Thursday, April 3, 2008

The child abuse hype machine strikes again

AP tells us:

About 1 in 50 infants in the U.S. have been neglected or abused, according to the first national study of the problem in that age group. Nearly a third of the victims were one week old or younger when the maltreatment was reported, government researchers said Thursday.

Bloomberg says:

About 1 in 43 infants in the U.S. suffers abuse or neglect each year, with the greatest risk among the newly born, according to the first U.S. study of maltreatment focused on babies.

And according to Reuters:

About one of every 43 U.S. infants is physically abused or neglected annually, and those babies are especially at risk in the first week of their lives, U.S. health officials said on Thursday.

The impression given in stories that crossed the wire late Thursday is of a comprehensive, scholarly study discovering massive abuse in hospital wards by sadistic parents beating and choking their helpless newborns. Of course, it’s released just in time for Child Abuse Prevention Month, in which the groups that hype the numbers seek more funding for their version of “prevention” – which generally involves touchy-feely “counseling” and “parent education” programs which make the helpers feel good while ignoring the real family problems that either cause – or are confused with – child maltreatment; namely concrete problems related to poverty.

There are just two problems with the claims in the wire service stories:

●There was no “study.”
●The “findings” are crap.

And while the problem of maltreatment of infants, like all child maltreatment, is serious and real, the hysteria-inducing non-study and the spoon-fed quotes from alleged experts apparently offered up by the federal Centers for Disease Control are only going to make the real problems worse. They’ll breed a spate of hand wringing editorials which, even as they preach “prevention,” feed the take-the-child-and-run mentality that dominates child welfare agencies. And they’ll drive some expectant mothers away from pre-natal care.

It’s the latest installment in a long, sad history of “statistics abuse” from America’s child welfare establishment, rooted in an ends-justify-the-means mentality that produces “advocacy numbers” that don’t hold up to scrutiny. (Time magazine condemned it as early as 1993, in a brief item called “Damned Lies and Statistics.”)

The non-study

Every year, the federal government puts out a book of statistics about child maltreatment. The book is a compilation of data from the states submitted to a database called NCANDS. (National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System). Unlike a second database used for adoption and foster care data, NCANDS is strictly voluntary –and states are free to define abuse, neglect, entries into care, and everything else, any way they darned well please. So, as I’ll discuss in more detail below, this is really no more than a National Report of Rumor and Innuendo.

Every year, this report includes a table breaking down alleged maltreatment by age. Until now, the youngest age bracket has been birth to age three. (Here, for example, is the chart from the 2005 report.

The big new “study” hyped by the wires in stories turning up in hundreds of news outlets consisted of a couple of extra keystrokes to get a computer to spit out the same data limited to birth to age one for 2006, the most recent year for which data are available.

The data are then presented in six paragraphs in a CDC publication. That’s the entire “study.”

The non-findings

But that didn’t stop the Child Abuse Hype Machine from swinging into action. Apparently CDC was glad to direct reporters to “experts” prepared to draw stunning conclusions from lousy data.

How lousy?

Well, let’s go back to how these figures are compiled:

●The figures are based on the number of “substantiated” allegations of maltreatment reported by each state. But “substantiated” is a misnomer. It does not mean that a court made a finding. It does not even mean that an expert evaluator weighed all sides. Rather, it means only that a (typically) undertrained, inexperienced caseworker took a guess and checked a box on a form.

The only comprehensive study I know of (a real “study” not a few keystrokes) to second guess these decisions found that workers were two to six times more likely to wrongly “substantiate” an allegation than to wrongly label one unfounded.

● State laws in about half the states say the worker is supposed to check the “substantiated” box if she believes there is even slightly more evidence than not of maltreatment. In the other half, the standard is even lower. The worker is supposed to substantiate maltreatment as long as she thinks there is “credible evidence” or “some credible evidence” for it – even if there is more evidence of innocence.

Even at that, the so-called study acknowledged that overwhelmingly, these infants are not abused. Indeed, physical abuse was alleged in 13.2 percent of the cases. In 68.5 percent the allegation was “neglect.” The wire stories do mention this but are skimpy about the implications.

Neglect is typically defined as lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter. Lots of things can cause lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter, including all sorts of bad behavior by parents. But often, neglect is simply poverty.

Indeed, the only real surprise in the stories was that someone who, for decades, has represented the view of the “child saving” establishment, Prof. David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire, apparently has gotten fed up and can’t stomach the hype. According to the AP story:

“The neglect cases include situations in which medical professionals conclude that a child got sick or didn't correctly develop because parents didn't get recommended medical care. … Finkelhor said the cases might in part reflect families who don't have adequate health insurance.”

You think?

But Finkelhor was alone. Mostly the quotes suggested tens of thousands of infants whose lives were in danger because parents were at worst sadistic brutes or at best irresponsible and needed lots of “counseling” and “parent education.”

And what about all that stuff about the danger being worst during the first days of life? Does that mean that’s when stressed-out parents are most likely to lash out at the most innocent?

Actually, no. As the stories acknowledge – eventually – it’s strictly an artifice of how child maltreatment is reported.

Many state laws require medical professionals to report any parent whose newborn allegedly has even a trace of any illegal substance in her or his system. This can mean anything from the parent who used cocaine every day of her pregnancy to the parent who smoked a marijuana cigarette to ease the pain of labor – to simply a false positive on a drug test. Doesn’t matter. Professional medical judgment is not allowed.

And in some states, any such report is automatically classified as a “substantiated” case of neglect.

The result: a supposed epidemic of child maltreatment in the days after birth, that in fact, is simply a combination of doctors denied the right to use their medical judgment and state laws slapping the label “neglect” onto any case with a positive drug test.

And since more and more states are moving in this dreadful direction – requiring an automatic neglect finding based on one positive drug test – we know what will happen next: They’ll run the numbers next year, the numbers will be, artificially, higher, and the Hype Machine will proclaim that the problem of infant abuse “has gotten even worse.”

Yes, the various experts quoted pay lip service to prevention. But not the kind of prevention that would really help – like universal health insurance, drug treatment on demand and, especially, concrete help to ease the worst burdens of poverty. Instead, we get sanctimonious comments about counseling and parent education and teaching parents to cope with stress. (Actually easing the stress by improving housing or helping a family find day care? No thanks. Apparently that’s beneath the dignity of a true “professional.”)

And what impact is all the hype about those drug tests (including a gratuitous quote in the AP story suggesting – wrongly - that the tests revealed “newborn drug addiction”) likely to have on pregnant women who really do have drug problems? It’s bound to drive more of them into hiding and away from prenatal care – which is likely to be far more harmful to the children than the drug use itself.

In fact, there is some real news in the latest federal figures, but not the kind the Child Abuse Hype Machine wants to focus on:

The overall rate of substantiated child abuse is actually unchanged from 2005 – and significantly lower than it’s been in almost every year since 1990.

But you can’t get more money for your phony prevention program with figures like that.

The response to this from the child welfare establishment will be two-fold: First the accusation that anyone who doesn’t take their hype at face value is “minimizing” the problem and, essentially, doesn’t care if infants are beaten and tortured. On the contrary – after more than 30 years of following this issue, one thing I know for sure is that statistics abuse winds up increasing harm to children, not curbing it.

Second is the “even one…” argument. As in, “if even one infant is abused it’s one too many so why ‘quibble’ over numbers?”

Well yes, even one is one too many. But if the real numbers don’t matter, there’s no need to hype them.

Actually, the real numbers matter a lot. Because the first step toward honest solutions is honest numbers.