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The Political Use and Abuse of Children

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On December 7, President Obama signed the Child Protection Act of 2012. The act continues a political trend that harms children psychologically and endangers them physically — namely, the trend of fearmongering about child abuse.

Certainly, child abuse exists, but more than enough laws already exist to address the issue in all its manifestations. More than enough cameras and law-enforcement officers monitor the streets and the school system. Caution has become paranoia. And paranoia makes the state expand.

The psychological harm to children

On April 1, 2008, the New York Sun published an article by Lenore Skenazy, entitled “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone.” Skenazy’s son had been pleading with her to let him test his independence. She did not want to infantilize him into incompetence. So she dropped him off in downtown Manhattan at Bloomingdale’s with “a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.”

Skenazy explained her reasoning:

I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”

All ended well — except for the response of readers. Fully half of them wanted to turn her in for child abuse; they branded her “America’s Worst Mom.” The other half applauded Skenazy for teaching the boy self-reliance rather than hobbling him in reaction to the extremely rare, random acts of pedophiles. After all, his best defense against a predator was to become street smart, with practical knowledge of his world.

Skenazy turned the experience and her parenting philosophy into the book Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry (2009) and a popular blog Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children. Skenazy’s is a refreshing one-woman protest against a society that erases the line between kindness and creepiness, leaving children unable to distinguish between the two.

But Skenazy does not lay blame correctly.

The hidden culprit

For decades, the government has deliberately crusaded to send society into a panic over child molesters, abusive parents, kidnappers, sex traffickers, and now bullies.

The government’s campaign of panic is a raging success. The elderly woman who bakes cookies for neighborhood children, the man who sits beside a girl in the only subway seat left, the parent whose son has bruises from a fall, anyone who volunteers to supervise kids — all of them are now suspected as child abusers. Many need to go through a police check, complete with fingerprinting, before they can access the privilege of volunteering to work with children. Men especially are presumed guilty until proven innocent.

Children have great political value. In the name of protecting children, state agencies break down the door that separates the private and public spheres. Every family is currently vulnerable to intrusion by Child Protective Services (CPS) acting on an anonymous tip; refusal to co-operate with them is seen as an indication of guilt. Pervasive monitoring of our personal communication is justified by the omnipresent possibility of child pornography.

Consider just one example. The “PROTECT Our Children Act of 2008” describes itself as, “An Act to require the Department of Justice to develop and implement a National Strategy [on] Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, to improve the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, to increase resources for regional computer forensic labs, and to make other improvements to increase the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute child predators.”

It could as easily be titled, “The Monitor Everyone All the Time in the Name of Children Act.”

A lucrative and politically powerful “child-abuse industry” has arisen. It includes psychotherapists, social workers, lawyers, expert witnesses, foster parents, media pundits, researchers, bureaucrats, police, and politicians. The industry operates with little transparency or accountability. Vague and elastic definitions of child abuse are used to justify its actions. The public view of child abuse is a battered, bleeding infant; the legal view is much broader, including any physical or emotional mistreatment or neglect of a child.

Two bitter ironies

The first bitter irony here is that the abuse hysteria actually endangers children. Although it purports to make children safer, the constant warnings only fill them with a suspicion and alarm that separate them from their surest defense against danger. The average person on the street feels a natural protectiveness toward a child in distress and would go out of their way to help them.

I remember crouching beside a little girl who stood alone in a department store, crying uncontrollably. I asked her, “Do you know where your mommy and daddy are?” The girl pointed in a direction where there was no one to be seen. I took her by the hand and wandered that way until we found her mother, who thanked me profusely.

That was years ago. Today, the mother might snatch the girl from my side and shoot an accusing glare my way. Today, I might well leave the little girl alone and go in search of a security guard or someone else to bear the risk of assisting.

Real dangers confront children, and not merely in the form of predators: getting hit by cars, falling from playground equipment, getting lost, swimming too far out. With the current hysteria, people who would otherwise help a kid might keep walking by. The child in need has become a dangerous stranger toward whom it is legally imprudent to extend a helping hand — let alone a hand that touches.

The second bitter irony is that, while proclaiming itself the protector of children, the state has become a massive child abuser. TSA agents routinely perform body searches that would be called child molestation if done by anyone out of uniform. CPS is notorious for removing children from families on flimsy grounds and then placing them in foster homes or institutions where they are harmed or worse. Public schools are starting to tag students with the same RFID chips used to monitor cattle. The juvenile courts spill over with minor drug offenders and other victimless criminals.

Conclusion

In a sense, the state is correct. There is an epidemic of child abuse, but the state is causing it. As a final bitter irony, the state is able to impose this broad net of social control so easily for the very same reason that the average person is a child’s best defense. The common man will protect a child, and so he is reluctant to protest any political measures he is told will provide that protection.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).