Measuring Child Abuse Incidence

Boy with Black Eye Hugging Teddy Bear --- Image by © Guntmar Fritz/zefa/CorbisProbably you are familiar with some version of the old philosophical riddle “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, is there still a sound?”  Today’s question is similar: “If a child is maltreated but the maltreatment is not reported to authorities, does it still count as child maltreatment?”

I do not mean to be flip.

One of the perennial controversies in child protection circles is how high the rate of child maltreatment actually is, and the answer is never straightforward.  It depends on how we define abuse and neglect (physical, emotional and sexual), how we measure it (Third party reports? Self-reports by victims or perpetrators? Arrests? Convictions?), and whom we think it affects (Poor people? Addicts? Members of certain minority groups? Everyone?)  A lot rides on the answers to these questions, from public funding to public attention to the issue, and the answers often vary from time to time and place to place.

There are, however, some areas of agreement. 

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Adoption and the Indian Child Welfare Act

Although major cases involving gay marriage have grabbed most of the headlines in recent weeks, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down yet another important family law case at the end of this year’s term. In Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, 570 U.S. ___ (2013), the Court held in a 5-4 decision that Sections 1912(d) and 1912(f) of the Indian Child Welfare Act do not apply in situations where a parent has never had custody of his child. This reversed a South Carolina Supreme Court decision and remanded an already protracted adoption and custody dispute for still more proceedings in state court.

The facts of the case are mostly undisputed. Baby Girl’s parents, who lived about four hours away from each other, became engaged in December 2008. About a month later, Birth Mother (who is “predominantly Hispanic”) informed Birth Father (a member of the Cherokee Nation) that she was pregnant. The relationship went downhill thereafter, apparently at least partly because the couple differed over what to do next: Birth Father wanted to move up the wedding and refused to provide financial support until after the marriage while Birth Mother did not agree to this and broke off the engagement in May,2009. In June of that year, Birth Mother sent a text message to Birth Father, asking if he preferred relinquishing his parental rights or paying child support, and he texted back that he would rather give up his rights. It is undisputed that Birth Father provided no financial or other support to the mother or baby during the pregnancy or during the four months after Baby Girl was born.

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The Cop on My Porch

On December 1st, the Azana Salon and Spa in Brookfield reopens for business. Unless you have been out of the country for the last five weeks, you no doubt know that the salon was the scene of a mass shooting on October 21, 2012. A gunman entered the building and killed three women, including his wife, who was a salon employee. He wounded four other women and then killed himself. The shooter’s wife had recently obtained a temporary restraining order against him after numerous domestic violence incidents including, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, an incident where the shooter slashed his wife’s tires in the spa parking lot.

Domestic violence has always been a devilishly difficult crime to prevent or prosecute. Abusers tend to be controlling and manipulative, and the visible physical injuries they inflict often pale by comparison to the emotional injuries. Victims are often psychologically abused and controlled to the point that they may feel responsible for the attacks, and they often stay in their relationships hoping for change in their partners. Abused women—and it is most often women—are afraid to leave their abusers and rightfully so. The time immediately after a woman leaves is the most dangerous time, since the abusers often succumb to rage and the need to control their victims. This may cause them to escalate the violence, and while Zina Houghton’s death is tragic, it is sadly not unusual for a battered woman to die at the hands of her abuser.

This tragedy reminded me of an experience I had last spring. The doorbell rang at 8 o’clock one night, and I flipped on the porch light so as to peer out before opening the door. A uniformed police officer was standing on my porch. This is almost never a good thing.

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