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A Little Clean-Up For The First Thing Monday Morning

with 3 comments

Well, my foray into rereading Oliver Twist will be done by evening–and a lot of you seem to read faster than I do, or to have more time to read–so I thought I’d do the best I could here to clear up what I’ve been thinking.

That, and to make a proposal.  But that’s at the end.

1) I agree, with Robert and Cheryl, that the reason we shackle 10 year olds is that, somewhere along the line, some otherwise innocuous looking child turned out to be anything but.  That’s the reason we shackle adult prisoners, too.

But both cases leave me in the same place with the same complaint.

It is only a minority of prisoners of either kind who are prone to commit acts of violence, and treating all the rest as if they, too, are mad dogs likely to strike at any moment seems to me to be demonstrably wrong.

It is more demonstrably wrong when the principle is applied to juveniles, who are often in custody for what are not crimes at all–running away from home; skipping school; sometimes even things like “defiance’ or getting pregnant out of wedlock.

What bothers me about this is, first, that it is destructive to kids who are not (at the beginning) dangerous or criminal in any way.

And second, that it says something about how this society–or at least those of us who serve in official capacities–thinks of its own children.

We seem to believe that we harbor among us wild beasts who are incorrigible by definition.  That’s why we’re willing to put them on the sex offender registry for most of their lives for offences that are largely invented and not indicative of any long term propensity for sexual violence, and to put them in jail for life for real enough offenses that may or may not be indicative of long term violence.

I understand the frustrations of people who find that a juvenile who has committed an horrific crime is to be released at 25.  And I can see the inevitable resort (in some cases–see Cinnamon Brown) to “child assassins” to commit crimes that would otherwise have more serious consequences than juvenile laws will allow.

And yet I also remember Mary Bell, who committed an horrific crime (the murders of two younger children) at the age of ten, and who was released in her early twenties to go on to lead what seems to have been a perfectly normal, nonviolent, and noncriminal life.

There is something wrong about the way we think of our children.

2) I also agree with Michael that most of the people who take on foster children for the money–relatives or nonrelatives–lack the “executive functioning” to mount any kind or organized defense of their position.

What the man means is that they’re thick as two planks, and yes, most of them are.

But there are lots of players in this system that do have the brains to do at least that much–caseworkers, social workers, psychologists, bureaucrats–and defend it they will.

But it’s hard to see that this would matter much, because the the dirty little secret of the foster care system is that no alternative procedure will or can be appreciably better.

Note the “can be.”

Because it brings us to this:

3) Let’s call it the affinity problem.

Every time there’s a new child molestation scandal–Catholic priests!  Boy Scout leaders!  Sixth grade gym teachers!–we get long explanations of why so many of these people seem to molest children.

None of these explanations make any sense.

It’s the celibacy!  People proclaim, when Catholic priests are involved.  But actually, the percentages of offenders are exactly the same for non-celebate clergy, and for youth leaders of all types for all denominations.

It’s the repression of homosexuality!  People say, when the issue is Boy Scout leaders.  But the percentages are pretty much the same for all youth groups, irrespective of their stands on homosexuality, religion, or anything else.

Here’s what’s happening–victimizers go where the victims are.

A man with a jones to have sex with children will find a profession where he has access to children.  A bully will find a job that allows her to bully extensively and largely without consequences.

That’s why so many clergymen and Boy Scout leaders land in child sex scandals.  That’s why nursing home workers land in elder abuse scandals.  That’s why there are at least a couple of national stories a year about foster parents who have sexually abused the children on their care or beaten and neglected them.

Last night, after reading some of the comments to the last post, I did a few Google searches.

For Connecticut, I found two high profile cases, one in 2007, and one in the last year.  In the 2007 case, a woman left her two foster children in her car while she went into one of the Indian casinos to gamble for hours.  In the other, foster parents who had sheltered dozens of children over the years were found to have tied them up, locked them in closets, and systematically beaten and half starved them.

The situation got more interesting, if that’s the word, when I went farther afield.  My favorite was a case in Florida where a woman  had staved something like eight children half to death before she was caught by the very caseworkers assigned to supervise her.

Because you have to remember.  Cases from the foster care system are cases in which the foster parents were supposedly being supervised.

The usual response to this sort of thing is to claim that supervision was lax, and to fire the oversight caseworker for negligence. 

But I don’t think it’s anywhere that simple. 

I could complain that the endless “red flags” of supposed abuse are just plain wrong–because most of them are–but what’s really happening here is that victimizers go where the victims are, and no system of child protection will ever be able to keep them out.

They know the red flags of abuse just as well as their supervisors do, and if they weren’t good at disguising who and what they are, they wouldn’t be in the system to begin with.

What’s more, in any pool of potential foster parents, there will be a disproportionate percentage of victimizers looking for victims.  And that will be the case in the pool for teachers, clergy, youth group leaders, nursing home workers, and the rest.

And, more importantly, there is no way to fix this. 

We could certainly correct some of the ludicrous red flags–which not only don’t reliably identify abusers but often wrongly identify them–and ramp up the oversight.

But at the end of the day, we’ll be right where we started.  We’ll be living in a world where some people simply enjoy hurting  others, and will do what they have to to have access to the others they want to hurt.

And the people who enjoys this are almost universally looking for the weak–the very young, the very old, the very poor, the mentally challenged.

We might do better dealing with this if we accepted the fact that are red flags were, in fact, largely both wrong and destructive–that we don’t know why people do these things, and that at the moment we don’t know how to identify them except in hindsight.

We might, but I’m not sure we would.

I do think we might get someplace if we’d stop assuming that our children and our poor are less human than our dogs.

Written by janeh

June 4th, 2012 at 10:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'A Little Clean-Up For The First Thing Monday Morning'

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  1. I have certainly never supported that sex offenders registry business simply because of the potential for horrible mistakes. I think one of the men murdered by that guy from Canada who went down to Maine, I think it was, to kill sex offenders was one of those convicted because his girlfriend was a year or two too young for current laws.

    And definitely many people who like having sex with children or exerting power and control in many ways are going to end up in the caring professions and especially in ones in which they are caring for the extremely vulnerable. There was a blind, severely mentally handicapped bedridden teen who couldn’t even communicate who somehow got pregnant in a foster home here, years ago, and I’ve got other stories like that one.

    But it’s not because the offenders think their targets are less human than they are. Sometimes they like hurting humans. Sometimes they don’t think it’s hurting, they think it’s love. Sometimes, they’re so stressed out they lose it, totally. I’ve sometimes wondered if moving to foster care and group homes might mean more exposure to abuse and not less, because with orphanages, bad as they sometimes were, you at least had fewer places to inspect.

    Our local lot have just announced a big revamp in foster care. They’re going to put more money in the system. They’re putting in a lot now, but most of it seems to be going to hotel rooms and private houses aka ‘alternative living arrangements’ because they can’t find enough foster parents. Current foster parent rates vary a bit depending on the age of the child, but are around $915 per month. You really need a two parent family with one person staying at home – and most two-parent families these days are also two-income families. The assumption that relatives will offer foster care free, or nearly so, is going – like with care for the elderly and disabled, there are allowances to help out, but again, the assumption is that the family doesn’t need the caregiver’s income because the amount paid is not high enough to provide that plus pay the child’s expenses.

    They seem to be short of social workers, too; I’ve heard of cases when calls for help weren’t returned. When you’re dealing with teenagers with the assortment of problems you get from years in positively horrendous homes, sometimes with various failed attempts at family reunification and stints in youth jails or group homes, you need extra help.

    So, there are badly treated children some of whom, as they grow into their adolescence, become violent and dangerous. They still need to be cared for until they are of age. (There was one who aged out of the youth system who had nowhere to go when he was let out of jail the last time. None of the places that normally provide housing for adults with serious problems would take him because of his violence, so even adulthood isn’t always a solution.) Staying in their own homes doesn’t work. Moving them from place to place doesn’t work. Orphanages have certainly had their failures – but so have foster homes, and when you think that a lot of foster parents are trying to deal with exceptionally difficult children with little training and backup. And of course, some of the foster parents are bullies and abusers themselves, or in it for what little money they get paid.

    It almost makes me want to see a move back to orphanages, with more external supervision. Still no guarantees of good treatment for the children, but it could hardly be worse.


    4 Jun 12 at 11:26 am

  2. I hate to sound cold hearted bug, given a large number of cases, statistically rare is numerically common.

    Given 200,000 children in foster care, if one in 100 is abused, then there will be 2000 cases of abuse. Trying to prevent that by increasing the number of case workers gives us a large number of workers some of whom will be dishonest or incompetent.

    I don’t look for a perfect system, I look for one which does a reasonable job.


    4 Jun 12 at 9:06 pm

  3. We have to expect that, as you say, certain occupations will draw precisely the people we don’t want in them. We can’t help that. But it does seem to me we could often do a better job of limiting the opportunities for wrong-doing, and detecting it. (NB We also need to do a much better job of disintguishing between signs that something should be looked into and proof that something has happened. The various mass molestations in day-care facilities scandals are an example.)

    As for treatment of prisoners. Yes, everyone in law enforcement knows most of the kids are harmless. They also know some of them aren’t–and, as with your victimizers, we can’t tell the difference. We could give the lower ranks more discretion–but it will come with greater fatalities. It’s a ratchet effect hard to reverse.

    Anyone else remember John W. Campbell, Jr? He had a serious dislike of the Food and Drug Administration–among other bureaucracies. At one point, the FDA banned a touted cancer cure because it was 99% something the FDA had already tested and found ineffective. JWC offered to give the FDA a drink he would guarantee to be 99.9% pure water, which would have ended his problems with the organization. Sometimes even a small minority can’t safely be ignored.


    4 Jun 12 at 11:15 pm

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