Updated, January, 2018
More than a year ago, I wrote a column called Donald Trump and the Child Savers: Not a Band, But They Sing the Same Song. In that column I wrote:
Some of the same people who probably are horrified by Donald Trump seem to have no problem using his tactics in the fight against child abuse.
More recently, I compared the standard rhetoric used, often by self-proclaimed liberals, in the war against child abuse to Kellyanne Conway’s attempts to justify Trump’s Muslim ban.
And now, after tragedies involving homeschooled children in Iowa, there are calls by some, including those who call themselves liberals, for requiring that every parent who homeschools a child bring that child before a mandated reporter of child abuse for periodic inspection. Try substituting “terrorism” for “child abuse” and “Muslim” for “Homeschooler” and the problems here should be obvious.
As with every other well-intentioned proposal to intrude on families, the problem with this one is the harm it would do to children in 32 states. (In 18 states everyone is a mandated reporter, including every parent, so, presumably, the proposal would have no effect at all.)
But in those 32 states, consider the real-world impact of requiring parents to submit their children to inspection by a mandated reporter, in this case probably a public school teacher:
§ The teacher knows that this child is being brought before him or her specifically to be checked to see if the child is being abused or neglected – that creates an inherent bias toward finding such maltreatment.
§ To the extent that the mandated reporter has been trained at all, it often involves broad, vague lists of “symptoms” or “warning signs.” One website alone lists 77 different “signs” that could be child abuse. They also could have many other causes. At least one of these “signs” probably could be found in almost any child at some point in that child’s life.
§ The mandated reporter knows that if s/he fails to report and then it turns out the child really was abused s/he could face dismissal and perhaps even criminal penalties. There is no penalty for a false report made in good faith.
§ All those additional false and trivial reports filed by mandated reporters will only further overload child protective services, making it more likely that CPS workers will overlook children in real danger.
§ Children will know the purpose of these visits, and they will sense the tension they cause in their families. That makes them, inherently, an act of emotional abuse against the children. As three of the leading child welfare scholars of the 20th century, Anna Freud, Joseph Goldstein and Albert J. Solnit wrote, in calling for far higher standards before ever intervening in families:
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.
Increasing government-mandated surveillance would do significant collateral damage to thousands of innocent Muslims – sorry, I meant children – because a few Muslims – er, homeschoolers – are terrorists – oh wait, I mean child abusers.
Why Single Out Homeschoolers?
The singling out of homeschoolers is odd for other reasons as well.
The children most at risk of abuse or neglect are the youngest. So the same logic behind this proposal requires that every child from birth to at least kindergarten age also be presented for periodic inspection.
Something like this, in fact something even worse, has been suggested by one of the most extreme of America’s latter day “child savers” – to use the term their 19th century counterparts proudly gave themselves.
The proposal in question comes from Elizabeth Bartholet, another self-proclaimed liberal, greatly admired by Daniel Heimpel, who runs the Chronicle of Social Change (the Fox News of child welfare) and partners with her in exploiting horror stories to attack safe, proven innovations to keep families together.
Showing no concern for the trauma it would inflict on children, Bartholet has suggested in her book, Nobody’s Children (p. 171), that every parent of a young child be required to admit to their home at periodic intervals a government-authorized “home visitor.” She specifies that the visitors would be mandatory reporters and the purpose of those visits includes “surveillance.” Indeed, that seems to be their primary purpose.
Bartholet claims that a spy in every living room is no more intrusive than child labor laws. It “would simply provide society with a realistic means of enforcing” laws against abusing and neglecting children. So would a surveillance camera mounted in every room of every home with no way to turn it off. Perhaps Bartholet didn’t suggest this because George Orwell thought of it first.
Those who drew sweeping conclusions from the Iowa cases drew those conclusions selectively. In those cases the children also were adopted from foster care. In one case, relatives desperate to take in the child were turned down. Yet I've read no sweeping conclusions about either adoption - nor should there be. The reasons to curb the misuse and overuse of foster care are grounded in the data showing the harm of needless removal of children and the high rate of abuse in foster care. When horror story cases become the basis for public policy we get horrible policies. In child welfare they only wind up hurting the children we want to help.
Why are homeschoolers a special target of 21st century child savers? Because we liberals tend to stereotype them as a bunch of right-wing fundamentalists – and we all know what they are like, right?
Those kinds of stereotypes have no place in the war against terror – or the war against child abuse.