A Picture is Worth a Thousand Child Abuse Investigations

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An emotionally charged and somewhat infuriating tale over at Salon, of how a family can be thrust into a world of endless investigation, warrantless searches, the fear of state-sponsored kidnapping at any moment, and guilt until proven innocent if a drug store drone gets in a tizzy over a whimsical camping-trip snapshot of skinny dipping and drying-underwear-over-a-fire by children.

Sitting through an ad is required to read the whole thing, which is worthwhile–by the fourth page, it widens out from the author's personal story to some of the larger policy facts regarding misguided investigations into supposed child porn and child sexual abuse based on some random stranger's uncharitable interpretation of a photograph.

Showing the sort of interest that would probably get its own children taken away by a child protective services agency, if it had children, Salon has run stories on this topic of legal troubles arising from misinterpretation of innocent photos of kids before.

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  1. I’m sure it’s a good article, but my everfucking worthless outdated archaic shitass operating system won’t run a browser that will let me get past the damn ad.

    Not relevant, just had to vent. Fuck Mac OS 9.x, and my cheap bosses who won’t buy a real computer.

    I’m done now. Thanks.

  2. Anyone who reads sexual content into innocent pictures like kiddies in the bathtub is a sick pervert who should never be trusted with any sort of authority.

  3. Okay, this is a totally weird coincidence, but the ad is for a contest centered around vacation photos????? WTF?

  4. Anyone who reads sexual content into innocent pictures like kiddies in the bathtub is a sick pervert who should never be trusted with any sort of authority

    And is likely projecting their own sick desires onto others.

  5. WOW. Obviously these folks dodged a major bullet here. What’s amazing to me is just how many people now are “mandated reporters.” For example, if one of my students comes to me with something that even remotely looks like abuse, I have to report it immediately to CPS (Child Protective Services). I’ve done this three times in the six years I’ve been teaching, and in two of those I was extremely uncomfortable about it because you really never know what’s happening. Were I not to report however, I would be subject to civil and even criminal penalties, to say nothing of losing my job, so from my point of view it’s better to report claims that might very well be bullshit than to keep quiet.

    But then there’s the flip side too. The article says that about 60% of cases are ruled “unsubstantiated.” My guess would be more than that. For example, in the third (and most recent) case I reported to CPS, I was absolutely positive that the kid’s dad had been beating the shit out of him. I did my duty, called it in and guess what? Unsubstantiated. And here I am wondering if I subjected this poor kid to worse beatings by reporting.

    The dean at my school has reported, according to him, almost one hundred cases to CPS, some that were very obvious. In his twenty years of experience, not a single complaint has ever been ruled other than “unsubstantiated.”

    The point being: they’ve turned (a lot of) us all into informers on each other. If you’ve got kids, watch oput because most of the people working with them are required by law to report anything and everything that might seem even slightly untoward. Scary huh?

  6. I know someone who’s worked as a foster parent, caring for kids who come out of truly horrifying situations. Often as not, the system puts the kids right back into those situations.

    Child “protective” “services” in most places where I’ve had an opportunity to observe their operation, fail to protect those who need protection, while destroying the lives of many who don’t need protection.

    Can you imagine having to explain to your 3-year-old why someone might be concerned about a photo of her skinny-dipping? The system is forcing sexualization on that kid, in a situation where any kind of common sense would tell you that it was unnecessary.

    No, I don’t have an answer — but I can tell you that the current system is horrificaly broken.

  7. No, I don’t have an answer — but I can tell you that the current system is horrificaly broken.

    Amen brother.

    By the by, a relevant family story:

    Some years ago, my cousin (aged about nine) caught his younger brother (a toddler) using the toilet, the real toilet, for the first time without help. Since he’d helped some with the potty training, he figured this for a momentous occasion, and snapped a photo for posterity. When he told his mom what he’d done later, she freaked and destroyed the film. She told him that he hadn’t done anything wrong, but that she’d probably get in trouble if she developed the pics. Yeesh.

  8. I am a former school teacher, but because I retain my license am still a mandatory reporter. I don’t care. I will not report unless I am convinced that the harm the CPS may inflict on the family is worth the harm the may be inflicted in the home. Even in abuse and neglect situations children are not necessarily better off out of the home. When I was teach one of my students was removed for neglect and physical abuse. She was neglected – her mother was on drugs and her siblings had the run of the house. She was smacked around quite a bit. *After* she was put in foster care she was molested. Why was this child better off in a strange home being sexually abused than with her family – even if the lived in what most middle class Americans would consider substandard conditions? Seems at least like a toss-up.

    As a parent and as a human being my first duty is to the well-being of the children. Not the state. And not even my own civil or criminal liability.

  9. When my son was 3 years old we had CPS called on us 3 times. Twice by freshly minted sociology major who didn’t approve that my son got a swift swat on the ass if he tried to run out into our heavily trafficked parking lot and once from his child care center because, following a doctors advice, we had made a bed for him in his closet after some asthma medication made him so hyper he couldn’t sleep.

    At the same time as all this, we tried to help a little girl in our complex whose mom was crack addict. We found the little girl outside in the dark of night in all kinds of whether. The mom would act out in rages against her live-in boy friend that led to police calls. No authority seemed interested in the girls well-fare. Apparently, she and her loser parents (father didn’t want her) had been through the system so many times that authorities just gave up. Eventually, a small community church took the child in.

    Several years later, we ourselves called CPS after a neighborhood girl about 11 exhibited some highly inappropriate behavior with the children she was baby sitting. Her parents attempted to retaliate by making accusations against those parents she suspected of reporting her daughter. It all turned out well in the end but it got very scary there for a while.

    I think the problem is that our child protective institutions have been given to much power with few internal checks or balances. The entire system is based on a kind of 60’s era sociology model wherein highly trained “experts” zero in on problems like medical doctors hunting the source of an infection. We don’t think of it as an exercise in police powers. Simply creating some kind of basic judicial overview would probably filter out the false positives.

  10. Well, the flip side of the ‘cps is evil’ coin is that we hold cps to a standard of perfection that we know better than to expect out of any other government worker.

    If the cops arrest the wrong dude because he fit the description of the perp given by the victim, the dude gets released, no harm, no foul, have a nice life.

    But when the cps folk remove a child from a home and it’s later found that that home was NOT a danger to the child, then its all ‘those evil cps workers harassing innocent families’.

    When the cops fail to catch the perp at all, that’s expected – stuff happens.

    But when the cps folk fail to remove a child from a home which is subsequently found to have been a danger it’s ‘those incompetant cps workers didn’t even notice that there was a problem’.

    CPS workers are human too. No classification is perfect, there will ALWAYS be type I (gulty party goes free) and type II (innocent party gets convicted) errors.

    Society needs to stop expecting perfection it will never get.
    N_J

  11. Mandatory reporting is just a terrible idea. The common law has a tremendous amount of wisdom. There are good reasons not to hold people criminally liable for failing to report a crime. Since there is no downside to false alarms and criminal liability for not reporting, people act rationally and report anything and everything they think could be a crime. This overwelms the investigating agencies. Instead of investigating and prosecuting real crimes, the agencies get stuck running down crap like this.

    The other problem in addition to overreporting is a culture that has developed among some but not all social workers and therapists in the area of child abuse. In this culture, nearly everything is abuse. Parents are never given the benifit of the doubt or any discretion in raising thier children. When this culture is combined with overreporting you end up with cases like this one.

  12. Shannan,

    It is interesting that the culture among the professionals is this wierd hybrid of “everything is abuse, but we must keep families together” mentalities. You end up with normal parents like yourself drug through a system that, while eating the innocent, will do virtually anything to reunite the guilty with their children.

  13. These issues have been around for years. People taking nudie shots of their kids should use a digicam and make their own prints. There was even a Lifetime movie several years ago about a woman who got busted for sending innocent photos to the drugstore.

  14. How long until someone gets arrested for developing a picture of an adult having a cigarette within 50 feet of a child?

  15. Netizen, given the incredible harm that is involved in getting things wrong – either direction – when dealing with child-abuse cases, yes, I do think that it’s entirely reasonable to expect that the people working in CPS organizations should perform to a far higher standard than, say, a business-licensing bureaucrat.

  16. Netizen_James,

    The problem isn’t a zero-defect standard. The problems are:(1) a public health model that grants tremendous unchecked powers to state agents and (2) a reporting standard so sensitive it floods the system with false positives. The end result is that innocent people get crushed and children who really need help drop through the cracks.

    These problems result from systemic flaws in the design and management of child protection agencies and laws. They are off a much larger scale than they should be.

  17. The other observation I’ll make is that by overreporting, the photo labs are pushing forward the process of driving themselves out of business.

    A genuine child pornographer is most likely already doing everything digitally, anyhow; the cases of a dumbshit taking pictures of himself raping his niece and then dropping the film off for developing are far rarer than the false reports that disrupt and destroy innocent folks’ lives.

    Even though I’m not in the habit of taking naked baby pictures, I don’t use my 35-mm rig anymore.

  18. What about hospitals? They take lots of photos of naked kids every day. Close-ups of areas being prepped for surgery. Sometimes they use xrays or CAT scans to look inside the child. Coroners take naked photos of dead children on a regular basis.

    And none of these photos has any artistic merit.

  19. Netizen James, I could be mistaken, but I think you’ve confused Type I and Type II errors, assuming you’re talking about the two types of statistical errors.

  20. How long until someone gets arrested for developing a picture of an adult having a cigarette within 50 feet of a child?

    An acquaintance of mine– an avid photographer– was taking pictures in a city park a few months back. During the day, in an open, public area. Nothing otherwise untoward. Where some young kids just happened to be playing. One of their mothers called the cops on him. Didn’t approach him or talk to him, just called the cops. He didn’t get arrested but he had to answer a whole lot of questions.

    I don’t know if he was smoking. Although he might have been wearing his Utilikilt.

    These days, on this issue, guys are so close to being guilty-until-proven-innocent it’s not even fun to joke about.

    Ah, Seattle.

  21. The conversation between Shannon and Netizen James, regarding checks, balances, false positives, systems overwhelmed by too much information, and the dangers of expecting perfection, is one that I am going to file away in my memory for the next civil liberties thread.

    FWIW, Shannon, I think you were spot-on in this thread.

  22. What I have always wondered is if my family is ever the target of CPS would I be able to answer the door without a loaded weapon?

    If the answer is No, will I have the restraint to not put a bullet in them if they try and take my kids?

  23. The scariest part of the article to me was the letters column. A number of people felt compelled to write in that the author’s behavior on the camping trip was “weird” and that he deserved to have his life turned upside down by CPS for behaving in such a “weird” way with his children. And these people probably think of themselves as “tolerant.”

  24. Shannon, I think you were spot-on in this thread.

    I’ve often wondered about things like CPS–anytime you give a group of people authority over others for the greater good, there will of course be problems; for example, I agree we need police to lock up murderers, but it’s inevitable that sooner or later an innocent person will be picked up instead. Nonetheless, where police are concerned (if you ignore their War on Drugs and Underage Drinkers) I’d say they prevent far more harm than they cause, and are a net good.

    But Child Protective Services–I’m really starting to wonder. I’m too lazy to Google this, but in the last few months there have been horrible stories in the news–young girl beaten to death after CPS returns her to a foster home already determined to be abusive, for example–and at the same time we have kids taken away from their “sexual predator” parents after said parents took a photograph of a nude baby.

    I am seriously starting to wonder if CPS causes more harm, overall, than it prevents. But as Clean Hands said already, I don’t have any answers on how to fix this horribly broken system.

  25. Oops. When I quoted Thoreau saying Shannon was spot-on, I meant to write “I agree” after that.

  26. Oops. When I quoted Thoreau saying Shannon was spot-on, I meant to write “I agree” after that.

  27. I think that the media also plays a huge factor in this. At one point you could not turn on the television without hearing some kind of abuse story. It seems that a lot of people got really scared, and politicians started passing a lot of laws in response.

    I agree that we need to protect our children as much as possible, but this makes me wonder whether more harm is being done.

  28. “But Child Protective Services–I’m really starting to wonder. I’m too lazy to Google this, but in the last few months there have been horrible stories in the news–young girl beaten to death after CPS returns her to a foster home already determined to be abusive, for example–and at the same time we have kids taken away from their “sexual predator” parents after said parents took a photograph of a nude baby”

    Jennifer that happens because CPS is busy running down BS stories like this one and don’t have the time to investigate the reports of legitimate abuse. Combine the workload with the attittude that every parent deserves to be reunited with their children no matter how horrible they are and the complete lack of oversight in the foster care programs and you get childen being put back into abusive homes to die while innocent people go through hell trying to stay out of jail over camping photos.

  29. I’m curious… regardless of the horrible ordeal these two families endured at the hands of CPS, does anyone think that the film developer guy/pharmacy deserves some criticism too?

  30. does anyone think that the film developer guy/pharmacy deserves some criticism too?

    Sue the sick little bastard. I feel the same way toward such people that I felt toward Jerry Falwell when he said that Tinky-Winky the Teletubby was a homosexual: if you can look at such an image and have your head fill with perverted sexual thoughts, those thoughts were already there.

  31. Jennifer,

    In that guy’s defense, the mandatory reporting statues put them in a tough spot. Imagine for a moment that the family really had been molesting their children. If that had come out, all the media would have ever reported would have been, “and the family of sickos developed naked pictures of the children at this place and the owner never reporte it to authorities despite mandatory reporting laws.” The fact that the pictures looked entirely innocent, wouldn’t have saved the poor guy. He would have immediately been public enemy number one. Given the stakes involved, you can see why someone would er towards reporting everything.

  32. does anyone think that the film developer guy/pharmacy deserves some criticism too

    No. Any actions taken by corporations, or their employees, get a pass at Reason. You can only criticize the government, or other posters.

    And you can’t “sue the sick little bastard” because he was on company time, and thus immune as an individual — you’d have to sue Eckerd which, as a corporation, is sacred.

  33. Tonio, you should try to at least understand a philosophy before you slam it. Your statements are as ignorant as they are inflamatory.

    Anyway, in this particular case, what the victim has done is even more useful than suing Eckerd’s – he’s splashed their name all over the page, in a way that ensures that this consumer will never willingly do business with them again.

  34. Jerry Falwell didn’t look at Teletubbies and say that Tinky-Winky was homosexual.

  35. No. Any actions taken by corporations, or their employees, get a pass at Reason. You can only criticize the government, or other posters.

    And you can’t “sue the sick little bastard” because he was on company time, and thus immune as an individual — you’d have to sue Eckerd which, as a corporation, is sacred.

    Tonio, FYI, there is already another person who posts here occasionally using the handle “Tonio,” so you’ll have to pick another one. Just thought you’d want to know, since this is obviously your first time here.

  36. not to invalidate the point of the article, but:

    can’t this whole situation easily be avoided with a digital camera? which, at least in my hood, can be had for $30 at 7-11?

  37. @Rich – he explained that he forgot his digital, so he bought a film camera. It’s pretty immaterial to the story, though.

  38. Tonio,

    Any actions taken by corporations, or their employees, get a pass at Reason…

    No, actions taken by corporations under duress from the state get a pass. Its a little hard to honestly hold someone morally culpable for an action that the government forces them to take under pain of imprisonment.

  39. Is child abuse really that much of a problem that you need to have a special branch of government to protect them? It seems to me that parents are pretty much biologically programmed to care for their children.

    I would willing to bet if you gave all parents 100% immunity in whatever they do to their children, child abuse would remain largely unchanged. I just don’t think it is going to be that significant of a problem at all (unless you are one of those crazies who think spanking is child abuse, or letting your kid play GTA is child abuse).

    And why don’t Americans get upset when the SWAT team storms their kids school, and threaten to blow off the head of anyone who moves while they search for drugs and rough up some of the kids?

    I personally think the child victim hysteria is more to do with establishing the government as supreme authority over child raising than it does with protecting children.

  40. In that guy’s defense, the mandatory reporting statues put them in a tough spot

    True, but there must be some point where “I was just doing my job” ceases to be an effective excuse for doing evil.

  41. Am I the only reader who thought the chief content of the article was the writer’s own over-reaction to the situation, and his over-reaction to his own over-reaction? And why didn’t he include the photos instead of just describing them?

    “Anyone who reads sexual content into innocent pictures like kiddies in the bathtub is a sick pervert….”

    Yeah! You should read financial content into them, like me! (See the links to the world’s best bubble bath at my site.)

    “What about hospitals? They take lots of photos of naked kids every day. Close-ups of areas being prepped for surgery. Sometimes they use xrays or CAT scans to look inside the child. Coroners take naked photos of dead children on a regular basis. And none of these photos has any artistic merit.”

    Yeah, but they have scientific merit. I could advertise with colposcopic photos of children showing the lack of vulvovaginitis with my formula compared to others.

  42. The scariest part of the article to me was the letters column. A number of people felt compelled to write in that the author’s behavior on the camping trip was “weird” and that he deserved to have his life turned upside down by CPS for behaving in such a “weird” way with his children. And these people probably think of themselves as “tolerant.”

    I certainly don’t think of myself as “tolerant,” nor do I think that his treatment at the hands of the system was anything approaching fair, but I have to admit that as I was reading I did find it somewhat weird that they took some of those pictures. Infants running around naked doesn’t seem that abnormal, I admit, but is it really surprising that somebody took the sight of nude pictures of an eight-year-old the wrong way?

  43. I certainly don’t think of myself as “tolerant,” nor do I think that his treatment at the hands of the system was anything approaching fair, but I have to admit that as I was reading I did find it somewhat weird that they took some of those pictures. Infants running around naked doesn’t seem that abnormal, I admit, but is it really surprising that somebody took the sight of nude pictures of an eight-year-old the wrong way?

    I agree with you… if we let this kind of outrage continue, the next thing you know there will be naked teens in high school locker rooms all over this country!

  44. Nobody takes pictures of teenagers in locker rooms. The idea of doing it would seem creepy to most people, and would probably result in criminal sanctions against against the person taking them. But thank you for proving my point that at some point in childhood taking photographs of nude children becomes unacceptable in the eyes of society and the law. I invite you to try again once you get something that isn’t a poorly deployed straw-man argument.

  45. “Anyone who reads sexual content into innocent pictures like kiddies in the bathtub is a sick pervert….” Yeah! You should read financial content into them, like me! (See the links to the world’s best bubble bath at my site.)

    No, what you read into it is “Oh, what a cute little kid” and that’s all. Otherwise, work hard to lose this sick assumption that anytime someone goes without clothes, it simply MUST be a sex thing.

    About a week ago a neighborhood two-year-old took his clothes off and went charging down the street, with his yelling mother running after him. I looked up, saw the naked kid, had a chcukle at the sight of his mom, and went back to my reading. That was it. I read no sexual content into that little encounter, and in retrospect I still don’t see any. Perhaps I should have, Robert? Or would it only have become sexual if the kid’s dad had taken a snapshot of the event?

  46. Rex Rhino:

    “Approximately 30 percent of the reports included at least one child who was found to be a victim of abuse or neglect. About 60 percent of the reports were found to be unsubstantiated; the remaining reports were closed for additional reasons.”

    “For 2004, an estimated 1,490 children died due to child abuse or neglect.”

    “An estimated 872,000 children were determined to be victims of child abuse or neglect for 2004. The rate of victimization per 1,000 children in the national population has dropped from 12.5 children in 2001 to 11.9 children in 2004.”

    All from the NCANDS 2006 Summary Report.

  47. We are becoming a nation of jailers. When a person’s own life isn’t worth minding they want to mind other people’s lives.

  48. We are becoming a nation of jailers. When a person’s own life isn’t worth minding they want to mind other people’s lives.

  49. Why are you asking me those questions, Jennifer? Did anything I wrote suggest that anyone should read sexual content into such things, or that I would react any different from the way you did?

    And have I mentioned I’m now selling 5 gal. pails of my stuff on eBay? It’s listed as “foam dancing concentrate” under musical instruments –> dj gear and supplies –> bubble machines and fluid.

  50. Tonio, you should try to at least understand a philosophy before you slam it. Your statements are as ignorant as they are inflamatory.

    Clean Hands: I seem to have struck a nerve, which was indeed the point of my comment. My contention that Reason posters are often uncritical, or unquestioningly apologetic, for the actions of corporations still stands. Your ad hominem response, as opposed to an actual, like, factual refutation, further supports this contention. Ignorance is Strength, after all. -T

    …since this is obviously your first time here.

    Stevo Darkly: No, it’s really me, the same old Tonio you all know and love.

  51. Why are you asking me those questions, Jennifer? Did anything I wrote suggest that anyone should read sexual content into such things, or that I would react any different from the way you did?

    If I misinterpreted your comment then I apologize; my reading of it was that you were being sarcastic in regards to my saying there’s nothing inherently sexual about a picture of a kid in the bathtub.

  52. I wasn’t being sarcastic, I was being opportunistic, which I thought was obvious.

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