Poor Little Rich Kids

If the suburbs have a secret, it's Beth, sitting on some stairs outside the medical lab where she now works, burning through one cigarette after another. When Beth starts to talk about what it was like being abused as a child, first ignored and beaten by her mom, then sexually abused by her brother, she can't meet the eyes of the person sitting across from her, so she glances off to the side. She lights her cigarettes with fingers sparkling with rings of gold, silver, and polished stone. “This one used to be a wedding band,” she explains, gently twisting one of the two rings she now wears on the middle finger of her right hand. “I wanted to love, honor, and cherish myself, and if they couldn't deal with it. . . .” Her voice trails off, and she flips that middle finger up and grins.

Beth (not her real name) grew up in a family that, from the outside, could not have appeared more ordinary. Home was the suburbs, Lexington. Her father was a doctor who owned a sports car and belonged to a country club where he loved to play golf. He was so devoted to his patients, making rounds twice a day, that he seemed to spend more time with them than with his own children. Her mother stayed at home to raise Beth, her brother, and her sisters.

But when the children displeased their mother, who had herself been abused as a child, she would beat them, Beth says. And when Beth was eight, she says her older brother began forcing her to perform oral sex on him. She was also sexually assaulted by a neighbor around the same time. Her father gave her pills for the urinary tract infections that followed, and supplied the antacids she downed every day before school. But he asked no questions.

Beth kept silent, a decision she now says she regrets. “If you don't talk about it,” she says, “how in the name of hell are you supposed to deal with it? You can't deal with what's not there.”

The silence Beth maintained for so long can be even more insidious when abuse occurs in an affluent family with educated parents than in a poor family, according to many Massachusetts experts in the subject. Child abuse and neglect, they say, is still largely considered a problem confined to poor families in low-income neighborhoods, not in the wealthier suburbs that ring Boston.

In fact, in Massachusetts, reports of child abuse and neglect are concentrated in areas where incomes are lowest and resources fewest. About two-thirds of the cases handled by the Department of Social Services (DSS) are classified as “neglect,” often involving children of parents who can't provide adequate supervision, nutrition, clothing, or medical care.

But a detailed examination by Boston magazine of the numbers available from DSS's regional offices, along with interviews with experts and victims, reveals some curious patterns. That gap in reported incidents between poor and rich communities may reflect where most abuse occurs. But many in the field say it could also be a signal that teachers, doctors, and daycare providers in the suburbs are less likely to suspect that a kid's black eye came from Daddy than from a fall down the stairs. Of the cases that are investigated, those in wealthy towns are more often dropped than those in poor communities. And in the rare cases that result in the removal of a child from a home, the child from an affluent family is more likely to be returned to his parents. Yes, child abuse does occur in Boston's richest suburbs, these experts say — and, as joblessness in many high-paying local industries puts more stress on parents, it's getting worse.

Beth, who is now in her forties, never showed up in any of these numbers. None of the adults around her ever recognized the signs she insists should have been obvious. It's also possible that they may have simply assumed what Ken Pontes says he heard all too often in his former job as director of the Arlington DSS office, which handles Lexington, Newton, Wellesley, and Weston, among other suburbs.

He recounts being at parties when the subject of employment came up: “You know — what do I do and the towns I cover — many people say, ‘Wow, that must be easy,'” says Pontes, who is now the acting regional director of the DSS's northeast region. “‘There can't be that much abuse and neglect in those towns.' And you know, that's simply not true.”

My mother drank heavily. I've never been sure whether it was deliberate, or whether she was just so blind drunk she didn't realize what she was doing, but she burned me with a lit cigarette. And I can still remember that pain. I can still remember the truly terrifying sensation of smelling yourself burning. — Denise (not her real name) a Boston attorney who grew up in a wealthy suburb where
she was abused physically by her mother and sexually and emotionally by her father
One reason we don't hear much about child abuse and neglect in affluent communities is because we don't hear much about most of the families involved with DSS anywhere in the state. The department's files are confidential, released to no one but a court — and then only in the most severe cases, the cases that typically end with criminal charges being filed. “The tip of the iceberg [of what DSS deals with] is really the serious physical abuse or sexual abuse,” explains Martha Coakley, district attorney for Middlesex County, where the median household income is 20 percent above the Massachusetts average and which includes such cities and towns as Newton, Lexington, Weston, and Wayland. “But that's what we see.”

And that's largely what the public sees. There are the occasional scandals, like the hundreds of children who say they were sexually assaulted over several decades by Boston-area Catholic priests, and the 1997 killing of baby Matthew Eappen by British au pair Louise Woodward. But while those unfolded in the suburbs — many of the priests led suburban parishes, and the Eappens lived in Newton — they were not stories of suburban moms and dads hurting their kids. Those stories are out there, insist the DSS officials who cover these communities, and almost always involve substance abuse, mental health problems, or domestic violence.

There's the woman from Easton — median household income $69,144 — twice convicted of drunken driving. She allegedly drove while intoxicated with her 18-month-old son, crossed the divider line, and crashed into an oncoming SUV.

There's the mother in Westford — median home price $370,000 — dealing with what a DSS official terms “mental health issues,” who beat her nine-year-old daughter as punishment when the child didn't meet her expectations.

There's the married, college-educated couple in Chelmsford, a town where 44 percent of the population has college degrees. The father beat his wife and at least one of their three kids. When the children disobeyed him, he threw things, yelled, and threatened to get rid of the family dog or kill himself.

In addition to mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence, there's a fourth factor that caseworkers are seeing more of these days in the suburbs: Pontes says three straight years of economic slowdown have been accompanied by an increase in cases being handled by his suburban office. “We see a population of people who have chronic financial issues,” he says. “But then you take some of our wealthier communities where the downturn in the economy has had an impact, then those stressors for those families can appear to be even greater because they've never experienced them before.”

Adding to the stress for young parents can be the isolation that may come with moving from, say, an apartment building in the Back Bay to a quiet street in Dover, or a career in an office to a life at home with the kids. “Many of the women have had high-powered professional lives and now there's a child, which means there's a major shift in their priorities and lifestyle,” says Ellen Weisstein, director of First Connections, a parent support group based in Concord. “No matter how educated you are, being a parent is an emotional experience, not an intellectual one.”

And just because someone is well educated and successful doesn't mean they didn't have a dysfunctional childhood — something that can often influence what kind of parent they become. “In some ways, you draw on your resources and experiences,” says Suzin Bartley, executive director of the Massachusetts Children's Trust Fund, a statewide organization that funds child-abuse–prevention programs. “And when you're under stress and under fire, what comes out of your mouth sometimes are your parents' words.”

Every day I wake up and I fight being my mother. And I try to be a better person, a better friend, and a better mother than she was. And it's a battle.
— Beth

People of all economic backgrounds fear repeating their parents' mistakes. The most affluent are doing more harm than good if they overindulge their children, experts say — buying them a car as a reward for good grades, for example, or giving them credit cards and absurdly high allowances instead of what kids really need: parental guidance, love, and limits.

Bartley says these families don't normally land on DSS's radar screen, but adds: “Will that kid act out in school? Will she need therapy by age 12 or 13? Will that kid be the one speeding down the road dangerously? Will that kid be drug involved? Yeah. Are those parents in need of some parenting skills and support? I'd say so.”

Sometimes these kids do eventually come to the attention of DSS, as cases that are called CHINS, for children in need of services. “Suddenly, there's a 15-year-old or 16-year-old who's using drugs, stealing cars, skipping school, staying out all night, really being defiant to their parents,” Pontes says. “And when we do our assessment with that family, we find that . . . there was a series of nannies, a series of babysitters, parents away on European vacations and business trips to Japan, and [these kids] rebel against the fact that they've had all this freedom.”

My whole life experience had been in urban areas. But when I first moved here, what I learned is that parents are parents. You are in the trenches with your children. — Ellen Weisstein
director of First Connections, a parent support group in Concord

In 2001, the latest year for which figures are available, DSS in Massachusetts received 64,000 reports of alleged child abuse and neglect involving about 100,000 children. Two-thirds were credible enough to be investigated further, and just over half of those investigations resulted in findings that mistreatment had occurred. That's roughly 20,000 cases, or an average of two confirmed reports every hour of every day.

The weakness with DSS statistics is they are not compiled town by town. The agency breaks down cases only by its 29 regional offices. Almost all the offices serve a mix of rich and poor communities. For instance, the office responsible for Lawrence, where the median household income is less than $28,000, also handles Andover, where the median household income is more than three times that.
This makes it impossible to directly compare the number of abuse or neglect reports in richest and poorest towns. But what is possible is to merge DSS data with income and population information from the 2000 U.S. Census. Using those figures, the Arlington and Framingham offices, for example, both wind up with income scores of around $80,000, while New Bedford and Worcester hover closer to $35,000. The five offices in Boston come in at an average of just under $41,000. The median household income statewide is $52,253.

When DSS statistics are compared using these numbers, interesting patterns start to emerge. And what becomes especially clear is this: Money matters.

I think that there were presumptions that this was a good neighborhood, that this was where executives, attorneys, and surgeons, etc., lived, and that these things didn't happen in those families. But it was happening to me. — Denise
physically abused by her mother and sexually and emotionally abused by her father

As income level rises from region to region, the number of reports filed of suspected child abuse and neglect plummets. In 2001, the New Bedford office received 53 reports per 1,000 children, while the office that covers tony west suburban towns like Wayland got fewer than 15. Boston recorded just under 40; the state average was 43.

Why such a large gap in reporting? “When you're in poverty,” says Suzin Bartley, “you are often in a situation where you're one check away from disaster. They're going to cut off your electricity, repossess your car. When that adolescent comes home and starts mouthing off, all parents are going to experience the same frustration. But in a wealthy family, you can buy childcare, a nanny, someone to clean the house.”

That's one explanation. But child advocates believe that hidden and unreported child mistreatment in the wealthier communities also contributes to the gap.

Since the 1970s, Massachusetts has had “mandated reporter” laws, which require medical professionals, teachers, guidance counselors, daycare workers, and others who routinely work with children to file a report if they have “reasonable cause to believe abuse or neglect has occurred.” The terms are deliberately broad, leaving room for interpretation by the mandated reporters whose alertness for signs of abuse and neglect may vary.

“Professionals in [a wealthy community] may not be looking for the signs that, for example, a school nurse would be looking for in a population of at-risk kids,” says Alicia Lenahan, executive director of the Worcester County Court Appointed Special Advocates, an organization that assists children whose parents are in court because of alleged abuse or neglect. Conversely, she says, poorer families are more likely to be in contact with social service agencies and emergency rooms. “Those families are under greater scrutiny. There are more people looking, and looking with an eye toward dysfunction.”

For years, social scientists have debated whether teachers, pediatricians, or other professionals are influenced by the backgrounds of the children they see who show signs of possible mistreatment. One study, in which vignettes were presented to a large group of mandated reporters, found that people were more likely to file a report of abuse or neglect when the example described a child from a lower-class family.

Dr. Edward Bailey, a pediatrician and medical director of the North Shore Children's Hospital, says physicians and other professionals often relate to more educated and affluent parents, who tend to be more articulate and more convincing when explaining away a child's injuries. “That's just human nature,” he says. More troubling, he says, is that few suburban hospitals in Massachusetts have hired doctors trained specifically to spot abuse. Such experts are more likely to be at big city hospitals that often treat urban, low-income patients.

[They] didn't like that I'd rocked the family boat. The happy family that we'd never been. [They were] very gung-ho about keeping up the appearances and not saying that there's any shit, you know, but it's full of shit. . . . I was whored out for the family happiness. — Beth
explaining why her sisters wouldn't talk to her for months after she revealed she had been molested by their brotherOnce a report of child abuse is filed, the procedure calls for intake workers to contact schools, doctors, police officials — anyone who might verify or discredit the allegations. If they find supporting evidence, the report is “screened in” and a full-blown investigation begins. A critical piece of any abuse investigation is the home visit, during which the DSS worker will attempt to interview the children and their parents. While officials stress that families of all income levels usually cooperate during these visits, the challenges they do hear are more likely to come from the affluent homes.
Pontes says that when investigators from his office went to a suburban home last year to follow up on an allegation of abuse, for example, they were greeted by a lawyer with a video camera who recorded their interviews.

“The real issue underlying it all is one of taboos and secrets,” says Robert Maker, area program manager at the DSS office in Haverhill. “I mean, these things are well-kept secrets, and kids learn very early on that you don't talk about certain family secrets.”

Adds Dr. Paula Stahl, founder and director of Children's Charter, a family and child trauma clinic in Waltham: “One need only imagine what it's like to be in a family where there's abuse in a suburb where such things supposedly never happen.”

Richer families may also feel more entitled to challenge government agencies than do poorer families. When one set of parents in a suburb learned that teachers in their child's school had said some less than positive things about them in response to DSS inquiries, an agency official says, they became enraged and threatened to file a lawsuit against the school. Lower-income families, DSS's Robert Maker says, are “more used to having government agencies touch their lives” and can't afford to hire a lawyer. That's the route the wealthier, suburban families are more likely to pursue, says Maker. And once a family hires a lawyer, Maker says, DSS may not be able to conduct as thorough an investigation as it would like.

It's impossible to know exactly how often that happens. But in 2001, just over half — 55 percent — of all abuse and neglect investigations statewide led to a determination that actual abuse or neglect had occurred. It's slightly more likely for a case in an area with a lower median income to be confirmed as abuse or neglect than a case in a more affluent district, according to DSS statistics analyzed by Boston magazine.

Income level also seems to help determine how long families are monitored by DSS once allegations of abuse have surfaced. Joyce Nardine, director of the Framingham DSS office, says that if parents show both the commitment and the means to deal with their own problems, her office often lets them. “We feel a lot better,” she says, “and the level of risk for children decreases.” The result is that as long as the families indicate they will handle the difficulties with professional help, many of the reports of abuse allegations that flow into Nardine's office are closed relatively quickly.

We're mostly middle-class-type, educated people, and when we go into a home where other people are middle class and educated, and they sort of look like us and act like us, I think that we run into a bit of a dilemma.
— Robert Maker area program manager at the DSS office in Haverhill

One set of DSS statistics seems to bear out just the fact that money talks: the proportion of cases that are closed with the return to their homes of children removed from parental custody. In Massachusetts in 2001, slightly more than half the children in such cases were handed back to their parents. But while 8 out of 13 of the lower- or middle-income DSS offices returned kids to their homes at a rate at or below the state average, 10 out of 12 of the wealthier districts returned kids to their families at a rate above the average.

Child advocates like Waltham child trauma clinic founder Paula Stahl worry about how the state will narrow the reporting gap between rich and poor areas. “As long as there's denial in place,” says Stahl, “I know there are children out there who need help and won't get it.”

That much, at least — along with the trauma of abuse, of course — is the same for both rich and poor kids.

“When you're abused as a child, you also learn that the world is not yours,” says Denise, the Boston attorney who says she was abused by her parents. “You don't think about the world as a place where you make things happen. You think about how you will survive what happens to you.”

Beth, meanwhile, seems a study in how child abuse is no less traumatic when it takes place inside a comfortable home behind a manicured lawn than in a crowded tenement or public housing project. She still struggles with the memories. She has trouble falling asleep when her husband is in the bed. She meets regularly with therapists. She says she had nightmares and flashbacks for days before a scheduled interview about her childhood for this story.

“Not telling anybody never got me anywhere,” she says. “It just left me in that void. And it left me feeling worthless and invisible. And I'm not worthless, and I don't want to be invisible. It's the silence that kills people, the not telling that kills people. It just ruins them.”