Precious has led to a debate about child abuse in the black community

The two Oscar awards for the movie Precious will hopefully highlight the taboo subject of child abuse within the black community.

The movie Precious is based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire and directed by Lee Daniels. Precious is a harrowing, emotional and gritty story about a black 16 year-old girl, Claireece Precious Jones in Harlem who is physically, mentally and sexually abused by her mother and impregnated twice by her father.

The film attracted strong responses from critics and fans alike, John Anderson, of Variety said, “to simply call it harrowing or unsparing doesn’t quite cut it.”

Betsey Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times described it as adark social commentary…shockingly raw, surprisingly irreverent and absolutely unforgettable story.”

Precious rightfully won two awards at the 2010 Oscar ceremony, one for Best Supporting Actress which went to Mo’nique playing the role of the mother, and another for Best Adapted Screenplay, won by Geoffrey Fletcher.

The film has raised the issue of child abuse in the black community which is often a taboo subject.

Racism and cultural taboos

According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) there have been no studies which has specifically focused on sexual abuse within black and minority ethnic communities.

However, in research carried out by Roshni, a charity founded in 2002 to raise awareness the issues of abuse, neglect and the under-reporting of children within black and minority ethnic (BME) communities in Scotland; titled “The Perceptions of Child Abuse within Scotlands Black and Ethnic Minority Communities” (2006), a number of revealing issues are brought to light.

One of these issues was that there is a lack of research regarding the perceptions of BME communities when it comes to reporting child abuse including a lack of literature available on the issues of culture, stereotypes and language barriers.

Another issue that came out of this research was the lack of cultural and racial awareness white social workers displayed when dealing with child abuse in BME families.

The most memorable case occurred on February 25, 2000, when 8 year-old Victoria Adjo Climbie died in the intensive care unit at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, of multiple injuries after months of systematic abuse.

On January 12, 2001 at the Central Criminal Court Victoria’s aunt, Marie-Therese Kouao and her partner Carl Manning were convicted of her murder and both sentenced to life imprisonment.

Following Victoria’s murder an inquiry was led by Lord Herbert Laming, who was Chief Inspector of the Social Services Inspectorate and responsible for the National Programme of Inspection fromm 1991 until 1998. He was also the advisor to the government on social policy and practice.

Lord Laming’s report was startling and disturbing to say the least. He said that in her life Victoria was known to two housing authorities, four social services departments, two child protection teams of the Metropolitan Police Service, a specialist centre managed by the NSPCC and admitted to two different hospitals because of suspected deliberate harm.

While Lord Laming concluded that the ignorance of every single department which led to Victoria’s death was a “gross failure of the system”, the report seemed to lack a satisfactory answer to why a child covered with 128 bruises was ignored by members of child protection services and hospital staff.

According to Roshni cultural stereotypes meant that social services professionals misinterpreted the fear on Victoria’s face with African traditions of discipline. While this may be true there is still evidence that cultural ignorance is a poor excuse for the failures.

In Lord Laming’s report hospital staff and expert paediatricians came under fire for failing to follow simple procedure which had nothing to do with cultural ignorance. He said that good medical practice was not followed which he puts down to a “widespread organisational malaise.”

The report goes on for over 400 pages, however it can be argued that Lord Laming struggled to find the words to explain how so many government departments and so many people could be institutionally incompetent.

In one example the excuses of medical practitioners for ignoring the bruises on Victoria was that they felt that it was normal for children growing up in Africa, yet Dr Rhys Beynon, a senior house officer in the accident an emergency department referred Victoria to a paediatrician after he suspected that abuse was responsible for her bruises.

Dr Mary Rossiter said that she had to be sensitive to the situation because as a white person she felt that some black social workers knew more about black children than she did. Does this mean that Dr Rossiter cannot identify child abuse on black children? Were the black social workers more qualified than she was to identify deliberate bruising? These questions should have been explored further.

Whilst black respondents in focus groups for the Roshni research highlighted the different cultural understandings of abuse, for example the often harsh discipline of West Indian parents none identified or excused the abuse of the type that Victoria experienced.

When asked whether service providers were aware of their cultural needs the majority of respondents said no. According to Roshni because only white children were predominately used in child protection adverts it was perceived as a charity for whites. So overall, the lack of reporting child abuse in the black community could be down to what communities perceive as racial exclusion from service providers.

The Movie Precious has hopefully helped to place the taboo subject of child abuse in the black community as a priority for discussion. However, there are other factors which contribute to the lack of research and progress on this issue, namely cultural ignorance on the part of service providers, the need for more members of the black community to engage these services and help shape them so that they are reflective of black cultural traditions; and a closer inspection that racism may be playing a role to why children like Victoria Climbie are let down by the organisations that are suppose to protect them.

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One thought on “Precious Oscar wins highlights taboo subject in the black community”
  1. I am grateful for the film Precious and hope that some mature discussion will come from this film.

    There has been terrible cases of abuse, humiliation and intimidation, all in the name of ‘discipline’. This behaviour has been handed down generation after generation and as a frontline worker I work with the devastating effects of this dysfunctional upbringing.

    More recently, the surge of young black boys abusing,raping and beating black females; there are many reasons for this behaviour, but many of them are coming from mothers who have abused, controlled and humiliated them in the name of ‘discipline’. Some of these mothers need counselling themselves, but the cycle has to stop somewhere. I would hope to see more experienced social workers fronting agencies/support programmes that can provide this level of support which is desperately needed.

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