Child Abuse or Discipline: The Thin Line
November 29, 2000
A mother finds her son coloring the wall outside his classroom at his elementary school. As she scolds and spanks him, another mother witnesses the event and accuses the mother of child abuse. Two days later, Child Protective Services, CPS, will knock on her door. Across town, an hour earlier, the police responded to a call reporting cries coming from a house. When they arrived on the scene, they found a man standing over a crying child, with bruises on her arms and face. When asked about what happened, the man responded that she fell on the pavement, and was simply shaken up. Scenes such as these, as will be shown, are not uncommon. This paper will describe the situations in which both children and parents are placed, and the vague area where CPS, used as a generic term here, challenges everyone’s rights through their foster home placements of allegedly abused children. I will contend that both parents and children are being deprived of their rights: parents lose their right to discipline their children and children lose their right to be safe.
Innocent parents are, every day, accused of child abuse when they are disciplining their children. Recent psychological studies that show even slight spanking as a child can be emotionally destructive have made former activists for children’s rights all the more adamant that spanking is wrong. Parents across the country are asked to find other ways of disciplining a child, such as “time out” methods, in which a child is told to sit in a specific chair for a certain amount of time because of disobedience. However, more “human” as these methods may be, parents have lost the right to choose how to show their children right from wrong through society’s informal sanctions, such as threatening CPS on parents. The people who overreact to discipline in the form of a spanking take away time and resources from truly abusive parents, and focus them on parents who, for any number of reasons, find other methods of discipline ineffective. Abusive fathers and mothers do exist, though, and are allowed to continue their actions due to lack of proof, as will be shown. Police and CPS show up at scenes where it is very possible a child has been struck abusively and unnecessarily, and yet because the only proof is bruises which can be accounted for, the child stays in the situation and lives in fear of what will happen next. This fear, as will be discussed, has many ramifications upon children for years after they are removed from the situation.
“Nationally, only about half of the child abuse and neglect reports are even investigated and on average only about one-third of these investigations find child abuse and/or neglect” (www.childrensdefense.org/ss_child_abuse.html). Every year, parents, stepparents and guardians abuse children in their homes, but for a myriad of reasons, cases go unreported and uninvestigated. Many of the cases that are investigated involve families with drug and alcohol abuse history. Statistics show that as many as 40 to 80% of the children put into protective services have parents who are either addicts or alcoholics (Young and Gardner, 1998).
Abuse does not necessarily mean striking a child, which many people are unaware of. The term “abuse,” encompasses many actions, including using degrading language, striking someone with unnecessary force and under unnecessary circumstances, and unwelcome touches, to the extent that children’s well-being is sacrificed (www.cpswatch.com/reports/freighttrain.htm). The last type of abuse, sexual abuse, is quite common among children, and according to the Children’s Defense Fund, 12 percent of children nationwide are or will be victims of sexual abuse at some point during their childhood (www.childrensdefense.org/ss_child_abuse.html). In a nation where freedom is touted as the first and foremost value to its citizens, children are afforded equal freedoms. One such freedom is freedom from assault of any kind, including sexual assault. Children are deprived that right.
Neglect is also a form of abuse, as Sarah Alcorn states in her article, “Runaway Freight Train”. According to Alcorn, parents who leave young children at home for hours on end without anyone attending to them are neglecting them. Parents who ignore their children’s needs in favor of their own, and leave their children to starve, are neglecting them. Parents who ignore their child’s presence in the world on a regular basis are neglecting that child, and the government considers that as much of an abuse to a child as any other (www.cpswatch.com/reports/freighttrain.htm). Unfortunately, neglect, also happens, and at greater levels for minority children than others. Minority groups are twice as likely to be abused or neglected as caucasian children in the same age brackets (Children’s Bureau, 1999). All kinds of abuse and neglect of infants, for all races, represent even worse statistics: “Infants represent the largest proportion of victims; almost 40 percent of the victims are under age 6” (Children’s Bureau, 1999).
The results of such a tragic situation for any child run the gamut from emotional trauma, to problems at school, to future abusive tendencies in their own families later in life. The Children’s Defense Fund states, “The physical or emotional scars from such experiences can sometimes last a lifetime if not treated. They can prevent children from learning in school. They can make young people more vulnerable to violence and alcohol and drug abuse” (www.childrensdefense.org/ss_child_abuse.html). These are serious results for an innocent child taking the blame when an adult comes home drunk, angry or both. Children who are in abusive families are much more likely to be delinquent later in life, as reported by Peled, Jaffe, and Edleson in a study on children of battered women (1995). These children are not only deprived of being safe from abuse, but also from being healthy and productive later.
CPS adds an interesting problem to child abuse, when they remove allegedly abused children from their homes and place them in foster homes where they are legitimately abused. The families “abused” children are placed in are as bad as, if not worse than, the families the children were taken from. “Once in foster care, state agencies further reported, children were much more likely to be maltreated than they are in their own homes,” (www.tcbchronicles.com/0700/nccan.htm) reports the TCB Chronicle, “New law puts families in crisis”. The article compiles multiple sources of data about child abuse for a comprehensive analysis of foster homes. It goes on to state, “Children are eleven times more likely to be sexually abused in state care than they are in their own homes … While 59 out of 100,000 children in the general population are alleged to be physically abused, 160 — more than twice as much — were physically abused in the foster care population,” (www.tcbchronicles.com/0700/nccan.htm).
Sarah Alcorn, writing for CPSWatch, the parent group for TCB Chronicles, states, “…many children arrive at visits with their parents with bruises that, had they occurred while the child was at home, the child would have been removed immediately. When they occur in the foster home, the parent is considered hostile and uncooperative for mentioning the injuries,” (www.cpswatch.com/reports/freighttrain.htm). There are many horror stories, demonstrating questionable foster homes. The role CPS plays in these placements and the consequences provides interesting discourse about state care and the judgments CPS makes. Because of these actions, both parents and children are deprived of their rights. Parents are not only deprived of the right to discipline their child, but also are forbidden the right to take care of that child. Equally, children are deprived the right to be safe, ironically, in a family that is supposed to be taking care of them until they may return to their safe family.
What about the parents, though? How far does their right to discipline extend and should the state have the right to intrude upon that right? Thousands of children are taken from home environments every year and placed into other environments for allegedly unsubstantiated reasons, as will be shown. Many people are unfamiliar with horror stories existing within the framework of CPS, but those that have heard them are starting to ask who CPS is protecting. For instance, a young Missouri child, born in July, 1997, was taken away from his parents three months later, when his parents took him to the hospital because he would not stop crying. The emergency room took x-rays and discovered that half of his ribs were broken. The hospital diagnosed the case as child abuse, and the baby was placed into the hands of CPS shortly thereafter. The parents knew they had not abused their child and went to several doctors, trying to find someone who could offer another explanation. Eventually, tests proved that the boy suffered from Temporary Brittle Bone Disease, which caused the injury. In the meantime, however, the couple had another baby, which was not even given a chance in the home. CPS took immediate custody of the child, without waiting for abuse signs to appear. Three years later, family has yet to be reunited (www.cpswatch.com/reports/mofamily.htm). This is but one horror story in a list of many that could be applied. The issue is the same: CPS unfoundedly takes children away from a loving and supportive environment. According to Alcorn, abuse is defined as, “the infliction of physical, mental or emotional injury or the causing of a deterioration of a child and may include, but shall not be limited to, failing to maintain reasonable care and treatment, negligent treatment or maltreatment or exploiting a child to the extent that the child’s health or emotional well-being is endangered,” (www.cpswatch.com/reports/freighttrain.htm).
In actuality, CPS agents have to deal with quantifying this definition to determine which children are abused and should be relocated. Physical markings now identify an abused child. Teresa Cunio, LSW, of TCB Chronicles, states, “if there [are] any markings left on a child then it is considered physical abuse. Therefore, the perpetrator of this disciplining would be listed as a physical abuser,” (www.tcbchronicles.com/0700/discipline.htm). She also questions whether bruises left by spanking constitute marks, though, and,therefore dictate removal. Cunio, often challenged through decisions made as a social worker, states she does not believe parents are correct to use excessive force, but she understands that with a difficult child who will not obey, a spanking may be in order. The red mark a hand leaves, termed “excessive physical discipline,” should not constitute abuse from a parent who is simply trying to make the child obey (Cunio). She defines excessive physical discipline as, “… when [parents] did not intentionally mean to hit the child as hard as they did, and usually do not realize that they hit him/her too hard until they see the bruises,” (www.tcbchronicles.com/0700/discipline.htm). The state needs to decide whether the marks need intervention and Cunio’s work suggests the need to question whether parents should be deprived of their right to discipline.
There have been broad steps taken in the courts to achieve rights for parents to have a family and organize it in whatever way they please. Cheryl Barnes, also of the TCB Chronicles, states: “The U.S. Supreme Court strongly affirmed family rights… when it ruled that the state couldn’t interfere with a parent’s chosen method of child rearing unless the parent had been deemed unfit,” (www.tcbchronicles.com/0700/supreme.htm). This ruling did not come in response to a child abuse case, rather from a case on extended family rights. It still upholds a fundamental right for families: the state cannot tell parents how to raise their children, including how they discipline them. Equally important is the ruling the courts handed down, as CPSWatch describes, stating that: “a government official may not enter a home without a search warrant, [the ruling specifically states], ‘Any government official can be held to know that their office does not give them an unrestricted right to enter peoples’ homes at will.’ and that families have a ‘well-established right to privacy from inspections by social workers’,” (www.cpswatch.com/reports/9thcirc.htm).
These steps within the court system are only helpful for those who are knowledgeable of them. For those unaware of these rights, the system is still confusing, and parents can have their children taken away very easily. In the compilation article TCB Chronicles published, it states about the 16 states surveyed in 1998, “…18% of children placed in foster care were taken from homes with unsubstantiated reports of child maltreatment,” (www.tcbchronicles.com/0700/nccan.htm). Pennsylvania, Kansas and New Jersey led the way in sampled states for foster care placements for unsubstantiated incidents of abuse. The article continues, “Nearly half (43%) of the foster care placements in those states were taken from families where Child Protective Services (CPS) workers had unsubstantiated reports of child abuse or neglect.” In addition, “In the worst states, Alaska, New York, Indiana and Missouri, a family is five times more likely to have a social worker knock on the door than they are to have a flat tire.”
These are stunning statistics, and the question now needs to be asked, “Why?” The answer is simple: money. TCB Chronicles states, “Family advocates say . . . the reason states incarcerated children instead of providing the services they claim the children needed in their home has to do with money. State agencies do not receive nearly as much federal funding for family preservation as they do for foster care,” (www.tcbchronicles.com/0700/nccan.htm). “Incarceration”, in this context, refers to a child being removed from his/her home and placed in a new home, against his/her will. Foster homes, as the article points out, have become “quick fixes” for state governments. The article describes how states are not funded enough for strengthening families and family issues, and cannot subsidize family planning and healthy discipline workshops. Therefore, the only method left is to make sure plenty of money goes to families willing to take care of foster children while the courts are deciding if the natural parents are fit to resume care (www.tcbchronicles.com/0700/nccan.htm).
As has been shown, many parents lose their children to the custody of Child Protective Services without well-founded evidence against them. The more horrific concept, for the parents as well as the children, is that the child wrongfully taken away from his family may not be placed into a good family that will treat him/her well. In fact, he/she may be subject to abuse he was never subjected to before, and should the parents complain for the safety of their child, they may be seen as complicating the situation and refusing to cooperate with the authorities. Parents have lost not only the ability to discipline their child, but also the ability to protect that child.
Knowing the facts about child abuse and withdrawal of parental rights is only the beginning, though. More valuable than knowing what is going on is knowing how to prevent it. The easiest way to support prevention of child abuse is through informal sanctions such as a strong family network, which makes clear the taboo involved with striking, demeaning or sexually harassing an infant or child, as the Children’s Defense Fund points out (www.childrensdefense.org/ss_child_abuse.html). Instead, family members should promote love within the unit, and support distressed family members. However, when the situation is too severe for prevention, it is important to keep matters from escalating. The Children’s Defense Fund recommends:
“Permanent homes for all children who must be removed from their own homes must . . . be a priority. For many children this means helping to reunite them safely with their families. For those who cannot return home, adoption offers the best assurance of long-term stability for the child; although other planned permanent living arrangements might be best in individual cases” (www.childrensdefense.org/ss_child_abuse.html).
It is unfortunate when a child has to be permanently separated from his or her parent. Undoubtedly, children suffering from abuse primarily have feelings of guilt and blame (www.childrensdefense.org/ss_dom_violence.html). These are beliefs that need to be proven wrong, and proper role models need to reinstill within those children the belief that they are good, valuable people. Those values cannot be reinstilled within children kept in a house with an abusive family member, and some situations require formal sanctions through CPS and the courts.
The best way for parents to prevent Protective Services from taking their child away is to know the rights they have as a family. As shown before, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the state cannot force a family to do anything it does not want to do, unless they have proof that one or both of the parents is unfit to take care of the child (www.tcbchronicles.com/0700/supreme.htm). Also, without a warrant, no agent of the state may enter a house uninvited (www.cpswatch/reports/9thcirc.htm). It is equally important for parents to know that whatever they say to a Child Protective Services agent, or any other state agent, may be used against them in a court of law, even though Miranda rights do not have to be read unless charges are being pressed (www.cpswatch.com/reports/freighttrain.htm). The more parents know about the rights they have within their houses, the better they can fight to prevent Protective Services from entering into the situation. Unfortunately, that may not be enough, but it could be a start.
The number of children removed from their homes and placed into foster care is growing steadily. “A record 547,000 children were reported to be in foster care as of March 31, 1999 – a 35 percent increase from 1990” (Children’s Bureau, 2000). It is important for children to know they are safe in their homes, and foster care will sometimes guarantee that safety. It is equally important for parents to know they will be able to safely raise their children. Cunio states, “Sometimes parents abuse children. Sometimes parents even kill their children. For those children, Child Protective Services is vital. … But for those who are trying to discipline their child … Child Protective Services … could destroy not only their families but it could destroy their life [sic],” (www.tcbchronicles.com/0700/discipline.htm). Children have the need, as well as the right, to be protected. As is said in high school, “Pick on someone your own size”. More and more parents pick on kids because they cannot fight back. Unfortunately, for those situations, it is best that the child be removed. The parents who lose their families when CPS storms in, however, also need to be able to fight back.
Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families. Child Maltreatment 1997: Reports from the States to the NationalChild Abuse and Neglect Data System. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Health and Human Services, 1999.
Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families. The AFCARS Report, Current Estimates as of January 2000. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2000.
Peled, E., Jaffe, P.G., and Edleson, J.L. (eds). Ending the Cycle of Domestic Violence: Community Responses to Children of Battered Women. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage Publications. 1995.
Young, Nancy K. and Gardner, Sidney L. Responding to Alcohol and Other Drug Problems in Child Welfare: Weaving Together Practice and Policy. Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare Leauge of America Press, 1998
Alcorn, Sarah. “Runaway Freighttrain”. CPS Watch. undated http://www.cpswatch.com/reports/freighttrain.htm
Barnes, Cheryl. “Supreme Court Affirms Family Rights” TCB Chronicles. http://www.tcbchronicles.com/0700/supreme.htm
Cunio,Teresa. “Child Abuse or Discipline”. TCB Chronicles. http://www.tcbchronicles.com/0700/discipline.htm
Children’s Defense Fund. “Child Abuse and Neglect Fact Sheet”. http://www.childrensdefense.org/ss_child_abuse.html
Children’s Defense Fund. “Domestic Violence and Its Impact on Chilren”. http://www.childrensdefense.org/ss_dom_violence.html
“The Ninth Circuite Rules for Families”. CPS Watch. http://www.cpswatch.com/reports/9thcirc.htm
“Missouri Family Struggles with False Accusations”. CPS Watch. http://www.cpswatch.com/reports/mofamily.htm
“New Law Puts Families in Crisis”. TCB Chronicles. http://www.tcbchronicles.com/0700/nccan.htm
Copyright 2000, Karen Trout
Thomas S. Szasz Cybercenter for Liberty and Responsibility:
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