Hasty Policy Response Risks More Harm Than Good
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.
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.
Responding appropriately starts with making sure that the right situations are reported. If we are all to report abuse and neglect, we will have to know what it is or isn't maltreatment. A public awareness campaign will be critical to helping us recognize the signs of abuse and neglect. Such a campaign will be essential to making sure that we do not mistake poverty for neglect and do not confuse cultural differences with maltreatment. We need to provide the public with information about what they can do when a situation does not rise to the level of abuse and neglect, but a child or family clearly needs help to prevent the situation from deteriorating to the point where child abuse or neglect does occur. Such a public education campaign is a big task, and one that is long overdue.
Responding appropriately also means that authorities that receive the reports have the training and the capacity to assess them and decide what the child and his or her family need. If we simply increase reports without improving the capacity of those receiving the reports to respond, we won't have done children much good. We also have to be careful that we don't overwhelm those who receive the reports so that they miss cases that need attention or take children from their homes when that is unnecessary. We must give these workers - these first responders - the tools they need to do their jobs well.
Finally, as a community we need to decide that we are willing to invest in and support our children - not just our individual children, but our nation's children. It makes little sense to wait until abuse and neglect has occurred and then report it and try to fix the damage. It is fiscally wiser to invest in the supports and services children and their families need to prevent the harm from occurring in the first place. It is also the right thing to do.