For decades the
child welfare establishment has been exaggerating numbers and hyping horror
stories – but only to “raise awareness,” of course.
That’s led to everything from the McMartin
Preschool Satanic panic, to the vast oversurveillance of Black families by the
child abuse police, to the tragic misuse and overuse of foster care, to the false,
racist “master narrative” about child abuse and COVID-19.
And now, one journalist
argues, it’s even led to QAnon.
What does that conjure up in your
mind? Probably a young woman or girl
kidnapped off the street, smuggled in the back of a truck or on a plane and
sold into sex slavery.
That happens – just as the kind of
horrors we think of when we hear the words “child abuse” happen.
But both are, in fact, extremely
rare. And in both cases, the horror
stories, spread on purpose by advocates who know better but want to “raise awareness,”
have done enormous damage.
Sex trafficking, in fact, means
anytime someone who is underage trades sex for money, or food, or shelter; in
short, to survive. The overwhelming
majority of victims are runaways. Some ran away from genuinely abusive homes. The vast majority ran away from the foster
homes and group homes to which they were consigned either because of that abuse
or because of some other problem that could have been solved without resorting
to foster care or, as so often happens, because their parents’ poverty was confused with “neglect.” (And when it comes to group homes and
institutions being a prime recruiting ground for sex trafficking, Congress
may actually have made
that problem worse.)
In contrast, the total number of sex
trafficking victims identified by the Department of Homeland Security last year
who might fit the stereotype was 428. Of
course, some victims surely were not found.
But 428 is somewhat short of the estimate proffered by the U.S.
Institute Against Human Trafficking, which puts the figure at “potentially over
I learned most of this from Michael
Hobbes, a senior enterprise reporter for HuffPost who has made sex trafficking
– and understanding its real causes – his beat.
wrote about this in detail in February, but I only found out about it when
he was interviewed
by NPR’s On The Media earlier this month.
for the déjà vu
Anyone who has followed the claims
commonly made about child abuse by advocates and echoed by credulous media is
about to have a case of déjà vu:
In his story Hobbes writes about the
mainstream anti-sex trafficking groups that know full well the real causes of
the problem and the real solutions, but they engage in fearmongering because
they think it’s the only two-by-four with which to hit us over the head that’s
big enough to get our attention.
There are signs in airports telling
people to call authorities if they suspect the person sitting next to you in
the gate area with a child is actually a sex trafficker – even though, Hobbes
notes, not one of the groups he spoke to could point to a single case of
someone being smuggled through a U.S. airport by sex traffickers.
But there have been plenty of false alarms, thanks to the “warning
signs” we’re supposed to look out for – warning signs which are, in fact,
Hobbes quotes Sabra Boyd, a writer and
anti-trafficking advocate who was, in fact, trafficked, by her own father:
“Almost all of the messages we get about trafficking are
slanted toward imaginary victims, especially immigrant women and young children
who look like they’re a different race than their parents.”
This scenario is already playing out in transit hubs across
the country. Last September, flight attendants accused a white adoptive father
of trafficking his Black 12-year-old son. In 2015, an eight-member Korean pop
group was detained at LAX for 15 hours on suspicion that they were trafficked
sex workers. Cindy McCain, an anti-trafficking advocate and wife of the late
Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), had to apologize last February for reporting a
woman to Phoenix Sky Harbor authorities simply for walking through the airport
with a child of a “different ethnicity.”
Hobbes spoke to a senior staffer for
one such group, who admitted they are deliberately misleading the public:
Sexual and labor coercion could be
better addressed through government policy related to poverty, migration and
working conditions, she added. As for why anti-trafficking nonprofits continue
to repeat the same debunked myths about trafficking in their publicity
campaigns, she said the sensationalized messaging was necessary to bring
attention to the issue.
“If we didn’t use the word ‘force,’” she said, “would anybody
Hobbes wrote all this before there was much awareness of a
crazy conspiracy theory – QAnon – which has the notion of vast international
sex-trafficking rings at its core.
But it was very much in the news by the time Hobbes was
interviewed for On The Media, which asked him to discuss a follow-up
story he wrote about how the media had accepted all the usual breathless hype
about a supposed sex
trafficking ring that wasn’t.
He called the tactics of mainstream anti human-trafficking
groups in exaggerating numbers and hyping horror stories “totally immoral
totally cynical and leading all kinds of unintended consequences” adding:
You can’t just throw poison into the public consciousness
willy-nilly because you end up with QAnon. QAnon stuff is only a 20%
exaggeration of the kinds of myths we’ve been getting on human trafficking for
20 years now. There’s not really that much
of a difference between the QAnon version and what you can find on very
mainstream human trafficking websites.
Once you’ve poisoned the well for that long, then you have people who
will come along and poison it a little bit further …
But this well has been poisoned for more than a century. And what is even worse than the advocates who
keep doing the poisoning is the willingness of journalists to drink from the
well and allow themselves to be fooled, over and over and over.
Let’s start with the closest analog to how we’ve been misled
about sex trafficking:
In the 1980s mainstream child welfare pushed conspiracy
theories rivaling if not QAnon then certainly the remarkably similar “pizzagate”. Journalists wrote seriously and earnestly
about mass molestation supposedly rampant in day care centers – sometimes with
Satanic cults as the perpetrators. The
most notorious example was the
McMartin Preschool. Mainstream media
swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
Many of the “true believers” in the McMartin claims – and true
believers means just that, they sincerely believed they were rescuing children
- formed an organization, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of
Children (APSAC), that still exists today.
Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker explain in their book, Satan’s Silence, “From its inception
APSAC’s leadership roster was a veritable directory of ritual-abuse
architects.” Kee MacFarlane, who led the questioning of children in the McMartin Preschool case, served on APSAC’s
board – and received the group’s “Outstanding Professional” award – a decade after McMartin. And in 1997, three years
after writing an article promoting the idea that there really were secret tunnels under the McMartin
Preschool, Roland Summit, another former board member, received the group’s
“Lifetime Achievement” award.
I don’t know if anyone at APSAC still believes in those
secret tunnels – but I am aware of no apology from the group for its role in
In some cases, the child welfare mainstream went full-Q:
Consider what happened to a San Diego couple whose
grandchildren were taken because a mentally unstable relative, after much
“therapy,” had come to believe much of her family was part of a Satanic cult.
The relative reported the grandparents to child protective services, which
assigned the case to a worker who was a prominent member of the San Diego
County Ritual Abuse Task Force.
As the San Diego Union Tribune reported in 1991, when
the grandparents wanted to send one of the children a birthday card, their
child protective services caseworker said the card could not have animals on it
– because, she claimed, devil worshipers use such images to send subliminal signals
to the children in their thrall. No clowns either, for the same reason. The
caseworker already had confiscated all the letters the grandparents had written
to their grandchildren, claiming they contained subliminal Satanic messages.
This was no rogue caseworker. The Ritual Abuse Task Force
actually trained caseworkers and mental health professionals. The task force produced a widely-circulated
booklet informing fellow professionals, the press and the public that:
Numerous cults exist which have sophisticated suppliers of
sacrificial persons, from kidnappers through ‘breeders’ (women who bear
children intended for sexual abuse and sacrifice)…
Still wondering how we got to QAnon?
But it doesn’t end there.
● In her book Heroes of Their Own Lives, Linda Gordon
writes about how 19th Century Societies for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Children targeted poor immigrant parents whom they deemed
genetically inferior and whose poverty they deemed “neglect.” But to increase
their power, and to raise funds, they showcased the extremely rare cases of
horrific abuse, complete with “before” and “after” pictures. That tactic has
never gone away.
● As early as 1993, in a brief article
Lies and Statistics,” Time Magazine called out the group that now
calls itself Prevent Child Abuse America for using “flagrantly flimsy figures”
to hype the supposed number of cases of child abuse in the United States. But almost no other journalists paid
Apparently, the leaders of PCAA knew
exactly what they were doing. Because, in language remarkably like what that
staffer for an anti-sex trafficking group told Hobbes, this is what Prevent
Child Abuse America wrote in 2003:
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
Notice how PCAA both effectively admits
misleading the public and tries to justify it.
Many groups and individuals, all with
good intentions, are still at it. In most cases, they themselves probably don't know they're misrepresenting the problem. They grew up on on this kind of hype and often don't understand the context themselves.
● When the so-called Alliance for
Children’s Rights engages in the dissembling and distortion documented
here, exaggerating the rate of child abuse while understating the harm of
foster care, they mislead the public.
● When Oregon legislators misread
a study that, itself, uses broad, vague, and unintentionally racist
definitions to make absurd claims about the prevalence of child abuse, they mislead the public.
● When a trade association for
so-called “child advocacy centers” that are supposed to evaluate whether a
child has been abused suggests they know
the answer – and the answer is always yes – before the child even shows up,
it misleads the public.
extent of the poison
The extent to which our consciousness
has been poisoned can be seen in how readily the general public and almost
every reporter to consider the issue blindly accepted a racist master narrative
about child abuse and COVID-19.
You know the one:
Now that fewer mostly white, middle-class professionals have
their “eyes” constantly on overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite
children, their parents supposedly will unleash upon those children a “pandemic
of child abuse.”
The claims are accompanied by calls for helpers to turn food drop-offs
and virtual visits into opportunities to spy on families – and child welfare
agencies provide broad, vague “symptom lists” and even cheat sheets for
questions to ask during video chats with kids – the same approach taken by the
anti-trafficking groups in their airport posters and lists of warning signs.
But 91 percent of all calls to child
abuse hotlines are false
reports. Almost all of the rest involve “neglect” which often means
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. (And see also this
analysis from Teachers College Record.) But they were the
exceptions. Most journalists continue to buy in.
Because for decades we have
been conditioned, thanks to all that poison, to believe that child abuse means
the horror story cases and we’ve been conditioned to believe such cases are
rampant – because, Prevent Child Abuse America tells us “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…”--
just as we’ve been conditioned to misunderstand sex trafficking.
The problems of child abuse
and the problem of sex trafficking are serious and real. But in both cases, the solutions have been
The real solutions to both problems
are remarkably similar.
“Nobody wants to view
trafficking as embedded in how our global economy is structured,” American
University Professor Janie Chuang told Hobbes. “It’s more convenient to view it
as the product of individual criminal behavior.”
Similarly, we want to believe
that what we call child abuse is a function of people who are at worst evil and
at best sick. But overwhelmingly, the
problem is rooted in poverty; poverty that leads to the stress that can cause
some parents to abuse and, far more often, the poverty that is, itself,
confused with “neglect.”
But understanding that is going
to require that we stop drinking from all those poisoned wells.