Extremism in Pursuit of Good is Still Extremism

Case in point.

The state of Tennessee has gone one step further than sexual offender registries, now making public a list of anyone who’s been investigated for child abuse, not just those who are actually convicted of a crime.


“The Department of Children’s Services conducts an investigation. This is a parallel investigation to the one done by law enforcement. So you have two parallel trains regulating all investigations involving children. What the department would do is if they found evidence that there was abuse of a child, they would indicate somebody. And indicate means you would be put on an internal list,” explained WATE 6 On Your Side Legal Analyst Greg Isaacs.

Now, this sounds like a good idea, and certain child services groups love it, but let’s think this through. Because this list was internal, no one really knew who was being put on it, or why. Apparently, if a DCS employee thought there was some evidence of abuse, they would “indicate” that on the internal report, despite there not being charge brought against the person being indicated. Where the line is drawn between indicated, and outright innocence, is not at all defined, and I would imagine that DCS employees would rather be safe than sorry, so they indicate almost anyone. Now, these names are being made public, for anyone to see, and act upon if they choose to.

And we know that when it comes to identifying people involved in potential child abuse, mistakes are made.

The extremism in this article isn’t just this new registry though. It’s also this acknowledgement:

At Childhelp, they say no amount of caution is too much caution when it comes to kids and abuse.

Actually, no, there is an amount of caution that is too much. If there wasn’t, we’d just round up every kid at birth and put them in a jail cell by themselves to prevent any adult from ever harming them. But we don’t do that, because that would also be abusive! Sometimes, it’s rather traumatic for a child to watch an adult be publicly shamed as an abuser when they didn’t abuse the child. Sure, it may be “caution” to go ahead and have a few innocent folks tarred and feathered, but try telling that to the child who has to witness it and knows they’re innocent? As a society are we willing to inflict trauma on some kids to possibly prevent it in others? That doesn’t seem like a good trade off to me.

The statement by Childhelp literally sounds like something from the South Park episode about child abuse, where once informed that most kids were abducted and/or abused by someone in their own family, the parents took the kids to the bus station, pinned $20 to them and sent them away “to protect them”.

No, what we need are not more registries. We need something much more comprehensive than that, something that will take more work than that, and something that focuses so much more on the children being abused and how to help them than on anything else, especially things that make us feel safer without providing much benefit at all.

We also have to count the costs. Recently, I read an excellent article about Lauren Book, and her efforts to fight child abuse. The article talks a lot about Lauren, her father, and also about meeting with convicted sexual offenders. I highly recommend reading it, but I want to focus on one section:

The good news is that, for more than two decades, the rate of child sexual abuse has been declining in the U.S. Between 1992 and 2013, the number of cases fell 64 percent, according to a study headed by Finkelhor. Costly criminal justice initiatives—like sex offender registries, community notification and civil commitment—are often credited for this dramatic change, but Finkelhor argues that “these came online after the decline had already started.”


Still, those big-ticket criminal justice efforts tend to get all the money and attract all the headlines. Yet these initiatives, Finkelhor says, “mostly pertain to people already identified and arrested—and only about 10 percent of new cases of abuse involve someone who has a prior record. Even if you lock up everybody who had been convicted of an offense, you’d only be taking care of 10 percent of the problem…. We need more prevention and treatment in this area, but that costs money and legislators don’t want to do that.”


Sex offender registries, for example, demand huge fiscal and human resources, yet “the abundance of research appears to say they aren’t really successful,” says Levenson, who has met more than 2,000 sex offenders in her 25 years as a licensed clinical social worker. “However, they are successful in making people feel safer.” By comparison, sex offender management and prevention programs receive far less funding.
Some experts have argued that sex offender registries only serve to help citizens feel safer, but end up fostering situations like the camps under the Julia Tuttle causeway bridge, and set up offenders to fail in their effort to rehabilitate back into society.


“Wouldn’t it be better to stop child sexual abuse before it starts? Everyone says yes, and then I hear we don’t have the money for that,” says Elizabeth Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We have money to spend millions of dollars on [prosecuting and punishing] sex offenders, but no money to prevent these things from occurring in the first place.”

Here’s what I’m talking about. It’s easy to spend money on things that appear to make us safer, but don’t. Sure, let’s take the current registry program to the next step, if you’re convicted of sexual abuse of a child, you’re put in a facility for the rest of your life. If statistics are correct, that would make a 10% dent in child abuse. The other 90% committed by people who have not been caught or convicted of anything, we would be doing nothing at all about. Don’t those kids deserve more? Don’t they deserve programs aimed at keeping them from being abused in the first place, whether it be working with potential offenders, working with kids themselves to educate them about risks, or working with parents about the kinds of skills and support they need to provide kids so that they are not being groomed by people they know? Figuring out what those things look like requires more than simple statements about there never being too much caution. That’s a nice sound bite with no basis in reality. Over here in the real world, choosing one thing involves not choosing another. I believe we could be doing more than creating registries, and doing more than just handing out information on anyone remotely suspected of being an abuser and letting the public deal with them. I believe we could be doing more to help kids and the people who love them, help themselves.

To get there though, we have to do the hard work of being involved with kids, and the people they interact with. It’s so much easier to just look it up online and assume they’re safe.

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