Maximalist Versus Minimalist Approaches to the Seriousness of the Problem

Maximalist Versus Minimalist Approaches to the Seriousness of the Problem

Maximalist Versus Minimalist Approaches to the Seriousness of the Problem
Maximalist Versus Minimalist Approaches to the Seriousness of the Problem

Maximalist Arguments The maximalist perspec- tive contends that the time has come to reject the reluctance of earlier generations to face the facts and to recognize the enormity of the crisis. Parents are abusing and neglecting their children in record

numbers, and pedophiles, sadistic adolescents, and other abusers are preying on youngsters as never before. This alarmist perspective puts forward strong arguments to support its case that child abuse is all too common and must be taken much more seri- ously (see Gardner, 1990, 1994; Finkelhor, 1990; Whitcomb, 1992; Mash and Wolfe, 1991; Feher, 1992; Ceci and Bruck, 1993; De Koster and Swisher, 1994; Kincaid, 1998; and Fernandez, 2011).

Maximalists are convinced that many instances of abuse go undetected—especially crimes of a sex- ual nature. Hence, the known incidents are only the tip of the iceberg, as this case implies:

A newly elected U.S. senator writes in his autobi- ography that he was groped decades ago by a summer camp counselor whom he does not wish to publicly identify. He declares that “if my book has encouraged people to come forward with their own stories of abuse or if it’s given comfort to victims who thought they were all alone and that no one would believe them, then that is a good thing.” Thirteen former campers, now grown men, hire a lawyer and lodge allegations of abuse. (Goodnough, 2011)

The maximalist perspective assumes that statis- tics from official sources are gross underestimates of the true depth of the emergency (see Herman, 1981; Russell, 1984, 1986; Peters, Wyatt, and Finkelhor, 1986; and Wyatt, 1985).

Presumably, a large (but unknown) number of episodes of physical and sexual abuse are never reported to the authorities—not by the child, the abusive parent’s spouse, parent, another relative or by a neighbor, doctor, or teacher. Underreporting is a serious problem because many victimized children are too young to know their rights or to be believed, or are too intimidated or even terrorized to tell anyone. They also may consciously wish to forget the past or are too embarrassed to disclose what actually happened. Furthermore, they may distrust the interviewer, may wish to protect their parents, or may believe they deserved the overly harsh punishments. Most abuse and neglect takes place behind closed doors

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without witnesses, and tangible evidence is lacking unless obvious physical injuries or sex- ually transmitted venereal diseases appear. Many professionals who are supposed to err on the side of caution fail to file mandatory official reports when they suspect abuse, preferring instead to pressure adults in troubled families to enter counseling, drug treatment, or other programs. The professionals responsible for intervening in child abuse cases often hold cherished beliefs about family privacy and parental rights, which make them reluctant to become enmeshed in court cases. Finally, pre- schoolers are not as closely observed for signs of abuse by child welfare professionals as older students are.

Many reports of abuse are mistakenly screened out and dismissed by child welfare agencies that simply do not have sufficient time, money, and staff to do the thorough investigations necessary to verify the charges. Just because a report is deemed to be unsubstantiated (due to a lack of sufficient evidence to meet stringent legal standards of proof) does not mean it is untrue; classifying a report as “unfounded” certainly does not mean it is completely baseless or intentionally and maliciously false.

Violence against children seems to be the norm in many families. Youngsters are abused on a regular basis but the authorities are not aware of their plight.

Minimalist Views The minimalist point of view makes the following arguments to back up its con- tention that child abuse is less widespread than the maximalist alarmist perspective would have the pub- lic believe (see Siegel et al., 1987; Pagelow, 1989; Besharov, 1990; Wexler, 1990; Robin, 1991; Ceci and Bruck, 1993; and Jenkins, 1998):

The definition of child maltreatment has been expanding and diluting over the years. Minor instances of bad parenting that were justifiably overlooked in the past are now being routinely reported. All forms of physical discipline (slaps, spankings) should not automatically qualify as

child abuse. Various ethnic and religious sub- cultures have dramatically different notions of where to draw the line between appropriate parenting and maltreatment, but some protec- tion agencies blindly apply a rigid “one stan- dard fits all” approach. No state prohibits parents from using “reasonable corporal pun- ishment” when disciplining their children; in fact, some states expressly permit it. In many studies it is not clear which definition is being applied to real-life cases—the law’s, the repor- ter’s, the researcher’s, or the child’s (especially once the child has grown up). Yet some studies apply the label of “abuse” to acts that most people consider reasonable corporal punish- ment, instead of reserving it for clearly inap- propriate and excessive force. In a 1977 ruling (Ingram v. Wright), the Supreme Court held that corporal punishment in school (within reason- able limits, by designated personnel, and with parental approval) is permissible under the Constitution.

Similarly, certain aspects of maltreatment— especially emotional and educational neglect and abuse—are vague and subjective terms. The expanding definition of maltreatment also has incorporated medical neglect, another very indefinite and controversial concept.

If it appears that child maltreatment is increas- ing, it may just be that reports of suspected neglect and abuse are growing, skeptics charge. Heightened public awareness and mandatory reporting regula- tions can produce an apparent crime wave. Over 90 percent of all states require doctors, educators, and child care providers to report suspected abuse or even neglect. In addition, 25 percent of all states require nonprofessionals like parents and commu- nity residents to share their suspicions with child protective service agencies. Nearly 50 percent of the states permit tipsters to remain anonymous (Young-Spillers, 2009).

Professionals face civil and criminal penalties if they cover up or are grossly negligent in overlook- ing abuse. All these mandatory reporting require- ments and anonymous tip hotlines generate many

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baseless charges. Large numbers of honestly mis- taken allegations, as well as maliciously false ones, are mixed in with truthful disclosures, making the problem seem worse than it is, minimalists say.

When a failure to report occurs, children could face grave dangers. On the other hand, when unwarranted allegations are entered into government files, the reputations of innocent parents are called into question and agencies waste their limited resources. Caseloads from official sources yield grossly inflated estimates because many allegations are never validated conclusively. Unfounded reports (unsubstantiated or not indicated cases) are dismissed or closed when, after an investigation, there is insufficient legally admissible evidence on which to proceed. Unproven allegations about child abuse should not be counted in official statistics. The increase in unproven complaints is caused by the public’s emotionally driven desire to “do some- thing,” coupled with sensationalized media coverage about a formerly taboo topic, plus the “take no chances” zeal and defensiveness of professionals sub- jected to mandatory reporting requirements. The high rate of unsubstantiated claims (more than half of all allegations) recorded by many child protection agencies is due, in part, to a lack of screening of calls to hotlines. The inflated figures also result from a willingness to follow up anonymous tips, some of which may be deliberately false and vengeful acts intended to get an adult in trouble (estimated at 3 percent), and an acceptance of complaints from estranged spouses locked in custody battles. Other unsubstantiated cases arise from a reliance on behav- ioral indicators as possible symptoms of abuse (in the absence of corroboration in the form of statements by the victim or eyewitnesses, or physical evidence) (Besharov, 1987; and Snyder and Sickmund, 1995). What constitutes a substantiated case of neglect or abuse varies from state to state. Less than half of the states impose high standards of proof, such as material or clear and convincing evidence. The majority of states apply lower standards for defining substantiation, such as probable cause or credible evi- dence (Young-Spillers, 2009).

In sum, minimalists argue that official estimates are overcounts that are inflated by vague definitions

and unsubstantiated reports, whereas maximalists view these same statistics as undercounts of the true scope of the problem largely because of under- reporting as well as underfunding that hampers the ability of child welfare organizations to do thor- ough investigations.

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