Thursday, July 7, 2011

Child abuse: When the experts “think dirty” the children pay the price

Three news organizations, NPR, the non-profit news gathering organization ProPublica and the PBS series Frontline collaborated last week on a series of stories about people wrongly convicted of killing their children.

Among the most revealing segments was an NPR story from Canada.  Even as it profiled one case, the story helped answer the broader question: How could things go so horribly wrong in so many cases, including cases in which there was obvious evidence of innocence?

The answer boils down to two words; two words that became the guide for experts and prosecutors:  “Think dirty.”

That was the mindset in Ontario, according to Stephen Goudge, a judge who led an inquiry into what went wrong in several cases. 

According to the NPR story, “think dirty” meant presuming guilt.

“'Think dirty' reflects a cast of mind that was prevalent often with the child care community in the 1990s," Goudge explains. "That is, injuries observed were deliberately inflicted — that's the presumption to be disproved."

The Goudge Commission found the actual words "think dirty" in instructions from Ontario's chief coroner to coroners, pathologists and police chiefs in 1995.

At the time, there was reason to fear that some cases of children being murdered were being missed and sometimes classified instead as sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. That's a category for deaths when the cause can't otherwise be determined.

But by "thinking dirty," pathologists and prosecutors often ignored other reasons the children may have died.

In fact, “think dirty” isn’t limited to Canada and it isn’t limited to death cases.  It was, and is  the dominant mindset of most child protective services agencies.

● “Think dirty” explains the McMartin Preschool case and all those other so-called “mass molestation” cases that tore apart hundreds of families and destroyed the lives of hundreds of children in the 1980s and 1990s. 

● “Think dirty” explains how, as recently as 2007, a prosecutor in Oakland County Michigan tried to send parents to prison for allegedly sexually abusing their daughter based on “facilitated communication” – a technique with as much validity as a Ouija board.

● Think dirty explains those absurd lists of “symptoms” or “warning signs” that a child might be abused we’re told to watch out for every April during “child abuse prevention month” – lists which tell us to suspect abuse if a child is too shy or too aggressive or acts too much like an adult or too much like a child or has nightmares or doesn’t have warm clothing in winter and on and on and on.

● “Think dirty” explains the proposed law in New Jersey that would say that a child abuse allegation can be labeled unfounded only if a caseworker is absolutely, positively 100 percent certain that the accused is innocent.

● “Think dirty” explains the campaign of hype, hysteria and distortion around the issue of child abuse deaths by the group calling itself “Every Child Matters.”  Indeed, “think dirty” might as well be the group’s slogan.

The common denominator in all of these situations is that, as usual, when the “experts” and “authorities” whose 19th Century counterparts proudly called themselves “child savers” swing wildly at suspect parents, the blow lands squarely on the children.

In the Ontario case at the center of the NPR story, the mother was falsely convicted of killing one child.  But long before she was vindicated and freed from jail – after serving 14 years of a life sentence - her other two young children had been taken from her and adopted.  As NPR reported:

She thinks about her son who died. And she wonders about her other two sons, who were put up for adoption when she went to prison — especially when she's in a crowd and sees teen boys, she says.

"Like, especially around that age, I sit there and go: 'I wonder: Could that one be mine? Could that one be mine?'

We’ll probably never know what the children may have been wondering all these years.

After all the havoc “think dirty” has wrought in so many families, isn’t it time for a new slogan to guide child welfare agencies and advocates?  How about “think objectively”?