Thursday, October 13, 2011

Training Abuse

There is a general reluctance to confront the issue of when parents' religious practices become child abuse until a shocking case forces us to face the unresolved tension between the rights of religious freedom and society's duty to reduce child suffering.

Two such cases involve a controversial parenting book — To Train Up a Child, by Michael and Debi Pearl — which has turned up in "a bevy of child abuse cases." This child-training manual quotes biblical passages to support the authors' belief that parents must use a "Rod of Reproof" to punish children because "Any spanking, to effectively reinforce instruction, must cause pain." The book also teaches that "fasting is good training" for picky eaters.

A so-called "Biblical Rod" (plumbing supply tubes in this case) caused the death of 7-year-old Lydia and nearly killed her 11-year-old sister. Pearls' book is claimed to have reinforced Lydia's adoptive parents' belief that God wanted them to regularly beat their children. Lydia's adoptive parents pled guilty to murder and are serving 22- and 12-year prison sentences.

A copy of To Train Up a Child was also found in the adoptive home of a 13-year-old Ethiopian child, Hana, and her 10-year-old brother. Police found Hana unconscious in a barn and she later died of hypothermia after being forced to sleep outside when the temperature dropped to around 40°. Hana was starved for days and 30 pounds underweight when she died.

Hana's parents are now charged with homicide by abuse for her death and the first-degree assault of her brother. The couple has pled not guilty to the charges.

Heartbreaking stories like these prompted Janet Heimlich to take on this topic in her book Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, in which she explores solutions to this problem such as educating communities about child abuse and neglect.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Child Victims of the Recession

While the recession's unemployment numbers climbed in 2008-2009, pediatricians saw a significant increase in another troubling statistic: the number of cases of abusive head trauma from child abuse. A study reported in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics concludes that "these results are concerning and suggest that prevention efforts might need to be increased significantly during times of economic hardship."

Unfortunately, prevention efforts have suffered in these times of severe budget cuts. For example, $91 million was cut from the budget for Arizona's Department of Economic Security that oversees Child Protective Services (CPS) at a time when five reports to CPS did not save a six-year-old Phoenix boy who died after suffering a brain bruise and other injuries. His parents have been charged with child abuse.

Dr. Mary Rimsza oversees the agency responsible for investigating child fatalities in Arizona. She points out that, in addition to the decreased budget and increased demand for CPS during bad economic times, CPS experiences a job turnover rate of 25% each year due to the stressful nature of the work.

With CPS resources stretched thin, Dr. Rimsza says, "You really shouldn't turn the other direction and say 'well somebody else will take care of this kid' or 'it's none of my business' because it is your business. Everybody in the community has a role in trying to keep our kids safe."