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Neglect, Physical Abuse, and Sexual Molestation in Palau

By Richard Shewman

June 1992 (MC #07) Social Issues

Introduction

Some authors have argued that child abuse was unknown among Polynesians of a generation ago, but is now common among the urban Maori and other urban dwelling Polynesians of New Zealand. The change is attributed to changes in the family structure and a different allocation of responsibilities among the members of the family. Parents are now being called upon to perform child rearing tasks for which they are unprepared and lack the support network that their parents and grandparents depended upon.

This same phenomenon has been noted among Micronesian cultural groups. For example, the Carolinians of the Northern Mariana Islands, who are currently experiencing a similar change in family structure, report more neglect than the other groups in the CNMI.

The structural changes are related to economic and life-style decisions made by the parents and grandparents, with implications that impact their values, their relationships with others, and further structural changes in the social fabric of the community. How are these decisions impacting on abuse, neglect, molestation, runaway? Understanding their impact is essential for determining what, if any, interventions can and should be made to deal with the problems.

Recent writings on the Marshalls and FSM suggest that runaways, neglected children and the various forms of abuse are more commonly found among families which show signs of structural disruption and are exposed to greater than normal levels of stress. In some cases, greater than normal levels of stress are not present but the ability of the adults to handle the levels of stress they are exposed to is crippled due to organic or functional constraints. For example, families where there are handicapped members or where both parents are not present tend to experience greater levels of abuse.

Several studies conducted in the Marshall Islands examined runaway and homeless youth from the perspective of teenage prostitution and gang activity. There was a significant relationship between runaway girls and prostitution, though the relationship to gang behavior among runaway males was much more tenuous.

Often girls left undesirable situations at home and sought relief among other young women who lived "in the fast lane" and were apparently enjoying the benefits of urban life. Prostitution did not necessarily imply a break with the family. In some cases it provided a secondary income for the family.

Another recent study examined runaway and homeless youth in the Chuuk Lagoon. The authors defined a "runaway" as a person who leaves his home because of difficulties with his family. This definition was applied to a survey of leaders and residents of the Lagoon. They were able to identify 292 runaways. Few of the youth were living on the street or forced into a destructive life-style, as one might find among runaways in the urban United States. Rather, the youth moved in with relatives or friends, following generally accepted cultural patterns. The authors noted that most of the youth, who could be classified as runaways, were leaving troubled home situations, where there was clear evidence of structural disruption.

Methodology

This paper presents the results of a study of selected youth problems in the Republic of Palau. The particular youth problems focused upon are neglect, physical abuse, sexual molestation, and runaways. The basis for this study is a survey of residents of the various states of Palau. The people included among the respondents were the local leadership, both traditional (9%) and modern (10%), service providers (27%), business people (9%), clergy (5%), youth (8%), and general residents (25%). While not a statistically valid representative sample, the survey sample focused upon those people in the community who have the best knowledge of what is going on in the community and where problems exist. The total number of respondents included in the survey was 164.

Other sources of data were also examined to shed further light on the subject topics. These other sources include police complaint reports and public health records from the hospital emergency room. Teachers from Koror Elementary School were also interviewed to obtain their perception of the presence of high risk characteristics for neglect, abuse and molestation in their students during the 1985-1986 school year. While none of these secondary sources offer conclusive evidence, they are supportive of the interview results.

Definition of Terms

Abuse, neglect, molestation, and runaway youth are all concepts that are culturally conditioned and can vary significantly from community to community. What is a proper child rearing method in one culture can easily be considered abuse in another. Spanking a child in America is acceptable discipline, as long as it stays within reasonable limits. Yet, in Sweden spanking is a crime and brings the offending parent into the legal system. Again, in America is it considered the height of luxury for a child to have his or her own room. In Micronesia it would be a terrifying experience for a child used to being with many people to be forced to sleep alone.

This study does not impose a narrow, pre-determined definition of abuse. Rather it asked the informants if they knew of any children whose "parents or guardians hit them so hard that their bones were broken or so that they bleed, used other forms of overly severe and unreasonable discipline, or burned them on purpose." Physical damage to the degree of broken bones or burning was felt to be the outer limit of discipline, at which point physical abuse was present. This is based on a study done on Saipan on interviews with the project staff, and the American Medical Association's criteria for the Battered Child Syndrome, which is a generally accepted medical equivalent for physical abuse.

The sexual molestation category is equally vague. The following definition is offered on the interview form: "Do you know any children in this village who are being sexually abused (ie, family members, neighbors, or strangers are having sex with them)?". While the terms used have popular meaning that arises from cultural definitions, there was no attempt to make the term operational for the study. The hope was to provide a relatively blank screen for the respondents to project their own assumptions of what was included in the term "sexual molestation" in Palau.

Runaway, as it is used in the US mainland, refers to a juvenile who "leaves and remains away from home without parental permission. A definition that appears to fit the general intention of the American concept of "runaway" but reflects the realities of Micronesia was offered in a paper on runaways in Chuuk. Runaways were defined as youth who "leave their home because of difficulties with their family." This eliminates those youth who leave home through culturally appropriate mechanisms of emancipation.

The questionnaire in this study defines runaways (drifters) as "not normal residents of the hamlet and are staying with friends or other people who have no close family obligation to care for them." This definition avoided the association of causes with drifting behavior. The distinction is made between someone who is merely rotating among relatives and someone who is alienated from that network, limiting inclusion as a runaway to those who were drifting through their network of kin and friends without commitment to a permanent place of residence.

Child Neglect

The respondents have a very basic concept of neglect as failure to provide the children with adequate food or clothing. This concept does not include some of the categories, such as educational or emotional neglect, included in the term as it is operationally defined in most state codes in the United States.

The initial response of the informants most often focuses on a lack of wage employment in a particular household as the context for neglect and as a mitigating influence. However, many cases reported were in the outer villages, where it is possible to survive in a subsistence economy mode. Probing often revealed more basic difficulties in the family unit.

A common scenario is for the parents to marry young and have several children. The parents often leave these children with the grandparents, who are unable to adequately care for the children due to their own limited income. The parents may be able to generate some income but rather than use their salary to meet their responsibilities they spend it on alcohol and partying with their friends.

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