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1 J.L. & Fam. Stud. 41 (1999)


Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling" is best remembered for its moral, "To be born in a duck's nest, in a farmyard, is of no consequence to a bird, if it is hatched from a swan's egg." Having read and thought about this story many times, we should like to suggest another, less heart-warming, interpretation. The story of the Ugly Duckling, that most resilient of cygnets, masks the tragedy of children who suffer abuse. Its message, that personal spirit will triumph when a child grows up, misrepresents the experience of many victimized children. If we wait for the child to turn into a swan, we will often be sadly disappointed. More troubling is the evidence that "different" children are more likely to be subjected to repeated abuse by parents or guardians.

If a child is seen as ugly (whether disabled or merely inhibiting the parent's romantic relationships), she may suffer many of the torments of the Ugly Duckling. But "The Ugly Duckling" is a fairy tale. The ugly child seldom emerges as a beautiful swan. Instead, she is more likely to be scarred emotionally, if not physically. Abused children do not fare as well in school, as adults, and particularly as parents. They make up a tragically large proportion of criminals and those who never seem to be able to adjust.

This paper reexamines child abuse from the victim's perspective. Most of the literature on child abuse, as well as treatment of the subject in law schools, focuses on the adult abuser: Was there abuse in the adult's family? Were appropriate social services provided? What form did the abuse take? Did police respond appropriately? Was the correct level of due process provided? Can the adult be reunited successfully with the child? How closely does abuse correlate with poverty? This focus is important, for in order to do the unthinkable, abuse one's own child, the parent must be in some or many ways abnormal.

We ask a much simpler set of questions, given the fact that a given parent may, under the right set of circumstances, abuse a child. Why are particular children picked on? What makes them less attractive in the eyes of the adults who care for them? What should be done to protect such children from repeated abuse?


Reprinted with permission of the Journal of Law and Family Studies.

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