Child abuse is on the decline, yet for many case workers, attorneys and psychologists neglect continues to be the Evil That Dare Not Speak Its Name. Research has only just begun on its psychological and social effects. Yet as correspondent John Winn discovers, untangling the threads that tie social work and the criminal justice system can be just as complicated as any case file...and just as controversial.
Anytown, U.S.A., 2. A.M. A two year-old child is found wandering naked and alone along a boulevard at night, the parents nowhere to be seen. Across town a six year-old calls 911 for help after he and his sister are forced to fend for themselves when their mother abandons them for several days. Across town, a thirteen year-old sleeps in an abandoned mill, kicked out of her house by her mother. The daughter, who came out as a lesbian a few days earlier, refused to submit to counseling administered by the mega church the family attends.
These sound like synopses from episodes of The Guardian and Law & Order: SVU. But for a few exceptions every single one is a real story, culled from data collected by the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect[i]. Some date back sixteen years, others are more recent. Yet they all tell the same story: an epidemic of child abandonment and neglect that often goes unreported except as footnotes in CPS reports and government studies.
According to the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, nearly 1.3 million children experienced maltreatment of some kind between 2005 and 2006[ii], the years their most recent study took place. The statistics reflect an actual decrease in the number of children abused or neglected since the NCCAN last looked at the issue in the mid-1990s.
Those lucky enough to survive starvation can look forward to a revolving door of mental institutions, half-way houses, and the street as they struggle to get by. A survey of psychiatric records by Dr. John Read of the University of Auckland, New Zealand found that many patients reported some history of sexual abuse, physical abuse or neglect in their childhoods[iii]. In a majority of cases, the patients were admitted to a hospital multiple times.
85 percent is hardly surprising for such a small sample. Yet time and again, researchers have found a link between neglect and mental illness. Most recently, a UNC study of four hundred-plus college students found that many had symptoms of maladaptive guilt as a result of childhood trauma[iv]. The find was shocking to many not just because of the study's sample--religiously affiliated college students--but also because incidences of self-reported trauma were so widespread.
Yet most foundlings--as abandoned children are known--never enjoy the privilege of filling out questionnaires in an air-conditioned classroom. For the vast majority, prison and foster-care are the only home they've ever known, and like many children in the system, many are black.
"There is a revolving door effect because we haven't, as a society, determined the best ways to address poverty and prevent recidivism" UNC Professor Tamar Birckhead said in an email interview[v]. "We also do not place a great value on these goals, which results in CPS workers and police officers who are poorly trained and inadequately compensated."
Birckhead, a former public defender who spent ten years defending everyone from violent felons to shoe bomber Richard Reid, knows all too well how stacked the courts can be against the indigent--including abandoned and neglected children. Her most recent work, "Delinquent by Reason of Poverty", argues that the current juvenile justice system discriminates against poor and minority children, who also the most at-risk for being placed into foster care than white children who have been similarly abused.
"Adolescents who are exposed to traumatic events, including those who are victims of abuse, neglect or other maltreatment, cross over from the child welfare to the juvenile delinquency system at high percentages," Birckhead writes[vi]. "Crossover youth are also twice as likely as juvenile-justice youth to recidivate. Children of color who end up in the child welfare system are also twice as likely to be arrested as white children."
The pattern is eerily similar to what happens with runaways, who often end up in jail for similar reasons. In fact, a 15-year study by the National Runaway Switchboard discovered that of 15,000 respondents surveyed, 7.2 percent of them were African-American[vii]. This is low compared to Hispanics, who made up nearly 11 percent of the total runaways.
For those who are incarcerated, the fight to survive in prison is almost as cruel as living on the street. Protection for juveniles is lax compared to the general population, and physical and sexual abuse is common, especially for those who are gay or lesbian[viii]. In a way, the children are violated twice--once by their parent or guardian, and again by the system sworn to protect them.
For Birckhead, the issue is as much about the way police officers and judges are trained to respond to juvenile crime, as it is about the racial and economic factors driving it.
"I believe it is an issue of both lack of appropriate training and a police culture that relies on stereotyping and punitive responses to crime rather than rehabilitative ones," She said. "Furthermore, negative stereotypes regarding 'the poor' and people of color serve to exacerbate these trends, leaving us with an issue that is both bureaucratic and cultural."
Yet the journey from foster care to prison doesn't begin in a vacuum. In some cases it starts at birth, as mothers agonize whether to keep their unwanted children. An estimated 1,859 cases of neglect took place in 2008 according to a study by North Carolina State University[ix]. Of these 235 cases, investigators found 174 of the mothers at fault. Although the specifics of each case are unknown, a typical investigation can involve everything from abandoned infants lying in a pool of their own feces, to babies being left by the side of the road.
It is exactly the sort of thing that safe surrender, or safe haven laws, are designed to prevent. With the help of then-state senate President Beverly Perdue and Mike Easley, in 2001, the North Carolina General Assembly passed its version of a safe surrender law. House Bill 275 effectively decriminalized willful abandonment of infants seven days or younger, provided they were turned over to nurses, firemen or other responsible adults[x]. Unlike other such laws, H.B. 275 was broad in that just about anyone would qualify to take in an infant, though lawmen, social workers, and other professionals could do without a judge's permission.
Despite the law, few took advantage of it in the years following its passage. Of those 1,859 infants surveyed by Child Protective Services, only five were surrendered under the law.
"People need to know that there is a safe solution to leaving your baby or killing your baby," Social worker Regina Wesley told Raleigh-Durham's WRAL in 2007[xi]. "but we're not reaching the populations we need to reach."
Safe surrender laws are supposed to be taught in sex-ed classes and in workshops, but with state budgets buckling under the weight of the Great Recession[xii], it's often being omitted. The problem is only exacerbated by pressure groups and the media, who often have a skin-deep understanding of how the law works.
"First of all, there is not really anything called a 'safe surrender proceeding'" UNC's Janet Mason said in an email interview[xiii]. "The main thrust of the safe surrender law is that parents who safely surrender their infants according to the law will not be prosecuted. The initiation of a juvenile abuse, neglect or dependency action is not a prosecution of the parent...it is a civil action to consider the child's circumstances and to make sure someone has legal authority to make decisions about the child."
Mason, a professor of public law and government at UNC's School of Government in Chapel Hill, North Carolina is no stranger to the affects abandonment has on juveniles. As a social worker in Baltimore, she had the privilege--or curse, depending on how you look at it--of working with hundreds of juvenile delinquents, runaways, foster care residents and others who are part of the "system" Birckhead writes so eloquently about. If you ask politely, she could tell you dozens of stories about lives ruined, families torn apart and communities shattered as a result of children being abandoned, neglected or abused.
For Mason, H.B. 275 isn't just arcane bill, it is a law that has the potential to change the lives of hundreds of people--and has. Yet the safety and anonymity the law provides is not guaranteed.
"Ironically, no statute gives...immunity from prosecution for contributing to the neglect of a minor," Mason wrote in the journal Popular Government in 2009, referencing one of three fictional scenarios surrounding a young woman in North Carolina who does not want to keep her unwanted baby[xiv]. "the policy underlying the safe surrender legislation suggests that M.C. should be immune from prosecution under that statute as well. But the legislature did not make such a provision, and the issue has not been addressed by the appellate courts."
Under current North Carolina law, anyone sixteen years of age or older who 'knowingly or willfully causes' to commit a crime wherein a child could be adjudicated as a delinquent, found abused or neglected could be found guilty of a class I misdemeanor[xv]. Making things harder for parents, the courts do not necessarily have to find a child neglected or delinquent in order for a mother or child to be charged with a crime--if the courts merely have reasonable suspicion that neglect has occurred, that's often enough to throw them in jail to say nothing of terminating their parental rights.
Surprisingly, North Carolina's is not the broadest law on the books--or the most harsh. Under Alabama law, any parent who leaves their child is a location with the intent of abandoning them is committing abandonment[xvi]. In heavily Evangelical Arizona, anyone who permits their child to have 'immoral associations' with friends and relatives can also be charged with a Class I misdemeanor. What exactly constitutes an immoral association is left undefined by the Arizona legislature--not exactly a reassuring sign if you happen to be a nudist or live on a commune.
Luckily, no one who has given up their child in the Tar Heel state has yet to be charged with contributing to the neglect of a minor--yet.
It wasn't long ago that children who were abandoned by their mothers or fathers were sort of taken for granted. Parents who willfully neglected or abandoned their children were never prosecuted fifty years ago, and many of them got to keep custody of their sons and daughters. Today, the pendulum has shifted, with not just parents, but child care workers and others being scrutinized for even the most minor of offenses--and in some cases, the mistakes last for life.
With childhood obesity on the rise, the new focus for social workers, are parents who willfully or are unable to keep their children's weight from ballooning. According to Technorati[xvii], a government agency in Australia has applied for the right to remove children 100 kilos or above--the equivalent of 220 pounds--from noncompliant families if there is a need to. Childhood obesity has also been linked to child abuse in some minority families in the States, raising the likelihood of intervention by social workers in the not too distant future[xviii].
"I think the obesity hysteria is the ultimate irony in this area," Florida Coastal School of Law professor David Pimentel said in an email interview. "why are children obese? They are not sufficiently active. And why don't we let them run and bike and climb trees and play hide and seek? Because we are concerned for their 'safety'."
For Pimentel, the issue goes back to the hysteria surrounding stranger abductions like those of Etan Patz in New York and more recently, Elizabeth Smart in Utah. The violence associated with those cases--and the subsequent media attention they got--reinforced the idea of the world as a scary violent place for children, where the risk of murder and sexual assault is deadly certain. In fact, according to the Department of Justice's own Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention department, there were an estimated 115 victims of so-called stranger abductions in 1999[xix].
For those victims, the consequences were harsh indeed--over 40 percent were killed, and almost all were sexually abused by their perpetrator. Yet 60 percent--like Smart--survived, albeit with psychological scars so deep they defy imagination. This out of a population of over 272 million at the turn of the millennium--which speaks to the plummeting rate in violent crimes at the time, a phenomena that is still playing itself out at the time this article goes to press.
Yet the lingering effects caused by those crimes--as well as more typical abuse and child custody cases--have left an indelible mark on the courts. The result is a adversarial system that sees even the most minor offenses as cause to remove a child from the home--even something as minor as leaving a child in the car as their parent goes to buy groceries.
"My children are serious readers," Pimentel added. "and want to wait in the car reading while I dash into the store. I know that I can never allow them to wait in the car, no matter the circumstances, because it has become so common to prosecute parents who let their kids 'wait in the car'."
"Because the statutes define child neglect in such vague terms, such as 'placing a child unreasonably at risk', the definition of unreasonable risk for legal purposes is necessarily a product of prosecutors' perceptions of what is reasonable. Parents end up being judged against the standard of 'I would never do that to my kids' rather than in reference to the actual risks children face. If parents in general are more skittish about risks to children, those parents who knowingly allow children some freedom and latitude are likely to be judged harshly against those norms."
Yet not all parents are so lucky as to live in an industrialized country where the only risk is worrying what the neighbors think. Consider Thailand. The Southeast Asian behemoth had a birth rate of 12.8 children per 1000 in 2011--many of them girls. Because a vast majority of the population are poor--and the challenges of taking care of them are so great--a sizable chunk of these girls are either pimped out as child prostitutes or sold on the black market. The result is a complex cultural and economic landscape that is often difficult for Westerners to penetrate, but one which but the girls and their families must navigate every single day[xx].
Parents in the industrialized world don't have to worry about selling their daughters to get by, but abandonment continues to be a serious issue. According to NCCAN's report, nearly 295,000 children were physically neglected in 2005-2006 out of the 1.3 million who were surveyed--a decrease from the 1990s, but not by much.
[i]Dr, Sedlak, Andrea J. and Diane Broadhurst. The Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. Department of Health and Human Services. September 1996.
[ii]National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect. "Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect". The Children's Bureau. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2012.
[iii]Dr. Read, John. "Child Abuse and the Severity of Disturbance Among Adult Psychiatric Inpatients". Child Abuse and Neglect. Volume 22, Issue 5. May 1998.
[iv]Berman, Noah, Michael Wheaton, Laura Fabricant and Jonathan Abramowitz. "Predictors of Mental Pollution: The Contribution of Religion, Parenting Strategies and Childhood Trauma". Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders. Volume 1, Issue 3. July 2012.
[v]Birckhead, Tamar. Interview with author. 29 May 2012. Email.
[vi]Birckhead, Tamar. "Delinquent by Reason of Poverty". Washington University Journal of Law and Policy. Volume 38. 2012.
[vii]National Runaway Switchboard. "The Runaway Youth Longitudinal Study" September 2011. PDF document.
[viii]US Department of Justice. Proposed National Standards to Prevent, Detect and Respond to Prison Rape Under the Prison Rape Prevention Act. Department of Justice. 24 January 2011.
[ix]Reichert, Terri. "Evaluation of the Utilization of the Infant Homicide Prevention Act (Safe Surrender) of 2001". North Carolina State University. April 2009.
[x]North Carolina General Assembly. "H275 [SL 2001-291]". http:// www.ncleg.net/sessions/2001/bills/house/html/h275v7.html. Accessed 14 June 2012.
[xi]WRAL. "More Education Needed on Safe Surrender Law". 8 February 2007. http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/1197636/. Accessed 15 June 2012.
[xii]Lee-St. John, Jeanine. "When a Mother Chooses to Give Away a Newborn". Time. 21 September 2006.
[xiii]Mason, Janet. Interview with author. 29 May 2012. Email.
[xiv]Mason, Janet. "Legal Abandonment of Newborns: North Carolina's Safe Surrender Law". Popular Government. Fall 2009.
[xv]Justia US Law. "2010 North Carolina Code--General Statutes and 14-316.1 Contributing to delinquency and neglect by parent and others" http://law.justia.com/codes/north-carolina/2010/chapter14/article39/section14-3161/. Accessed 25 July 2012.
[xvi]National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse. "Child Neglect and Abandonment". National District Attorneys Association. 29 July 2011. PDF Document.
[xvii]Plotkin, Kirsten. "Is This Child Abuse By the State?". Technorati. 29 July 2012. http://technorati.com/lifestyle/family/article/is-this-child-abuse-by-the/. Accessed 9 August 2012.
[xviii]The Inquisitr. "Obesity Linked to Child Abuse Among Black Women, Say Study". 2 July 2012. http://www.inquisitr.com/265270/obesity-linked-to-childhood-abuse-among-black-women-says-study/. Accessed 9 August 2012.
[xix]U.S. Department Of Justice. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway or Throwaway Children. "Nonfamily Abducted Children: Estimates and Characteristics". October 2002. PDF Document.
[xx]Catherine Panter-Brick and Malcom Smith. Abandoned Children. Yale University Press. 2000.