Hasty Policy Response Risks More Harm Than Good

Nov 29, 2011

Lawmakers have introduced several bills in response to a Pennsylvania child sex abuse case. Policies crafted in response to single incidents risk more harm than good if not done carefully.

By Rutledge Q. Hutson

Tragic events such as the widely known child sex abuse case in Pennsylvania and the allegations against a Syracuse University assistant coach make headlines and rightly stoke community outrage.

They also bring more attention to child welfare and help create public dialogue around protecting children and ensuring they have safe, nurturing environments in which to grow up and fulfill all the potential with which they came into this world. We can gain insight from the events, make important policy changes and try to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring again. 

First, we must focus on the real victims. As we rush to punish or castigate those who, in the Penn State case, apparently failed to protect innocent children, let us not neglect our responsibility to protect the victims now by getting them the help they need to heal.

Second, in our efforts to stop this from ever happening again, let us not be so hasty that we enact policies that do more harm than good.  Members of Congress have introduced several bills so far aimed at ensuring the moral responsibility to report child abuse and neglect is a legal one as well. All of these bills have good intentions.  But when it comes to child welfare, too often we respond to tragedy by adopting new polices narrowly tailored to particular circumstances without thinking about the unintended consequences.  So, let us pause, get all the necessary facts and then decide the appropriate policy response.

The term child abuse and neglect for most invokes thoughts of child sexual abuse or severe physical abuse.  Yet, according to official data reported in the National Child Abuse Neglect and Data Reporting System (NCANDS), child sexual abuse accounted for roughly 9 to 10 percent of substantiated maltreatment over the last five years, and physical abuse accounted for 17 to 18 percent.  Neglect, however, accounted for more than 70 percent of maltreatment.  Thus, while horrific cases of sexual and physical abuse make headlines, most maltreated children face neglect. In fact, child fatalities more often result from neglect than from physical or sexual abuse. 

We need to understand the broad nature of maltreatment to craft appropriate responses.  Identifying maltreatment is often a challenge and the solutions, response and interventions to neglect aren't always as straightforward as may be possible in the Penn State case. A child who has been sexually abused needs a different response than young children tucked into bed and left alone because their mothers cannot afford child care while they work the night shift. The first child may need medical treatment and therapy or may need to be removed from her home and placed in foster care.  Children left alone may need medical treatment if they were hurt in their mothers' absence, and their parents likely need child care assistance.

In other words, child maltreatment is complex and multi-faceted.  Responding appropriately starts with making sure that the right situations are reported.  Responding appropriately also means that authorities that receive reports of child maltreatment have the training and the capacity to assess cases and determine what the child and his or her family need.  Finally, as a community, we need to decide that we are willing to invest in and support not just our individual children, but our nation's children.

This approach appeals to me. Even in this land of rugged individualism, we believe in and rely upon community.  We understand that we need community to survive and children more than anyone else need it.  And all adults have a shared responsibility for keeping children safe from harm. 

However, if we respond to these tragic headline-grabbing cases by doing nothing more than requiring everyone to report abuse and neglect, we have failed in our responsibility to protect children. Reporting is not enough, nor is making it a criminal offense to fail to report going to address the problem.

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