Part of the problem and the solution are contained in the title of an hour-long documentary airing simultaneously on two commercial networks and PBS this week. The program is called "Scared Silent: Exposing and Ending Child Abuse."
The program, at 10 p.m. Friday on CBS, NBC and PBS (and next Sunday on ABC) has as its goal breaking the silence that often surrounds and prolongs instances of child abuse.
Arnold Shapiro, the program's executive producer, has enlisted as host Oprah Winfrey, who has openly discussed her own childhood abuse. And he's persuaded the networks and PBS to carry the program. It is believed to be the first time a non-news event has been simulcast in this way.
"Scared Silent" presents six case histories of physical, sexual or psychological child abuse, with victims and perpetrators alike telling their stories. Shapiro said hundreds of cases were sifted, with the six chosen not to maximize shock, he said, but to be representative. There is some strong language in the piece that crosses the usual prime-time bounds.
Shapiro won an Emmy and Oscar for "Scared Straight" in 1979, in which juvenile offenders were given the hard facts of criminal life by gruff prison inmates. He said when he undertook "Silent," he wondered whether anyone would watch. "It didn't take much research for me to realize that we're all affected," he said. "More than anyone would believe, victims and perpetrators are around us." The cost of investigating child-abuse reports is huge ($5.3 billion nationwide each year, he said) and people can manifest the abuse they suffered as children in ways destructive to themselves and others -- alcoholism, drug abuse, anorexia, depression, suicide, prostitution and violent crime.
"When you look at the social problems we have," said Shapiro, "and realize what a significant part child abuse plays in molding these people, it's really one of the core problems from which others are merely symptoms."