Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Preventing child abuse: Welcome to Child Abuse Paranoia Month

Call CPS:  These children  appear to be
walking somewhere - on their own! 
           Six years ago, I wrote a post about the kind of op-ed column that typically turns up every April during “Child Abuse Prevention/awareness Month.”  There’s also a subset, of sorts.  It’s directed specifically at the issue of child sexual abuse.  Call it the Child Abuse Paranoia Month column. 
If we did what the authors of these columns suggest, we’d wind up with a generation of paranoid adults raising a generation of terrified children.  And we’d traumatize tens of thousands of children with needless child abuse investigations and extremely intrusive medical examinations. In fact, we’d be well on our way to recreating the atmosphere of mindless fear that led to the mass molestation hysteria of the 1980s, typified by cases such as the McMartin Preschool.

            This column is a classic example. It starts with the obligatory three bullet points of horror stories and jumps immediately to the claim that “No young child or teenager is inherently safe from sexual abuse.”

            That is, literally, true. Just as no young child or teenager is safe from getting into an auto accident or coming down with a serious illness. But it doesn’t follow that we should never let a child into a car or out of a 100 percent sterile environment. 

            When it comes to “preventing” sexual abuse, however, this column comes close to recommending something similar. The author, Michele Booth Cole, writes: 
So with everything that institutions and people have learned about child sexual abuse, why would a school allow a staff member to be alone with a student behind a closed door? Why are there places on campus where no one can see what’s going on?
             Probably because A) When a child needs to confide something personal to the school nurse or guidance counselor, it makes sense that the door would be closed and B) We don’t want to live in an Orwellian surveillance state with cameras poking into every corner. 

            But nothing better sums up the mentality of the column than one of Cole’s proposed solutions: 
Individually and collectively, we would have to get creative, constantly assessing places and situations to make them as safe as possible for children. Let’s say a school employee needed to give a child a ride home, and only the two of them would be in the car. The adult and/or the child could be on a cell phone the whole time, giving a running description of the drive to the child’s parent or caregiver. 
            Let’s start with the practical problems. Distracted driving, because the driver had to talk on the cell phone the whole time in order to prove he’s not a child molester, is a much greater danger to this child than the exceedingly small likelihood that this school employee will turn out to be the next Jerry Sandusky.  And yes, that also applies to "hands free" cell phone use.  I've put a great big National Safety Council infographic at the end of this post to illustrate just how irresponsible this idea really is. And imagine the panic that would ensue – complete with false alarm calls to 911 - if the signal were dropped.


            But the bigger problem is what all this would do to the psyches of our children. 

            Cole says she wants to “inspire adults to create safe, whimsical childhoods for children at all times.”

            But the “solutions” we hear during Child Abuse Paranoia Month don’t put much emphasis on whimsy. On the contrary, from as early as toddlerhood, Cole is talking about raising children to be constantly wary and fearful. We’ve also trained the adults in their lives to be wary of so much as giving them a hug for fear it will be misinterpreted. All that is emotional abuse on a massive scale.

            And it gets worse. Cole writes:
People sometimes ask how to get “bystanders” to report their suspicions of child sexual abuse. Perhaps, as a neighbor or an acquaintance, you just get the feeling that something’s not right, but you’re afraid to raise your concerns.
You may never be sure and you don’t have to be sure. If you report your suspicions, the professionals in law enforcement and child protection will follow up and find out what’s happening. You could literally be saving that child’s life.
            Or you could be bringing down a world of misery upon that child.

            First of all, referring to the child protective services workers who will respond to the call as “professionals” often is a stretch.  In Washington, D.C., where Cole is located, they’re generally well-qualified.  More typically, however, you’re talking about someone with a bachelor’s degree in anything and a quickie training course.  Law enforcement often isn’t any better.

            These total strangers will interrogate the child about the most intimate aspects of her or his life.  That’s what happened in this case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (with my organization’s Vice President acting as pro-bono counsel for the family). 

Often that interrogation will be followed by a medical examination that, if anyone else did it, would be sexual abuse.

All this harm occurs before we even reach the issue of the child protective services worker possibly panicking – depending on whether a high-profile tragedy is in the news at the moment – and consigning a child who was not abused to the chaos of foster care.

            Cole runs a Child Advocacy Center – where the staff try their best to minimize the trauma (though suggesting, as Cole’s center does in a graphic, that the child is having a wonderful time through it all is somewhat misleading). Even when they’re the first to question the child – and that’s not always the case – it’s going to be very difficult for that child.
Sometimes all this has to be done anyway.  The problem of child sexual abuse, like all child abuse, is serious and real. But starting this process in motion should be based on more than “you just get the feeling that something’s not right…” (Special note to my liberal friends: How would you feel about a presidential candidate who said we should call the cops about anyone we thought might be a terrorist because we “just got the feeling that something’s not right…”?  UPDATE, APRIL 18: Or consider this story from The New York Times about what happened to a man who spoke Arabic on an airplane.  Liberals would be outraged.  Yet the behavior of the airline is no different from what Cole says we should do to children.)

            Part of the problem is the very fact that Cole runs a Child Advocacy Center. Day after day she sees the very worst that some adults do to some children.  I don’t know how you can do that and not emerge from it feeling that the world is a dark and dangerous place for children. But it’s a distorted view of reality – and another example of the tyranny of personal experience.

          “Imagine what the world would look like,” Cole writes, “if we did everything we could to keep kids safe?”

           Actually, if we went from doing what’s prudent and sensible to doing everything, it would look pretty awful. 
          ●It would be a world where children were raised to cower in their homes, afraid of everyone they meet – or running home after so much as seeing a stranger nearby.

          ●It would be a world that destroyed any opportunity to build the self-confidence, self-reliance and independence they’ll need to thrive as adults.  What will our children do when we’re too old to always be there to protect them?

          ●It would be a world in which children were taught to treat normal human kindness as suspect, making it far less likely they will be able to receive such kindness – or give it.

             We’ve already  gone way too far down this road, as Lenore Skenazy, once labeled the “world’s worst mom” for fighting the trend, documents on her Free Range Kids website.


            Like so much that is done in the name of “child protection” Child Abuse Paranoia Month columns are not about protecting children at all – they’re about protecting parents.
            Specifically it’s about our efforts to protect ourselves from one of the inevitable side-effects of parenthood: Worry - that constant, nagging fear that the worst will happen to our children as soon as they are out of our sight.  (Interestingly, in my own experience, this does not stop when the child becomes a young adult.)

            When our daughter was in college and wanted to spend a semester of her junior year studying in South Africa my wife and I worried – constantly.  The easy way out would have been to say no.   But we let her go, and it turned out to be one of the most important and fulfilling experiences of her life.  (We remain grateful that she did not tell us about going shark diving off Cape Town until after the fact.)

            At other times, I’m sure we gave in to fears when we shouldn’t have. But putting the children first means rising above our own fears as much as we can, whenever it’s prudent.   

           Anything less is not child protection, it’s adult self-indulgence.

Now, about that distracted driving idea...

Hands free not risk free
Provided by The National Safety Council