Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The best way to help the child who got into the gorilla enclosure is to leave his parents alone

● The last thing this child needs is a child abuse investigation
● Did Cincinnati police cave in to the virtual lynch mob?

We all know the story, right?  Four-year-old gets into gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.  Gorilla’s behavior endangers child.  Zookeepers kill gorilla.

Oh, and I almost forgot: A virtual lynch mob of more than 430,000 people decide that they would never, ever make the kind of mistake the child’s mother made when she lost track of the boy.  They’ve signed a petition demanding that the mother be investigated for child neglect. 

The Cincinnati police initially said there would be no investigation of either the parents or the zoo. Now they say they’ll investigate the parents.

Before I get to why that’s so unjust, let me start with why it’s such a bad idea

The reason to call off the police investigation and leave the parents alone is not for the sake of those parents. It’s because the child has suffered enough.

The last thing this child needs is to be questioned by police and/or child protective services workers. The last thing he needs is any more stress on his family. And the last thing he needs is to be put at even a slight risk of being consigned to foster care – where the chances of actual abuse are so high.

This is especially important for a child of this age – because at this age children tend to interpret anything that happens to them as their fault. So no matter how hard caseworkers and police may try to avoid it, he will interpret the questioning and, God forbid, the foster care as somehow his fault.

I can hear the virtual lynch mob now: But what if this is some “sign” of chronic neglect? What if there is more going on?  That’s what the petition says (and no, I’m not going to link to it):

We believe that this negligence may be reflective of the child's home situation. We the undersigned actively encourage an investigation of the child's home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death.

But this incident is a sign of something deeper to exactly the same extent that any mistake any parent has made while supervising a child is a sign of something deeper. So don’t send the police in to do the real damage of an investigation because of a mob’s fervid imagination.

The petition isn’t really about protecting the child at all.  That’s clear from the title of the petition, “Justice for Harambe” – that’s the gorilla. If the top priority really were the child, you’d think that would get a mention in the title.

What these 430,000+ people should be thinking is “there but for the grace of God…” because here are some things people who have not raised children may not know:

● Four-year-olds tend to be small.
● Four-year-olds tend to be curious.
● Four-year-olds often can move at something approaching the speed of light.

The New York Times puts the whole thing in perspective quite well here.  The column cites an essay from Cincinnati Enquirer opinion editor Cindi Andrews who initially condemned the mother – until she rememberd the time she made a very similar mistake.  If not for good luck and a driver with good brakes the person on the receiving end of all that condemnation - while possibly mourning the loss of a child - could have been she.

But she probably wouldn’t have faced such condemnation. Because she’s white.

As in everything else in American life, race does matter here, as New York Daily News columnist Shaun King shows us in this column comparing the response to the Cincinnati parents to the response in other, similar cases.

And there’s scholarship to back up King’s impression.  No, as far as I know, no one has done a study of how parents are treated when their children fall into zoo enclosures. But there is a study of who gets prosecuted in a similar kind of tragedy that can be viewed either as an accident or negligence: Children who die when left in overheated cars.

The researcher was not able to break down prosecutions by race – but she did break them down by economic status. She writes:

One particularly important—and disturbing—finding was the disparate treatment of parents from different socioeconomic groups: parents in blue collar professions and parents who were unemployed were four times more likely to be prosecuted than parents from wealthier socioeconomic groups.

Unfortunately, even a writer who wants to call off the virtual lynch mob threw fuel on the fire.

Alex Abad-Santos wrote this, and more, on Vox:

It just seems a little puzzling to not be able to keep an eye on your child especially in a place where killing beasts — gorillas, lions, wild African dogs, and wolves — roam. And the missing child must have been missing for some time to get through the barriers on his own.

As the New York Times story makes clear, Abad-Santos is gravely underestimating four-year-olds
And check out this account from an eyewitness quoted on Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids blog:

 This was an open exhibit! Which means the only thing separating you from the gorillas, is a 15 ish foot drop and a moat and some bushes!! This mother was not negligent and the zoo did an awesome job handling the situation!

Abad-Santos argues that the mother in this case must have been extraordinarily negligent because this has never happened before at the Cincinnati Zoo.  But that doesn’t consider all the near-misses we may never know about – all those children caught in the nick of time, or a few seconds before the nick of time, in zoos and so many other places. Go back and reread Cindi Andrews column, Alex.

Abad-Santos also argues that

It's not like [the mother] lost track of her son and he bumped his head on a kitchen table or burned himself on a hot pan.

On the contrary, that’s exactly what it’s like. But the place where it happened ratcheted up the consequences and turned the mother into a target for the mob – something that, do his credit, Abad Santos decries.

So now, let’s face up to one of the hardest truths of all: Sometimes bad things happen and no one may be to blame.