Sunday, April 1, 2018

If it’s April Fools, it must be Child Abuse Hype and Hysteria Month


Back in 2003, one of the groups most responsible for fomenting hype and hysteria about child abuse came remarkably close to admitting that they did just that – and that it had backfired.

Rather like Dr. Frankenstein admitting he’d created a monster, in a 2003 Request for Proposals concerning how to improve their messaging, Prevent Child Abuse America wrote:

While the establishment of a certain degree of public horror relative to the issue of child abuse and neglect was probably necessary in the early years to create public awareness of the issue, the resulting conceptual model adopted by the public has almost certainly become one of the largest barriers to advancing the issue further in terms of individual behavior change, societal solutions and policy priorities.

This is especially worth remembering as we begin “Child Abuse Awareness Month” – a month, which, appropriately starts on April Fools Day.

So I’ve reprinted below our 2010 blog post on the topic – with some updates and links to newer data – since, unfortunately, aside from those data, nothing has changed. Because it's a lot easier to create a monster than to bring it under control

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED APRIL 1, 2010 , UPDATED APRIL 1, 2018


Get ready for a seemingly endless stream of cookie-cutter news stories and Astroturf op ed columns (the kind written by national groups with blanks to fill in to make them sound home-grown) touting "Child Abuse Awareness Month" – based on the bizarre premise that the American people are blissfully unaware of child abuse.

There is something appropriate about the fact that "Child Abuse Awareness Month" starts on April Fools Day, since it involves fooling the public in order to push an agenda of hype and hysteria that obscures the real scope of the problem, and real solutions, in favor of approaches that only make a serious and real problem worse. Your typical Child Abuse Awareness month news story or op ed column follows a standard formula:

1.     Take the most horrifying case to occur in your community over the past year, the more lurid the better.
2.     Jump immediately from that story to a gigantic number which actually is only the number of "reports" alleging any form of child maltreatment. Ignore the fact that the vast majority of those reports are false and most of the rest are nothing like the horror story, and often involve the confusion of poverty with neglect. Or…
3.     Use only the total number of cases that caseworkers guess might be true, but call them "confirmed" giving the guesses, which are simply the opinion of a worker checking a box on a form, far more credibility than they deserve. A major federal study found that workers are two- to six-times more likely to wrongly label an innocent family guilty than to wrongly label real child abusers innocent.
4.     Throw in huge lists of "symptoms" or "warning signs" that "might" be "signs" of child abuse – and might as easily be signs of any number of other things.
5.     Instruct us all that it is our duty to phone the local child abuse hotline with any suspicion of anything no matter how vague and how dubious – instead of advising us to report when we have "reasonable cause to suspect" maltreatment, the same standard often used in law to guide "mandated reporters."
6.     Remind us that we are welcome to call the hotline anonymously – thereby encouraging those who want to harass an ex-spouse, a neighbor or anyone else against whom they may have a grudge to go right ahead, secure in the knowledge that they'll never get caught because they can conceal their identity.

It all comes from the same ends-justify-the-means mentality behind the egregiously-misleading report published by Every ChildMatters – the mentality that says: what's a little distortion and exaggeration in the name of a good cause?

In fact, such distortion and exaggeration can do enormous harm to children. 

Hotlines wind up with more false reports and trivial cases; children are harassed and traumatized by needless child abuse investigations – often including stripsearches as caseworkers look for bruises - and some of those children are forced needlessly into foster care. The caseworkers wind up even more overloaded by these false allegations, so they have even less time to find children in real danger.

Reality check


NCCPR has some resources on our website for any journalists and others interested in putting all this into context, countering the hype and hysteria and pressing for real solutions:

·         Our analysis of the latest comprehensive study of child abuse, which puts the scope of the problem into context
·         Our Solutions pages, Doing Child Welfare Right and our Due Process Agenda.
·         Our essay on how to really prevent child abuse: take a social justice approach instead of a public health approach.

If the people behind "Child Abuse Awareness Month"  (also known as "Child Abuse Prevention Month") really want to prevent "child abuse" then how about campaigning to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty.  

Poverty increases the stress that can lead to actual abuse and, as noted above, poverty itself often is confused with "neglect."  This can be seen by the fact that the simple act of raising the minimum wage $1 an hour cuts "neglect" by ten percent.

The problem of child abuse is serious and real, but the solutions have been phony. The distortion and exaggeration that typify child abuse "awareness" campaigns only promote phony solutions and make those serious, real problems even worse.

If only there were a Statistics Abuse Prevention Month.