Monday, September 19, 2011

Does a Bad Economy Cause Child Abuse?

As many of you know, I represent parents against allegations of abuse, neglect, and dependency.  These cases arise when the Department of Social Services seeks to take children from their parents.

Some of the most heart-breaking cases that I get are "shaken baby" cases.  This vivid term is something of a misnomer.  It actually involves any physical injury to a child, especially a child too young to communicate.  Sometimes these injuries result in death, and sometimes they result in permanent disfigurement.

Yet, these cases are disturbing to me for a number of other reasons.

First, health care providers and police now seem predisposed to see any injury as evidence of a criminal act.  A child is injured, therefore someone must have intentionally caused the injury.  There is a medical definition for non-accidental injury, but it is ambiguous enough to fit whatever conclusion the doctor is predisposed to reach.  For instance, I used to think that a "cluster of injuries" meant two or more injuries, of the same kind, in different places or in different different stages of healing.  Now it seems that doctors can describe any two injuries as a cluster.  Sometimes it seems to me as if there is no such thing as an accident any more.

Second, investigators use what seem to me to be questionable methods to build their criminal case.  Often, they will sidestep their legal duties and get the social worker to ask their questions for them.  They will try to get the parent to state that no one else has been with the child for a certain period of time.  That makes the investigator's job easier because it narrows down the possible suspects, hopefully to only one.  Then no further investigation or evidence is required:  The police have a hurt baby, a doctor who says it is abuse, and only one person who had custody of the child.

Third, these cases generally move on two tracks with conflicting goals.  In criminal court, the police and district attorney try to punish the perpetrator.  In civil court, the Department of Social Services tries to take custody of the child away from the parents.  In every case in which I have been involved, this two-track phenomenon has caused a mess.  The civil case drags on because we want to see what happens in the criminal case.  The parents cannot make progress on their case plan because their attorneys have warned them not to make incriminating statements.  If the goal of civil court is to reunite children with their families when that can be done safely, then the intervention of criminal authorities is unhelpful, to say the least.

This article from the Winston-Salem Journal suggests that there may be an increase in child abuse, and that increase may be tied to the stress of a bad economy.  I am not inclined to agree.  I think that an increase in child abuse cases being reported comes largely from doctors being more vigilant and reporting more cases to the authorities.  Also, my experience is that child abuse comes not from economic status but from ignorance.  Inexperienced parents do not know what to do with a crying baby, and then they get frustrated, and then they do the unthinkable.  Rather than blaming the economy and shrugging the problem off, we could be teaching young people how to be good parents and preventing the problem in the first place.