What Are the Consequences when Abuse is Disguised as Love?

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Creflo Dollar, a high profile pastor, was arrested on Friday for abusing his daughter. While the public reaction is mixed about whether he was right, the take away message for kids is that abuse is okay, just as long as it’s done with love.

File this one under “Not Again,” as yet another high-profile father has physically assaulted his daughter under the guise of discipline. This time the father in question is Creflo Dollar, pastor of the megachurch World Changers Church International in Georgia. On Friday, Dollar was arrested for simple battery, family violence and cruelty to children after his 15-year-old daughter called 911 and accused him of punching and choking her during an argument. She also stated that this wasn’t the first time something like this happened.

The girl’s 19-year-old sister confirmed her report, stating that their father “put both hands around her neck and choked her for about five seconds,” and then grabbed the 15-year-old by the shoulders and slapped her in the face. She stated that her sister tried to break free, but did not fight back, and her father allegedly threw the 15-year-old on the floor. The older sister then ran to get their mother. According to the police report, the pastor told police his daughter “became very disrespectful” after he told her she couldn’t go to a party. He admitted to spanking his daughter and wrestling her to the floor, but said it was because she hit him. Dollar’s wife, Taffi, told police that she did not see the fight.

Dollar was released on a $5,000 bond and immediately sought damage control on Sunday morning, when he explained his side to his congregation. He denied the accusations, stating that “all is well in the Dollar household” and “I should never have been arrested.” He claimed that the police report was filled with “exaggeration and sensationalism” and that the abrasions on his daughter’s neck were from eczema. Dollar went on to say that the incident was part of the devil’s plan to “discredit” his ministry, and joked that being a religious man who was sent to jail “upped my resume; Paul…Jesus…and Creflo.” None of the press reports of his speech mentioned whether he talked about what was going on with either of his daughters, or how they were doing.

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As was the case with the violent judge (see “Spanking, Discipline and Physical Abuse”), the response to this incident has been mixed. Dollar’s congregation was apparently overwhelmingly in support of their pastor. He received an ovation from the packed church, and his parishioners nodded and yelled encouragement like, “We love you” and “We’ve got your back,” as he talked about the challenges of dealing with teenage children in a “culture of disrespect.” In the larger society, it looks as though people are divided as to whether his daughter got what she deserved or whether he was being abusive. Neither perspective seemed to have much sympathy or compassion for either one of his daughters.

Although I would prefer not to revisit the issue of parental punishment (because, frankly, it makes me sick), I think it is important to consider the effects of such a well-publicized incident. In my previous column, I talked about how research has shown that spanking is bad for children, and that discipline instead of punishment has the best outcomes. I should have mentioned that research also consistently demonstrates that parents who use an authoritative style of parenting (i.e. parents who are assertive, not restrictive, and who use disciplinary methods that are supportive, not punitive) have kids who are more socially and instrumentally competent, and have lower levels of problem behavior in both boys and girls at all developmental stages, than other types of parents. In contrast, parents who use an authoritarian style of parenting (which seems to fit what Dollar says he does, the “do as I say because I said so” type) have kids who tend to perform moderately well in school and do not demonstrate problem behavior, yet they also exhibit poorer social skills, lower self-esteem, and higher levels of depression. In other words, the kids are obedient but not happy; nor do they tend to accomplish as much.

Since I talked more about the research around spanking, and the difference between spanking and abuse, in my last column on the issue, I will not go over the same ground again. Instead, I want to focus on the way the national conversation is framed, and what the take away message is going to be for kids. If you read the press reports of the Dollar incident and the comments on it, they are almost exclusively focused on Dollar himself. Other than talking about the 15-year-old daughter’s call for help and the 19-year-old daughter’s corroborating testimony, the two girls are almost completely absent from the conversation. Are they still both in the house? Did they attend the church service in which people celebrated their father’s parenting skills? If their father’s parishioners believe that he did the right thing in punishing his youngest daughter, and that she was wrong to call the police, how are they going to treat her in the future? What is going to happen to both girls from here? In other words, I find it interesting, sad and all-too-common that the narrative is solely focused on the alleged perpetrator, while the alleged victim’s perspective is missing.

Another aspect of the situation that I find disturbing is the fact that simple battery and cruelty to children are both misdemeanors. Although the punishment for misdemeanors varies according to the state, most involve fines and minimal jail time. So, it’s good to know that cruelty to children is considered a relatively negligible offense. This leads me to what the take away message will be for children suffering abuse at the hands of their parents. Based on the reaction to this case, most kids will probably believe that if they accuse their parents of abuse, the majority of adults will either not believe them, or think that they deserved the harsh treatment. They also may note that the alleged perpetrator was back in the house in a relatively short amount of time, and that the legal consequences, if they’re even applied, will be minimal at best.

In my next blog, I will talk about why it is so difficult for so many people to have compassion for victims, and why they do so little to stop abuse. But for now, I worry about those girls and what will happen to them. Was their account accurate? It’s hard for me to believe that both girls would lie about something as serious as this, especially when the 15-year-old, at least, is still living at home and the 19-year-old had nothing to gain. The short-term ramifications of this will fade. Creflo Dollar will ride out the notoriety and possibly deal with the legal consequences, and then the story will disappear from public view. He most likely will learn nothing.

However, the long-term consequences for the girls will be much more far-reaching. If he is as abusive as their story indicates, they may learn that abuse is equated with love and go on to choose romantic partners who follow that pattern of providing the ‘normal’ interactions they’re used to receiving. They may suffer from low self-esteem because no one, possibly not even their mother, thought they were worthy enough to take on their powerful father and save them from further abuse. The girls may also complete the cycle of violence themselves and either use violence to punish their children themselves, or stand silently by while others do. In short, they will learn that violence is acceptable just as long as the person using it calls it love. Is that really the message we want to send? If it is, then beam me up, Scotty. I’m ready for new worlds.

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