the child knows they know but no one intervenes on his or her behalf. This stems from the fact that these individuals, too, may be abuse victims in some form or fashion, usually at the hands of the same perpetrator, and are at varying levels of fear or denial about their own situation. A child may reason that if even the people who are supposed to love you do not think your suffering is worth going out on a limb for, then why would anyone else care enough to help?

Abusive families often have a history of frequently moving from place to place for obvious reasons: numerous school changes lessen opportunities for the child to make friends and then confide in these friends, possibly revealing the abuse. In any event, the child, failing to establish trusting relationships within the family, consequently has little experience establishing other kinds of relationships, including peer relationships.

Those battered children who may begin forming peer relationships despite obstacles often do so around age 12 or 13, when the physical development of adolescence begins and heterosexual interest is piqued along with the phenomenon, especially with girls, of “best friends.” Inasmuch as best friends, whose developmental purpose is said to be a kind of rehearsal for what will later be an abiding interest in a mate, are confidantes, this is often a critical juncture when abuse may come to the attention of outsiders.

It is at this point that battered children may elect to “test the water” by making veiled references about the abuse to peers or even parents of peers. It has been my experience that although at the time these children, who are usually well schooled in keeping family secrets, believe they are making very revealing statements to these carefully selected individuals, they may later acknowledge in retrospect that perhaps they did not say as much about the abuse as they thought they had. The recipients of these red flags may sense something is not quite right but not know how to interpret the clues, especially if direct questioning along the lines of “Are you being abused?” meets with a negative response, as is very often the case.

When the abuse reaches the level that the child fears for his or her life, typically because of the same sorts of things a battered woman describes, i.e., an escalating pattern of abusive behavior, outright threats to kill the victim by a particular date, etc., and in the absence of anyone coming to the child’s aid, that child, in a state of panic and desperation, may feel she has to save herself because no one else will. In consideration of a child’s immaturity in judgment, perception of the abuser as the most powerful being on earth, abbreviated time sense such that a week is akin to a month or more in adult time, and the characteristic impulsivity of youth, a young person, especially one suffering from PTSD and thus highly anxious and sensitized to danger, may take quick action.

Establishing the likelihood that abuse occurred along with determining the existence of mental illness associated with the abuse is the basis of the forensic psychological evaluation of the battered child who commits homicide. A link must then be established between the mental disorder and the subsequent criminal act. In self defense cases of this nature, the testimony of an expert in battered child syndrome is helpful to the trier of fact for the same reason that expert testimony about battered woman syndrome is helpful - it can assist in understanding why the child, in view of her previous experiences with the abuser, honestly believed the deceased to have been an immediate threat necessitating violence on her part.

Such an undertaking involves the forensic psychological examiner sifting backwards through time in an effort to learn about the red flags that may have been inadvertently missed or misinterpreted by others. This may include such things as a teacher believing a teenager is wearing heavy, long sleeved clothing in warm weather to conceal her developing body whereas in actuality this is to protect herself from her father’s blows and to hide her bruises; a school mate noticing marks on the abuse victim’s wrists and learning they were the result of a suicide attempt but telling no one about this; a review of school disciplinary records noting the child was suspended for fighting and with it later learned that the fight was motivated by the child’s abhorrence of being touched; the abuse victim’s grades plummeting in the weeks preceding the homicide, coinciding with the perpetrator’s abuse escalating, and so forth.

Sometimes the child’s violent behavior is in response to repeatedly witnessing the abuse of a beloved third person, with PTSD also a viable diagnosis involving the defense of a third party. In some cases a defense of insanity or diminished capacity may be appropriate for those suffering from PTSD if the person’s violent behavior stems from re-experiencing an earlier trauma, such as when a child who is in the throes of a flashback attacks someone because she associates that person with earlier abuse. Mental disorders other than PTSD may stem from the abuse and likewise be relevant, such as major depression, with or without psychosis, and other anxiety disorders. The perpetrator’s forcing of an abuse victim to participate in a crime may also warrant an exploration of battered child syndrome and its relevance to a defense of duress.

Gilligan, Carole. In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Mirkin, Marsha Pravder. Female adolescence revisited: understanding girls in their sociocultural contexts. In Mirkin, Marsha Pravder (Ed.), Women in context; toward a feminist reconstruction of psychotherapy (pp.77-95). New York: The Guilford Press, 1994.

Dr. McCoy is based in Knoxville. She may be reached at 865-521-7565.

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