Friday, November 11, 2011

Child abuse in America: Learning the wrong lessons from the Penn State scandal

The fact that it’s so predictable makes it no less depressing: In the wake of a scandal over the alleged rape of children by a former Penn State football coach, there are calls to require even more people to report their slightest suspicions of child abuse to child protective services agencies and/or law enforcement.

The near-certain result: More people will get away with child abuse.  More children will suffer at the hands of child abusers because CPS caseworkers will be even more overwhelmed with false allegations and have even less time to find the children in real danger.  And more children will suffer at the hands of CPS agencies – because inflicting a child abuse investigation on a child who was never otherwise harmed is an act of child abuse in and of itself.  That is particularly true in cases of physical and sexual abuse.


For starters, consider the Penn State cases themselves.  If he is guilty of the charges against him, former coach Jerry Sandusky didn’t get away with it until now because of the lack of a mandatory reporting law; he got away with it because people already required to report the abuse failed to do so.

The Penn State case is unusual in another way as well: In this case, Mike McQueary, then a graduate assistant in the football program, says he actually caught Sandusky in the act of raping a ten-year-old boy.  Very few cases are so clear and unambiguous.  As Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights persuasively argues at The Daily Beast, what stopped McQueary from immediately calling 911 had nothing to do with child abuse reporting laws.  Rather, Bissenger writes:

What happened, or more accurately did not happen, goes to the core of evil that major college sports programs in this country have become, equivalent to Mafia families in which the code of omertà rules and coaches and staff always close ranks around their own, even if it means letting someone who was first accused of inappropriate sexual conduct in 1998 continue to roam.Except that the even the Mafia has higher moral standards.

To leap from this extreme – and extremely unambiguous case – to requiring everybody who works in a school or college, from the janitor to the secretaries to the school bus drivers – to phone in their slightest suspicion about everything or risk jail time is to court disaster.

Remember, we’re talking about the slightest suspicion of everything that now comes under the heading of “child abuse” and “child neglect” – including all those breathtakingly-broad statutes that define poverty itself as neglect.


The most obvious problem with all this, of course,  is that it will further overload child welfare agencies with CYA referrals from mandated reporters terrified of what will happen to them if they actually exercise some common sense.  Even now, more than 75 percent of all reports alleging "child abuse" are false.  That is, they fail to meet the minimal standard for declaring the report "substantiated."  No hearing is required to "substantiate" a case; it's simply the guess of a caseworker checking a box on a form.  Turning everyone into a mandatory reporter will make the proportion of false allegations even bigger.

Even David Finkelhor, of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, and someone with impeccable “child saver” credentials, told the Associated Press:

Maybe it's better that people use discretion ... If everybody obeyed the letter of the law and reported a suspicion of abuse, the agencies would be completely overwhelmed with reports.

Finkelhor is not alone.  As early as the 1980s, some former proponents of massive mandatory reporting began to have second thoughts.  In a 1983 article, Dr. Eli Newberger of Children’s Hospital in Boston, again, someone with gold-plated “child saver” credentials, wrote that

had professionals, like me, known then what we know now, we would never have urged on Congress, federal officials and state broadened concepts of child abuse as the basis for reporting legislation.

Newberger’s article was called “The Helping Hand Strikes Again.”

Of course, not everyone thinks this is all that much of a problem.  A former prosecutor named Victor Veith, best known for coming up with a master plan to end all child abuse – in 120 years, thereby assuring that no one who implements it will be around to see if it actually worked - told AP:

I'd be in favor of as broad a mandated reporting law as possible.  But it needs to be accompanied by required training.

The broadest possible law, of course, would make everyone a mandated reporter.  Eighteen states actually do that.  I can’t wait to find out Veith’s master plan for training more than 200 million Americans in how to detect child abuse.

Actually, “training” could make things even worse if it’s done by the same organizations that put out broad, vague lists of symptoms we’re all supposed to watch out for to determine if a child might be abused, 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.  Here's a classic example.

But system overload is only one of the harms that broadening reporting laws will cause.


Almost forgotten is the fact that a child abuse investigation is not a benign act.  Having a stranger come to the door – or your school – pull you aside and ask questions about the most intimate aspects of your life can be an enormously traumatic experience for a child; and the younger the child the greater the trauma.  It can leave lifelong emotional scars.

Three of the nation’s leading scholars of child welfare in the 20th Century – scholars who opposed mandatory reporting, by the way - the late Anna Freud, Joseph Goldstein and Albert J. Solnit wrote that children

react even to temporary infringement of parental autonomy with anxiety, diminishing trust, loosening of emotional ties, or an increasing tendency to be out of control.  The younger the child and the greater his own helplessness and dependence, the stronger is his need to experience his parents as his lawgivers --  safe, reliable, all-powerful and independent . When family integrity is broken or weakened by state intrusion [the child's] needs are thwarted and his belief that his parents are omniscient and all-powerful is shaken prematurely.

It’s not just young children who are harmed.  For a particularly-insightful take on the dilemma of mandatory reporting check out this essay from a pediatrician that ran in The Washington Post.


Even worse, when the allegation is physical abuse – and, sometimes, even when it’s not - the investigation often is accompanied by a stripsearch by a caseworker or a doctor looking for bruises.  If anyone else did that it would be sexual abuse.  And if the allegation is sexual abuse, the medical exam can be a lot more traumatic.

Indeed, try to imagine the terror for a young child, suddenly taken from family by strangers, often including police.  She goes to a strange hospital, where doctors and nurses she’s never met before perform the most intimate possible examination.

It’s already far too easy to inflict this kind of harm on a child, as can be seen in this case, part of a class-action suit in New York City. (NCCPR’s Vice President represented the family).

Surely we should not make it even more likely that this kind of abuse will be inflicted on children by setting the process in motion based on nothing more than a school janitor’s hunch.

All this is before we even reach the harm of panicky workers using these kinds of  flimsy allegations to throw children needlessly into foster care – where the rate of actual abuse is far higher than in the general population.  (Though the majority of foster parents try to do the best they can for the children in their care, as it happens, Jerry Sandusky was a foster parent, and his charity ran a group home.)


But as with so much else that supposedly involves “child protection” the call for more reporting laws really is about adult self-indulgence.  This can be seen in what Jim Hmurovich told the AP.  Hmurovich now runs Prevent Child Abuse America – that’s the group that publishes the Spider Man comic book that effectively encourages children to turn in their parents if they get a spanking.

Before that he ran the child welfare system in Indiana, where he turned it into a paragon of mediocrity, from which it still hasn’t recovered.  Indiana is best known for horrifying cases of deaths of children “known to the system” and for tearing apart families at a rate more than 50 percent above the national average.

When people in child welfare are asked to cite states that do a particularly good job of keeping children safe, I’ve never heard anyone outside Indiana cite Indiana.  (And it’s hard to believe those in Indiana are doing it with straight faces.)

But Indiana is one of those states where everyone is a mandated reporter, and  Jim Hmurovich thinks that’s just dandy.  According to AP, Hmurovich “supports the state's broad reporting requirement, even though he said its impact is hard to quantify.”

“Hard to quantify” means there is not a shred of evidence that making everyone a mandated reporter makes children safer, in Indiana or anywhere else.  But that doesn’t seem to be Hmurovich’s main concern.

"It gave everyone some comfort that they were doing the right thing legally if they report suspicions of abuse," he told the AP. "If children are so important to us, shouldn't it be all our responsibility to make sure they're safe?"

In other words, Jim Hmurovich has just given new meaning to one of the less noble catchphrases of the 1960s: "If it feels good, do it."