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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sandusky - A socially skilled child molester?

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published a recent article looking at the apparent ability of now accused child sexual abuser Jerry Sandusky to ingratiate himself into lives of children.  As the paper notes:

Long before his arrest this month on 40 charges related to child sex abuse, Sandusky successfully navigated the system's various background checks to become the adoptive father of five sons and a daughter, a foster parent, a host for a half-dozen Fresh Air Fund children from New York City and a congressional honoree as an "Angel in Adoption."
As the article points, no system is perfect but Sandusky appears to have managed to keep a profile as the helpful and supportive person who was there for many children. His behaviour should cause professionals to revisit the work of Carla van Dam, PhD and her 2006 book The Socially Skilled Child Molester. In it, she speaks of the ways in which people like Sandusky become trusted and, even more important, how they continue to get away with it. She notes that information remains buried in one of three ways:

1. Nothing is ever reported;
2. The information is reported but ignored, discounted, discredited and then discounted; or
3. The information is actively suppressed to protect the organization's reputation and the good name of the alleged offender.

The third will seem all too familiar in cases of church abuse, the recent allegations involving the Boy Scouts in Canada and the United States as well as the allegations surrounding Sandusky.

Van Dam speaks of 6 levels that organizations can fall into. They seem helpful as a way to approach organizations and help them to be better prepared to think about the possibility that an abuser could become part of their world. Individuals, organizations and communities can be at these places: 

1. total secrecy - stuck at the level where there is total denial that this could happen and they are naive to the practices of groomers. These are dangerous places for children as groomers may find entry much easier. Even when there are suggestions that something might be going on, it is easier for the groomer to deny, claim it was all a misunderstanding, there is a conspiracy against them, it was all innocent play, it was just poor judgment, there were medical concerns that were being addressed, it was part of parenting, helping out with hygiene or bathing, it was all just an accident or even that in some way the child was the offender or why would that child be believed because the child has problems.

2. Shock and disbelief that leaves the organization immobilized leaving them willing to accept alternative explanations because they don't want to believe that this could happen.

3. Street knowledge in which there is acceptance that molesters exist but not amongst anyone they would know.

4. Complaints are made and believed but they are seen as isolated and can be managed internally.

5. Allegations are taken to the police because there is recognition that even known and well liked people can be involved in molestation of children.

6. These are vigilant groups who recognize the need to be open and talk about what might be happening.

It is never to say that we want to create panic or extreme paranoia - only honest and open awareness. Since no system is perfect, communication, openness and a willingness to accept the possibility of sexual abuse will help to limit what a perpetrator can accomplish.


van Dam, C. (2006). The socially skilled child molseter: Differentiating the guilty from the falsely accused. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.

Tonight there is the Bernie Fine case from Syracuse that is reported in the New York Times which tends to illustrate some of these points.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What does violence cost us?

In a most fascinating group of studies, the National Academies Press has published Social and Economic Costs of Violence: Workshop Summary. Of particular interest is a series of papers that consider the direct and indirect costs of violence. Clearly, as a society, we are putting out very significant amounts of money as a result of violence. In the first of these papers, Waters et al., identify that in the USA, the cost of interpersonal violence equals about 3.3% of that country's GDP. The majority of costs are born by publicly funded services. Consider the GDP figures (US Dollars):

Canada - 1.57 trillion - 2010

Australia - 954 billion - 2009

Germany - 3.3 trillion - 2010

South Africa - 363 billion - 2010

Switzerland - 523 billion - 2010

UK - 2.246 trillion - 2010

USA - 14.5 trillion - 2010

One immediately gets the sense that, even with variations in rates of inter personal violence (IPV), the costs are extraordinary. The study considered various forms of IPV including child abuse and neglect, violence in intimate relationships, elder abuse, sexual violence, violence in the workplace and youth violence. The study authors are from John Hopkins University, the World Bank and the World Heath Organization.

A second study by Dong looking at elder abuse raises the challenge that many forms of abuse are likely underreported. Perhaps only 1:14 cases come to the attention of authorities suggesting that some costs are being borne by society without society knowing that is what is being paid for. It also suggests that the victims are not being identified. As Deng notes, "Elder abuse includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect (both caregiver and self-neglect), and financial abuse. Available prevalence data suggest that at least 10 percent (or 5 million) of the U.S. elderly persons experience abuse each year, and many of them experience it in multiple forms " (p.6-16). The implications for morbidity and mortality are significant.

As Hemenway notes in his brief paper, the costs can be difficult to fully quantify because the nature of many costs can be intangible. Take the costs related to street violence. He states:

"There are also large psychological costs caused by street violence. Exposure to violence (e.g., witnessing violence) increases the risk for psychiatric, emotional, behavioral, and health problems. Psychiatric problems include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, sleep problems, and personality change. Emotional problems include anger, nervousness, withdrawal, loneliness, and despair. Behavioral problems include low academic performance, risky sexual behavior, substance abuse, delinquency, and violence. Finally, exposure to violence has been linked to such health problems as asthma, heart disease, and low birth weight babies.

There are also high community costs of street crime that accrue when people and institutions try to avoid the shootings and protect themselves. Commercial and residential locations can be affected. Businesses do not want to locate in areas of high crime, tourists do not want to go there, and people do not want to live there. This leads to fewer jobs and to flight from the neighborhood of higher-income people who can afford to leave (e.g., “white flight”). The loss of jobs, good stores, community social capital, and positive role models leads to neighborhood deterioration.

To avoid being shot, residents also change their behavior concerning recreation, shopping, leisure, and other activities. Children are not allowed to play outside, residents are less likely to go out at night, and they are less likely to accept evening work. People live behind locked doors. Having fewer people on the street further reduces the safety of being on the street". (p.6-24).

Another paper by Huesmann from the University of Michigan, reports that violence is highly contagious. He states:

"One of best-established findings in the psychological literature on aggressive and violent behavior is that violence begets violence. This contagion of violence appears to be a universal phenomenon. The contagion of violence occurs within families. Violence between partners increases the risk of violence directed at children and increases the risk of the children behaving violently themselves. Having one violent individual in a family makes it more likely there will be others. It is true within peer groups. Violence by some peers increases the risk of violence by others. Violence by peers directed outward not only stimulates violence by others that is directed outward, but stimulates violence between peers within the group. This is true in neighborhoods and communities. Violent communities and neighborhoods breed violence in those who join the community or neighborhood. Introducing violence into a community increases the risk of greater violence throughout the community. It even appears to be true within nations and cultures, and it is true across generations. Children “catch” it from their parents, and parents can catch it from their children.

Violence is highly contagious. Not only is it spread from the perpetrators of violence to the victims, but it is spread to onlookers and observers. It is not surprising that violent victimization leads to violent retaliation within and between families, peer groups, schools, communities, ethnic groups, cultures, and countries. What may be more surprising to some is that simply the observation of violence also leads to increased violence within and between all of these groups". (p. 6-25).

A final paper in this section looks at the implications of fear on children and their development. There are long term implications for the developing brain which impacts learning, family life, work productivity and other economic inputs. In their paper Fox and Shonkoff note:

"The scientific knowledge around fear and anxiety points to three important implications:

1. Young children can perceive threat in their environment, but unlike adults, they do not have the cognitive or physical capacities to regulate their psychological response, reduce the threat, or remove themselves from the threatening situation. As a result, serious fear- triggering events such as family violence can have significant and long-lasting impacts on the developing child, beginning in infancy.

2. Children do not naturally outgrow early learned fear responses over time. If young children are exposed to persistent fear and excessive threat during particularly sensitive periods in the developmental process, they may not develop healthy patterns of threat or stress regulation. When they occur, these disruptions do not naturally disappear.

3. Simply removing a child from a dangerous environment will not by itself undo the serious consequences or reverse the negative impacts of early fear learning. Children who have been traumatized need to be in responsive and secure environments that restore their sense of safety, control, and predictability—and supportive interventions are needed to ensure the provision of these environments". (p.6-34).

This data has very significant implications for child protection. Clearly, children left in violent and fear inducing homes are harmed and the impact is long term. Child protection should not dither in helping those families. Getting the right interventions in place quickly is vital. Removing children needs to be done when parents are unable or unwilling to change. Failing to act is a direct price that a child pays and that price is not included in the cost of violence.


Patel, D.M. & Taylor, R.M. (eds) (2011). Social and Economic Costs of Violence: Workshop Summary. Washington DC: National Academies Press.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mandatory child abuse reporting laws for all?

The sex abuse scandal in the United States has led to calls for mandatory reporting laws that would apply to all adults. The Los Angeles Times is reporting that two pieces of legislation are being introduced in Washington to accomplish this. This seems a tempting solution particularly given that The New York Daily News is reporting that sexual abuse may have been connected with Penn State long before the current high profile scandal. This is the story that is being told by Paul McLuaghlin in respect of Professor John "Jack" Neisworth.

Yet, such laws may be the wrong way to go unless we are prepared for the almost inevitable outcome. Yes, it is an important message to all citizens that protecting children should be a full societal obligation. But:

1. Such an approach will overwhelm an already swamped child protection system. In this age of economic crisis, the funding needed for such an approach will just not be there.

2. It will make it hard to sort out priority cases. If this approach were adopted, the sheer number of vases will make it hard to determine which ones represent urgent needs. For children most in need of protection, this might actually reduce the possibility of getting protected.

3. When caseloads get too high, poorer casework is inevitable meaning that those families who are most going to benefit from quality supports won't get them. Recent research referred to in an earlier post notes that many of the best outcomes in child protection work are rooted in a good relationship between a worker and the family. This becomes less likely to occur in a scenario with widespread reporting laws.

4. Those best in a position to report are those who have professional relationships with children and will have the insight to see the risks.

5. Large scale mandatory reporting laws are also likely to lead to more children coming into care as workers lack time to do better quality investigations. It creates the "better safe than sorry" approach to investigation.

6. It also further opens the door to vindictive reporting by neighbours, estranged or angry family members or parents in custody access disputes.

Those who did witness the abuse already should have had a moral obligation to report the crime that they witnessed. One wonders if the laws proposed are going to change the motivation. I seriously worry that such an approach may end up doing more harm than good

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Amythz “Amy” Dye - a death with important lessons

This is a case from Kentucky in the United States. The essential history is that she was murdered by her older adoptive brother. At the time of the adoption, the adoptive parents had separated although the father had a prior history of child abuse. He would continue to have a parenting role and would later return to the home.

It appears from a Franklin County Court judgement that there were at least 6 occasions when child protection received reports that Amy was being abused in the home. It appears that the workers did not act largely because the reports suggested that the abuse was being done by a brother as opposed to a parent. The school where Amy attended does not receive in the judgement the credit that is due for its repeated efforts to get child protection attention for this little girl.

While the case in the court addresses a public access for records, the judge also lets us into the case in a way that allows a view of some very important principles of child protection. Proper investigation is an obvious concern, but perhaps the most important lesson here is about the role of a parent when the abuse is being done by a sibling. Some years ago, I had a situation where I could not get child protection to be concerned about sibling abuse. In the case of Amy, the judge sums the issue up very well, stating:

"To be clear. a parent need not personally administer the fatal blow in order to be held responsible for "abuse and neglect" under KRS 620.030, if the parent places the child in danger and neglects to protect the child from on going physical or emotional abuse by a sibling or anyone else.

It is stunning to believe that the Cabinet will refuse to protect a child from repeated acts of physical violence by a sibling when the parent knows and tolerates such abuse and does nothing to prevent it. Yet that is exactly what happened here, even if we accept the Cabinet's factual assertions. This is even more perplexing in light of the fact that the Cabinet itself had substantiated acts of physical abuse that had been inflicted on the siblings prior 10 the placement of Amythz Dye in this home. Even if the parent here did not directly inflict the physical abuse, there can be no question that the failure to protect this child from the repeated attacks by a sibling constitutes child neglect, at a minimum" (p.16)

While this decision does not likely have legal weight beyond the jurisdiction, it is an important statement that should act as a reminder that protection of a child need not be related to the direct action of a parent but also what a parent fails to do.

Perhaps what is also disturbing is that the evidence adduced at the hearing suggests that the parents were emotionally abusing this child. This would be information that could have been established with a proper investigation. This acts as a reminder that abuse rarely occurs in a single form and that abuse occurs in an environment where there is some form of approval. A sibling cannot act in such an abusive way in the absence of tacit or explicit approval from a parent. Certainly in this case, the abuse was significant enough for school personnel to physically see it. 

This is not a case that should lead to some new massive drive to apprehend children in Kentucky. Rather, it is  case where social workers should be reminded that a careful look at all of the information is needed. Like the Canadian case of Jeffrey Baldwin, knowing the past abusive behaviors of caregivers matter. This is also a case where seeing the family systemically would have assisted in protecting Amy. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why is the Penn State crisis important?

While I do not wish to minimize what has been happening with the Penn State sex abuse crisis, it should be seen not as an isolated issue, but as something that is representative of a larger issue. When does the interest of an institution precede the interests of a person? In essence, that is what the Penn State issue represents. Iy was more important to protect the image of the university by those who knew, then it was to protect the children involved - at least that is how it appears.

There were several people who knew. They didn't act to protect the children. Was it fear of what would happen to them? For the lowly janitor - perhaps. For others - that argument becomes less so. Yet, if we, as a society, truly seek to protect children, then should that not be the criteria as opposed to the reputation of an institution.

If Penn State were an isolated case, then one might be able to feel that they may not have known better (although that is a hard argument to make). But there have been decades of scandals that should have made it evident that protecting any individual who is offending, no matter how important that person is, should not be acceptable at the expense of a child.

Increasingly we see that institutions have not taken the steps needed to protect children. A combined CBC and Los Angeles Times story tells of Boy Scouts in Canada and the USA failing to protect children. The stories related to the Catholic Church are legion. Only last month Bishop Robert Finn was charged in the USA with covering up suspected child abuse. That is the point in the Penn State case - covering up child abuse and not taking responsibility for stopping it.

Yet attitudes around child abuse and sexual predation do not change easily. It is the leaders of institutions  who must take a stand and ensure that their organizations create a climate where the abuse can be reported with a faith that such a report will lead to action.

As I write this, I am reminded that as recently as a year ago, the Pope suggested that in the 1970s, pedophilia was in some way normal. The Pope indicated "In the 1970s, paedophilia was theorised as something fully in conformity with man and even with children" 

Attitudes change slowly and Penn State gives us an opportunity to illustrate why these attitudes need to change.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Child protection decision making - fill in the forms or think

One of the negative results of the various types of inquiries (or media coverage) that result from the death of a child known to CPS, is that the organizations often try to create ways to minimize the risk of further errors. Structured decision making (SDM) tools are one way that this gets addressed. This creates a series of formats that a worker fills in and is then guided on their decision. Critics suggest that such tools create good form completers but not good thinkers.

Gillingham (2011) has published a review of SDM in one area of Australia. Published in Child and Family Social Work he has provided some good insight into when these sorts of tools are useful and when not. They seem to have the most value to new practitioners who lack the experience to know what to do in cases they manage. The research notes that for these workers, they are quite valuable.

However, as workers gain experience, such tools may serve to limit the intuitive application of experience and knowledge tending to force the worker into analytical methods instead.  To make good decisions, workers need to move beyond the decision making matrix that forms create. Indeed, as Gillingham notes, "...SDM tools might impair the professional development of new practitioners...."(2011, p.417).  These tools cannot replace expertise (p.419) but one can easily see that the inexperienced worker would find these tools very attractive - they replace knowledge in essence.

SDM is also likely attractive to management as it helps to protect the agency by having structured (and most probably risk aversive) decision making tools that ensure procedure is followed.

Good social work requires analytical thinking for sure. But it also requires creative and intuitive thinking based on experience. In far too many child protection agencies, however, there is a plethora of new workers along with high caseloads leading to high turnover. Thus, SDM is very appealing as there is a shortage of workers with the kinds of experience that leads to better decision making.

One question that Gillingham does not answer is whether children and families are better off.

Public inquiries, media analysis and vitriolic criticism when something goes wrong, leads to more SDM approaches. Perhaps we should be asking if children are safer as a result.


Gillingham, P. (2011). Decision-making tools and the development of expertise in child protection practitioners: Are we 'just breeding workers who are good at ticking boxes'?. Child and Family Social Work, 16 (4), 412-421.  doi:  10.1111/j.1365-2206.2011.00756.x

Child protection failing to follow the order of the court?

A Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench decision has raised some important points about the kinds of cases where the child protection authorities appear to have a different view of a case as opposed to the court. In this decision, Justice Dufour outlines a tortuous pathway that a mother took from a life of addiction and prostitution to one where it is quite possible that she might be able to parent her 2 children. The Justice ordered that child protection take certain steps to allow for increased visitation. This appears to have not happened despite a direct order that it should. Child protection appeared to have a different view of the case and were pessimistic about the mother's prospects. They even felt that there was evidence that the mother continued to use.

It is a challenge for workers who see a case quite differently than the Court. Justice Dufour however, outlines what is an important principle in the relationship between the courts and agencies - the rule of law. If the courts cannot order in a way that yields a party to act, then where is the authority of the court. Any of us who have anything to do with divorce and custody matters see parents flout such orders routinely without much consequence (although that may be a subject for a later time).

What matters here is the party failing to follow the order is the state. As Justice Dufour writes:

"In matters such as here, the Court is the only check on the enormous power that is wielded by ministry workers pursuant to The Child and Family Services Act. Social services workers can apprehend any child they think is in need of protection. They do not need a warrant or any other form of judicial pre-authorization to take children from their parents – the worker’s opinion that the children are in need of protection is all that is required. It is months, and usually many months, before the matter comes before the Court in any meaningful fashion for a determination as to whether the ministry’s decision to apprehend children was correct at law. Until then, it is ministry workers alone who determine where and when – or if – the parents will see their children. The Court is the check, albeit a belated one, in the child protection system." (paragraph 104)

This decision raises one other major point which is seen in tow areas. It is the role of valuable collateral data. In the decision, one is led to understand that, if the social workers had bothered to gather data from a medical specialist, they would have learned that the evidence that they thought suggested ongoing drug use may have another explanation.

I am disturbed as well by the way in which the parenting capacity assessment was apparently done. Too little time was spent with the mother; there was too much reliance on psychological tests and the records from child welfare and little was done to complete appropriate collateral data. As I have written elsewhere an assessment is meant to be a comprehensive and independent view of a parent that considers multiple sources of data. Like child welfare, the psychologist who conducted this assessment also failed to speak with the medical specialist.

This court decision should act as a reminder that the rule of law is a crucial pillar on which we should rely so that there is a powerful and independent check and balance on the power of child welfare. It should also serve as reminder that assessment requires that major sources of information be considered carefully when conducting a parenting capacity assessment.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Child Abuse Deaths in USA

Two perhaps unrelated stories were published in the United States today. The first is published in looks at the rates of child abuse deaths. The story speaks about the high rates in the US as compared to other industrialized countries. While the statistics are fascinating, it is the numbing normalcy that is referred to in the story. The former director of Human Services in New Jersey, Michael Petit, suggests that people read about child abuse deaths in a way that is too common. As he states, "Americans read about it all the time and they shake their heads. But what they don’t know is that the problem is much smaller elsewhere in the industrialized world..." He notes that there are structural problems such as poverty, a weak safety net, greater rates of pregnancies occurring when the parents are ill prepared for the role and alcohol and drugs. But he also notes that there are programming interventions that can be effective if society will provide them.

Thus, it is not surprising that today there is also a story about the death of two children known the Oklahoma child protection system.NewsOK reports that the children were left in the care of a step mother well known to the system. While much is yet to be proven in a court, these sorts of stories undermine public faith in child protection adding to an already skeptical view of the system.

These stories serve to remind us that child protection is a very hard job indeed; the stakes are high and it takes more than just social workers to address the problems - these are societal issues.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Texas Judge Video - VERY HARD TO WATCH

Likely nobody has missed the news videos on YouTube or of the actual Judge William Adams beating of his then 16 year old daughter. The essential history is that the daughter posted these videos which she indicates she recorded secretly some 7 years ago.  She now posts them in order to get help for her father who suggests that the beatings were not as bad as they appear.

No matter what the motivations for posting the video might end up being, it is hard to believe that this family court judge can be defended. Yet, he suggests just such a defence in that he lost his temper and that he was just disciplining his daughter for doing something illegal.

This case raises the very difficult question of whether or not corporal punishment is a valid form of discipline and, if it is, under what conditions. It is a broad debate with vigorous proponents on both sides. There are those who will point to the Bible passage which suggests that if your spare the rod you spoil the child. They also believe that they are behaving in accordance with their religious beliefs and should not have any interference in that regard.

There are also places in the world where such punishment is deemed culturally normal.

It is my understanding that in the United States, all 50 states permit the use of corporal punishment.

On the other side, there are those who argue that such methods are behaviourally unsound and constitute poor parenting practice. The psychological and social work literatures suggest that it tends to correlate to negative outcomes for children, particularly the more severe the punishment.  They also suggest that it leads to short term compliance as opposed to long term behavioural change. The literature also suggests that it leads to poorer relationship skills; poorer ability to self regulate; more propensity to see violence as a solution.

For child protection workers, it is hard to watch this video and see any punishment that would constitute an appropriate parental response. It is clearly in anger and done in a way that terrifies. Yet, child protection laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and thus, this apparently horrible example of parenting might be legal. Thus, the ability to intervene or protect is determined by social, community, cultural and, in particular, legal norms.

In Canada, there is some reasonable legal guidance from a Supreme Court of Canada decision. s.43 of the Criminal Code of Canada permits parents and teachers a defence when they use reasonable force to correct a child. But what does that mean? The SCC stated:

¡Not reasonable force means that:
l(a) Corporal punishment for children under the age of two is not reasonable and is harmful to them as it has no corrective value given the limits of their cognitive development;
l(b) Corporal punishment of teenagers is not reasonable and is harmful because it can induce aggressive or antisocial behaviors;
l(c) It is not reasonable to use implements or objects such as belts, straps, or rulers, etc., due to the physical and emotional harm the use of such objects cause;
l(d) It is not reasonable to strike a child on their face or head due to the harm these physical acts can cause; and,
l(e) Corporal punishment must not be inhumane or degrading or harmful and there must be no lasting bodily harm.
¡Reasonable force means that;
l(a) A parent can only use minor corrective force of a transient and trifling nature,[7]
l(b) Corporal punishment must be for educational or corrective purposes and not be motivated by anger, frustration, or abusiveness; and,
l(c) Inflicting corporal punishment must be limited to the use of the open hand. 

This is not a perfect decision and still is open to much debate. But it does offer some level of direction for Canadian child protection workers.

Corporal punishment will remain a hotly debated topic. In my view, it is very hard to defend what is seen on the video with the Texas judge. Hopefully, the good that comes from this will be that USA states will begin to consider how to better manage this issue.