The Social Construction of Disclosure: The Case of Child Abuse in Israeli Society
The professional construction of nondisclosure
As shown in the above illustration, the discourse of each professional group defines the disclosure “issue” by using slightly different terminologies, rooted in its professional orientation. In a broader sense, “passing the buck” is the key feature of avoiding responsibility in every professional group, as practitioners transfer the responsibility among themselves and between themselves and their clients. Thus, the co-creation of the avoidance of disclosure is the most viable option. The process is a constructed social reality of joint making between the clients and the professionals coming in contact with them.
How can we explain the fact that the professional groups responsible for disclosing and treating child abuse are making every effort to conceal it? To understand this, we need to turn to the cultural context of being a victim in the Israeli culture. Since the establishment of the modern State of Israel, the image of the victimized Jews was viewed as part of the humiliating past of the Diaspora (Sand 2009; Zimmerman 2002) and assumed a highly undesirable and negative connotation (Almog 2000). Therefore, the professionals in question can be seen as attempting to “normalize” victimhood by denying victims the status of abused and neglected children. This move is associated with an increased emphasis on the conscious break with the perceived Diaspora Jew seen as a timeless and placeless victim. Increased personal responsibility and empowerment have been regarded as an important building block in the changed narrative of the newly emerging society (Mayer 2005).
The theme of silencing and devaluing perceived victims, and at the same time valuing strength in the face of extreme hardship, may be a primary aspect of the Israeli culture (Segev 1991; Soloman 1995; Zimmerman 2002). Cultural contexts shape the construction of nondisclosure of child abuse by professionals, so that the social construction of child abuse disclosure in Israel can be seen as a way of silencing the victims. Moreover, it may be a primary aspect of any culture, as is illustrated in the theoretical frame of theory of basic values (Schwartz 2012). In this framework, human behavior stems from a basic value structure, which is identical in all cultures, from which all normative behavior is derived. This structure is not linear but circular, and thus for each basic value there is a contradicting one. The derivative normative behavior is paradoxical. It seems that this theoretical frame is applicable to the emerging construction of disclosure, as professional norms of mandatory reporting are countered by the basic human need to exercise gaze aversion in the face of recognizing victims and thus revealing the paradox of the disclosure process.
The cultural context serves as the primary and knowledge-independent source from which society constructs itself and its different professions and services. In this respect, it is the lived communal experience by which modern society identifies social problems and constructs intervention. In the case of disclosure among child abuse professionals in Israel, these cultural lenses are also the part of the impediments for an effective intervention in the phenomenon of child abuse.
The idea that professionals working in the field of child abuse contribute to the reality of “nondisclosure” or the reality of “difficulties” surrounding disclosure is well established in research (e.g., Egu and Weiss 2003). Personal, social, or situational factors related to professionals are influential in detecting (or not) abuse (e.g., Ashton 2004; Hershkowitz et al. 2006; Kenny 2001). We argue here a more general theoretical point that conscious impeding of making child abuse visible may be part of a benevolent attempt of professionals attempting to avoid a victim status for their clients which is not highly rewarding in a society based on power and control. It may not be much different from the social policies of “don’t ask, don’t tell” used with gays and additional de-victimizing policies with marginal populations. The Israeli case is just one example of how specific cultural traditions, values, and preferences set the tone for what to report and make visible and what to mask and make transparent.
The immediate implication of such theorizing is that before “throwing more money” on the problem of “nondisclosure” and non-detection of child abuse, we should consider working on a more general, cultural, and attitudinal change in communities concerning the impact of being a victim of any kind of social deviance. One way of approaching this would be to enhance the use of interdisciplinary and interprofessional teamwork (Kempe 1978). Such teams would be more competent in assessing both the cultural context and social cost of disclosure vs. the benefits of investing in such endeavors. It would further save much effort presently invested in interprofessional bickering leading to burnout (Kaminer et al. 1988; Bross et al. 2000) and masking and enable a more integral and culturally sensitive approach (Fontes 2005) to dealing with victims of child abuse through balancing their needs with their rights.
The present study encourages scholars and policy makers to examine the phenomenon of child abuse and the processes of child abuse disclosure in their respective cultural contexts. A main benefit of an in-depth analysis of the cultural background of professional work is the awareness that the workers might gain on the perceived obstacles that stem from the reported gap between the incidence of abuse and actual disclosure and recognition that whatever the obstacles they can be addressed and must be addressed to reduce child maltreatment and its effects.
Ainsworth, F. (2002). Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect: Does it really make a difference. Child and Family Social Work, 7, 57–63.CrossRef
Alaggia, R. (2004). Many ways of telling: Expanding conceptualizations of child sexual abuse disclosure. Child Abuse & Neglect, 28(11), 1213–1227.CrossRef
Almog, O. (2000). The Sabra: The creation of the new Jew. Berkeley: University of California Press.CrossRef
Angen, M. J. (2000). Evaluating interpretative inquiry: Reviewing the validity debate and opening the dialogue. Qualitative Health Research, 10(3), 378–398.CrossRef
Ashton, V. (2004). The effect of personal characteristics on reporting child maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect, 28, 985–997.CrossRef
Babbie, E. (2004). The practice of social research (10th ed.). Belmont: Thomson/Wadsworth Learning.
Bal, S., Crombez, G., Bourdeaudhuji, I., & Van Oost, P. (2009). Symptomatology in adolescents following initial disclosure of sexual abuse: The roles of crisis support, appraisals and coping. Child Abuse & Neglect, 33, 717–727.CrossRef