The Horrors of Child Abuse - and the System's Abuse

What I am writing now is one of the hardest things I've ever felt I had to write.  It stems from circumstances from my childhood that have been reignited by the recent experiences of some of the very good, loving families that I know.  A little background information is in order.

First, I think it's critical to say that I think that child abuse and intentional neglect of any kind is absolutely morally repugnant.  Obviously.  Few things are worse in the world than a child suffering, especially at the hands of someone who is supposed to be that child's caregiver.  As an industrialized nation, we've done a lousy job of taking care of children in vulnerable situations.  Way too many children have "slipped through the cracks" when a call for help to the authorities was issued.  As a result of this derelict of duty, countless children have died - or have had lifelong scars, literally and figuratively.  As a society, we have failed our children.  We have turned a blind eye.

Incidentally, the BBC did a mini-documentary on child abuse in the United States (available to stream on their website).  It is horrifying, but worth the watch to get some of the truth of what a bad job our nation is doing of taking care of its children in these circumstances.  More general info: http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/10634876-bbc-americas-child-abuse-rates-worst-in-developed-world

Unfortunately, there is also the "flip side" of this horror, one that is the result of unmitigated, unwarranted vigilance that does not prevent children from being abused or neglected, but rather, tears loving families apart, ruins the reputation of good parents, and promotes instability and pain in the lives of children who should have never been involved in the first place.  I am talking about the investigations of the Department of Children and Families (sometimes known in some states as Child Protective Services, or by a similar name).  Why are they doing this?  Well, after all, no state wants to be seen as "not doing enough" to prevent the epidemic of child abuse and neglect, so any investigation could easily be turned into a win for the prosecution with some exaggeration, hubris, and trick of the tail.  The height of this was in the child abuse hysteria of the 1980s, which came almost as a backlash against all of the horrible denial of actual child abuse that happened prior to that time, when children's cries were not heard and the allegations were not believed.

A famous example of that hysteria, in case we've forgotten:

Now for my own personal history with this. When I was about my oldest daughter's age, a good friend of the family - a Jamaican immigrant who was an auto mechanic - was accused, by his estranged wife, of molesting their daughter.  My grandparents, knowing what they did of their friend, could not believe that he was capable of doing such a horrible thing.  What actually happened at their home, I frankly do not know.  I wasn't there.  However, there was strong reason to believe, based on other factors, that the friend's ex-wife was being vindictive.  After all, if you hate your ex and don't want your ex to see your children, what better way to punish him than to accuse him of child abuse?  Unfortunately, the family friend was only functionally literate, and did not understand the nature of the charges against him.  He also could not afford a good lawyer who was willing to fight for him.  My grandmother, who worked as a paralegal, did her best to file briefs, testify on his behalf, and so forth, but it was the friend's word against his ex-wife's.  The friend went to prison and, to my knowledge, has not seen his children in over 25 years.

My grandparents discovered that there were parents everywhere who had endured very similar investigation and prosecutions by what was then called, in Florida, the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.  My grandmother, ever the advocate, founded a nonprofit organization in the late 1980s called Citizens for Reform of Child Abuse Laws.  (Very little online presence of this organization remains, but I did find this: http://www.ipt-forensics.com/journal/volume3/j3_4_7.htm.)  It was designed as a support and advocacy group for adults who felt they had been falsely accused of child abuse or neglect, or who knew people who had been.

I went to these meetings as a child, and I remember some of the horror stories.  One single mother of three had the authorities called because her youngest child - who was born premature, and remained very small for her age - had a "Failure to Thrive" diagnosis due to a slow growth pattern.  This is supposed to implicate neglect, despite the fact that the little girl was well-fed and otherwise healthy.  Other people were falsely accused of abuse or neglect because the child liked to play doctor, talked excessively about "caca" or other bodily functions, or fell down off a bike and broke an arm.  Not a joke.  You name it, and HRS had the reason to investigate and take your children away.  An allegation was almost equal to the truth.  What's worse, the abuse hotline was completely anonymous, even to the authorities.  Thus, if you had a beef against someone for any reason (a gym teacher, a next-door neighbor, whomever) you could call the hotline, state a few suspicions, and have the authorities knocking at someone's door at any time.  One of the bumper stickers they made read "HRS: Florida's Gestapo" - and that wasn't far from the truth.  (Please understand: I recognize that most caseworkers are overworked and underpaid, and that they really want to help children.  I don't mean everyone involved.)

I remember reading the brochures from HRS about the signs of abuse.  One sign could be that the child was too dirty... or too clean.  Or that the child was very quiet and withdrawn... or too outgoing and attention-seeking.  Anything labeled "out of the ordinary" was supposed to arouse suspicion.  Then when it came to the investigation stage - well, forget the edict that one is innocent until proven guilty.  Instead, for most people accused of abuse, the process was adversarial and frightening.  One got the impression that the authorities came like big game hunters, looking for a prize to take home, and it was up to you to act cool and play dead.

Some high-profile cases got the attention of the media and of lobbyists, and some of the more ridiculous laws were indeed changed.  Now, it is a crime in Florida to falsely accuse someone of child abuse.  It is hard to disprove good intentions, but at least the law is on the books. The abuse hotline (1-800-96-ABUSE) is also no longer anonymous to the authorities.  The accused won't know who called, but the authorities are supposed to be able to trace the caller in case the allegation turns out to be patently false.

In addition, unfortunately, some of the vigilance died down simply because the budgets shrank.  I say "unfortunately" because it meant that fewer caseworkers were assigned to cases that truly needed attention, and some of the genuinely abused and neglected kids did fall through the cracks in the system.  Plus, the way that I understand it, at least, the federal government provides about half of the funding for child abuse prevention in most states.  The federal government's position is to generally try to get help for families and keep the families together.  On a practical level: if all of the children were removed from their homes for minor cases where the parents could clearly rehabilitate/rectify the situation, the number of children in foster care would skyrocket, and the country could not financially afford it.  The awful result is that some kids stay in situations that are NOT good for them because there is no money to further investigate.  However, there are exceptions.  In states like Florida, there seems to be a continued effort to go after families, even when common sense says it's not warranted.

Several friends have been in these shoes.  One person - who is an incredibly loving mom - was in the mall with her two young daughters.  In a moment of defiance for not wanting to leave the play area, one of the daughters briefly ran off out of the mother's sight, so the panicked mother immediately sought the help of a security guard and police officer to find her daughter.  The girl was found safe in a store just minutes later, and she was afraid that she was in trouble.  This case was automatically deemed a "runaway" situation by the officer, and thus, the DCF authorities were called to investigate.  The parents had to endure the scrutiny and indignity of having someone come over to ask them and their children all kinds of questions.  (Parents, do you ever feel under pressure to get your house clean for guests?  Multiply that by ten when the authorities come over.)  The case was closed, of course, but it was enough to terrify the parents into thinking that their kids could have been removed from the home, even if only temporarily, for basically the mom trying to do the right thing.  But this was very mild... the parents got to keep their kids.

I will not illustrate any further case beyond that one in order to protect people's privacy.  Many cases have been worse, where the parents have temporarily (for weeks or months) lost custody of their children because of, basically, a house that wasn't clean.  These are children who are obviously very happy, nurtured, and well-loved.  It makes absolutely no sense to disrupt these children's lives and put them into a situation where they are confused, frightened, and cared for by strangers when nothing bad actually happened to them. Why is the state spending time and money on these cases when there are children who are actually being abused and neglected?  Where is the state then?

With that, here are some of the ways that parents can prevent DCF from being called to investigate.  Here we go:

1. Don't be labeled weird.  (It helps to look like a politician's family, but if not, then just look like you're always going to a job interview or a Gap commercial.  Conformity rules!)
2. Be an active part of a community organization, such as a church or a respected group.  (Regrettably, live-action role playing groups are not deemed worthy enough for DCF's standards.)
3. Be good friends with people who can help testify on your behalf, including doctors, lawyers, clergy, law enforcement, and people who are DCF employees.
4. Keep your house clean at all times.  (I don't care how many children or pets you have - that house needs to be immaculate.  Now is the time to start worrying about dust bunnies, piles of laundry, and that junk mail stacked on the table.) 
5. Keep your house full of food at all times.  (I mean, look like you are stocking up for a Thanksgiving meal.  God forbid you are caught out before grocery day.)
6. Don't have your young child run around naked or pantsless at any time.  (After all, a child's desire to be free of clothing is akin to sexualization of a child.  Of course, everyone knows that.) 
7. Take your child to the doctor regularly.  (Are you neglecting the regular checkups?  After all, what do you have to hide?)
8. Don't take your child to the doctor too much.  (After all, are you making your child sick or something?)
9. Make sure that your child is independent, skilled, confident, and well-educated.
10. Make sure that you hover over your child and make your child depend on your constant supervision (or else you are a bad parent).

If this makes sense, then you're safe. 

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