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Better Safe than Sorry? When Puritanical Hysteria Harms Children


Few people object to the existence of government agencies charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect, nor do they oppose giving these agencies the power to remove children from abusive environments, at least as a last resort.

However, this post from the Wall Street Journal Law Blog shows what can happen when the legitimate mission of state Child Protective Services agencies can become sidetracked by puritanical hysteria.

children in bathtubAccording to the post, parents took innocent pictures of their children in the bathtub. When they went to a local Wal-Mart to have the pictures printed, an employee decided that these pictures constituted child pornography, and turned them over to the police.

The parents were arrested, and their daughters were taken away from them for over a year. During that time, they were required to register as sex offenders. The couple spent $75,000 in legal fees, and the mother was suspended from her job. According to recent interviews with the parents, it took a long time before they were comfortable taking any pictures of their children again, regardless of the setting.

In the end, they were cleared of all wrongdoing, the charges were dropped, and their children were returned after a year living away from their parents.

All sane people recognize that sexual exploitation of children is one of the most evil and disgusting things that human beings are capable of. I don’t know exactly how pervasive the problem is, but one instance of it is one too many. I also don’t know what has happened to our society that people would consider innocent pictures of children, the type which the vast majority of parents take, could be construed as child pornography by any person capable of obtaining employment (even if it is a job at Wal-Mart’s photo department) as child pornography.

Furthermore, this case used up limited resources that could have been used to investigate and prosecute actual instances of child sexual abuse. An argument could be made that, because of the actions of this employee, and the decision of the police and CPS to pursue this frivolous investigation for so long, real cases of abuse went unpunished, and children suffered as a result.

According to recent LegalMatch statistics from the last 12 months, reports of child abuse continue to be common. In most of the cases, the alleged abuser was a parent or someone else who had a confidential relationship with the child, such as a teacher or coach. This demonstrates the need for a robust system that protects children from abuse, and that any frivolous allegations should be dismissed, after being sufficiently investigated, lest real cases of child abuse go unpunished.


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