French translation :Julie et Melissa : le grand stress et le chagrin des belges en 1996 .
In August 1996, Belgium was deeply shocked to learn of the rape and murder of several young girls by a group of paedophiles. In the wake of these events, the Belgian population displayed symptoms of collective emotional shock and bereavement. We endeavoured to come to terms with these feelings as a community. We immediately sent an open letter to all children, which was published in the country's main newspapers. We then organized a group debriefing on national television on a very popular children's programme. This article deals mainly with the processes involved in this debriefing session. Further complications later developed involving, among others, abused children and their families. In order to help them, in addition to individual interventions, we again used the press and radio and TV programmes. When the population eventually began to emerge from the shock and bereavement, we acted to prevent excesses by, among other things, writing an ' open letter to child abusers '.
Between June 1995 and the end of July 1996, six girls and adolescents disappeared under mysterious circumstances. First, Julie and Melissa ( 8 years old ) were kidnapped in Julie 1995 close to a motorway flyover. Then, at the end of July 1995, Ann and Eefje ( ~18 years old ) did not return home from a show put on in a holiday village. In April 1996, Sabine ( 13 years old ) was kidnapped one morning in the country as she was on her way to school. Finally, at the end of July 1996, Laetitia ( 14 years old ) was kidnapped as she was leaving a swimming pool.
The investigation into the disappearance of the first two girls, Julie and Melissa, quickly prompted considerable dissatisfaction, and the suffering of their parents became a media spectacle throughout the investigations into the disappearances.
A new team of police officers and magistrates set to work investigating the kidnapping of Laetitia and very quickly ( around 15 August ) arrested the main culprit, Marc Dutroux, and a few of his accomplices. The two girls who were last to be kidnapped, Sabine and Laetitia, were then found alive but they had been sexually abused. It was quickly discovered that the kidnappings were sexually motivated, and unfortunately a few days later police discovered the bodies of the two girls who were the first to be kidnapped, Julie and Melissa. The bodies of Ann and Eefje were discovered in early September after much excited and panic-stricken speculation by the media. However, what was most upsetting to everyone in the country was the suffering and death of Julie and Melissa. Everyone in the community, regardless of their age, immediately identified with the two little girls or their families, particularly as the media spoke constantly of dangerous paedophiles who could be lurking anywhere. What followed was what could be described as ' collective emotional shock '. Il was, in fact, a mixture of astonishment, anxiety, voyeuristic curiosity, righteous indignation and anger. Many people suggested torturing Dutroux, at least to get him to talk, and expressed a feeling of general insecurity. The media were, in tact, describing the events in detail and suggested the probable existence of large well-structured networks of paedophiles that included influential people. As a result, the Belgian population was afraid of a possible resurgence of child abuse and feared that the authorities would be largely powerless to deal with the situation. The shock was soon compounded by an acute suite of bereavement, as if with the death of the little girls many parents and children felt that they had suddenly lost loved ones, their own daughters or sisters, and they were deeply affected by this loss.
Coping with the aftermath
The few mental health professionals who were working in Belgium at the time of these events ( it was the summer holidays ), being human like everyone else, were also caught up in the general sense of shock and grief. However, what was worse for some of them, particularly those officially responsible for combating child abuse, was that the kidnapping and death of these children represented a breakdown in the basic safeguards for which they felt responsible. As a result, they felt even more upset and guilty than the rest of the population. Therefore, it is not only because they feel concerned and involved as professionals, but also to relieve their own pain and to make amends in some way for what they perceive as mistakes on their part, that they have been trying to come to terms with these tragic events.
The first ` open letter '
Julie and Melissa were found dead on the 16 August 1996 and were buried on Thursday the 22 August.
As early as 19 August, ' SOS Children ', a multidisciplinary team set up by the Belgian government to combat abuse, decided to send an open letter to all children in the community and look steps to make sure that it was published as soon as possible in the country's leading newspapers. The letter was also sent to many health centres ( for general practitioners, paediatricians and mental health specialists ). Some letters were enlarged and displayed in waiting rooms or photocopied and distributed to the public. The letter was not so much informative as an expression of empathy and encouragement. It acknowledged the universal feeling of sadness and anguish and, after mentioning some difficult questions children might ask, it invited adults and children in the community not to remain silent but to find someone to talk to. The letter stopped short of giving answers. The only explanation was a description of the emotional upset felt by parents and an encouragement to children to show understanding for this temporary emotional breakdown in some grown-ups. Some extracts are given below:
"... Like us, like your parents, like your friends, today you are sad, angry and afraid that it may happen to you too.
It is only normal to feel sad, angry and frightened. And this might go on for some time ...
... If you don't understand, talk about it to your parents or to sympathetic adults. Don't hesitate to ask all the questions and to express all your thoughts.
For example :
Could it be that all grown-ups become nasty ?
Who can I trust ?
Do the police protect children ?
Should we kill bad people ? ...
… It certainly won't be easy for adults to give you all the right answers. They will sometimes think that you're too young to understand.
Insist ! Tell them it's very important for you to find an answer...".
The TV programme : Ici Bla-Bla Special
As early as Monday 19 August, we felt that we ought to organize a collective ' posttraumatic debriefing ' with the help of the national television network. By working with a small group of children, we reckoned that we could have a psychologically liberating effect on a much wider group of children, and even of adults, who would identify with the group and might experience a psychological uplift ' vicariously ' by watching the programme. This idea, which was in fact a success, is described in detail below.
Timing and procedure
Between Monday the 19th and Wednesday 22 August, we used different political strategies to persuade the national TV networks to commit themselves to the initiative.
They did in fact commit themselves and put Dr Rondia, who was responsible for medical/scientific programmes, in charge of the programme. We met her for the first time on the morning of Thursday 22 August, and she suggested the idea of integrating the debriefing session into the most popular children's programme : ' Bla-Bla '. Bla-Bla is a modern ' cybernetic ' puppet who many children ( girls and boys ) have adopted as a kind of playmate. Every day Bla-Bla presents a programme with games and cartoons but, more importantly, he also comments on current affairs without making any concessions to convention. Of course, Bla-Bla was on holiday in August, so we had to make him come back especially, and TV presenters were asked to let all the children know.
On the afternoon of Thursday 22 August, five children were brought together by a non-professional, a mother, who had had the wonderful idea of inviting four little girls of the same age as Julie and Melissa and one boy aged 11. Most of them did not know each other.
On Friday 23 August, from 9.30 a.m. to 1 p.m., the post-traumatic debriefing session of those live children was broadcast on TV.
I myself took the children through the session. I had asked them beforehand to make two drawings, individually and on their own. In the first drawing, each child was invited to depict a recent event that had impressed him or her. In the second drawing, they were invited to draw an imaginary child who was attacked but managed to defend himself/herself against his/her aggressor. The first filmed group session lasted about 1 hour, during which we discussed the first drawing and its associations. We then took a break and had a final 1-hour session about the second drawing.
That afternoon, the children were back home, and the adults had to decide winch video sequences to use for the programme. We also chose an introduction by the puppet Bla-Bla and a few brief comments by adults that were to be inserted after each of four extracts of the children’s work. This was followed by a long day of editing work. Then, on Sunday 25 August, the children's work was broadcast during peak viewing time just after the news in the early afternoon ( during which Dr Rondia had tactfully introduced the programme and prepared adults for the possibility that sortie might be shocked by the free expression of the children ).
A few extracts from the programme
It is impossible to describe in detail the very deep and meaningful material these five children produced ! We, the adults who were there listening and commenting, often felt humble and amazed !
A few extracts illustrated by the drawings on which their comments were based are given later.
Two of these pictures show Julie and Melissa in their cage. However, they are still talking to each other, singing children's songs or even playing cards ( Figures 1 and 2 ).
This attempt by two children to restore a human dimension to the little girls' situation is very touching. Are they simply seeking to express a denial of the horror they feel or are we seeing the force of life breaking out, resilience, like a tentative atonement in the aftermath of the trauma ? It's difficult to say ! Whatever it is, not everyone agreed with this explanation of the situation. Other children in the group thought it was impossible, that they were lied up, that they could not have played or spoken to each other, etc. After letting them talk, and with all the empathy I was able to muster, the thought occurred to me that a celebrating session is not a time for.just listening only but also a time to share thoughts. And so I told them my personal opinion as if I were remember of the group : ' I for one think they could have been playing, singing, talking to each other about their parents, their friends, and so on, and that surely made them feel better.'
Figure I. Julie and Melissa dancing to a nursery rhyme.
Figure 2. Julie and Melissa playing cards.
The children certainly expressed strong aggressiveness towards the kidnapper of their ' two little friends '. Two examples are given.
In Figure 1, in the top right corner, the kidnapper is drawn ' very small '. I asked the children to think about what such a small size might mean for them. This prompted them to imagine all sorts of means of overpowering him, some awful fate that might befall him, and even eating him up. I put it to them that this idea was probably a good means of revenge, since the kidnapper himself had publicly admitted that he and his accomplices had let the two little girls starve to death.
Another girl had brought from home a bottle full of water in which she had put a horrible plastic millipede chopped into pieces. She had been keeping this bottle with her all the time, except at night, when she put it away in the fridge. She explained that the pieces represented the kidnapper and his wife and that she wanted to torture them or to make them really cold. My immediate reaction was limited to active empathy. I emphasized that this girl was feeling really very angry about what was being done to other children and ` that's the way it is '.
Afterwards the children explained what they thought paedophilia meant. " They projected onto the adult paedophile their representations of sexual activities from their own infant sexuality. The boy in the group ventured to say that a paedophile was one who touches a boy's ` willy' and a girl's ` … '. At this point he hesitated. He couldn't find the name for a girl's sexual organ. So I asked the girls about it: ' What do you call among yourselves the equivalent of what we call a boy's " willy " ` ?'. There followed an embarrassed silence and giggles. They wouldn't say their word to define their sexual organ. I didn't insist. I just accepted their determined silence. By using this symbolic language, they allowed themselves the freedom to make use of their bodies and their sexuality, which I find very encouraging.
The children carried on talking about what had happened and they were wondering whether Julie and Melissa might have made some mistake. They were, of course, at the age of ` moral realism ', when mistakes are evaluated on the basis of results rather than of intentions ! There followed a lively discussion between them : should the girls have tried to defend themselves and hit their kidnappers ? Or should they have let go because they could do nothing to stop them ? I was listening to them, and I put forward a hypothesis about psychological escape inspired by what Bettelheim had written about the concentration camps : ` In fact, when Julie and Melissa were abused, it could he that only their bodies were present and that their minds, their souls, the real Julie and Melissa, were already somewhere else, out of reach like little birds. ' The children listened to this quite complicated thought in deep silence.
The second part of their debriefing session consisted in thinking about a good way for children to defend themselves against potential kidnappers. So all together we considered each drawing in the second set. An example is given in Figure 3.
As I watched this part of the debate unfold, I was thinking that, generally speaking, our western societies are too ` molly-coddling ' and overprotective and do not encourage children enough to take prompt action to deal with danger, and to do it on their own with their own energy or by evaluating correctly the efficacy of their action and with the outside help they must inevitably look for.
As I listened to the children, I was amazed at all their creative and realistic ideas : play together, never alone, stay more than two metres away from a stranger, scream, run away very fast and so on. I told them I admired their creativity.
With Dr Rondia, in the programme as it was shown, we added a few comments made by adults between the different phases of the children's debriefing session, with such themes as : the feeling children may sometimes get that they are abandoned by their parents when they have been ` naughty ' : the right to be angry ( which does not mean they have to take the law into their own hands ); the very positive aspects of sexuality. except for a few unfortunate deviances; the benefits of taking reasonable risks in life rather than ` hiding under the table ', etc.
Figure 3. Someone wants to take me away while I’m skipping. I scream.
Clinical effects of the programme
Our work within this initiative was a clinical emergency intervention and was never intended as research. In fact, we do not have any systematic data that might have allowed us to assess the effects of this programme. Nonetheless, we know that half a million people watched the programme the first time it was broadcast. The TV programmers had such a positive intuitive impression and received so much encouraging feedback that they broadcast it a further three times over a period of 8 days.
The five children who took part in the debriefing session said that they were much more relieved afterwards, and this was confirmed by their families. Informally, about 20 times, parents have told us that their children were ' less nervous ' and that they had fewer nightmares after watching the programme.
The national Minister for Education quickly made a copy for each French-speaking primary school in the country so that it could be used as a starting point for debates with teachers. Ten months later, the programme received the ' golden ATA 1996 ', which is the highest distinction awarded by the official Belgian viewers' association. AIl this gives some idea of the positive repercussions of this work.
Other early interventions
There were many early interventions, all geared towards dealing with the collective emotional shock in its most negative manifestations : anger, fear, a feeling of awesome threat and helplessness, even of despair. It is impossible to describe all these interventions in detail, but a brief summary is given here:
---- First, there were more consultations than usual, for children who were not feeling well and whose expressed or latent problems were a result of the ' Dutroux affair '.
---- Furthermore, we wrote many articles, gave many lectures and took part in several TV and radio programmes about how to handle and cope with anxiety. In these circumstances, we usually showed empathy towards parents' and teachers' shunning behaviour and overprotectiveness. At the same time, we tried to make them think about the ' least risky ' attitude : whether to bring up children in a closed environment or to encourage them to go out and make the most of their lives ( under supervision, of course ). We also helped them to distinguish between archaic fantasies on the one hand ( for example, the omnipresent bogey man ) and, on the other hand, the very small probability that serious cases of child molesting would recur in the immediate future. For example, one day, during the main national TV news broadcast, l invited parents not to use too much crude language about the events in front of their preschoolers which could cause terrible misunderstandings. I also encouraged them to explain once again to their preschoolers their own protective role : ' Mum and Dad are there to look after you '.
Complications among specific segments of the population
The same trauma can disturb its victims in different ways, depending on such factors as the general structure of the victim's personality, the quality of social support and previous attacks of similar traumas.
After about a month and for some weeks, there was a spate of bogus kidnappings. Some teenagers actually wanted to re-enact what had happened to Julie and Melissa, and so disappeared for a couple of hours, just long enough to give everyone involved a fright and to put the police on alert. Why ? Did they do it out of boredom or idleness, or were they looking for excitement ? Did they envy the martyred children who everyone loved ? Was it out of a need for attention and love ? Perhaps, but there might also be a certain degree of manipulation, the use of the ' ideal ' lie to cover up other silly or more insignificant nasty things. Any of these supposed motivations could have some truth in them, enough to prompt us to write articles in the press to offer some kind of explanation as to what was behind these false kidnappings.
Worsening of the condition of victims of abuse
What was sadder and more serious was that people suffering from past and present sexual or physical abuse, and their families, started to feel worse and to show more severe symptoms.
Examples The increase in comments on the obvious and terrible damage suffered by victims of abuse itself caused anxiety and created havoc among them, worsening their unhealed wounds and even reopening freshly healed scars. The result was an increase in social and psychological consultations involving abuse. For example, in mental health centres it is estimated that disorders connected with the emotional consequences of physical and sexual abuse accounted for 5%, of the requests for consultations over a period of 6 months ( compared with less than 1 % at other limes ).
Driven by new feelings of sudden intense inner anger, a number of children or their families decided to reveal incidents of abuse they had until then kept secret. For example, the ' SOS Children ' teams found that new revelations of abuse increased by around 15% during the year following the events.
Also, a number of people started to complain and to appeal, often publicly, at the way certain institutions had mishandled their cases. For example, they complained that they had suffered a lot from the passive attitude of the judicial authorities. They also denounced possible pressures to cover up crimes committed by influential paedophiles with friends in high places. The number of such ' reopened ' cases was probably somewhere between 30 and 50.
In contrast, adults focused their attention more and more on children's and teenagers' sexuality. When told about it, they were much more worried than before. They were frightened of the spectre of a ' new Dutroux ' and, as a result, they began pointing the finger at children and adolescents who had been involved in such activities as potential sexual abusers or paedophiles, especially those who seemed to be the instigators and/or leaders.
What were the consequences of all these complaints on the functioning of mental health institutions ? It seemed very important to us that all these people should be given the opportunity to express themselves and to meet people who were willing to show solidarity. In lectures and on radio and TV programmes, we stressed the importance of these individuals not becoming loners and prisoners of fear and shame.
For example, during a televised debate on paedophilia, we made a direct appeal to young people who had been sexually abused and strongly advised them to choose someone they could trust and talk to. We also mentioned, for their benefit, that some confusing thoughts might arise, especially as regards any pleasure they may have felt during the abuse. One of the results of these interventions was that we received quite a lot of letters from adults who had been prisoners of their silence and the lack of understanding of their family. A detailed written answer was sent to each.
However, we soon realized that it would have been unhealthy to leave people with the thought :' l'll reveal what happened to me, so l'll get real and quick help, and the molester will get punished '. We therefore decided to put out messages with words of caution and realism. These messages are summarized below :
- it helps to talk about abuse to a trustworthy person. The community is there to offer solidarity
- if this person gets close to you, it may give you more strength to say ' no ' and it may help you fight against abuse and stop it.
- even if it seems unfair, there is no guarantee that the child molester you might have stopped would automatically confess his crimes or get the punishment he deserves. His resistance and deceit may be so strong that we can't always overcome them.
We felt we had to dissociate the two messages, the advice about not becoming a loner and the word of caution about the lingering uncertainty with regard to the molester's punishment. The reason was that we wanted to prevent cruel disappointment, which of course does not mean that people should give up, but unfortunately the outcome of the ongoing fight against abuse remains uncertain.
Also, we publicly questioned the institutional system that we have been setting up. AI present, in Belgium we invite the community to have the problems relating to physical and sexual abuse taken care of by official and highly qualified institutions. With some variations between countries, this is a specific matter to be handled by the Courts and/or by highly specialized psycho-medico-social centres.
But if the different institutions really had to tackle all these problems, we would probably have to increase their number tenfold and build many new prisons and hospitals. Would this really be a solution ? Would it not be better to rely on the front-line social workers and even on those who do informal and non-professional work ?
But if we are to increase the workload of those in the front line, how might we motivate and support them ? And all this has to be done without any direct revenge of the kind advocated by extreme right-wing movements. We have to avoid the temptation to adopt ' big brother ' or paranoid behaviour where citizens spy on each other. In such circumstances, how could we encourage a genuine sense of solidarity in which everyone would be given their human dignity ?
As regards the labelling of children and teenagers as sexual abusers, we had to combat us perverse effects. We, therefore, began talking to adults in the community about sexual activities among minors and what these activities mean. Their meaning can only be understood through listening and observation, and not through biased prejudices dictated by circumstances : by and large, most of these activities are sexual games. Some of them represent a loving relationship with consent, while others are genuine cases of sexual abuse. Even though this form of sexual abuse is clearly unacceptable, we must remember that they are the actions of human beings whose psychological makeup is going through rapid changes. It would therefore be unhealthy, if not harmful, to label them as abusers and to subject them to exactly the same treatment that adults should receive in these circumstances.
Tentative recovery of the community /
Belgium had a quite natural reaction to help it overcome the shock.
To relieve its sense of bereavement, Belgium spoke profusely about what it was feeling. People collected and copied photographs of the dead children and attended the funeral rites alongside the families of the children. A ' White March ' - white being the colour of mourning for children - was organized at the end of October 1996. Hundreds of thousands of people of all ages took part in this march. White balloons were released into the air all along the way as a symbol of solidarity and friendship between the dead, but spiritually still present, children and the survivors who wanted lo keep their memory in mind.
To overcome their emotional shock, people did the same thing : they talked a lot and asked themselves and each other incessantly a number of key questions : ' Why ' , ' How ? ' and ' How can we stop it happening again ? '
This was followed by a tremendous wave of ideas and anger along with calls to mete out effective punishment to the guilty and to prevent any recurrence. Although some notions went too far, a number of the ideas were quite respectable in principle and realistic in their assessment of the situation. However, inevitably, other ideas were excessive. Two examples are given below :
- a national petition was signed by two million people to make sure that paedophiles served their full prison sentence.
- the examining magistrate in charge of the case set up a toll-free phone line for all informers. He did this the day before he was to lie removed from office on a trifling pretext. Actually, he was himself very moved bytheevents. He was exhausted and seemed disgusted by the reactions of his own institution.
At the same time, several political promises were made, often by activists who pledged to do better in the future, but neither the politicians nor the police nor the magistrates ever officially acknowledged their responsibility for past failures. Most institutions, particularly those whose track record came in for scrutiny, wanted to show that they would work hard and efficiently but without the least mention or even a passing acknowledgement of their ineptness. As a result, politicians promised severe treatment for sex offenders. They set up commissions of experts and parliamentary commissions. They also set up a European centre for kidnapped and sexually exploited children, but they could not prevent it from having to be sponsored by commercial firms.
The most striking outcome of all was the emergence after a year or so of a very strong ` civic movement '. In a movement that went far beyond any possibility of being ‘ hijacked ' by politicians, the people who took part in the White March sought to show both to the offenders and to the different institutions that they were able to take a stand on their own and that they were able to protect their children by exerting considerable pressure on their elected representatives to do the best they could. Many ` White Commissions ' made up of citizens were created, their task being to remain vigilant.
The reaction of mental health institutions to this spontaneous reorganization
Many people working in these institutions took part in the process just as normal `citizens '. They also gave tentative advice on what might be an efficient social system that provided guarantees of protection and accountability.
In contrast, whenever the spontaneous reassertion of this social force became simplistic or excessive, the professionals responsible for mental health endeavoured to act as moderators and stressed the need for calm reflection to get a clear idea of the human element at stake : tactful approaches to the ` White Commissions ', an ` open letter to abusers ' published in the country's main newspapers ( to prevent sex offenders from being considered as national scapegoats ), etc. In this letter, we encouraged paedophiles to resolve to change their ways and we spoke of them as being basically just human beings like everyone else, along with their inner conflicts. Here are some extracts from the letter :
"… I know it isn't easy, because many of you have also suffered mentally, psychologically and perhaps physically when you were younger. So in time you turned towards other children as some kind of a pathetic compensation.
I realise too that the pleasures you experience when you abuse children are just like a drug and that it's difficult to break free from addiction !
But it's not impossible and I refuse to believe that you go about your life without freedom and without the least moral sense.
So don't you think it's time to wake up, to wake your better self up ? Don’t you think it's time to recover your dignity and self-esteem ?
As this article goes to press 4 years after the events, the Belgian people are still not cured. Their wounds are healing slowly and painfully, as if something had not been cleaned up. The events that have taken place, the violence and deaths and people's reactions have opened everyone’s eyes. Our consumer society has failed in many ways and has shown that it is unable to halt evil, sickness and moral depravity in the community. It has also shown that it cannot provide peace and security for all its citizens. Nor can it inspire the adoption of lasting values of generosity and integrity within its own institutions. As a result, people still feel under threat and unable to make themselves heard and respected.
(*) Acknowledgements : Our sincere thanks to Mrs Martine Nihon of the children's programme ‘ Ici Bla-Bla ‘ for getting ' Bla-Bla ' to break off his holidays, to Mr Pierre Padot, the producer of the programme, for making a success of this almost impossible mission, and to Dr Carine Rondia, who was the director of a number of medical programmes and who showed total commitment to the initiative and was a tremendous source of ideas. Our very special thanks also go to Mrs Levesque, the scriptwriter of the programme, whose keen memory proved invaluable.
(**) Jean-Yves Hayez is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Doctor of Psychology, he is also a Professor in the Medicine and Psychology Faculties of the Catholic University of Louvain ( UCL ), Belgium, Director of the Paedopsychiatry Unit and Coordinator of the SOS Children team of the Cliniques Universitaires Saint Luc ( Brussels, Belgium ). Professor Hayez is involved in the fight against child physical and sexual abuse. He is currently Vice-President of the French-speaking official commission against child abuse in Belgium. He is the author of many articles and books, most notably : Le psychiatre à l'hôpital d'enfants ( Paris : PUF, 1991 ), which was awarded an honorary prize by The Mustela Foundation in 1993 ; and with Dr E. de Becker, L'enfant victime d'abus sexuel et sa famille : évaluation et traitement ( Paris : PUF, 1997 ), which was awarded the prize for ' Best Author's Work ' at the 6th International Psychiatry and Neurology Congress, Paris, 1