Discipline, Forgetfulness, Child Abuse: Where is the Line?

Where does it go from accidents and bad luck to child abuse?

Posted Jun 30, 2014

The news, almost daily, has stories of harm done to children. Whilst it is true than some are stories of freak accidents, some of children being children and injuring themselves in the process, some the result of forgetfulness or just plain bad luck on the part of the parents, but then there are other stories where there is a much more sinister force at work. Child abuse is one of the most horrifying and shameful aspects of our society. 

Justin Ross Harris was in the news recently after he “forgot” to take his 22 month old son, Cooper, to daycare and left him in his car seat in a hot car for approximately 7 hours while he went to work. His son died of hyperthermia as a result and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Justin, before the incident, allegedly searched online for information on how long it would take children to die in a hot car. His response when police confronted him about this was apparently that he was fearful it could happen. On the day of the terrible tragedy, June 18, Justin took his son with him to breakfast and was seen going to his car in the middle of the day while his child was still in the vehicle. This week it was discovered that his wife also searched similar topics online. At the funeral, she was allegedly overheard saying that she was glad that he would never have to face the trials of living his life and if she had the opportunity to bring him back she would not because that would be cruel (CNN).

The full extent of the evidence will eventually tell whether this was a horrible accident or premeditated murder but as of now Justin Ross Harris remains in custody on charges of murder and second-degree child cruelty. However, people with terrific parenting skills, no history of trauma, and no behavioral health problems rarely leave babies in hot cars.  Where is that definitive line between an accident, child neglect and child abuse?

Another story recently was that of 12-year-old Charlie Bothuell, who went missing for 11 days, and was found alive with scaring on his body in his father’s basement in a small room with bedding and some food. It is reported that prior to going missing, he had exhibited some behavioral problems and his father was attempting to provide discipline and structure. Charlie has since told investigators that his father abused him with a PVC pipe. As more evidence is revealed in the upcoming court proceedings events in Mr. Bothuell’s household can be evaluated with a determination of where the line is between discipline and child abuse.

These are just two recent cases and unfortunately there are many more cases like these. Part of the problem is that in this society, we do not give all parents basic education on healthy parenting and a person does not have to be mentally or behaviorally healthy to bear children. Sometimes unhealthy parenting comes from behavioral health problems, a history of trauma in the parent’s early childhood history, or mistaken ideas about healthy parenting. However, they do need to be mentally healthy, or if there are problems they need to be receiving help to become mentally healthy, to raise a child in a healthy and safe manner. 

In most cases, parents need to seek the help of professionals in the parenting of children with challenging behaviors. There are techniques that will reduce the behavior and techniques that will increase the behavior. Parents do not automatically know what techniques are more effective. The help of behavioral health specialists can be extremely helpful in this regard and can make life easier on the parents, child and family.

An ever-growing fiercely independent America has led us to believe that we should be able to raise children in whatever manner we choose unless there is a terrible tragedy like those above. In reality, assistance is necessary for some parents to raise children in a healthy manner. When children are not raised in a healthy manner, some become violent, criminal, chronic substance abusers, or are left homeless. Services to parents with behavioral health problems are not the one answer to our massive social problems, but it is an important part of the answer. 

We must look at childhood trauma as the source of many tragic situations, including violence among those that survive child abuse. Our system of preventing child abuse and neglect is woefully inadequate and not fit-for-purpose. We take action when tragedy occurs but we must move to prevention that is supportive and caring for parents, not blaming in nature. In a similar manner, professionals can teach parents to raise their children in an atmosphere that is supportive and loving, not blaming. In this day and age child abuse should be stamped out and there are ways in which we can do this but we need to take action now and fund the necessary systems to do so.

Written by: Dr. Kathryn Seifert

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