Rosemary Pate was so afraid of her teenage son that she sought a restraining order against him and installed a lock on her bedroom door to keep him out.
Those measures didn’t save her. Pate died in Ocoee at the hands of her 19-year-old son in July 2013.
Researchers at the University of Central Florida have begun a study that could ultimately help other victims of parental abuse like Pate. The findings from UCF School of Social Work researchers will help Florida lawmakers during their upcoming legislative session as they consider whether to adopt the nation’s first child-to-parent abuse law.
“The information we get has the potential to help shape policy on this issue, and identify some promising practices,” said Bonnie Yegidis, director of the School of Social Work at UCF.
Social service institutions and the criminal justice system are ill-equipped to recognize the signs of child-to-parent abuse and work with families affected by it. And because parents often don’t speak up, experts believe such abuse is drastically underreported.
“There is a stigma….How shameful could it be to tell your friends or to tell your coworkers, ‘My child beat me up?’” Yegidis said.
Yegidis is conducting the study with fellow investigators Coleen Cicale and Lisa Macri, who are adjunct instructors and doctoral students in UCF’s College of Health and Public Affairs. The study was sparked by a request from the Parent Abuse Action Coalition. That organization – formed in the wake of Pate’s death – is advocating for tougher penalties in cases where parents have been abused.
Pate, a Lockheed Martin employee, was 51 when she was killed. Her son, Everett, is now serving a 30-year prison sentence for her murder.
Homer Hartage, president of the Parent Abuse Action Coalition and a former Orange County commissioner, was friends with Pate but knew nothing of the ongoing abuse she faced.
“People have been living with this in shame. We have to convince the public they need to speak up about this,” said Hartage, who hopes the UCF study will bring more attention to an issue that’s rarely talked about.
The study is crucial because sound research is needed to better understand the experiences of families in which adolescent-to-parent abuse is present, Hartage said.
“It will be the first academic study of the abuse of parents in the United States,” Hartage said. “It’s a milestone study.”
Researchers will interview families that have been impacted by abuse that has brought the child into contact with the juvenile justice system. They’ll determine whether there has been involvement with law enforcement or social-welfare agencies, and any attempts at intervention, such as safety plans, counseling or mental-health care.
Abuse of parents by children isn’t simply a child hitting a parent. Rather, it involves a pattern of physically, emotionally, financially and verbally abusive behavior exerted by the child to maintain power or control over the parent.
Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, sponsored a bill last year that would for the first time codify a minor’s abuse of a parent as domestic violence. A companion bill in the House stalled in committee, and Thompson believes that’s in part because of the lack of research on the issue.
“Because parental abuse is not considered domestic violence, there has been little research of it,” Thompson said. “We have very little data. We need empirical data, and the UCF study will provide us that.”
Thompson plans to refile the bill for the legislative session that begins March 3. Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, is expected to file a companion bill in the House.
Thompson’s hope is that treating adolescent-to-parent abuse as domestic violence will lead to changes to how such cases are handled. Right now, even if an abusive child is arrested, the parent remains legally responsible for the child and has little choice but to bring the child home upon release – potentially to abuse again.
The new law and the findings of the UCF study would allow institutions to tailor more effective strategies for intervening and combating abuse.
“It would give parents resources they could use when they have an abusive child,” Thompson said. “Right now, there is nothing. There is nowhere to turn.”