Thursday, December 20, 2012

Making Sense of Statistics

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) just released its annual report of state child protective services (CPS) statistics, showing that the number of reported child abuse victims has dropped for the fifth year in a row – there were an estimated 681,000 reported victims of child abuse in 2011, down from 695,000 in 2010 and 723,000 in 2007. Child deaths caused by abuse were also the lowest in five years. However, what these statistics mean exactly is not clear.

One child welfare expert, Richard Gelles with the University of Pennsylvania, noted that the decline in reported child abuse is consistent with the decline in violent crime, homicide, and violence against women. Gelles also believes that the decline is due, in part, to more adults delaying marriage and child-bearing, reducing high-risk situations where young people raise children they cannot afford.

Another expert, David Finkelhor with the University of New Hampshire, expressed frustration over the lack of analysis of the trends, saying "it does appear remarkable that overall child maltreatment has declined given that unemployment has been so high, the housing and mortgage crisis has continued, and state and local budgets for family and child services have been cut."

And other child-protection advocates contend that the drop in reports simply reflects a tendency by CPS to investigate fewer cases because of tight budgets.

George Sheldon, HHS acting assistant secretary for children and families summed it up this way:  "We have made excellent progress over the past five years. But what this report tells me is that we still have 681,000 children out there who need our help.”

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Wild Wild Web

A convicted child sex offender in Ireland, identified only as "XY," was released from jail after serving half of his sentence for 15 sexual offenses committed in the 1980s. Upon his release, he discovered his photograph and threatening comments on the Facebook page "Keeping our kids safe from predators."  One of the posts said, "Put him down like an animal."

XY sued Facebook for harassment, breach of privacy, and breach of human rights, claiming that, "By publishing this material about me, the defendants are providing a vehicle for others who may have criminal intent to gain information about where I live and to stir up hatred against me."

Facebook's attorney argued that Facebook was "walking a fine line" between the rights of its users and the privacy of others. He asked, "Will it give the plaintiff any benefit to shut down this site and deprive 4,000 users of their freedom of expression, the vast amount of which is legitimate debate on sex offenders?"

While the U.K.'s High Court acknowledged that the man's name, physical appearance, criminal record, and whereabouts were already public information, the ruling "simply requires certain modest steps to be taken by the operator of a social networking site to ensure that, pending the substantive trial of this action, the plaintiff is not exposed to further conduct which I consider, to a high level of arguability, to be unlawful."

Within hours after Facebook complied with the order, a page with a similar name appeared. 

In the U.S., state laws banning sex offenders from using social networking sites are getting mixed reviews. The federal court in Nebraska struck down a state law that made it a crime for certain registered sex offenders to use social networking sites or chat rooms, and allowed monitoring of their computers and Internet usage.

But an Indiana federal court upheld a state ban on convicted sex offenders accessing social networking sites used by children because the law was narrowly drawn so that certain sex offenders are "only precluded from using web sites where online predators have easy access to a nearly limitless pool of potential victims."

One thing is clear: we have not heard the last from the courts on balancing rights of privacy against free speech, especially when dealing with the emotionally-charged issue of child abuse.