Abuse affects all in family

Date: 2005-02-22
Source: sptimes.com

Abuse affects all in family

Experts say there is no rationale why abusive parents mistreat some children and spare others.

February 22, 2005
By CURTIS KRUEGER

As John and Linda Dollar were being accused of starving and torturing five of their adopted children, authorities revealed that two of the children had been spared abuse.

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office says a 14-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl did not appear to be mistreated.

Investigators say the other children who lived with the Dollars in Hillsborough and Citrus counties were starved to the point that teenagers could have passed for grade schoolers.

While parental abuse of children is mysterious, just as puzzling are parents who selectively abuse children, mistreating some and sparing others. Police say they've seen the pattern before.

"It just kind of doesn't make sense to us because it's outside of our mores," said Hillsborough sheriff's Capt. Craig Latimer, speaking about such cases in general.

For example, police who entered a house in Collingswood, N.J., in 2003 were surprised to find four boys, 9 to 19, so starved they each weighed less than 50 pounds. The second surprise was that girls in the same house - three of them, ages 5 through 12 - were relatively well-treated by the same parents.

In Toronto, a mother abused two of her children so severely that courts in 2003 ordered her to pay them each $975,000. But even as she beat those two, she was "showering two other siblings with love and affection," according to the National Post newspaper.

Regarding the Dollars, workers at an RV shop in Tennessee noted on a recent trip that two of the seven children in the family were allowed to roam about freely, but the others stayed inside a sport utility vehicle or their motor home. Several neighbors in Florida said they rarely saw the children outside, but when they did, it tended to be two of the older ones.

Several professionals who work with abused kids say they know of other cases in which parents physically abused some children and not others, but they stressed the phenomenon is not as clear-cut as it sounds. It's not like parents make a cold calculation to torture some kids and nurture the rest.

"Folks don't necessarily say, "Okay, this is the one that I'm going to pick on,"' said Caren Kaplan, director of child and family protection for the Washington-based Child Welfare League of America.

Some experts said it's more like this: Certain parents overreact to certain behaviors in children. For example, some moms and dads erupt when children are messy or moody. So if some kids in the house tend to be more messy or moody, they're the ones who spark their parents' inappropriate anger. The others don't.

The parents' own psychological problems, drug or alcohol use, stress and other factors also affect how they lash out against kids.

Abusive parents generally don't think they are targeting some kids or favoring others. They see themselves as appropriately disciplining kids for being bad, even though their punishments are not appropriate at all.

"I don't think it's a conscious decision to abuse," said James Hord, a clinical psychologist in Panama City who has conducted thousands of evaluations of abused children. "Parents see their behavior as being reasonable for what they're doing."

Hord says several different family dynamics can create a situation in which some kids are abused and others appear not to be. Sometimes if parents repeatedly fight with each other, they may also act more harshly to a child they see as the other parent's favorite.

But Ilene Berson says "it's sort of a slippery slope to say well, these were the abused kids and these weren't."

In many homes where parents have physically abused some of their kids, it's likely that the other kids suffered from damaging emotional abuse, even if they were not harmed physically, said Berson, an associate professor in child and family studies at the Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida.

Although the Dollars are accused of abusing five of the seven adopted children who lived with them at the time, another adopted child whom they raised moved out on her own about three years ago.

Shanda Rae Shelton, who is now 25 and a mother herself, said she was not physically abused while she lived with the Dollars. But sometimes, she says, her parents ordered her to discipline her younger brothers and sisters by locking them in closets and bathrooms.

She said she was told that if her parents were ever arrested for abusing the kids, she would be too, which she said prevented her from alerting police.

"I was very socially isolated. I had no friends to help me out," she said.

She said in a news conference that there was no clear distinction between which children her parents would abuse, except for slight differences in behavior. She said she knew the other kids were getting too little food, and she sometimes sneaked them extra.

Berson, who also is chairwoman of the Florida Chapter of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, said researchers have been able to identify characteristics that appear more frequently in abused children than in others, such as physical and emotional disabilities. She is now at work studying the abusers themselves, to find more clues about what triggers their violence.

"In the end," she said, "what we want to do is prevent these circumstances from occurring."

--Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which also contains information from the New York Times.

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