The Elephant in Current Social Work

June 1, 2008

I have not written about this topic, yet, despite the fact that I have spoken about it with multiple people from various facets of my life. This would the child protection case that has been going on in Eldorado, Texas. 460 children were removed from a polygamist sect after concerns had been made regarding the safety of the children, specifically for sexual abuse. On Thursday, some parents won an appeal that said that the state did not have enough evidence and overstepped its bounds to remove all of the children.

So what the heck do I think? Many things, of course! Some of them:

  • There are many factors in play with this case, religion and culture being chief among them. Undeniably, this sect (does that word have political implications, too?) lives quite differently than mainstream America. They live in community, dress differently, and very little interaction with society at large. Oh, and they believe in polygamy. So I think there are some large philosophical questions regarding if, when, and how (in that order, by the way) authorities intervene with how this group is living their lives.
  • I am not a libertarian so I think there are definite times for authorities to intervene (if) and that concerns of sexual abuse (and general child maltreatment) are definite times for the authorities to step in (when). Of course, the big question is how. The interesting thing is that this latest court ruling did not dismiss the “if” or “when” questions – it was more the how question. Specifically, they were justified in being concerned and then removing some of the children, but not all of them. I don’t necessarily disagree with the court with this ruling (in hindsight), but my big question would then be, in the moment that all of this is going down, how do you make distinctions between which children are at-risk and those that are not. I suppose a quick answer would have been to remove all of the girls, but leave the boys, as the particular referral that led to the raid was girls being married at young ages. I just don’t know that if I was making that call if I would be able to sleep at night, knowing that child sexual abuse is by no means limited to female victims. I believe (and hope) that there was a conversation regarding these issues among the higher powers of the Texas Child Protection agency (and I would have loved to observed it!)
  • I don’t think that our society has a full understanding of sexual abuse. It is one of those things that we don’t do well talking about or even acknowledging. So I think that society has some misconceptions that I think many peoples’ outlook on this case. One is how much shame is involved in sexual abuse. The emotional toll on victims is tremendous and they learn very quickly to bury and hide all of the evidence, which is chiefly their emotions. The cycle begins as they hide their emotions, they feel more shame as most people don’t pick up anything is wrong, which leads to their hiding and feeling more shame. Another misconception is regarding perpetrators. I think that many people still think of perpetrators as the typical “dirty old man” characteriture, when in fact, they come in all shapes and sizes.
  • Then there are the mothers that went on various television programs, including Larry King. I think they are great example of blunted affect. Essentially, blunted affect is a restriction on one’s range of emotions. This is most often found in people with some forms of schizophrenia, but also those suffering from PTSD. I guess I would be very concerned about the trauma histories of each of those women (and think it helps make a case for a “culture of abuse” within the community. Of course, proving that is much more difficult).
  • Which I guess leads me to my final thought (of this posting), which is something I am becoming more aware of in my own work, which is that there is sometimes a disconnect between discovering maltreatment and being able to “prove” it in a courtroom. I understand the necessity of proving things in court (to protect the innocent), but with that standard also means that sometimes perpetrators don’t get prosecuted, which in this case, means that kids are still in harm’s way. Of course, I don’t know how to fix this (yet, perhaps?), but there is a gap.