Children may be ‘vicariously traumatised’ by spate of sexual crimes against minors

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Clinical psychologist Jo-Nelle Walsh
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By Orville Williams

orville.william[email protected]

The spate of sexual crimes against minors here in Antigua and Barbuda could be vicariously traumatising children, both directly and indirectly. That’s the word from clinical psychologist Jo-Nelle Walsh.

The most recently publicised incidents include the rape of an 11-year-old girl by her father between 2018 and 2019; the rape of a 15-year-old girl in 2019; the rape of a five-year-old girl by her uncle also in 2019; and the unlawful restraint and rape of a 13-year-old girl that same year.

And if the trauma meted out to the victims of these incidents wasn’t enough, more children are also at risk due to the public discourse surrounding each occurrence.

“We can say that persons can become vicariously traumatised, because they’re witnessing and hearing about the sexual abuse and the sexual [assault] cases,” Walsh told Observer.

But the direct trauma is not the only cause for concern, she added, noting that the psychosocial fallout could trickle down to some children by indirect means.

“With that happening, it means that perhaps you might find parents being a bit more paranoid, in terms of not wanting their children to go out, being a bit more hypervigilant, ensuring that the environments that they’re putting the children in are safe.

“Parents may restrict the freedom that the children would usually have and that in itself can affect the children, depending on the stage that the child is at. Let’s say it’s a teenage stage [where] friends are more valuable [and] friends are going out more, the parent may not want them to go out more, which may impact their own self-esteem – feeling like they can’t fit in.

“[For] the children, we can begin to see [for example] a child being more resistant, more hesitant toward strangers – which may not necessarily be a bad thing – being more aware of their surroundings and also other anxiety symptoms, [both physical and emotional],” she explained.

The government has pledged to address the scourge of persons preying on young children in the country, by putting [more effective] measures in place to catch and arrest the offenders.

Those measures, according to some sections of the society, need to go hand in hand with a revision of the court’s sentencing guidelines, as they believe some of the sentences being handed out to the perpetrators are not adequate.

In the meantime, Walsh is urging parents and guardians to do their utmost to protect the children under their care, through more focused monitoring and also accessing support services.

“One of the things that our society [can improve on] is to become educated on what child abuse is and what child abuse looks like. A lot of the times we miss the signs because we’re not aware, we just think about child abuse in a physical or sexual sense, but child abuse can also be verbal and in forms like neglect,” she said.

“Let’s say a child is withdrawn and not particularly wanting to interact with a friend or an adult who the child should be comfortable with – you may want to begin to question why that is. Is the person talking down to the child? Is the person beating the child? Is the person neglecting the child?

“Another thing that parents, guardians and teachers can do is know where to go and get help, because they’re not necessarily trained in the field to assist the children in that way.

“So, seek out professionals. There is the Family and Social Services Division which has the Child Protection Unit that they could always reach out to if a child is being abused or neglected, to get help for that child,” the clinical psychologist advised.

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