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Conversations with Ruth and Annie Kempe

On ISPCAN's 30th Anniversary, Dr. Jon Conte, an ISPCAN Councillor and Professor at the School of Social Work, University of Washington, Seattle, had a conversation about ISPCAN's founder, C. Henry Kempe, with Kempe's wife, Dr. Ruth Kempe, and one of his five daughters, Annie Kempe. A child psychiatrist and co-editor of the book, The Battered Child, Ruth Kempe was a full partner in Henry Kempe's work to prevent and treat child abuse and neglect. Annie Kempe, an occupational therapist, has just published a biography about her father: A Good Knight for Children: C. Henry Kempe's Quest to Protect the Abused Child. To purchase a copy of this book or read the fascinating first chapter online, go to But first listen to the lessons that Henry Kempe still has to teach those who strive to protect children from violence, through the recollections of Ruth and Annie Kempe.


A Chat with Ruth Kempe

Dr. Jon Conte: It is a great pleasure to have this chance to talk to you on the occasion of the 30th Anniversary of ISPCAN. I know you and your husband, Dr. Henry Kempe, worked as a team to prevent child abuse and neglect and it means a lot to those of us who have tried to follow in your footsteps.


What do you recall were Henry's hopes or wishes for an international organization dedicated to child abuse and neglect, like ISPCAN?


Dr. Ruth Kempe: I know that he hoped that there'd be worldwide participation, both in the recognition of abuse and then in treatment and prevention. I think he believed that the emphasis in different countries might vary for political, geographical, economic, and cultural reasons, but I believe he hoped that children's safety and child care would be considered important in each nation.


Then he hoped that an international organization would lead to the expansion of involvement of the United Nations, in a major way. I think he believed the development in research, particularly international research, would enhance capabilities of everyone. I think he hoped that if the recognition of treatment methods improved, a gradual shift to prevention programs would occur. And that was an important goal of his.


He was realistic about time, you know. He had hopes for these outcomes, and knew they would take time. But he was also impatient. He dealt with this by concentrating on the next possible step. That was what he would do, for example, in his hopes for the international movement. You start what you can, you go on to the next step, and in that sense he thought of it as a long-term proposition, but an inevitable one.


Jon: I know your work, of course, because you and I are both interested in child sexual abuse, and I know that you were an equal partner with Henry. From your perspective, what do you think is the most important thing that ISPCAN can do in the coming years?


Ruth: Well, in the short term, I think there are some things that I'm not sure ISPCAN can do much about, but perhaps it can encourage. First of all, I really am pleased to see there are changes in treatment methods today—a more realistic approach, I think—but still maintaining the trustworthiness of the therapist, which I think is key, too. This shift is probably more quickly helpful to a lot of kids. There's also a need for well-trained professionals to explain the vagaries of abusive relationships to the media. Misunderstandings about abuse continue to be a problem and really cause delays in treatment.


I've wondered with others about the public health approach—whether that might be the answer. Better triage would help a lot, particularly the transition from reporting to treatment; that's the kind of thing we need to look at specifically. The other thing we need to recognize in the next period is that the U.S. government, and many others, are not child-friendly, in terms of their priorities and initiatives, and we need to find a better way, make a better case, for the advocacy of children, and the role they could play in more easily solving problems in the future. Information about infant and child development has shown explicitly how important the way we treat children is to their adult behavior; we need to relate that more clearly to ways in which society can improve its own outlook.. I think there is a relationship there, that poor quality child care is a charge against the future. It's not a concept that's taken hold yet. How can we show that child abuse prevention provides the same kinds of benefits to society that, for example, immunization from infectious disease does? How can we show that the work in our field helps society achieve better things? We don't have enough long-term studies. We don't have good proof that what we do works.


So, that's an area we need to concentrate on, I think, and that's probably true everywhere.


I really applaud the efforts of ISPCAN to include and support individuals in Third World countries. They often deal with much harsher realities than we do in the U.S. and in Europe. But they may also teach us how to use meager resources more effectively. They certainly need our cooperation, and I think this is one of the great works of ISPCAN. There is a need for leadership. There's a need for the various groups working on child abuse treatment to come together better, to support one another, and to focus efforts in an effective direction. I think perhaps ISPCAN can best provide this direction and leadership, and it seems to me it's the most effective possible resource for that. These are some of the more immediate things I am concerned about.


Jon: I think that's very helpful.


Ruth: There are a couple of long-term things that I think are especially worthwhile. I think there is a need for long-term research, in order to better demonstrate our work. If we make mistakes, we need to learn from them. Long-term research may be expensive, but if we keep good records, with the data we have right now, we should learn what is working and what is not—at least we will get a better sense of direction. I think we need to translate what we're learning into programs, into strategies for prevention, that are practical, and that can be adopted by non-professional community resources. There is a trend to do this, but I think it needs to be expanded.


Jon: I think, as ISPCAN celebrates its 30th Anniversary, those words are beautiful themes for where we need to go in the future, and I think there is a beginning awareness within ISPCAN of these ideas. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Dr. Kempe. I know I speak for all of ISPCAN when I wish you all the best.


Ruth: Great, thank you.


A Chat with Annie Kempe 

Dr. Jon Conte: It is a pleasure to have this opportunity to speak with you about your dad. Let's go way back. What are your earliest memories of your dad's interest in children?


Annie Kempe: I have several early memories. Although he was a wonderful father, I remember Dad being gone a lot and working really long hours. When we girls would ask our mother about his absence, she'd tell us that he needed to help sick or hurt children. And we sensed, even at young ages, that, while we were special to him, his dedication to helping every child was extraordinary.


When I was about four or five years old, we lived in San Francisco, and one day my sister and I saw a little neighbor boy being beaten with a belt by his father. Although my dad wasn't involved in that scenario—and I don't think we ever told him about it—the one thing I remember thinking is, "I'm so glad I have the father I have. He would never do that to us.”


Then later, in 1962, when I was eleven, we lived in France for a year, while Dad was on sabbatical at the Pasteur Institute. The grounds keeper of the house we rented there lived with his family on site. Whenever he'd been drinking, he would become violent and beat his wife and his little son, Danny. When Dad found out about that, he visited the man, and, although Dad was much smaller in stature, he told him in no uncertain terms that this behavior was unacceptable and must stop. And as children, we were terrified of this huge brutish man, but it was this memorable moment that exemplified the courage of our father in our eyes. That was a very strong memory, because he went up against someone a lot bigger, and a lot scarier—to just say "this is not okay” and to stand up for any child.


Jon: That is fascinating especially in light of what your mother just told us about his having to stand up to a skeptical public in the same way.


Annie: Exactly. He was a maverick—a little ahead of his time on several things, not just in child abuse. He was always a little outspoken, but it was all truly because he believed that it was important that someone speak up, even if it was hard. He wasn't making waves for attention. He truly believed deeply that someone needed to be a voice for children, and he was willing to take the accompanying risks.


Jon: As you worked on your book and reviewed your dad's life, what surprised you the most? What did you learn about your dad that you did not know before?


Annie: During the writing of the book, I was most surprised at the enormous impact he had on his students, his colleagues, and on so many children's lives. The book reflects that in the contributors' stories about him. Also, his letters were revealing to reread, showing his deep sense of humanity, his ability to communicate so openly, and his true joie de vivre. I think his letters are my favorite part of the book. And most of those were written when he was working on smallpox in India, but they also talk about his real sense of humanity and commitment to helping people on a big scale.


Jon: You know, it's hard for a daughter to step back from her dad's life and take an objective view.


Annie: Oh, I know that, of course!


Jon: As you've done that, what do you think it is about your dad and his life that gave him this vision to create this international organization?


Annie: First, he himself had a very challenging childhood, and some might say very little childhood. So his empathy for children, and for a happy childhood, was heartfelt and profound. He was a "big picture” person, who saw a need and then combined idealism with pragmatism to accomplish seemingly unattainable goals. With his persuasive, inclusive personality, he could convince others to join him in the international efforts to prevent and treat child abuse. It was serendipity that he took a detour from working with viruses to confronting the pervasive problem of child abuse, but it became a calling for him, kind of his major opus.


Jon: If it were possible to take parts of your dad's character and person and give them to other professionals around the world who work with abused kids, what characteristics stick out as the most important to share with others?


Annie: This is my personal opinion: If I could encourage those working in the field of child abuse to exemplify Dad's and Mom's traits, they would be, first, the fearlessness to take on daunting tasks on a large scale; second, the ability to clarify a problem and enlist others to join in a solution; third, the energy to confront child abuse at all levels of society and in all realms, meaning medical, legal, judicial, et cetera; fourth, the tenacity that brings to mind a quote by Sir Winston Churchill, "Never give up, never, never, never, never”; and fifth, and most important to me, the belief that we all need to protect all children, that they belong to all of us and we to them.


Jon: I'm glad you mentioned your mom. I did not have the pleasure of ever meeting your dad, but I've known your mom all of the time I've been in this field, and I've always been struck by her contribution, her stature, reasonableness, and extent to which she's tried to bring caring about people to the work. Am I correct that it really was a partnership between your dad and mom?


Annie: Absolutely. In the preface of the book, I talk about how my dad never would have accomplished what he did without my mother, because she gave him a perspective about child development and a sensitivity to children even greater than the one he already had, partly because she had a very happy, contented, and fulfilled childhood and he did not. She gave him some of those insights, and also I think she influenced him throughout all of the work that he did. He always consulted her about everything, and that's one of the reasons they co-authored books and articles; their working relationship was as intertwined as was their personal one. So, she was a major influence on him, and he would have been the first to say that.


Jon: Well, I know we're just all eager to read your book, and you've given ISPCAN, and people who work with abused kids, a great gift in writing it.


Annie: Just for clarification, the book really is about Henry and Ruth Kempe as people, and hopefully these insights talk about and speak to the child abuse realm and ISPCAN's work as well. But, primarily, it's about the motivations and the drive that bring someone to do this kind of work, on such a big scale, when that was never in his or her plans.


Jon: Thank you for you time. I know I speak for all ISPCAN when I wish your mother continued health and thank you for giving us this book on your dad's and mom's lives.

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