For decades the child welfare establishment has been exaggerating numbers and hyping horror stories – but only to “raise awareness,” of course.
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 1 million.”
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. He 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.
Get ready 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, racist.
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 care?”
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.
Anybody remember McMartin?
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.
As Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker explain in their book, , “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 case, served on APSAC’s board – and received the group’s – a decade McMartin. And in 1997, three years after writing an article promoting the idea that there really were 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 all this.
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?
Hyping the numbers
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 called “Damned 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 attention.
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 policy priorities.
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.
The 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 poverty.
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.
The problems of child abuse and the problem of sex trafficking are serious and real. But in both cases, the solutions have been phony.
The real solutions to both problems are remarkably similar.
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.”