Whether secured by cellophane tape, or colorful magnets, nearly every household with a young child in school has a chalk or crayon drawing on the refrigerator door. Whether it is a drawing of mommy and daddy, or a drawing of the household pet, it is typically displayed with pride where all are sure to see it.

While the efforts of your young artist may not reflect on his or her scholastic grades, that drawing may have been carefully graded--not for its artistic merit, but for potential signs of child sexual abuse.

Richard Gelles, of the University of Rhode Island, calls them the "sentinels."

"Physicians and other medical professionals are the backbone of the sentinel system, but teachers, counselors, school nurses, principals, day care providers, social workers, and police officers are also counted on to man the watchtowers," writes Gelles.[1]

In California, the list of sentinels is even wider. Legislation now mandates that dog-catchers are specifically required to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect to authorities.[2]

While less than half the states require any training for child protective caseworkers, there would appear to be little shortage of training for the sentinels who daily provide the deluge of calls that currently flood an already overloaded intake system with false and specious reports.

A recent edition of the journal Elementary School Guidance and Counseling details some of the indicators of potential sexual abuse that the educators among the sentinels should be aware of, and how to spot them through the analysis of chilren's drawings:

As noted, the emotional trauma experienced by sexually abused children makes it difficult for them to disclose the abuse in any manner, and particularly on an individual basis. Therefore, in general it is best to obtain children's drawings in the context of a large group (e.g., classroom guidance) activities.

Although sexual abuse or its prevention are potentially appropriate topics for such activities, they need not necessarily be the focus. In general, any large group activity intended to foster personal, social, psychological, or educational development among children is an appropriate forum in which to obtain children's drawings that can be scrutinized for potential indicators of sexual abuse.

Having been so "scrutinized" by a teacher or counselor, the drawings impact may be one entirely unanticipated by the parents, as counselors question the young child about potential sexual abuse, or worse, contact child protective services workers to share their suspicions.

Among the "indicators" of potential child sexual abuse claimed by the author:

The size and placement of the figure(s) relative to the space available may be indicative of the child's perception of self- importance. Also, many or few details, parts of the drawing emphasized or deemphasized (e.g., heavier or lighter or darker or fainter lines), and the drawing being more advanced or immature than is appropriate for the child's developmental age may be indicative of emotional disturbances.

Whether the figures are over or under emphasized, whether lines are thick or thin, whether your child is more or less advanced than the rest of the class, your child may be special. He or she may the subject of emotional trauma resulting from sexual abuse. Other indicators include:

Tears and frowns are common indicators of sadness or depression. Smiles may be indicators of happiness, but also may be indicators of repression if inappropriate to the context of the scene.

Huge circular mouths are often drawn when oral sex is involved.

Similarly, Wohl and Kaufman (1985) suggested that hair is a common representation of masculinity and that overemphasis on or omission of hair may represent feelings related to virility, sensuality, or sexual anxiety, confusion, or inadequacy.

Treatment of hands. Hands are the most frequently omitted human body part in drawings by persons experiencing significant emotional difficulties. Presumably, omission of hands reflects perceived lack of control . . .[3]

Thankfully, I have been "enlightened" by all of this, and can now recognize the underlying phallic significance of the apple, orange, and banana-shaped magnets that secure the crayon drawing to my refrigerator door. I'd better remove them and replace them with clear cellophane tape, before the counselors see them.

Not only does pseudoscientific nonsense such as this contribute to the deluge of false reports that flood the hotlines daily, but this also what passes for science in the real world of the courtroom.

Veteran Juvenile Court Judge Judy Sheindlin estimates that about 10 percent of the sexual abuse allegations that have come before her bench have had any validity "because more often than not mothers are simply trying to punish men. And they are supported in this by a dubious industry comprised of thinly credentialed, so-called experts."

Judge Sheindlin describes her first eye-opening encounter with one such professional child abuse validator:

My first experience with one of these "experts" was an art therapist, and it was as frightening as it was telling. She produced a picture drawn by a four-year-old girl whose mother insisted that the girl was being sexually fondled during visitation with her father. The drawing depicted a school bus, with a driver in the front seat and a child in the back of the bus. "Clearly," she reasoned, "the positioning of the driver so far from the child leaves little doubt that this child has been the victim of abuse." This kind of voodoo passes for science, and it is preposterous.

She continues, describing one of the training sessions intended for industry professionals that she had attended:

I recently went to a series of seminars on child abuse. No lecturer, no expert offered any insight on how to spot false allegations of abuse. There were lots of hints on how to uncover sex abuse, from bed-wetting to doll therapy to music and art play, all the amorphous theories by self-styled advocates. But no one talked about how false allegations can ruin fathers and their children. A child wrongfully denied the love of a father is as much a travesty as a child forced to endure such abuse.[4]

Douglas Besharov, the original director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, has over 30 years of experience in the field of child abuse and neglect. Yet his repeated admonitions to professionals against the use of vague "behavioral indicators," such as shyness and being friendly to strangers seen largely to have fallen on deaf ears.[5]

Indeed, there would appear to be no end in sight to the creativity of the professionals in the industry today when it comes to identifying and validating abuse.

The use of drawing analysis limited to the screening for potential sexual abuse. It is also often used by marginally trained social workers for other reasons. A former foster child describes the array of tests she had undertaken at the hands of social workers while in the system:

Social workers would come to my school and administer a battery of tests. A large portion consisted of picture drawing. I wanted to know why. No one would tell me. So on my next trip to the library, I checked out as many books as I could on psychology or anything I thought was related. I learned never to draw a picture expressing anger, violence or rage, as I feared that it just might be the ticket to the nearest psychiatric institution.[6]
The American Psychological Association also suggests a cautious approach to the analysis of drawings. While they can be helpful in eliciting data on current emotional functioning, "drawings may not yield definite conclusions, and there is no consensus on their use in determining the presence of abuse. A conservative approach dictates that the psychologist avoid relying solely on such methods."[7]

The Association urges a conservative approach for trained psychologists, yet the educators, social workers, police officers, and dog-catchers among the sentinels generally lack the benefit of such training.

In no small measure due to "education" of this nature, the sentinels continue to flood the hotlines, while an army of professional abuse validators stands ready to present their findings with the weight of authority in courts of law.

Copyright 1997 Rick Thoma

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Last Updated March 30, 1997