Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Don't Make it Harder to Report Child Abuse

I was drinking my morning green tea one day last week and perusing The Oregonian when my eyes fell upon the headline about House Bill 2183, “Oregon House passes bill outlawing purposely false child abuse claims”.
“Huh,” I said to myself, “It needs to be easier to report child abuse, not harder.”
I am the Executive Director of Compassionate Gathering, a budding not-for-profit that works to end abuse and heal the wounds in individuals and communities.  I guard our not-for-profit status zealously, so I don’t do political advocacy, but this law is so bad I had to speak out against it.  Each of the last three summers members and friends of Compassionate Gathering have walked through towns and on scenic trails from one side of Oregon to the other.  Local media usually covers our Walks (except in Portland), and people come to meet us and share their stories with us.  We’ve met frantic grandmothers and babysitting family friends trying to protect children from abusive parents as well as adults who grew up in abusive families.  The biggest problem with abuse is not false reports but that it is very difficult to obtain enough evidence for criminal prosecution of the abuser.  Child Protective Services is not only underfunded to investigate adequately, it acts very cautiously.
False reports of child abuse are very rare except in the cases of divorced families -- the situation in the article that State Senator Jeff Krause claimed he was a victim of.  I have spoken about the issue with a family practice lawyer.  He told me that in his experience working with divorced parents, that while 50% of accusations of child abuse were false, 50% were true.  Rather than criminalizing false accusations, it is better to recognize that such accusations are often the result of dysfunctional relationships -- not criminal activity.  Since child abuse can be so hard to prove, criminalizing false accusations will depress the reporting of abuses and cause more children to suffer.
There is a far better solution.  When families are in conflict during and after divorce, make therapy mandatory.  Every divorced family in conflict needs two therapists -- one for the children and one for the parents called a Parenting Coordinator.  Parenting Coordinators make decisions about childcare with the same level of authority as an arbitrator, but currently they must be court ordered -- which allows a parent intent on conflict to drag out the process of obtaining help for children.  Unfortunately, divorced parents in conflict tend to wound children emotionally, which is a form of legal child abuse.  Courts should be able to appoint Parenting Coordinators automatically for divorced parents in conflict.  Therapy is much cheaper than litigation.  Parents’ financial resources should go to caring for children instead of fighting each other with lawyers.  Therapists are also usually able to pick up on child abuse and parental conflict much better than judges and arbitrators, because they see families over time and are able to sort out relationships and behaviors.  Judges and arbitrators see parents for an hour or two during which a good lawyer can represent their client’s bad behavior in the best possible light.
As always, the needs of the children should come first and not the need of one parent to punish another parent for a false accusation of child abuse.  Divorced families in conflict need help with healing, not more litigation. I can’t tell you to vote for anybody or anything, but please act to protect children and heal wounds in divorced families.

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