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How About We Really Protect the Children?

 

My brother-in-law forwarded me a news article the other day that I had to check several times to make sure wasn’t from The Onion: A girl in Missouri was given detention for hugging her friends outside the school building. Yes, apparently we’ve gotten so hysterically paranoid about touch that entire school districts forbid any touch between anyone for any reason.

I understand that this looks like a great way to avoid judgment calls. But (a) I don’t think it’ll even work for that and (b) it sounds like a recipe for widespread mental breakdowns to me. Human beings need touch. I’m not sure I would’ve made it through middle school without hugs from the few friends I did have. Certainly not high school.

This is just the latest in a string of related absurdities: Teachers are fired for physically separating fighting students or threatened with lawsuits for dragging a child who’d gotten a potentially blinding chemical in her eyes into the bathroom to flush them out. Kindergarteners are labeled “budding sex offenders,” put in counseling, and sent to schools for delinquents for trying to kiss or goose a classmate. You’re probably safer punching someone in a school these days than you are laying a friendly or affectionate hand on his shoulder.

This paranoia about touch has infected a generation. My mother recently told me she has had to stop teaching the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “Bronzeville Woman in a Red Hat” to her college freshmen. In the poem, a white woman who had reluctantly hired a black maid flips out when the maid kisses her child to comfort him when he gets hurt. Despite the obvious emphasis on race throughout the poem (“her creamy child kissed by the black maid!”), my mother ends up with some students insisting, vehemently, that the maid is a sexual abuser. When a black student told her “I don’t see how you can defend [the maid],” my mother, horrified, gave up on teaching the poem.

This is terrifying.

It’s terrifying because it shows that our fear of touch and our inability to identify actual abuse has risen to the level of paranoia that allows for witch hunts—we have an accusation that can be leveled at anyone with little proof, with life-destroying results, and the stigma of that accusation lasts even if disproved. It’s terrifying because the threat of such accusations is making acts of comfort and trust that are necessary for children’s healthy development against the rules in nearly every place they go.

And it’s most terrifying because it doesn’t protect children from abuse. If anything, it makes it more likely.

The vast majority of childhood sexual abuse happens with people a child knows, and much of that is within the intimate family. When we isolate children in their immediate families and never allow them any contact or conversation with other adults, it becomes much easier for incest to go undiscovered.

When we pour resources into “rehabilitating” gregarious 6-year-olds, often through programs that themselves could be called emotionally abusive, but leave proven anti-bullying programs languishing, we leave kids vulnerable to other kinds of abuse.

When we funnel our scarce public dollars into measures to ease our anxiety, like permanent sex-offender registries, residency bans, and civil confinement, instead of listening to what the people in law enforcement who monitor sex offenders say will reduce recidivism—stable housing, a job, and regular monitoring—we make our kids less safe, not more.

If we’re serious about reducing childhood sexual abuse—which we damn well ought to be—there are concrete things we can put our time, money, and attention toward that will actually do that.

For example, many kids who are being abused come in contact with Child Protective Services or the foster-care system, which is notorious for being too overburdened to fully protect the kids in its care. There are some great prevention services that work with families deemed “at risk.” How about giving them more funding and mandating that any family that has had a child taken away by CPS and is now getting that child back work with those agencies for a year? How about taking the young, stressed, and inexperienced CPS caseworkers and mandating that they get the same training in child development, appropriate parenting, and attachment disorders that foster parents are required to get? How about reducing caseloads across the system, especially of law guardians (who are supposed to advocate for the child’s best interest in a foster care case), so everyone can actually find out the details and nuance of each case, and so there can be lower turnover in caseworkers?

Beyond the foster-care system, how about respite care for overstressed parents? How about better funding for community mental-health clinics that can serve both parents and children? Drug and alcohol rehab? I could keep brainstorming, but there are better people than I out there to formulate the specifics. The point is, policies to protect kids should be judged on being functional, not feel-good.

I am a parent, and lord knows, I understand wanting to protect my child from the big bad world. But even more than that, I know that it’s a crying shame to be claiming to “protect the children” using measures that only reduce the diffuse anxiety of parents (or protect people from lawsuits by those parents) at the expense of measures that might protect kids who are actually getting hurt. Let’s get our priorities in order.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

www.albanyplanningblog.org

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