Sunday, August 16, 2020

UPDATED: Beware! Beware! Every child in Oregon will be abused!! (If an op-ed column by a bunch of Oregon legislators is to be believed.)


The Oregon State Capitol in Salem
The Oregon Sate Capitol in Salem


            The column below deals with a preposterous number included in an op-ed column written by Oregon state legislators for the Oregonian. They claimed that one in seven children is abused each year.  After we raised the issue with the Oregonian, the Oregonian queried the legislators.  The lawmakers have partially corrected the error – but they still are misleading the public. 

            It turns out the one-in-seven figure doesn’t come from Oregon data (as I had assumed in the original post) and isn’t specific to Oregon. It comes from the Centers for Disease Control, which cited a study that uses extremely broad definitions, has an unintentional undercurrent of racial bias – and was not limited to abuse.

             The legislators have partially corrected their false claim. Now it reads: “One in seven children are believed to experience abuse each year in the U.S., according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control. 

             But the CDC publication doesn’t say that. The CDC publication states that “Self-report data suggest that at least 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse and/or neglect in the last year.” [Emphasis added.]

             That, of course, is vital, since the single biggest problem in child welfare is the confusion of poverty with neglect – and one doesn’t need more funding for child advocacy centers to deal with it.  In fact, the money the lawmakers want for more child abuse policing would be better spent ameliorating the worst effects of poverty.

             The CDC claim is based on this study.  The study claims that one in seven children experienced some form of “maltreatment.”  Five percent of respondents experienced any form of physical abuse and another 0.1 percent experienced sexual abuse.  So even assuming the definitions are valid, that’s not one in seven, it’s one in 20.

             And there are problems with definitions. The definition of physical abuse is:

 Not including spanking on (his/her /your) bottom, did a grown-up in (your child’s/your) life hit, beat, kick, or physically hurt (your child/you) in any way?

             That definition includes any “grown up in (your child’s/your) life” not just parents or other adult caretakers.  More problematic: The definition includes a parent slapping a very young child on the hand as he’s about to touch a hot stove.  It includes grabbing a child and leaving a bruise while pulling him apart from another child with whom he’s having a fight.  It includes a scenario in which an angry teenager is letting loose with a string of vile insults aimed at his mother. Dad has had enough and slaps him?  Is that the right thing to do? No.  But would sending in the child abuse police to do an investigation at best and walk out with the child at worst make everything worse? Of course.   

Racial bias in the definition

             And then there’s the unintended racial bias built into this definition. Consider this scenario: A 10-year-old Black youth mouths off at a police officer.  Mom slaps him. Did mom abuse that child or, perhaps, save his life? – because if you’re a Black child mouthing off to a police officer can Get. You. Killed.  The study definition makes mom a child abuser. I’d say she’s a child rescuer.  But whatever you might say, we can all agree: While middle class parents never face this dilemma.

             As for the definition of neglect, have a look:

 When someone is neglected, it means that the grown-ups in their life didn’t take care of them the way they should. They might not get them enough food, take them to the doctor when they are sick, or make sure they have a safe place to stay. At any time in (your child’s/your) life, (was your child/were you) neglected?

             That’s a perfect definition of poverty.    

            So to sum up: A study with unintended racial bias and overly broad definitions is badly summarized by the Centers for Disease Control.  Then a bunch of fearmongering state legislators inaccurately summarize the CDC summary.

 And that’s how we wind up with a child welfare system that fails everyone.

How is it possible that so many politicians, and so many journalists, have accepted without question a fundamentally racist narrative about child welfare and COVID-19?  The narrative is the one filled with breathless claims to the effect of: Now that fewer mostly white middle class professionals have their “eyes” constantly on overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite children, their parents will unleash upon their children a “pandemic of child abuse”?

             Yes, the pandemic is putting more stress on everyone.  But why do we rush to assume that for poor people in general and poor Black people in particular the only way they’ll cope with it is to beat up their children?

             The myth continues to spread, even after news organizations such as the Associated Press, The Marshall Project and Bloomberg CityLab debunked it.


The myth persists in part because racism goes far deeper than a lot of us white people will acknowledge, especially those of us on the political Left (which, sadly, has been the source of much of this mythology).  But also it’s because a whole “child advocacy” industry has spent decades spreading hype and hysteria to the point where most people may well believe that most other people are child abusers (at least if the “other” is not the same race or class).  For a master class in how to distort data and leave this kind of misimpression check out how Garrett Therolf did it last week in The New York Times.

             But a week ago, we got a dramatic indication of just how effective decades of this mythology has been in worming its way into our collective psyche.

             The lesson comes from a group of Oregon state legislators in an op-ed column that somehow got into the state’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian.

             Mostly it was just the usual fearmongering, with scare numbers put forth to get more funding for child abuse policing; in this case for so-called child advocacy centers.  But here’s what set this one apart.

             The column claims that “One in seven children will experience abuse each year …”  Really? One in seven each year? So, uh, what happens after seven years?  Is every child in Oregon abused by then?  What about after 14 years? Has every child been abused twice?

             Of course, the column doesn’t claim the abuse is distributed evenly.  Presumably, the authors figured some children would be abused many times.  But even then, were it really true that one in seven Oregon children is abused each year, after 18 years that almost certainly would cover every child in Oregon.

             In fact, according to the same Oregon document cited in the op-ed, 13,674 children were alleged by caseworkers to have been maltreated in some way in 2019.   Although the op-ed uses the word “confirmed” that misleading term is part of the hype. “Confirmed” doesn’t mean there was a trial or any decision by a neutral arbiter.  “Confirmed” can be nothing more than a caseworker’s guess.  And the figure includes everything from the tiny fraction of cases involving torture, rape and murder, to the vastly larger number of cases in which a worker confused a family’s poverty with neglect.

             But, just for argument’s sake, let’s assume every one of those 13,674 children really was a victim of “child abuse.” There are 873,567 children in Oregon. So the figure does not represent one in seven, it represents one in 64. The figure for cases where workers allege sexual abuse or any form of physical abuse is one in 392. The figure for child abuse fatalities is one in 38,111.

             But even without knowing the exact number, it should have been obvious immediately that the one-in-seven figure was lunacy. 

             Two Oregon state legislators, Democrat Anna Williams and Republican Ron Noble are listed as authors of the op-ed.  Apparently, at no time during the writing and editing did they say “Hey, wait a minute, this can’t be right.”  Nine other Oregon solons signed on.  Presumably they, or at least someone on each of their staffs, read the thing before they put their names on it. But apparently none of them thought there was anything odd about the one-in-seven claim.  No editor at the Oregonian saw a problem either. 

 Actually we DO need to “quibble about numbers.”

             When those pushing for more policing of the poor, more massive surveillance and more removal of children to foster care get caught hyping the numbers, they have a standard response. Usually it’s some variation on: “How dare you quibble about numbers! Children are dying!  Even one case is too many!”

             The second two sentences are, of course, correct.  But precisely because we’ve been suckered by fearmongering, hype and hysteria for decades (at least one organization responsible for it effectively admitted as much) we’ve spent decades embracing “solutions” that only make things worse.

             Thus, we wound up with a massive system of mandatory child abuse reporting. Recent research shows it discourages families from seeking voluntary help and overloads the system with false reports, making it harder to find the very few cases in which children are in real danger.  Mandatory reporting is a system that is relentlessly promoted but is useless at best and dangerous at worst.  Mandatory reporting is the hydroxychloroquine of child welfare. 

             Yes, I did say very few cases in which children are in real danger. The horror stories represent a tiny fraction of the cases seen by workers for Oregon’s Department of Human Services.  To get that tiny fraction down to zero requires a vastly different approach than an ever-expanding child welfare surveillance state, and tearing apart families at a rate well above the national average – a hallmark of the Oregon system for decades.

             The Oregon Secretary of State’s office made that clear in a recent audit. Unfortunately, instead of heeding the message from that audit, the authors of this column call for the usual: More money for an arm of the child abuse police. That money would be far better spent on voluntary help for families – delivered by people who are not mandated reporters of child abuse, so families don’t need to fear accepting the help.

             So yes, we damn well do need to “quibble about numbers.” 

 Where did the one-in-seven number come from? (Now we know. See the UPDATE at the top of this post)

             It’s possible that the one-in-seven figure came from confusing any and all calls to Oregon’s child abuse hotline with the vastly lower number in which workers checked the box on the form indicating they believed the allegation to be true.  [UPDATE: That was not the source, see the update at the top of this post for a full discussion.]  There were 89,451 reports to the hotline.  Since some percentage of reports will involve more than one child, it is quite possible that one in seven Oregon children is the subject of a call to Oregon’s child abuse hotline every year.

             That is a frightening figure, but not for the reasons suggested in the op-ed. 

             Nationwide, of every 100 calls to hotlines, 97 are either false reports or “neglect” cases, which, as noted above, often means simply that a child is poor. Both nationwide and in Oregon, every 100 such calls three involve cases in which workers think there was sexual abuse or any form of physical abuse.

            That means a staggering number of Oregon children are being traumatized by investigations of false child abuse reports.  And yes, traumatized is the right word. A child abuse investigation is not a benign act.

 Investigators for agencies like Oregon DHS have more power than police. Their approach can best be called “knock and strip.” Effectively, they can enter homes and stripsearch children without a warrant. Say no, and they can come back with the police and even break down the door.  Worst case: worker walks out with y the children on-the-spot.

  Even when the entry, and the final result, is less drastic, the terror of the investigation is something a child may never forget.  It can leave children fearful for years, wondering if the stranger who stripped them will be back someday – and if next time, they’ll take her or him away; something more likely to happen in Oregon than in much of the rest of the country.

It appears that, in a single year, roughly one in seven Oregon children will endure the trauma of a child abuse investigation – compared with between one in nine and one in ten children nationwide.  So how many will endure it over the course of their childhoods?  One study estimates that nationwide, one-third of all children and more than half of Black children will endure it. In Oregon the numbers probably are worse.

 An even if you believe the infliction of so much state sanctioned trauma is worth it to find the few children in real danger, remember: It doesn’t work. In fact, overloading workers with all those false allegations, trivial cases and poverty cases leaves them less time to find children in real danger.  And now we can add one more danger: The risk of spreading coronavirus to families and caseworkers alike.

How do we break the cycle? How do we spare children this trauma – and redirect resources to finding the few children in real danger who really need to be rescued?  For starters, journalists could begin questioning absurd misuse of data – and holding the fearmongers to account.