I. Children at Risk
Nine year old Rowan Ford was brutally raped and strangled by her stepfather and one of her mother’s male friends. Two year old Riley Sawyers was beaten and killed by both her biological mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Four year old Anthony Buhr was tortured to death by the man his mother chose to live with, even after she lost custody due to his abuse of her children. Six year old Oscar Jimenez, Jr. was punched and kicked to death by his mother’s live-in boyfriend. Oscar’s mother helped bury her son’s body under cement 700 miles away.
In Forest Park, Georgia, an eight month old baby was raped and beaten by her mother’s boyfriend, leaving her paralyzed and brain damaged for life. In Pittsburgh, ten month old Da’Niyah Jackson died of after her mother left her in the care of a boyfriend, who beat and raped the infant.
There is no shortage of strangers, relatives, and biological parents who neglect, abuse, or murder America’s children. State agencies investigated nearly 900,000 abuse incidents in 2005, a year in which 1500 children died of neglect or abuse. The U.S. Bureau of Justice reports that of all children under the age of five, murdered from 1976 through 2005
31% were killed by fathers (*see footnote)
29% were killed by mothers (*see footnote)
23% were killed by male acquaintances
7% were killed by other relatives
3% were killed by strangers
Recent studies, however, are pointing towards the increased risk of child abuse and fatalities in homes shared with a stepparent or other unrelated adult. A 2005 Missouri study, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, reports that children living with a stepparent or unrelated adult were 50 times more likely to die of inflicted injuries than children living with both of their parents.
Several studies spearheaded by the University of New Hampshire have shown that children living in stepfamilies or with single parents are at higher risk of physical or sexual assault than children living with two biological or adoptive parents.After twenty years of extensive research into child abuse in Canada, the United States and Great Britain, Canadian psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, reached the staggering conclusion in 1997 that stepparents were 100 times more likely to fatally abuse their children.
The statistics are alarming, but in perspective the homicide rate comes out at to about 600 per million deaths in stepparent-child families, compared with just a handful for biological parents. Obviously, the vast majority of stepparents are not abusers, and there are thousands of stepparents who embrace their roles as co-parents, and who do an excellent job raising children who are not biologically, or even legally, their own.
It’s also true that the people who would pay the most attention to these types of statistics are those who would naturally consider their children’s welfare when making important life choices. For conscientious parents, the statistics probably only serve to bolster beliefs that are already in place – if not necessarily beliefs in a traditional family structure, than in their roles as the primary protectors and guardians of their children.
Unfortunately for their children, there are many parents who are not as conscientious. In some cases mental illness may be the cause, but in the overwhelming majority of cases there appears to be no sensible or easily understandable reason for mothers and fathers who knowingly, willfully place their children in harm’s way.
II. Dangerous Choices
In each case cited in this story, (with the exception of Da’Niyah Jackson, whose mother’s awareness of the potential for abuse is not yet known), at least one of the children’s biological parents were aware that danger existed but proceeded nonetheless to maintain a relationship with the abuser.
In the case of Anthony Buhr, whose short life was filled with excruciating tortures, both biological parents knowingly put their child at risk – the father when he defied a court order and dropped his son off at the child’s mother’s home to be watched, and the mother, who then left her son in the care of an angry boyfriend whom she knew to be abusive.
Colleen Spears, according to family members, was aware that her male friend Chris Collings had made advances against her teenage daughter. She married David Spears despite the fact that he was unemployed and had a drinking problem. Yet she left her nine year old daughter Rowan in Spears’ care while she worked nights, just as she previously left her in the care of ex-boyfriend Adam Chichawoski, another chronic alcoholic who later committed suicide.
The mothers of Riley Sawyers and Oscar Jimenez, Jr., both witnessed their child’s murder, did not attempt to stop it, did not report it to authorities, and both helped hide their children’s bodies. Sawyers mother, depending on who is to be believed, may have herself contributed to her child’s injuries. The mother of the eight month old baby who was raped is presently serving a five year sentence on one count of child cruelty, while her boyfriend has been sentenced to life plus forty years.
It’s an oversimplification of the statistics on child abuse to state that stepfamilies and non-traditional families, in of themselves, are more prone to acts of child abuse and danger. Clearly, there are issues among the biological parents that are not only about their choices in partners, but about their purposeful blindness or lack of exhibited concern for dangerous, or potentially dangerous, situations.
III. Changes Are Necessary
Empirical research of child abuse has led to many theories about the motivations and mindsets of parents who court disaster for their children through relationships with unstable, neglectful, violent, (and often drug and alcohol addicted) partners. Outside of organic mental illness, psychological traits ranging from narcissism to low self-esteem have been cited as causes, as have poverty, insufficient resources or support, and lack of education. It is also often stated that the parents who place their children in danger were or are victims of abuse themselves.
Yet, as in almost any wide-sweep that seeks generalized causes, there is plenty of contradictory social evidence that flies in the face of easy analysis. While those who were abused as children do face an inordinate number of difficulties in their adult lives, the vast majority do not grow up to be abusive parents themselves. Low-income parents may be over-represented in the hotline statistics simply because they are more readily suspected of and reported for abuse or neglect than are their middle or upper-class counterparts. Millions of parents with a high school degree or less have raised children successfully, without abuse or neglect.
Regardless of what we may believe or guess the causes to be, children continue to be brutalized, neglected and killed in America in alarming numbers.
At this point, forty-five years after the term Battered Child Syndrome was first introduced into the American lexicon by Dr. Henry Kampe and officially recognized by the medical community as “the malevolent actions perpetrated upon a child by their parent(s) and/or other adults”, the question of cause seems particularly worn and almost pointless, given that the longstanding policies of social services agencies have not much changed to address either the causes or the welfare of children living in dangerous situations.
Insofar as poverty and public resources go, welfare has been out and self-reliance in since Clinton’s 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Subsidized daycare and low-income housing is often very difficult for the working poor to attain, and both often have a waiting list that is years long. In any event, welfare reform has not impacted child abuse statistics, nor did it have the often-touted desired effect of promoting marriage. Financial assistance to the poor, while a noble cause on several levels, does not seem to be a proven preventative measure against child abuse or murder.
It is short-sighted to believe that our government’s role in the well-being of children should be limited to public education and limited social welfare programs. Society, and by extension its government, has always had a vested interest in preventing crime and protecting those who cannot protect themselves. To this end, it is necessary that outdated policies and laws change to meet the needs of children who are at-risk, particularly the social service policies that are managed at the State level.
One of the longest standing tenets of social service workers has been “Keep the Family Together.” Under this dogmatic umbrella, thousands of children have been left in legal limbo, moving from one foster home to another for years on end, or getting caught in the revolving door between foster care and on-again, off-again relationships with their unstable and often abusive biological parents. Children who have been abused and neglected are often returned to parents who perpetrated or allowed the abuse. Perhaps the operative tenet of social services should be less about the rights of the adults involved and more about the long-term “best interests of the child”.
The criteria for removing a child from their home may be overly stringent, in that imminent risk of abuse or danger often has to be successfully argued before the courts will allow social services to remove the child. Ironically, under this standard, “imminent risk” most often means “it’s already happened.” The child already has visible bruises, marks, or other signs of abuse, or neglect is readily apparent by the child’s deteriorating physical condition or unacceptable living circumstances.
Changing the standard of “imminent risk” to “reasonable cause,” would allow trained caseworkers to remove children from at-risk homes based on solid information and belief rather than proof of physical damage. Instead of having to wait for the child to be beaten and for the marks to show, a criteria of reasonable cause would allow social services to be activist preventers of abuse, and not merely after-the-fact rescuers.
Abused children who are questioned by social services realize that when the interview is over, they will most likely return home to be questioned by their abuser/s. They understand, even the youngest among them, the concept of self-preservation. Their choice – to be honest and open with a stranger they may never see again, or to avoid the wrath of their abuser/s – is one many adults, including those in social services, who often take a child’s words of denial at face-value, do not seem to fully understand or appreciate. An interview with a child who denies abuse or neglect but who is known to be at-risk should not signal the end of an investigation; it should, instead, indicate the need for continued, regular checks on the child and his or her living situation.
Further, children who are at an age to understand the consequences that might befall them by their honest participation in such an interview, should be promised a safe harbor prior to their questioning if their answers reveal that they are in danger of being abused. A child who is being hurt is likely to be more open during an interview when they do not have to fear the aftermath of reprisal from their abusers.
Lastly, it is often said there should be a license to parent. Driving a car in our country is a privilege not a right, some point out, and there are more qualifications that must be met in that process than there are for raising children. While that may be true, in reality it would be an impossible and largely undesirable task for a free country to unduly impinge on the reproductive and parental rights of its citizens.
What is possible are changes in policies and laws, as well as cultural mindsets, that will truly put children first – not only changes in social services – but in adoption law, criminal law, education, hotline reporting and public awareness. When parents are incapable of protecting their offspring, or refuse to, their rights and needs should not usurp the rights and needs of the children they have placed in harm’s way. The best interests of the child should be, and must be, the guiding force behind the prevention of child abuse.
* The U.S. Department of Justice does not differentiate stepparents from biological parents in their report.