Saturday, September 08, 2007

The sledgehammer solution. It works but at what cost?

Some years ago the Christian author Mary Pride wrote a book, The Child Abuse Industry. It documented the rise of a special interest group ostensibly about child abuse but also about perks, politics and privilege. This book discussed how various ideologically driven groups promoted new laws to deal with an old problem -- child abuse.

The 1980s, in particular, were a period when one abuse panic over another dominated the news. Now an abuse panic is either an overreaction to a real case of abuse or a response to an entirely fictional event. And during this panic it mostly the latter not the former. The lives of hundreds of innocent people, and thousands of children, were turned upside-down. Families were destroyed because of bogus theories.

Worse yet, and ignored by many, is that the plethora of bogus abuse stories swamped the resources of social workers and police diverting their attention to the fake cases. The number of incidents reported to the police dramatically increased but the conviction rate dropped just as dramatically. The problem was that bad cases were reported -- cases without substance.

And other problems were created. The panic was so widespread that it became a useful tool in child custody battles. And on numerous occasions malevolent children or teens could use the panic to threaten or blackmail adults or just to seek revenge for some discipline they didn’t appreciate.

I remember one case in particular. A young mother was arrested along with her mother. Her small son and daughter had claimed to authorities that the mother prostituted them and the grandmother was supposedly in on this as well. The girl gave a description of dozens of men paying the mother to abuse her. And the son gave the same description saying that dozens of women paid his mother to have sex with him. I think he was something like ten years old. And the number of women who are sexually interested in a ten year old boy is rather low. At this point I suspected the case was bogus.

The mother and grandmother were arrested and incarcerated on horrific charges. The kids finally came forward and said they invented the story. Mother and grandmother had laid down some rules that the kids didn’t like so they retaliated. At school they had learned all about abuse and the consequences to adults who are accused of it. They knew that they could seek retribution for discipline they didn’t like by making false accusations. So they did.

The McMartin case was slightly different. It doesn’t appear the kids were trying to hurt anyone. The case started when one mentally disturbed mother started inventing accusations. She accused a large number of people ranging from actors to nuns to Raymond Buckey who worked for his grandmother’s day care center. Her bizarre accusations were ignored except for the one against Buckey. But the case exploded after police sent a letter to 200 parents claiming abuse had taken place based purely on the testimony of this disturbed woman.

A horrific woman by the name of Kee McFarland was brought into the case and she started interrogation sessions with the children. The sessions were thinly disguised brainwashing sessions. She was not there to discover what did or did not happen. She was there to convince the children. And her techniques worked. Children who had no memories of abuse whatsoever suddenly started having nightmares as, one by one, they became convinced that they had been abused in the most horrific ways imaginable.

All the trauma that is expected to accompany real, violent abuse materialized after the therapy sessions. None of the children exhibited such symptoms before the sessions only after them. Virtually every staff member at the day care center was arrested including the elderly, wheelchair bound, Virginia McMartin. Several hundred small children were subjected to McFarland’s therapy and emerged traumatized as a result.

Seven women, along with Buckey, were arrested and charged with over 200 counts of abuse. Eventually the case unravelled but not before thousands of people, in one community, were traumatized by the events.

Dozens of other cases emerged at the same time across the country and thousands of children and thousands of innocent adults were subjected to trials. Many innocent people ended up in prison, some were eventually released while others sit there to this day.

Abuse is a real problem. But in heavily politicized America people have a tendency to respond to real problems with sledgehammers. By that I mean that instead of swatting a fly with fly swatter we use a sledgehammer on the problem. It works. The fly is killed. But in the process we inflict a lot of collateral damage.

The danger with some “solutions” is that they are worse than the problem or that they make the problem actually worse not better. Many of the legacies of that panic live with us to this day. Jeff Zaslow, of the Wall Street Journal, recently looked at one of the legacies of the moral panic about abuse.

Zaslow told the stories of different men and how they avoid the mere whiff of abuse charges. Ted Wallis, a physician, recently came upon a small child at a shopping mall who was in tears. The child had become lost. There was a time when this happen someone would comfort the child and take them to a security guard or somewhere where an announcement could be made. Wallis wanted to help but if he, a man, was seen comforting a crying child who wasn’t his own, the risk was too high. He walked away.

Zaslow mentioned how the Boy Scouts now require four adults to go on all camp outs so that two adults are always together. Why four not two? That’s in case one child has to be taken home for some reason. That way two adults can accompany the child home and two adults remain with the rest of the troop. Don’t mention the idea that two children might have to go home or three. They’d end up with more adults on the trip than children.

One man, Ray Simpson, told Zaslow, a sad story. Every Halloween he’d have around 30 children stop by his house for the Trick or Treat routine. But that was before his marriage broke up. The last year he was living alone and because he was a single male not one child was permitted to knock on his door for treats. He said: “I felt like crying at the end of the evening.”

In a previous article Zaslow noted that the number of male teachers has been cut in half. It was 18% in 1981 and dropped to just 9%. It is no coincidence that this decline came following the abuse panics engineered in the 1980s. Zaslow thinks men are being stereotyped in a way that is unacceptable for any other group of people. He’s right.
The obsessed John Walsh tells parents to never hire a male baby-sitter. The Virginia Depart of Health ran a billboard campaign showing a man and small girl walking while holding hands. It was captioned “It doesn’t feel right when I see them together.” The head of one father’s group said this amounted to a saying, “if you see a father out with his daughter, call the police.” Walsh tried to justified his prejudice saying that if a teenage boy wants to experiment with sex that one wouldn’t want them doing it with one’s children. What about teenage girls who want to experiment? I’m sorry that Walsh’s son was killed years ago by an unknown assailant but the man has gone bonkers. He’s a destructive influence on the legal system lashing out indiscrimninately to revenge his son yet he doesn't know who killed his son or why. So every possible "monster" and theory is open to his obsessive attacks.

Police departments tell children that if they get lost to look for “safe” adults who can help them. These are women but particularly certain kinds of women. A woman who is pregnant, an older woman, or a woman with a stroller are suggested. The message is to stay away from men.

And men get the message to stay away from children.

Of course to discuss such problems in the “solution” to abuse gives the vicious and unethical the excuse to accuse one of justifying abuse, of enabling it. This lame leap in logic is the same sort used by the moron in the White House. If you don’t support his vile war in Iraq you are enabling the terrorists. Rational people know such accusations are bullshit. But then the demagogues don’t appeal to reason. They appeal to fear.

I have no doubt that all these measures have prevented some children from being abused. In exchange they created broken homes, emotionally scared children, and distant fathers. Conditions which, I should note, increase the likelihood that those scared children will grow up with problems that they may ultimately take out on children. No child should be abused. No adult should ever be falsely accused of child abuse. Swinging from one extreme to the other is not a solution.

The alternative to a communist dictatorship wasn’t Hitler. There are all sorts of problems that we face in this world. But sledgehammers aren’t the solution. This is what worries me about the United States. This Red/Blue division has turned both camps into sledgehammer wielding fanatics. Everyone wants drastic solutions to any social problem they face and no one seems to consider that their solutions might be worse than the actual problems we face.

If you don’t think federalizing health care is a good idea is because you are uncaring and want the sick to die in the streets. If you don’t think federalizing marriage is a good idea it is because you are uncaring and want “families” to be destroyed. If you don’t want a Wall on the border it’s because you don’t love you country. If you don’t want the war in Iraq it is because you love terrorists. To question sledgehammer solutions, from either side, opens you up to accusations that you love the problem for one nefarious reason or another.

It isn’t just the political rhetoric that has become extreme in the United States. It is the solutions to problems as well. And as the country lurches from Left to Right to Left again the net result is that extreme solutions accumulate creating a crisis that no one can solve.

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