Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Anatomy of Neglect - Part I

In April 2012, a father in a south hills suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, leaves his two children, aged 6 years and 9 years to play by themselves for two hours in the playground of a local park. He drives away to do his errands. A patron in the park is alarmed that they are playing unsupervised for a long time. She calls the police. The father is charged with two counts of child endangerment.

In August 2011, a woman leaves her one-yr old child in her stroller outside a restaurant in Amherst, Massachusetts, and goes inside to order her food. The child is unattended for about ten minutes. Passers-by who see the unattended child in the stroller on the sidewalk, are alarmed. They call the police who alert the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families to investigate the woman for potential abuse or neglect.

In December 2009, a woman in Phoenix, Arizona, leaves her sleeping son, strapped in his car-seat, inside the car that is parked in the first parking-spot outside a bookstore. She goes inside the store with her older child. A passer-by, alarmed at the sight of an unattended sleeping child in the open car, calls 911.  The mother is charged with one count of neglect.

Under the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003, the minimum standards that all states must adopt in their individual definitions of endangerment, neglect and abuse, is as follows:

“Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caregiver, 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.”

There are common threads that connect the cases of alleged neglectful parenting outlined above. For one, the accused parents who were involved in all three cases were immigrants/foreigners. They are not native to the culture of fear-driven parenting that seems to have taken hold of mothers and fathers (native and immigrant) in America today.

The father in Case # 1, Govindaraj Narayanasamy, a name that’s a mouthful for anyone who is not from Southern India, was put through what I know must have been a harrowing four months before the two charges against him of child endangerment were dropped. His case came to my attention through the website run by Lenore Skenazy,, that shuns the current norm of helicopter parenting and promotes “free range” parenting. She is the mother who, in 2008, let her 9-yr-old son ride the New York subway alone, sans cell phone. You can read about it here. But back to Mr. Narayansamy who shares with me commonalities that go beyond ethnic origins. After this incident, there was an outcry from the public in support of his decision to let kids be kids and play, of all the places, in a park! Without knowing the details in the legalities of this case, I venture to guess that his status as an immigrant/foreigner (someone new to the culture of American parenting and its concomitant laws) and Mr. Narayansamy’s efforts to educate himself about the same, via parenting classes, played a pivotal role in the dismissal of his charges.

The mother in Case # 2 is from Sweden. When this mother was criticized for her actions, she said that she “found nothing wrong with the situation,” and pointed out that in her country it is common practice for mothers to leave children unattended in their strollers outside restaurants or other shopping establishments. She was investigated for potential neglect, but the police and the Massachusetts Dept. of Children and Families went with their better judgment and decided not to press charges despite the hysteria of the passers-by who had called the police. The woman’s husband, an American, recounted the incident: “The people who reported the incident to the police were there when my wife came out of the restaurant…. They were hysterical, screamed at her in front of our child, told her she was a bad mother and there should be laws against people like her having children.”

The mother in Case # 3 from Phoenix, Arizona, if you haven’t suspected already, dear reader, is me. My children and I were on our way to get my son’s hair cut. I was early for our appointment, and we decided, on the spur of the moment, to take a detour via our favorite used bookstore. When we arrived at the bookstore, my son was fast asleep. I tried to wake him, but he wouldn’t wake up. I did not want to forcefully rouse him and risk having him be cranky and uncooperative for his haircut. Against my better judgment, as I realized very shortly thereafter, I left my son to continue his nap and walked my daughter into the bookstore. I told her to go to the children’s section, which was at the back of the store, and pick her books. I stayed and browsed at the front of the store, from where I could see my car. I had got the very first parking spot outside the store, which played some part in my decision to leave my son asleep in the car. After about ten minutes, I noticed a police car parked next to mine. I ran out of the store. I explained the situation to the officer.

During our conversation, and while I explained my perspective to the officer, he asked me if I watch the news or if I had been to the post office to see all the missing children’s posters. I said “Yes.” He then asked me if I knew “how long it takes to steal a kid?” I answered, “Probably a few seconds.” He said: “Exactly!”

Statistics show that our children are far more likely to die from or be injured by gunshot wounds than be vulnerable to abductions by strangers. It is known family members and acquaintances who carry out the vast majority of “kidnappings” of children. Not the perverted stranger.

To be clear, a statistic of one missing child, is one too many. The point is not that the statistic of stereotypical kidnappings is small and therefore unimportant enough to be ignored. The point, rather, is that when it comes to missing children, the media focuses overwhelmingly on the type of kidnapping that comprises 2% and 3% of total missing incidences. According to the reports brought by the US Dept. of Justice’s NISMART (National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children,) – and yes, you read that last category correctly, - stereotypical kidnappings by strangers comprise 2-3% of all missing children reports. The categories of ‘runaways’ (children who leave home without permission and stay away overnight) and “thrownaways” (children who are asked to leave or prevented from returning home without alternate arrangements) comprise 48% of all missing cases. About a quarter (28%) of missing cases have benign reasons such as miscommunication and misunderstanding between child and caretaker. Children who were missing because they became lost or injured accounted for 15% of all missing children. Finally, about 9% of children are abducted by family members. And to re-iterate: stereotypical kidnappings comprised 2-3% of all missing reports.

Why does the media not focus on the lives of runaways and the unbelievably-termed “thrownaways?” Regarding the latter, could they really not think of another name? How about ‘sentaways?’ Are social workers and social scientists challenged in sensitivity and vocabulary?  But back to the issue: Why does the media not focus on the social issues that feed the numbers of the largest category of missing children? They have cherry-picked the smallest category and made that the ever-playing sound-byte in the background of our daily lives - that of Stranger-Danger.

In his article in Time magazine, Invasion of the Baby Snatchers, Walter Kirn points to the overwhelming attention brought by the media to kidnappings with melodramatic storylines which are hugely disproportionate to the stories we don’t hear about children who are harmed and neglected in a thousand other ways. He asserts: "One wonders if the abduction reports are a runaway habit whose internal momentum can get the best of reporters and editors, flattening everything else that lies before it: stories of war and preparations for war, of corruption among the elites, of floods and droughts. What, no kidnapped kids this morning? Well, find some!"

When I explained my perspective to the officer, the two hyperventilating, ultra-judgmental “good Samaritans” one of whom had called the police, both contradicted my account, in particular, my time estimations. When the officer asked me how long I thought I was in the store, I answered “seven to nine minutes.” In response, Good Samaritan #1, who goes by the name of Jennifer, said that I was lying because she had been watching my car “for over thirty minutes.” The other do-gooder going by the name of Tracey reported to the officer that she saw me browsing in the store for twenty minutes. When I began to refute their estimations, the officer separated us and took the witnesses aside. Weeks later, as a part of the formal investigation, video surveillance tapes of the parking lot showed that my absence from the car spanned thirteen minutes.

For over two hours, the investigating officer vacillated. He told me a dozen times “I could go either way with this case.” He interviewed the witnesses. He questioned me. He called his superior. Throughout the ordeal, which lasted over two hours, my son continued to sleep peacefully, oblivious to the turmoil his mother was now in.

The phenomenon of neglect, like any other social ill, is rife with complexities and contradictions. Despite years of research, there is no clear, reliable and valid definition of child abuse and neglect. “The vagueness and ambiguities that surround the definition of this particular social problem touch every aspect of the field—reporting system, treatment program, research and policy planning.” To name just a few, there is a lack of consensus over what constitutes dangerous and unacceptable forms of parenting. There is uncertainty about whether to define maltreatment based on adult characteristics, adult behavior, child outcome, environmental context, or some combination thereof. There is conflict over whether standards of endangerment or harm should be used in constructing definitions. (Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect, 1993.)

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD) recommended, in 1989, that definitions of neglect include behavior towards another person that (a) is outside the norms of conduct, and  (b) entails a significant risk of causing substantial physical or emotional harm, and (c) are behaviors of omission and commission that may be intentional or unintentional.

There is little doubt that the three cases described at the beginning of this essay involved parental behavior outside the norms of current American parenting. I am also in agreement with the notion that when in Rome, one must do as Romans do, especially if there are legal ramifications if you don’t. However, it is necessary to examine the anatomy of neglect from other angles:

While the quote “It takes a village to raise a child,” has its origins in an African proverb, it has now assumed, thanks to Hilary Clinton, the guise of yet another American sound-byte, albeit one that rings hollow in the ears of this writer. You only need to read some of the comments by parents on articles of instances where mothers deviate from the normative hyper-parenting of today, to get a feel for the vicious, judgmental mentality of fellow mothers/parents. The “Good Samaritans” in the three cases I described failed in their roles of being avenues of support from the community. They chose to involve themselves in the incidents. They volunteered their “services.” Yet, instead of being the supportive passers-by who filled the apparent gap in vigilance by the parent, these Samaritans turned into predators. They took pleasure in bringing down their compatriots for an error in judgment that is best described as a cultural faux pas.

From the standpoint of law enforcement, too, the State failed in its assessment of the incidents in two ways. The “significant risk” that was assumed to have been created by the apparent lapses in vigilance may be an artifact of our media’s obsession with sensational storylines.  Abduction statistics do not point to a significant risk. And while the spin of the media may turn the layperson into a paranoid, hyper-reactive individual, specialists in law enforcement and social services ought to be better aware of the reality. As professionals who are exposed to truly horrific instances of abuse and neglect, they must have a better sense of sifting out cultural differences masquerading as misdemeanors. With the absence of other factors that might impair judgment such as intoxication or drug use, and the presence of exotic names and/or accents, the deviation from the norm in the behavior of these parents should have been viewed via the lens of cultural variation, and not through the lens of condemnation. A warning is all that is required to make the New Settler aware that there are laws in America, and fears in America where there are none in the country of origin.