Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Child Abuse & Society

There's little question that almost every person is in favor of preventing or rescuing children from the grips of abuse and/or neglect. The problem is in DEFINING what conditions constitute abuse and neglect. Throughout our society, there is a wide divergence of opinion and this divergence places caseworkers of state agencies in a less than enviable position.

For some people, the use of any form of corporal punishment (e.g., spanking or slapping) is taboo. Such people believe that striking a child teaches fear, not respect. At the other end of the spectrum are many religious conservatives who hold firmly to the maxim, "Spare the rod, spoil the child". For them, the imposition of corporal punishments represents a manifestation of supreme love.

Between these two extremes is the majority. Yet, even among the general populous, there is no definitive definition of abuse or neglect. Often, the definition is fluid and depends greatly on the specific circumstances involved. In other words, an act that many may feel is excessive or abusive in one specific situation may be viewed altogether differently if one or more variables are changed.

This ambiguity of opinion makes the job of state workers, who investigate allegations of abuse and/or neglect, very difficult. I speak from personal experience as I served as a Caseworker-Child Abuse Investigator for state agencies in Arkansas and Missouri during the 1980s. (I'm trying to get back into this field today.)

Since most of the allegations investigated are not clear cut and fall within the grey areas both of state standards and public opinion, almost every outcome of such investigations will be wildly applauded by some and severely criticized by others. The role of the Child Abuse Investigator is being perpetually between a rock and a hard place!

And this leads directly to my second point. Not only is there no public consensus on what constitutes abuse and/or neglect, but there is also no public consensus on how far the state should go to protect the best interests of children.

We've all read or heard stories about children who "fell through the cracks". A preventable death or serious injury is reported by the media and it is invariably pointed out that DHS could have or should have intervened. When such stories are made public, there is an instantaneous clamor for tighter standards and oversight of a neglectful state agency.

Yet, for each case of this nature, there are personal stories reported that focus on the other side of the coin. The local newspaper or TV news team (or one of those melodramatic Lifetime movies) depicts a family that has been badgered or somehow harmed by overzealous state workers. Parents and significant others charge that the state has needlessly or maliciously torn their family apart as the result of an [erroneous] child abuse/neglect investigation.

When such stories hit the newswire, there is just as much clamor to reign in state power, cut funding for certain state agencies and/or to provide greater oversight of an overzealous state agency.

Child abuse and neglect is a serious issue confronting society. Until we are able to come to a better consensus as to what constitutes abuse/neglect and how much power we want vested in the state agencies mandated to protect the interests of society's children, no amount of oversight will cure the problem (see previous entry).

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