"It's much different to be hit by a parent with anger than it is to be hit by a stranger. The problem is there, too, that it's hate, but it's mixed up with other things; with love, and it's hard to disentangle them."
Dr. Vincent Sacco currently teaches in the Sociology department at Queen's University. He has extensive experience studying criminology and specifically, the study of public perceptions of and reactions to crime. He has sought to answer tough questions throughout his research, and has focused on issues like why some individuals are greater likely to be victimized by crime than others and why the police, lawmakers, and the general populace think about crime the way they do.
Starts With Youth was privileged to speak with Dr. Sacco a few weeks ago to ask him some questions about his research and specifically, the intersections between abuse, crime, and re-victimization. Here's what he had to say.
SWY: What does your research focus on?
VS: Traditionally what my work is focused on has been the way in which the public reacts to crime. So I've been interested in things like fear of crime, community defenses, crime prevention, that kind of thing. Also, related to that, I've been really interested in victimization; who gets victimized and who doesn’t.
SWY: What does Sociology research show about the effects of growing up in a home with domestic violence? How are children distinctly victimized in these situations?
VS: Well I think it shows pretty clearly that there are consequences; all negative, and they have to do with the psychological and emotional development of the children. The thing people worry about the most is, the psychoviolence issue, where If you grew up in a home where there was abuse or you were abused yourself, then you may behave in a similar way towards your own children. That relationship certainly does exist, but the mistake is people think that it is inevitable - this isn't true. It's actually a minority that engages in it but there is still a relationship between growing up in an abusive home and being abusive.
SWY: Is there research that shows what prevents the cycle of abuse from being spread to further generations? As in, if there are any inherent traits or environmental factors?
VS: Well, when you're looking at the area of [familial] violence, why do we do so many things our parents do? It's because that is the model we were exposed to, that’s how we learn how to handle certain types of situations. You learn no other way of modeling these particular behaviours. Even with my own kids, there were many times where I would do something and understand, "Oh that's why my father did that." You understand that relationship through the relationship you had with your own parents. So, it becomes a form of modeling.
The other thing is, I once read a quote from a researcher at the University of New Hampshire, and this stuck with me through the years. What he said was: "When you hit a child, the one thing you teach them for sure, is that it's okay to hit people you love." And I thought, that’s it, that's the lesson you get: Even though I love you, I can hit you. That lesson gets learned, and not only when the child gets abused, but also when the child observes abuse elsewhere, whether it be through their mothers getting hurt or sibling violence.
SWY: Much of your research aims to uncover why certain people are greater likely to engage with crime. Is there any correlation between abuse experienced during childhood and future interactions with crime?
VS: Having been abused as a child increases the risk of behaving criminally. Now, some of it is very obvious and direct. For instance, say [someone] is being abused by a parent, they may run away. If they run away and have nowhere to go, they will be on the street without any money, and if they don’t have any money… So there are ways in which this is naturally predicted [to lead to crime]. But it also seems to have some kind of anti-nurturing factor, or some kind of desensitization. So you would find that one of the predictors of criminality is childhood abuse. For instance, if you look in so many of serial killers' histories, you'll find they suffered tremendous abuse as youth. There's a book called Beggars and Thieves in which some of the worst street criminals you could imagine were interviewed, and [the researcher] gets them to tell their life story and without exception, they were sexually abused and went through horrible stuff. I think the relationship there is pretty clear.
I guess it really doesn’t make any intuitive sense, that if you were abused and felt awful about it that you would go on to do that to others; it doesn’t seem sensibly right. There was an old story about two brothers; one was an alcoholic and one wasn’t and they went to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist asked the alcoholic brother, "Why are you an alcoholic?", and he said, "Well, because my father was an alcoholic". The psychiatrist asked the other brother the same question, "Why are you an alcoholic?", and he responded, "Well, because my father was an alcoholic."
"I guess it really doesn’t make any intuitive sense, that if you were abused and felt awful about it that you would go on to do that to others; it doesn’t seem sensibly right."
SWY: Can you speak to the intergenerational aspect of abuse? How can abuse experienced as a child impact someone throughout their life and subsequently, impact their own children?
VS: If somebody hits you, that will have a sort of traumatic effect. But the effects are always stronger in the case of family members than in the case of non-family members. It's much different to be hit by a parent with anger than it is to be hit by a stranger. The problem is there, too, that it's hate, but it's mixed up with other things; with love, and it's hard to disentangle them. Even though your parents may be abusive towards you, there's always that, "Well after all that's my father/mother". So the feelings are mixed and confused. I think the problem is, once the child starts developing relationships, the relationships start to look like the relationships they witnessed or grew up in themselves; even though I'm sure at some level, they swear to themselves that they will be different as parents.
The people that talk nowadays about crime prevention would argue that rather than spending 80 gazillion dollars on the police and prisons and stuff like that, if we [as a society] were to invest in early childhood nurturing and education, we would reduce the consequences of those things, so that when these kids grow up, they don’t end up doing this stuff [crime]. So, if we want to prevent crime 15 years from now, we have to start now with the kids that are just born. But even though we know that, and we know that it [this method] would probably work, we don’t do it. Part of the reason is that the government now doesn't want to give credit to a government 15 years from now, and the public wouldn’t necessarily be behind investing a whole lot of resources into [risky] neighbourhoods. So, we're sort of prisoners of that kind of thinking. It's not a big mystery about how we could make there be less crime, we do know the answer, we just don’t want to do it. I cant think of anything sadder than that. It's not even the way the rest of us are affected, it's those peoples' lives that are nowhere near the quality they could be.
SWY: Can you give some insight on repeat victimization, and if this has any relation to intergenerational trauma?
VS: In general, what we have learned over the last few decades is that a lot of victimization that occurs are repeats. Lots of times you can be victimized by an offender that you don’t necessarily know, but who knows your patterns and habits. But when you actually break the repeat victimizations down by relationships, what you find is that it is in fact the domestic kinds of relationships that have the most repeat victimization. You get patterns of repeat victimization by adults who are victimized by a partner, the elderly who are sometimes victimized by caregivers but more commonly by partners, and children, who are victimized by caregivers. So a lot of repeat victimization finds itself in domestic relationships.
The thing is, we think the family is supposed to be a setting for warmth and security, but when you think about it with a more jaundiced eye, there is a lot about the family that is sort of set up to produce problems. The fact that [one may] have a family that [they] are really close to, and they can calm you and reassure you… They can do all of that because they know you in that way, but they also know what buttons they can press to drop you to the floor. You're so vulnerable to it; as well as families are sort of hierarchical. It is sort of recognized in this culture that the parents run the family; and there are people who give orders, people who take orders, people who have a commanding presence, and people who don’t have a commanding presence. So you have the problem of the deep intimacy combined with the problem of hierarchy.
Families are also unequal in terms of vulnerability. The most vulnerable people you find in the family are also the ones you find being victimized - Children and female spouses are more vulnerable than the males and other family members. The inequality in the family essentially just mirrors the inequality in society, right. The other thing is, the family is off-limits to the state, usually. The state keeps out which means its kind self-regulating.
" A lot of repeat victimization finds itself in domestic relationships."
SWY: Are there any specific groups that are specifically vulnerable to be victimized by abuse experienced during childhood and later, crime? Why?
VS: With children, I can't think of generalized traits that kids have that increases their probability of being victimized; but girls, for instance, are much more likely to be subject to sexual abuse. The way we socialize children in this culture as well is a factor. We teach women more vulnerability than we teach male children. What happens is, when you are very young, male and female children are told the same thing; "Don’t take candy from a stranger", "Don’t get in anybody's car," and so on. But what happens when male and females start to go through puberty, the instructions change, and the female gets a lot more warnings than the male does, and is told she has a lot more risk than the male does; so she ends up feeling considerably more vulnerable, which probably exposes her to greater danger.
SWY: How do narratives on class affect the way social services, in terms of Children's Aid, approach higher/middle class people? Does the research show any interaction or correlation between the attitudes these services might have?
VS: I think the overwhelming majority of cases are on people at the bottom of the finance structure, and immigrants. But, I imagine there is a "Benefit of the Doubt" argument when someone is higher up in the class structure, and part of the reason is the tradition is that lower class people have an antagonistic relationship with Children's Aid, so they are threatened by it. I think people higher up in the class structure would have a sense on how to handle [Children's Aid]. This would be a more cordial relationship, and therefore, this wouldn’t engender the same degree of anger on the part of the worker. I think the number of cases higher in the structure that they deal with is not great, but I imagine there are some neighbourhoods where workers have never gone, and some where they go to every week. We also really don’t expect violence from [Higher class people], and I'm not saying it isn't there, but we just don’t expect it.
The mythology [about Children's Aid] is that they're going to come in and take away the kids, but in reality that is the last thing they want to do. It's similar to looking at parole - You have 1000 people on parole, and 999 of them don’t get in any trouble, but one of them goes and kills somebody, and the entire parole system is then in disarray. So, everybody knows a Children's Aid story that is on the extreme side of spectrum, and emotion always trumps statistics. When people hear an emotional story like that, it's very powerful.
SWY: What do you think needs to be done to prevent children from being victimized by abuse? What do you think we need to do as a community to better protect children?
VS: The research on [human] touch says that if you're worried or angry about something, being touched by another person, and not like a stranger or something but a friend or loved one, has a remarkable soothing effect; which is why we like to be hugged. One of the things we did to let kids know we were on their side was through hugging them and putting our arms around them. Now, we've removed all of that stuff, you cant really do that anymore and we have created a generation of children that are just afraid all the time. When I [Sacco] was a kid, you didn’t have that fear of adults. We have really created a barrier between adults and children that wasn’t there before, and I think that this is not healthy; that’s in the wrong direction. In terms of what we need to do, I think the answer is easy and I think it's early intervention; even prenatal intervention. This whole thing starts in pregnancy in terms of not smoking, not doing drugs, not stunting the intellectual and emotional development of the child. If we actually poured the resources into doing that, and if we got the full cooperation of the target population, I think a lot of our problems would go away. But there is a difference between knowing what will work and having the political will to do it.
SWY: Is there anything you would like to add to raise awareness about abuse and sexual violence and the effects it has on youth?
VS: I guess what I would like to see is there be more conversation between children and adults and authority. We have closed off so many barriers that we have made it hard for kids to cope with or deal with [trauma]. Kids increasingly have to be taught to take responsibility for their friends too. For instance, a child may not report to a teacher but may report to a friend if they are being abused. That friend should have some responsibility to do something; and I just think if there were more lateral communication, we would be better off.