When We Blame a Child

By Anna Groff, executive director 

Victim blaming is so ingrained in our culture that we do it without realizing it. At least we are starting to talk about it more—acknowledging victims are judged based on how they were dressed, if they were drinking, how they acted, etc.

When it comes to children, though, victim blaming is more subtle and harder to address. 

The play Blackbird, while distressing to watch, offers a window into how and why offenders—and those around them—victim blame in situations of child abuse.

Fifteen years after the end of an abusive relationship between Ray, then forty, and Una, then twelve, Una shows up at Ray’s workplace. During the ninety-minute, two-person play, the two characters process the past and the present in an emotionally charged and intense exchange.

To defend himself, Ray lists a myriad of justifications for his behavior: Una had seemed older than twelve. She understood love in a way that women his age didn’t. She went out of her way to see him in the street or write him letters. She told his girlfriend to stay away from him. Also, she didn’t tell him “no” when he initiated being physical.

Una recalls that her mother yelled at her repeatedly when she’d found out about the relationship. Una also lost all her school friends, and people in the neighborhood would stare at her when she was out.

Professionals are also capable of victim blaming—or at least retraumatizing a child. Even the judge in the case had said Una had “suspiciously adult yearnings.” Instead of supporting Una, those around her kept her at arm’s length and mistrusted her.

Ray claimed that Una was the only youth he was ever involved in. While in prison, he’d researched pedophilia and confirmed for himself he wasn’t “one of them” and that his feelings for Una were authentic and not sick. He stressed that now he has a girlfriend his own age, which confirmed his conclusion in his mind. As an audience member, I wanted to believe him.

However, in the final scene, a girl about the age of twelve enters and is unusually tender and attentive to Ray. She says, “My mom is waiting for you in the car.” Seeing this girl—the child of Ray’s girlfriend—completely unravels Una.

There are important takeaways from this tragic story. Here are some ways we can avoid blaming children, or any victims, in our faith community settings:

  • Empower kids through the Circle of Grace curriculum, while training adults to understand children’s limitations; for example, don’t expect them to be the ones to say no. It’s always the adults’ responsibility to set boundaries.
  • Demonstrate care for survivors/victims in our midst and affirm their courage.
  • Understand that children may protect their offenders and even care for them, as Una had with Ray. This is not a reason to discredit the abuse.
  • Emphasize God’s love and protection for all vulnerable individuals.