How Should We Deal With Child Abusers? Term Paper

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Child Abuse

The well-known attorney Alan M. Dershowitz states, "hair-splitting questions about line drawing lie at the heart of every legal system" (274). Absolutists refuse to recognize matters of degree, but legal cases are not so cut-and-dry. "...black-and-white options seem inadequate in coping with the real-life tragedies of life and death..."

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As Dershowitz notes, one thing continues to be true regardless of time and place: There are no black-and-whites when it comes to human behavior. A child is taught to tell the truth, and then discovers his parents lied about Santa Clause. Stealing may be wrong, yet it is not the same when a homeless person grabs an apple from a vendor and a robber takes jewelry from a home. What constitutes Child Abuse can be just as nebulous. At what point does yelling at a child become emotionally abusive or spanking turn into something physically violent? When should a parent be reprimanded for behavior and when should this caregiver be allowed to discipline his or her children as deems necessary? This is why answering the question, "How should a child abuser be punished?" needs to be a multifaceted answer. Over the past several decades, the U.S. has made significant strides in reducing the level of child abuse. Yet, more progress needs to be made in terms of adjudication and the legal system. Problems still exist such as false reporting and accusations, cultural misunderstandings, racial bias, unnecessary harsh sentences and overall judicial inconsistencies. The hope is with time and experience it will be possible to standardize the approach toward sentencing so individuals will receive accurate judgments of incarceration, probation, education or acquittal based on the circumstances.

Term Paper on How Should We Deal With Child Abusers? Assignment

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 defined child abuse and neglect as: "at a minimum, any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm." It goes without saying that child abuse is wrong and that society should have addressed this issue a long time ago. Hundreds of thousands of children are severely abused every year and, to make the situation worse, will most likely abuse their own children. The question is where does the legal and social services system spend its limited time and resources to resolve this critical issue?

However, even within the law there are blurry areas, such as how does one define the word "serious"? Is it necessary, for example, to reprimand parents who spank their children? Is this a "serious" crime? In her article "Parents May Be the Ones Needing Spanking," Pitts cites a study by Dr. Diana Baumrind, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, who followed 164 middleclass families from the time their children were in preschool until their 20s. Results showed that most of the parents used some form of corporal punishment, but giving a mild spanking -- defined as openhanded swats on the backside, arm or legs -- did not leave their children scarred for life. Although Baumrind opposes spanking, she was able to make a distinction between minor punishments such as spanking and harsher variations including shaking and blows to the head or face.

In his book, Besharov notes that between 1963 and 1999, the number of children reported as suspected victims of child abuse and neglect rose from about 150,000 children to over 3 million children, a 20-fold increase. Even though some of this increase reflects a rise in child maltreatment, most experts believe that it is more due to better identification on the part of professionals and laypersons. As a result, thousands of children are continually saved from death and serious injury. The best estimate is that child abuse and neglect deaths fell from over 3,000 a year in the late 1960s to about 1,200 a year in the late 1990s (2).

Besharov also stresses, however, that generating more reports does not resolve the problem. In 1998, about 65% of all reports were labeled "unfounded" after being investigated. In 1975, this figure was about 35% (3). Some professionals defend the high level of unfounded reports as necessary for identifying endangered children. Yet, the determination of an unfounded report is often made only after a traumatic investigation and a breach of privacy.

In addition, the inappropriate reporting places an unnecessary burden on the already overwhelmed child protective agencies and threatens to undermine public support for their efforts. For instance, over 40% of the child abuse deaths between 1995 and 1997 involved cases previously known to the authorities. Tens of thousands of other children suffer serious injuries short of death while under child protective agency supervision. Besharov calls for better and more accurate reporting to help teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, daycare workers, police, and others be better informed about what to report, and what not to report (4).

Pence and Wilson also discuss a number of key issues related to the reporting and investigation of claims. California enacted the nation's first child abuse reporting law in 1963. By 1967, every state in the nation had followed suit. These early laws required that any professionals expected to come into contact with abuse victims to report suspicions to child protection authorities. Persons making good faith reports were protected from liability. Today every state has formal child abuse reporting laws. In fact, the federal government requires them as a condition of eligibility to receive federal funds under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. All states accept calls from anyone with information about suspected child abuse (71). However, reporting laws, which are based on the premise that certain professionals have both unique opportunities to discover child abuse and the responsibility to ensure that protective services are notified, differ (72).

Experts, also disagree as to whether child abuse is being over reported, with too many unfounded suspicions, or underreported, with too many cases missed. Besharov, noted above, believe the former is true. Pence and Wilson believe the latter is more accurate, with not enough of the actual cases reported. "Criticisms of reporting practices may be misplaced reactions to other inadequacies in the system," they state. Limited resources make it difficult for child protection agencies to respond to a rapidly increasing number of reports and, thus to greater demands placed on them. Child sexual abuse allegations, especially, have little margin for error and necessitate sensitive and thorough investigation. Agencies have not been able to obtain the staff resources required to meet these needs. Law enforcement agencies suffer similar shortages of resources in their child abuse investigation units (74).

A number of states have thus begun to carefully look at anonymous referrals. A survey of ten states found that while allegations from mandated reporters were validated 40 to 60% of the time, anonymous referrals were supported only 3 to 25% (75). Special attention needs to be given to the reporter's reasons for believing abuse has occurred and to the specificity of the information. Improved screening will be most effective in the areas of neglect and physical abuse.

Investigative methods also are inconsistent, since some states, for example, allow videotaping of the individuals impacted and others do not. Other tools used differ, as well. The greatest controversy centers on investigations of child sexual abuse that use anatomically detailed dolls.

Pence and Wilson recommend that some steps can be taken to reduce these inconsistencies. A better-educated public will better know how to share reasonable suspicions of abuse with authorities. Twenty-four-hour hot lines, fax capacity, and ample trained intake staff will further reduce barriers to reporting. In addition, a uniform national reporting database like the one created by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System can provide information for monitoring reporting and screening methods.

What about sentencing inconsistencies? Some specialists recommend that only the more serious and repeat child abusers be sent to correctional institutes, while those who can be rehabilitated are better off receiving the help they need outside of the penal system. An article in U.S. Catholic, for example, notes: Depending on the circumstances, criminal acts could be dealt with as social, economic, or family problems.

Criminologist Jerome Miller adds: "In the area of child abuse, for example, certainly there's a need to prosecute abusers, but as for relying upon the criminal-justice system to deal with all the problems involved -- family breakdown, the inability of some parents to take care of their kids -- it's nonsense to think that the criminal-justice model is going to solve much" (6). He believes that 1) there is a much greater chance that the poor and blacks will go to jail and 2) that Americans wrongly put too much of an emphasis on the rehabilitative effects of being imprisoned.

The U.S. legal system continues to misunderstand, misinterpret and unfairly target ethnic and cultural minorities, particularly in cases involving families... "and psychologists -- with their insight into how culture affects human behavior -- can sensitize… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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