Thursday, April 1, 2010

If it’s April Fools, it must be Child Abuse Hype and Hysteria Month

See update at the end of this post.
Get ready for a seemingly endless stream of cookie-cutter news stories and Astroturf op ed columns (the kind written by national groups with blanks to fill in to make them sound home-grown) touting "Child Abuse Awareness Month" – based on the bizarre premise that the American people are blissfully unaware of child abuse.
There is something appropriate about the fact that "Child Abuse Awareness Month" starts on April Fools Day, since it involves fooling the public in order to push an agenda of hype and hysteria that obscures the real scope of the problem, and real solutions, in favor of approaches that only make a serious and real problem worse. Your typical Child Abuse Awareness month news story or op ed column follows a standard formula:
  1. Take the most horrifying case to occur in your community over the past year, the more lurid the better.
  2. Jump immediately from that story to a gigantic number which actually is only the number of "reports" alleging any form of child maltreatment. Ignore the fact that the vast majority of those reports are false and most of the rest are nothing like the horror story, and often involve the confusion of poverty with neglect. Or…
  3. Use only the total number of cases that caseworkers guess might be true, but call them "confirmed" giving the guesses, which are simply the opinion of a worker checking a box on a form, far more credibility than they deserves. A major federal study found that workers are two- to six-times more likely to wrongly label an innocent family guilty than to wrongly label real child abusers innocent.
  4. Throw in huge lists of "symptoms" or "warning signs" that "might" be "signs" of child abuse – and might as easily be signs of any number of other things.
  5. Instruct us all that it is our duty to phone the local child abuse hotline with any suspicion of anything no matter how vague and how dubious – instead of advising us to report when we have "reasonable cause to suspect" maltreatment, the same standard often used in law to guide "mandated reporters."
  6. Remind us that we are welcome to call the hotline anonymously – thereby encouraging those who want to harass an ex-spouse, a neighbor or anyone else against whom they may have a grudge to go right ahead, secure in the knowledge that they'll never get caught because they can conceal their identity.
It all comes from the same ends-justify-the-means mentality behind the egregiously-misleading report published by Every Child Matters last year – the mentality that says: what's a little distortion and exaggeration in the name of a good cause?
In fact, such distortion and exaggeration can do enormous harm to children. Hotlines wind up with more false reports and trivial cases; children are harassed and traumatized by needless child abuse investigations – often including stripsearches as caseworkers look for bruises - and some of those children are forced needlessly into foster care. The caseworkers wind up even more overloaded by these false allegations, so they have even less time to find children in real danger.
NCCPR has some resources on our website for any journalists and others interested in putting all this into context, countering the hype and hysteria and pressing for real solutions:
The problem of child abuse is serious and real, but the solutions have been phony. The distortion and exaggeration that typify child abuse "awareness" campaigns only promote phony solutions and make those serious, real problems even worse.
If only there were a Statistics Abuse Prevention Month.
UPDATE: Sure enough, the serial statistics abusers at the Child Welfare League of America are at it again. They’re launching a so-called “fact-a-day” campaign in April. Distortion-a-day is more like it. For instance, the “fact” scheduled for April 4 is: “More than 25 percent (25.2%) of the investigations determined that at least one child was a victim of abuse or neglect.”
For starters, that means more than 74 percent of reports are false. In addition, “determined” as a victim means only that one usually inexperienced, overwhelmed worker guessed that to be the case. And in at least half the states, workers are instructed to make the “determination” that abuse or neglect occurred even when there is more evidence of innocence.
Another page on the CWLA website - the one with the "symptoms list" equates poverty with neglect. CWLA instructs us to "Know what child abuse is, and what the signs are. Physical and sexual abuse clearly constitute maltreatment, but so does neglect, or the failure of parents or other caregivers to provide a child with needed food, clothing, and care."