Child Abuse, From Social Concern To Media Hype

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As I eat my breakfast cereal, the word "Missing" on the milk carton catches my eye. Beneath the headline are blurred photos of two children, described respectively as "white female" and "white male." There is more information: "date missing," date of birth, height, weight, color of hair, color of eyes. If I know anything about the whereabouts of these children "or any other missing child," I am asked to notify the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. A toll-free 800 number is provided.

Riffling through the day's junk mail, I notice a card addressed to Resident that promotes a local carpet-cleaning service. A bold headline asks, "Have You Seen Me?"; again there is a photo, a description, and the same 800 number.

Accounts of missing children are a regular feature on the Cable News Network and other television channels. At my local movie theater, pictures of missing children are flashed on the screen just before the previews of coming attractions. A throwaway shopping paper features a full-page advertisement placed by a group called Child Seekers. Six children are pictured and described, and the problem is stated in bold capitals:

1.5 million children are reported missing each year some 20,000 to 50,000 children disappear each year and their cases remain unsolved, some forever

3,000 unidentified bodies are found in the united states each year and hundreds of those are children

This is the stuff of nightmares, and at the moment we can't seem to get enough of it. The media bombard us with statistics and stories of child abuse ranging from neglect to abduction, from incest to murder. Newsweek calls it "the hidden epidemic." Something is obviously going on.

What we are witnessing is a peculiarly American phenomenon--the rapid transformation of a genuine social concern into a media fad and political issue. It has happened before; prohibition, marijuana, and pornography come readily to mind. Now we have a crisis of confidence that centers on the safety of children.

Children are obviously the most vulnerable members of society, and it is understandable that child abuse should tap the deepest fears and arouse the strongest emotional reactions. But why the "discovery" of child abuse at this time? The question probably can't be answered in any definitive sense. About a year ago, when I began collecting data on child abuse, I discovered that even the most fundamental factual information was couched in vague and dubious terms.

If we accept the judgment of most experts that reported cases represent only a small fraction of the number of actual incidents, we enter a shadowy world in which child abuse or neglect can appear as the norm rather than a deviation. The Feb. 18, 1985, New York Times, for example, carried a story headlined "Reports of Child Molestation Increase by 35%, Study Finds." Anne H. Cohn, executive director of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, said the statistics cited were "only the tip of the iceberg." Her committee's report declared, "The more we work to uncover the problem of child abuse, the more we are able to find."

But what is it we are finding? Sloppy notions of "child neglect" are often used to condemn families--particularly single-parent households headed by women--simply because they are poor. The accusation of neglect is hurled against those who have themselves fallen victim to societal neglect. Similarly, I've been unable to find a clear notion of what constitutes "child abuse." Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, a founder of the Children's Caucus, insists that "a child is sexually abused within the United States every two minutes." Does his statistic encompass the sort of abuse cited by Dr. Joyce Brothers, the television pop psychologist, who says she was abused when she was told, as a child, that little boys did some things better than little girls?

Though the experts admit that reliable figures are simply unavailable, there is a pervasive eagerness throughout our society to accept the most overblown statistics. In part, this is a justifiable reaction against those who have said, over the years, that children were "making the whole thing up." Just as we once placed the onus of rape on women, we placed the onus of abuse on children.

But this is no longer the case. Instead, we have lurched to the presumption that anyone accused of child abuse is guilty until proven innocent. We have moved from doubting the veracity of children to constructing, from their often wrenching accounts, a deep suspicion of all parents, nursery-school workers, and child-care providers.

Into the breach have jumped the experts--psychologists, criminologists, bureaucrats in various public and private agencies, academic researchers, and legislators. I do not mean to belittle the problem they have rushed to address: It is real. But why are we so willing to put our faith in individuals who clearly have an interest in defining the problem, and its solutions, in terms that will enhance their own influence and power?

Much of today's widespread concern is based on misconceptions. The vast majority of missing children are runaways, not victims of abduction by strangers. According to the June 14, 1985, Boston Globe, 75 percent of the 1,080 children currently listed as "missing" in Massachusetts are runaways, and most of the rest were abducted by a parent. All told, Massachusetts has about "26 unsolved cases of child abductions by nonfamily members, many going back several years."

Nationally, there are some 32,000 cases of missing children, of whom 95 percent are believed to be runaways. The figure of 50,000 missing children, popularized by a group called Child Find, is simply wrong. Challenged on its statistics, Child Find now estimates that there are fewer than 600 cases of abduction per year.

When children really disappear, parents often become the first suspects. According to Newsweek, "Many are made to submit to lie-detector tests and intensive investigation of their past." Mothers and fathers are put on unofficial trial--even when the missing child is from an intact family rather than from one of those fragmented families with disputed custody claims in which abduction becomes a desperate act of last resort or a way for one estranged spouse to wound the other.

There is a double burden when it comes to these cases of missing children: first, an inflation of statistics that verges on paranoia, and second, an inclination to blame the parents and add another layer of guilt to the enormously difficult and sensitive task of child-rearing in our society.

Data on child abuse are even murkier, but the available statistics suggest that women are the principal perpetrators of abuse until about age 40, when men take over. The explanation is probably demographic: By the time most women reach 40, they are no longer mothers of very young children, and the opportunities for abuse diminish. Men, on the other hand, predominate in nonparental roles that provide occasions for abuse.

In the volatile area of sexual abuse, about 90 percent of all molesters are male, but again the public image does not quite correspond to the reality. In two-thirds of all cases of "father-daughter incest," the offender is not a biological parent but a stepfather or a roommate of the mother. The children at risk are most often found in socially isolated and unstable domestic situations, and alcoholism and drug abuse are frequently present. Violence and sexual abuse are major symptoms of familial breakup and domestic stress.

The "awareness" programs currently proliferating to prevent and curtail sexual abuse of children often have the aim--or at least the effect--of fostering mistrust of adults in general and family members in particular. Whether such programs achieve their desired results remains to be seen, but they surely enhance the fears of children and perhaps even inject a premature sexual context into their relations with adults.

It may be true, as some of the experts insist, that we cannot protect children unless we make them fearful and suspicious, so that they will know when they are being mistreated. But more and more often we hear from divorced or separated fathers who say they are afraid to hold or hug their children, or even change soiled diapers, for fear that a vindictive spouse may conjure up a tale of sexual abuse.

Much of the near-hysteria focuses on day-care workers and others to whom we entrust our children. "Pedophiles are naturally drawn to jobs where they have close contact with children," says Suzanne Danilson, identified in The New York Times as "an expert in the care of children in institutions." In addition to parents and other relatives, those singled out by Ms. Danilson as possible abusers include "bus drivers, camp counselors, coaches, pediatricians, and ministers."

Pamela Klein, director of the Rape and Sexual Abuse Center at Southern Illinois University, proclaims that "abuse in school systems" is ''pervasive." She cites the example of one "popular and respected teacher" who was "suspected of molesting at least 20 girls," a "not a typical case."

Mothers who are compelled by economic need, personal preference, or social pressure to enter the labor force rely increasingly on day care. We have established day care as an essential economic function best performed by specialized providers, but we treat those providers shabbily, pay them poorly, and let them labor under conditions that are often difficult at best.

In those circumstances, it is hardly surprising that parents and day-care workers often eye each other with suspicion and hostility. Eileen W. Lindner, director of the Child Advocacy Office of the National Council of Churches, reports that the hysteria attendant on accusations of sexual abuse in child-care programs prompted 100 staff members of nine church-sponsored facilities in the Middle West to issue an ultimatum to their director. "Fearing that they would be falsely accused of sexual abuse," Ms. Lindner wrote in The Christian Century that "they refused to return to work until the board of directors issued precise guidelines for physical contact with their younger charges."

Such a request seems reasonable enough, Ms. Lindner notes, but is virtually impossible to implement. Furthermore, good child care "demands physical contact. Touching is a part of caring for and affirming young children." One result of the current uproar is that toddlers, some of whom are in day care from 7:00 A.M. to 5:30 P.M., may find themselves deprived of normal human contact by day-care workers who have been frightened away from hugging or holding their wards.

Paranoia among parents and panic among child-care workers translate into opportunity for politicians. The easiest way to address the situation, of course, is to augment existing bureaucracies. In the six New England states, for example, proposed budget increases would "add a total of 221 child-protective workers," The Boston Globe reported recently.

Last January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services urged states to adopt stricter laws and regulations governing day care. The department's Model Child-Care Standards Act suggested screening all potential employees, conducting background checks for criminal records and past abuses, requiring probationary periods for all employees "until background checks are completed," and training staff members to detect and report abuse.

These proposals, like the National Child Protection Act introduced last fall by Senators Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York and Paula Hawkins of Florida, move toward establishment of a national child-care system. Federal funds would be withdrawn from states that failed to adhere to the prescribed monitoring programs, and a national hotline would receive inquiries about day-care workers and reports of sexual abuse. Curiously, many conservatives who usually fret about "big government" are ready to endorse these measures.

There is no evidence that such precautions would significantly reduce the incidence of child abuse. In a 1984 scandal at a day-care center in the Bronx, none of those charged with abuse had a prior criminal record. Furthermore, Diana R. Gordon reported in The New York Times, no record of child abuse was found among 6,000 other day-care employees subjected to fingerprinting and screening. The review, however, did turn up some old misdemeanor charges that had no bearing on the workers' current responsibilities, but that might injure their standing with present or future employers.

The rush to devise a "safe" and homogeneous national day-care system is likely to result in a loss of diversity and the flight of many decent people from day-care work. Rebecca Shannon Shipman, an associate professor of human services at Massasoit Community College in Brockton, Mass., calls this the "big daddy" approach to day care, and suggests an alternative "big sister" approach based on "security, trust, and love ... personal involvement and responsibility."

But how are these admirable goals to be reached? A beginning could be made by fashioning a day-care system more closely controlled by parents and more thoroughly integrated into work and home. We need more diversity, not less, in families as well as in day care. We need more creativity and more participation. This means, in turn, that we need to soften some of the harsher features of our political economy, including the pressures that reduce individuals to the status of wage-earners, leaving them too little time to be members of a family and of a community--to be parents, friends, activists, and sharers in a way of life.

Recognizing that our children are, indeed, at risk, we can act on our concerns without leaping into the arms of "big daddy." As we create a more humane environment, both familial and institutional, for the nurturing of children, we will ease some of the pressures that are most likely to explode into abuse. In the meantime, we should refrain from inducing, or succumbing to, hysteria.

Vol. 05, Issue 04, Page 24

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