Drug War

Bill O'Reilly Thinks of the Children (Again)


This week Bill O'Reilly, who recently attacked the Drug Policy Alliance for having the gall to question the war on drugs in a commercial featuring Sting, debated DPA Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann (see video below). O'Reilly once again repeated his favorite drug-related factoid, this time attributing it to the prohibitionist propaganda mill known as the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA):

They say 70 percent of abused and neglected children in the USA have alcohol- or drug-involved parents.

O'Reilly has made two crucial changes to this claim since the last time he made it. In his first segment about the DPA ad, he asserted:

Seventy percent of child abuse and neglect in this country is substance abuse driven, most of it narcotics.

O'Reilly is no longer claiming that "most" of these cases involve "narcotics." Since CASA's estimate does not distinguish between alcohol and illegal drugs, he had no basis for saying that to begin with. Just as important, O'Reilly is no longer claiming that 70 percent of child abuse and neglect is "driven" by substance abuse. Since CASA's estimate is based on a correlation, the conclusion that drinking or drug use "cause" people to abuse or neglect their children is not justified. It is not hard to think of alternative explanations. People who are unhappy or have weak impulse control, for instance, may be prone to abuse children as well intoxicants.

The distinction between correlation and causation is important, since O'Reilly, like most prohibitionists, wants to ban certain substances because he believes they take control of people and make them do bad things (an idea I criticize in my book Saying Yes). But it's a distinction that CASA itself frequently ignores. While a 2007 CASA press release said "70 percent of abused and neglected children have alcohol and/or drug abusing parents," a 2001 statement said "at least 70 percent of the cases of abuse and neglect [handled by child welfare systems] stem from alcohol- and drug-abusing parents" (emphasis added). According to a 2004 CASA report (PDF), "Approximately 70 percent of all cases of neglect and abuse are caused or exacerbated by substance abuse and addiction" (emphasis added). CASA cites itself as the source of this figure‚ÄĒspecifically, a 1999 report titled No Safe Haven: Children of Substance-Abusing Parents (PDF). But the caveats in that report do not inspire confidence in CASA's estimate (emphasis added):

Reliable national data documenting the prevalence of substance abuse among child welfare cases is not available….

The data that are available suffer from three major methodological problems that make it impossible to confirm the prevalence of substance involvement among child welfare cases. First, study samples may not be large enough to account for sampling errors. Second, samples represent only certain areas of the country. Third, the definitions of substance abuse and addiction vary.

Little methodologically strong data regarding parents involved with the child welfare system exist….Research establishing the prevalence of substance involvement (use, abuse or dependence) generally relies on inconsistent definitions of these terms and of the degree of substance involvement. Moreover, studies are inconsistent in defining whether substance involvement is the primary or causal reason for a parent's involvement with the child welfare system or whether substance involvement is an ancillary or co-occurring problem.

Despite these difficulties, CASA bravely "estimates that substance abuse causes or contributes to about 70 percent of child welfare cases." In doing so, it relies on studies indicating a prevalence of substance abuse of "50 to 78 percent" among parents of abused or neglected children (these are cases where at least one parent is said to be a substance abuser). It settles on a number toward the upper end of that range based on its own survey in which it asked "child welfare professionals" to estimate the share of their cases in which "substance abuse causes or contributes to" abuse or neglect. In short, CASA arrives at its 70 percent figure by combining shaky prevalence numbers that tell us nothing about causality with the impressionistic reports of social workers.

This mushy estimate throws illegal drugs together with alcohol, conflates use ("substance involvement") with abuse, treats a mother who drinks because she's upset about her husband's abuse of their children the same as an angry drunk who hits his kids, and fails to distinguish between substance abusers who abuse their children because the drugs made them do it (O'Reilly's interpretation) and drug abusers who abuse their children because the same personality traits and environmental factors contribute to both kinds of anti-social behavior. And O'Reilly is using this number to argue that people can't be allowed to smoke pot (by far the most popular illegal drug) because it will make them beat their children (or maybe forget to check on them in the tub).

Granted, someone who is drunk or stoned all the time is not likely to be a good parent. But since the vast majority of drinkers and drug users don't mistreat their children, focusing on the intoxicants, rather than the reasons some people use them to excess, does not make much sense.

I reviewed CASA Chairman Joe Califano's book High Society in the April 2008 issue of Reason.

NEXT: Alvin Greene, Supermajoritarian

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  1. It is easier than even that Jacob. Let’s take these people at their word. And let’s say that drug abuse really does cause 70% of the child abuse in this country. Could their be a bigger indictment of the drug war? We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars and locking up millions of people, yet there still are millions of people out there using drugs and abusing children. Even if the statistics are true, it just shows the utter futility of prohibition. Seriously, is it O’Reilly’s claim that there are people out there who want to use drugs but can’t get them thanks to prohibition?

    1. Yes, that appears to be O’Reilly’s concern. And many of those I argue with feel the same: lower the price of drugs, lower the risk of legal punishment, lower the stigma, and more people at the margin will begin to or use more drugs. And a parent stoned 50% of the time will neglect her kids more than if she is stoned only 15% of the time. They will, of course, overlook counter balancing behavior – the parent doesn’t have to steal or participate in black market activities or blow the grocery money to purchase drugs, thus making – at the margins – for a possibly better home life.

  2. The only thing prohibition does is force people to make more of an effort to get high by making them more extensive and dangerous to obtain.

    In a way, keeping drugs illegal maybe the last real avenue to teach our children a work ethic.

    1. Fuck it, I’m going to huff the paint in the garage.

    2. Interesting, if you joke that you’re going to go huff paint you get eaten by the spam filter.

      1. Really? The horrid nonsense I say sails right through.

        1. Yeah, given what’s said here I just figured the spam filter was an urban legend.

          1. It mostly complains about having more than three links in a post.

  3. The bigger problems with the statistic are twofold:

    1. The more important statistic is “What % of people who have ever used drugs abuse their children?” If millions of people have used marijuana and not abused their children [as is OBVIOUSLY the case] then it’s silly to claim a correlation between drug use and child abuse.

    2. Since we’re talking about child welfare cases, child welfare also intervenes in situations where parents can’t properly care for their children due to poverty or incarceration. So before we can test whether drug use qua drug use causes child abuse, we’d have to stop imprisoning drug users and then barring them from most employment and educational opportunities. Before we can know what child welfare issues arise from drug use and what child welfare issues arise from our anti-drug policies, we need a substantial period of time where those policies aren’t in place.

    1. All very good points. And of course there is the third problem with the statistics which is that it is hard to tell which way the causation goes. It could be that using drugs causes you to abuse your children. Or it could also be that people who abuse children also tend to be the type of people who abuse drugs. In the latter case the drugs have nothing to do with the child abuse. Even if drugs were not available, the person would still abuse their child.

      Indeed, I think that the latter case is probably pretty common. People who abuse drugs, as oppose to using them, tend to have poor coping skills, poor life skills and are often self medicating with drugs of alcohol for bi polar or other mental illness. Even if those people had no access to drugs, those people would still have poor coping and life skills and still have some form of undiagnosed mental illness. And they would still likely abuse their children.

      The drug use and the child abuse both are often just a symptom of deeper problems.

  4. Can we fuse Bill and Hannity together into a super-ape moron and get it into a cage match with a Hyperbolberman-Klein fusion…to the death? Two apes enter, no one sane leaves.

    1. As long as Beck referees and gets raped by the winner.

      1. Rush then gets to rape the winner.

  5. Sullum you were already told quite clearly to stay away from Bill’s family. You can expect a restraining order now.

    In other news, 92% of the bullshit in the world comes directly from Bill O’Reilly’s noise hole.

  6. You have to have a license to own a dog, but any asshole can have a kid.

    1. Why are you dragging Oreilly’s parents into this?

    2. I’m the only granter of liscense in this world, motherfuckers. That weak ass shit coming from the state is gonna die wit it as a sub par specimen.

    3. Huh. I aleays thought it was the vagina that was involved. I learn something new every day.

  7. Leaving aside the definition problems (“abuse”, “involved”, etc. ad infinitum) and the admitted causation problem,

    These studies don’t even show correlation between drug and alcohol use/abuse/involvement and child abuse. Where’s the control group? What percentage of people from a comparable socio-economic sample who also use/abuse/involve don’t abuse their kids?

    1. Hah yeah, I think the words Sullum uses — “report” and “statement” — are much more applicable here than “study”. Not that it stops the CASA itself from using the word.

  8. As long as Beck referees and gets raped by the winner.

    “Record Club” is awful, but it isn’t get-raped-by-a-talk-show-host bad. It’s only have-a-conversation-with-Lou-Reed bad.

    1. Beck Hansen: Great Scientologist Musician or Greatest Scientologist Musician?

      1. The words “great” and “Scientologist” do not go together. EVER.

        1. It would be great if Scientologist all gave themselves AIDS?

      2. Sonny Bono should be given the latter title.

  9. I wonder what percentage of sexual harrassers use alcohol.

    Seriously, though, John’s point about the ignorance of causality is one that is constantly repeated in Drug War arguments. “Pot makes people lazy / depressed”, etc.

    1. Pot makes me a goddamn sexual dynamo. I’m like the fucking machine that fucking machines have sent over when they really want to get fucked good and hard by a machine that fucks.

    2. Right, because it turns out that some people get high, and some people don’t. Also, some people are assholes and some people aren’t. And that’s about all we know.

      This doesn’t sound all that good to a committed Drug Warrior.

  10. semi-threadjack – An Algerian female journalist was slapped by a goonish Algerian player. Her response? She hit him back.

    I’m guessing to be a female reporter in an Islamic country, you’ve got to be pretty tough.

    1. Good story, but how is that a semi-threadjack?

  11. Also, the post title is a lie. It has been proven by a scientific study that Bill O’Reilly doesn’t think.

  12. I always enjoy how O’Reilly trots out the stat that includes alcohol use to slant the numbers even higher. Alcohol is legal, has been legal for some time, and ain’t going to become illegal on a national level any time soon.

    It’s like when O’Reilly was debating Sullum and was throwing drunk driving out as evidence that the drug war needed to continue. What? Drunk driving is already illegal, and no one’s necessarily talking about legalizing it.

    All of this just to illustrate that Bill O’Reilly is the most pathetic tool on the planet.

  13. Hey Sober People: Pick up the slack! Start beating your kids and Bill O’Reilly says we can have legal drugs.

  14. They say 70 percent of abused and neglected children in the USA have alcohol- or drug-involved parents.

    Fixed. Hey, caffine and nicotine are drugs too.

    1. 78.3% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

  15. This is still one of the best O’Reilly takedowns online that I’m aware of.

    Bill O’Reilly is a big blubbering vagina.

    Bill just needs to shut the hell up.

    1. finally, a Maddox reference on this site!

  16. Bill O’Reilly is a neo-con thug who thinks all the world’s problems can and should be solved through government. His show is basically an hour-long commercial for…Bill O’Reilly.

  17. These are indicative of the many ill-informed and pompous assertions O’Reilly makes. Did he mention the a downturn in economics may contribute to the frustrations of parents or increase domestic violence? Perhaps he should consult with Limbaugh about the true effects of drug abuse.

  18. “Granted, someone who is drunk or stoned all the time is not likely to be a good parent”

    but that’s the problem. A lot of libertarians would also like to make it illegal for authorities to take kids from parents who use hard drugs and clearly have a problem, like heroin or meth users (and yes, I’m implying that once one starts using those kinds of drugs, he does have a problem, or will very soon, and the authorities should be able to look at that alone as a big concern in deciding whether they can/should act, even if/when said drugs are legal).

    1. I think you need to read this (H: the surprising truth about heroin and addiction: https://reason.com/archives/2003/06/01/h ), because there is a lot of propaganda out there regarding so called “dangerous hard drugs”…when in fact based on the governments own data a vast majority of people that use these drugs do not turn into “raging child abusing psychos” nor do they even become addicted. There is such thing as responsible/moderate drug use, even for “hard” drugs. Just ask the thousands of functional users of cocaine, speed, heroin, etc. who also have things like college degrees, PhD’s, full time jobs, 6 figure salaries, families, cars, houses, etc. The reason why you don’t hear about these people is because they try to hide their use at all costs since to be found out might cost them their jobs, lead to a divorce, loss of custody of their children and worse…and this is all because of the fear and stigma that surrounds users of these drugs, (and you illustrated perfectly, btw)…if they are found out everyone will think these perfectly functional productive members of society (who happen to use drugs) are suddenly going to turn into a raging child abusing, thieving, violent dirty druggies. Their peaceful lives will most likely be ruined if their secret is found out.

      Sorry but what you said is wrong; just because a person starts using these drugs does NOT mean that one will automatically develop a problem, in fact most people never develop a problem…again, just ask the vast majority of people who use these types of drugs responsibly with no issue at all (yes, heroin, cocaine, etc.) It really bugs me when people act like the “homeless, jobless, mentally-ill, violent, dirty, (now add “child-abusing” to the mix), junkie” is the norm, when these types of drug users are actually a tiny tiny minority…but it is even worse when people suggest making POLICY based on these backwards assumptions.

  19. Prohibition is a sickening horror and the ocean of incompetence, corruption and human wreckage it has left in its wake is almost endless.

    Prohibition has decimated generations and criminalized millions for a behavior which is entwined in human existence, and for what other purpose than to uphold the defunct and corrupt thinking of a minority of misguided, self-righteous Neo-Puritans and degenerate demagogues who wish nothing but unadulterated destruction on the rest of us.

    Based on the unalterable proviso that drug use is essentially an unstoppable and ongoing human behavior which has been with us since the dawn of time, any serious reading on the subject of past attempts at any form of drug prohibition would point most normal thinking people in the direction of sensible regulation.

    By its very nature, prohibition cannot fail but create a vast increase in criminal activity, and rather than preventing society from descending into anarchy, it actually fosters an anarchic business model – the international Drug Trade. Any decisions concerning quality, quantity, distribution and availability are then left in the hands of unregulated, anonymous and ruthless drug dealers, who are interested only in the huge profits involved. Thus, the allure of this reliably and lucrative industry, with it’s enormous income potential that consistently outweighs the risks associated with the illegal operations that such a trade entails, will remain with us until we are collectively forced to admit the obvious.

    A great many of us are slowly but surely wising up to the fact that the best avenue towards realistically dealing with drug use and addiction is through proper regulation which is what we already do with alcohol & tobacco, clearly two of our most dangerous mood altering substances. But for those of you whose ignorant and irrational minds traverse a fantasy plane of existence, you will no doubt remain sorely upset with any type of solution that does not seem to lead to your absurd and unattainable utopia of a drug free society.

    There is therefore an irrefutable connection between drug prohibition and the crime, corruption, disease and death it causes. Anybody ‘halfway bright’, and who’s not psychologically challenged, should be capable of understanding that it is not simply the demand for drugs that creates the mayhem, it is our refusal to allow legal businesses to meet that demand. If you are not capable of understanding this connection then maybe you’re using something far stronger than the rest of us. So put away your pipe, lock yourself away in a small room with some tinned soup and water, and try to crawl back into reality A.S.A.P.

    Because Drug cartels will always have an endless supply of ready cash for wages, bribery and equipment, no amount of tax money, police powers, weaponry, wishful thinking or pseudo-science will make our streets safe again. Only an end to prohibition can do that! How much longer are you willing to foolishly risk your own survival by continuing to ignore the obvious, historically confirmed solution?

    If you support the Kool-Aid mass suicide cult of prohibition, and erroneously believe that you can win a war without logic and practical solutions, then prepare yourself for even more death, tortured corpses, corruption, terrorism, sickness, imprisonment, economic tribulation, unemployment and the complete loss of the rule of law.

    “A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”
    Abraham Lincoln

    The only thing prohibition successfully does is prohibit regulation & taxation while turning even our schools and prisons into black markets for drugs. Regulation would mean the opposite!

  20. What’s with O’Reilly and freaking about about Sting?

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