Re: Crisis of legitimacy (child abuse)

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 8 May 1996 00:05:42 +0900

Mike Cahill writes,

>So, what's my thesis? Well, remember, since the work is ethnographic, I'm
>more interested in describing things than I am in proving a hypothesis. But
>there some likely suspects when it comes to "conclusions" of the study. The
>first one is that, seen in world historical perspective, "American"
>(especially American *legal*) definitions of child abuse and neglect are
>somewhat arbitrary.


>A second conclusion derives from the foregoing. Because of the fuzziness
>associated both with definitions and with the role of proximate-ultimate
>causes, child abuse and neglect are often confused with povery, sociocultural
>differences in child rearing, and accidents. In practice, the shortcomings
>in the "tests" used to screen for child abuse mean that the system ends up
>taking in a lot of "junk" -- including problems that should be handled in
>other ways by other agencies -- and yet it often misses much of what it
>should be capturing (emotional abuse, for example). In the bargain, agencies
>spread themselves too thin and run the risk of mishandling cases.


> Here are some of the recommendationsthat I'm considering:
>1) Integrate child protective services and preventive services for children
>and families. Don't force all requests for service and assistance to go
>through the "child abuse" door (as is now pretty much the case); rather, cull
>out the abuse cases when you're close enough to make a reliable assessment.
> (In the state where I work, intake for child abuse is done over the phone.)
>2) When considering child abuse, give more definitional weight to harm
>resulting from acts that degrade, terrorize, and humiliate children. Why
>treat a bruise from a spanking (and spanking is legitimate in *much* of our
>culture) the same way you'd treat deep emotional impairment resulting from
>continual parental scapegoating? It seems to me a defensible claim that
>child abuse, in any culture, is really more about the mental and emotional
>destruction of a child, with or without physical harm or impairment, than it
>is all "insults to child welfare" (which may be attributable more to poverty,
>cultural differences, and accidents). It should be so treated in policy.
>3) Link anti-child abuse efforts with community development efforts. Given
>the strong correlation between social breakdown and child maltreatment which
>appears to hold across all cultures (see Levine and Levine, and Ritchie and
>Ritchie in Korbin 1981), it makes a lot of sense.

1) and 3) make a lot of sense to me. Narrowly focused "interventions" that
ride roughshod over family and cultural systems in which the "abuse" is
embedded are scary propositions. Openly recognizing that "abuse" is a
political issue in which community values are at stake and widening the
political/therapeutic process to include as many of those concerned as
possible seems highly reasonable.

The definitional issue, 2), is at the heart of that process.I'm inclined to
agree with Mike about the importance of "the mental and emotional
destruction of a child," while remaining very unclear about how to either
identify or judge the extent of the problem. Here, in particular, is where
a little anthropological knowledge disrupts easy stereotypes, but is still
insufficient as a guide to replacing them.

I recall an article I read a year or two ago in, I think it was, Ethos, the
journal of psychological anthropology, in which the author was describing
some examples of Inuit childrearing. What seemed at first appalling was a
pattern of merciless teasing and hazing of children who failed to master
the local technology. Mastery meant more than being able to do conventional
things. It required innovation, a knack of making do and solving problems
with whatever materials happened to be at hand. Clumsiness and failure to
find a solution did not result in physical punishment, but did result in a
child's becoming a laughingstock to all the adults as well as the other
children around her.The behavior described would almost certainly be
described as abusive if found, for example, in a contemporary American
classroom. In the Arctic environment where it was found, it helped to
ensure survival, since it helped to prepare children for situations in
which lack of a knack for making do would, in fact, be deadly.What I do not
remember reading was any indication of what, through Inuit eyes, would be
seen as going too far with the kind of hazing described.

John McCreery
May 7, 1996

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo