On Child Abuse
by Sam Wilkinson
“Did you hear?” asked a coworker, in my office to take a break. “They found a 70-pound girl on the side of the road.”
They in this case was a passerby in Wisconsin, who came across an emaciated 15-year-old wandering around in a daze. After contacting the police and getting the girl to safety, a grim story began to emerge.
How grim? In this particular case, a mother and stepfather had apparently imprisoned the girl around her tenth birthday, and with the help of the stepfather’s son, maliciously assaulted the girl for years. She finally escaped from her home’s basement, where she had been locked away, reaching a nearby road before being discovered by the aforementioned passerby. Her mother and stepfather face more than 11 years in prison for abuse, neglect, and endangerment; the stepson faces a maximum of 68, for abuse and sexual assault.
Those numbers seem skewed. It seems obvious that the mother and stepfather ought to each be facing significantly more punishment than they are; it seems odd that the stepson is facing so much more given the environment he grew up in. But in fact, this case is an outlier for an entirely different reason, because in fact it is rare that charges are ever brought against abusive parents.
The story of the 70-pound girl might have been eclipsed by the story of the 9-year-old girl who was run to death by her mother and grandmother. Two within a week of one another is a relatively rare occurrence. Of course, stories nightmarish enough do emerge every so often. Several weeks ago, there was the story of the Powell brothers in Utah. Several years ago, there were the Gravelle’s in Ohio.
Those are stories that are so horrifying that they capture attention. In Wisconsin, there was the undeniable presence of the emaciated girl. In Alabama, there was the dead girl. In Utah, there were the two dead boys. And in Ohio, there were the cages. Evidence to this degree makes cases accessible, giving both media and law enforcement an obvious opportunity to publicize and prosecute the cases, briefly exposing all of us to what seem like terrible, but isolated, incidents of what might be described as genuine evil.
They do seem like isolated incidents, given how rarely parental child abuse makes the headlines and the prosecutorial press conferences. We live in a society that gives parents incredible leeway with their children and as such, many of us are comfortable with parents doing to children what we might never tolerate adults doing to one another. Owing to something – the way we were raised, perhaps, or the way we raise our own children – there often seems to exist a misunderstanding of child abuse, as though there exists some gulf between what we imagine are the standard parenting techniques and the sort of heinous abuse on display in the four stories I mentioned above, as if there is nothing else going on in between. Or at least, that is what I tell myself, given that the other option (that people know of what I am about to discuss and simply ignore it) is too difficult for me to imagine.
My own insight into this is somewhat unique, I suppose. During college, I spent two years working off-and-on at a emergency shelter for children; the kids who ended up there had been either taken from their parents or were being housed while their mothers sought legal protection from their abusive partners. For three years after college, I was a front-line staffer at a home for teenaged boys and served as an emergency staffer at a larger facility for teenaged girls. In all, I probably spent time with somewhere between 50-75 clients, and in that time, I do not remember encountering a single one whose parents had spent any time in prison for their abusive behavior. These were not children parented by the sort of people who end on the evening news; these were children parents by the sort of people who got right up to the edge of appearing on the evening news. There were parents who managed to physically, sexually, and emotionally abuse their children, often doing all three simultaneously, without ever facing serious punishment for their behavior.
Here I should note a few things in no particular order. The first is that some of these parents did end up losing contact with their children. One of the state’s means for dealing with abusive parents was simply to separate them from their children in as permanent a fashion as was possible. The second is that law enforcement did not always take the abuse as seriously as it could have. I remember once asking a judge why more of these parents did not end up imprisoned – his flabbergasted response was that parents ought to be allowed to do whatever they wanted to a child, short of making the child bleed. (His opinion was hopefully his own, although it is troublingly easy at the time to believe otherwise.) The third is that mechanism for helping these children – the social work system – is simply incapable of doing so in a way that exacts satisfactory legal outcomes against abusive parents. The fourth is that there is a powerful lobby of parents who believe that the state should never intervene in parenting, mostly because they (hopefully) do not understand how bad things can actually get.
Behind a Rawlsian Veil (or some similar rhetoric device), we imagine a society that allows for all manner of parenting. We imagine a society that punishes its guilty only when a preponderance of good evidence suggests in should happen. We imagine a society in which children are not separated from parents barring clear and overwhelming evidence that favors such an outcome. We imagine a society in which we do not end up with innocent people convicted of horrific crimes. In short, we imagine something that might generally be described as justice.
But when crimes against children are committed, especially behind a home’s front door by the very people tasked by biology to care for those same children, our expectations for what we want from a society breakdown in very obvious and unfortunate ways. There rarely exists sufficient evidence of the abuse itself – because it is hidden, because it is taken for granted, because it is assumed, because it is as it always was. There rarely exist survivors willing to face a courtroom’s gauntlet – because of their age, because of who the accused are, because of the fear and uncertainty that accompanies the situation. In short, there rarely exists the sort of definitive evidence that we want in our courtrooms. Our expectations of what is required created unrealistic standards that can rarely be met in these situations and end up leaving children in situations where they continue to be abused.
Prosecutors and defenders know this, brokering backroom details that make the best (as it is loosely defined here) of terrible situations, deals that include separations, mandated therapy, constant supervision, stripped parental rights, and other solutions which seem barely just.
Perhaps that is all that can be expected, especially given the fact that other potential solutions collapse under the weight of any sort of scrutiny at all. To briefly describe but two: social workers empowered to separate more children from suspected abusers will make mistakes, taking children from parents unjustly and prosecutors empowered to more strongly investigate claims will make mistakes, unfairly identifying suspected abusers who had committed no such crimes. In both scenarios, parental rights advocates – people who genuinely believe that parents should enjoy incredible freedom to parent their own children (something we can all agree with in the abstract, something that I personally blanche at given my exposure to more extreme cases) – will forcefully object on grounds that are simultaneously reasonable for most parents and catastrophic for some children.
It has been more six years since I left my life as a social worker, and in that time I have never come close to coming up with satisfactory ideas of what changes might be made to make child abuse less of a problem, either generally or in the specific cases of the abused. (My coworker, the one who came to me about the 70-pound girl, proposed bullets to the head, and as tempting as that might be in particular cases, it is an unworkable solution on a grand scale. I write about this temptation for violence despite the fact that I would describe myself as both reasonable and peaceful.) Once, at an Institute for Humane Studies seminar, I heard a lecturer acknowledge that although libertarians had a great many answers for a great many problems, he could think of nothing that could be done about the suffering of children. There may be great answers out there that simultaneously work to lessen the problem while not violating the standards we have for societal response, but if there are, I must admit to being ignorant of them. So perhaps then, I end with this question: is it possible to tackle this problem in a satisfactory way? Here I am not imagining a problem that makes it goes away; that will never happen. But is it even possible to make a dent in the problem itself?