|A Message from Center Director Melissa Jonson-Reid|
Like many of you I have been watching the Adrian Peterson case unfold. I began reflecting on this as a parent, Director of CVIP, and a researcher and teacher very interested in maltreatment and child well-being. Many of the comments I have heard have focused on the issue of discipline which all parents face. I have been thinking, however, that this case raises the possibility of talking about much more than whether or not corporal punishment is a good idea. So here I am sharing some of my own questions and thoughts in hopes of provoking a long overdue discussion.
What about intent? One of the children who died in Florida and was profiled in ‘Innocents Lost’ (http://www.miamiherald.com/projects/2014/innocents-lost/) was killed by dogs in his own back yard while the parents were sleeping after doing drugs. I am sure this was not premeditated, but it was nonetheless an unacceptable and tragic act of omission by a parent. We typically call this “neglect” in policy and practice. In the Peterson case, it took time to prepare the stick and presumably it took time for the child to partly undress. It is not clear whether stuffing the leaves in his mouth was intended to muffle cries, but this seems a reasonable explanation. Then there is evidence that the incident involved repeated blows. At some point it had to be clear that skin was being broken and welts made in several places. Indeed, there is some indication in the reported text messages that feeling bad about the location and perhaps extent of the injuries led to an end to the switching. Even if the initial intent was limited to causing “pain”, lasting evidence of physical injury resulted. Generally, action causing non-accidental physical injury is physical abuse whether or not one intended to cause serious physical injury.
There are many instances of what most state policies and probably most people define as maltreatment that are not planned out in advance. These incidents may result from a loss of control or other choices or circumstances that impair parenting that result in harm or serious risk of harm. The number one reason people say they “shook their baby,” which can result in serious brain injury or death, is to stop them from crying not to intentionally cause physical harm (http://www.purplecrying.info/sub-pages/protecting/shaken-baby-syndrome-sbs.php).
Serious harm? In reading some of the readers’ responses to the news reports about the incident there is some clear division over the issue of harm. Here is where I am bothered by the leaves. In the United States choking is a leading cause of death among young children (see American Academy of Pediatricians, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, etc.). It is not difficult to imagine a four year old child accidentally starting to swallow part of a wad of leaves already in his mouth as he begins to cry or thrash around. Since we know he tried to defend himself from the marks on his hands, one can presume he was not still during the incident. Further, many parents may be unaware that some tree leaves are poisonous if ingested—chewing on wild cherry tree leaves or most parts of a yew, for example, can be fatal. Other trees like black locust, elderberry, and oak can make children quite ill (e.g., http://gardening.yardener.com/Poison-Trees-Shrubs-And-Vines; http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/plantox/textResults.cfm ). How would the case be viewed differently if the child had suffocated or been poisoned?
Should parenting practices be guided by our past? Many comments regarding this case have referred to practices in prior generations. We carve pumpkins at Halloween in my family now as I did as a child. On the other hand, in the early 1990s we learned that it is healthier to place babies on their backs to sleep. Children placed on stomachs are at higher risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (http://www.nichd.nih.gov/sts/campaign/science/Pages/backsleeping.aspx). I placed my sons on their backs, but it’s quite possible my mother placed me on my stomach. I see no reason why we cannot both continue to practice positive things in our families but also benefit from new information and better practices as they arise. I hope my own children will feel free to improve on the mistakes we made or misinformation we had.
As we discuss this case, I hope we move beyond whatever decisions are made and sanctions upheld relative to Mr. Peterson. We need to talk openly about what is unacceptable or maltreatment and also what we want to do about it. In the vast majority of restaurant restrooms today there are signs posted about washing our hands. We are hearing new messages about what we should be eating to combat obesity and other health problems. We could be using a similar approach spreading messages about our best information on parenting and normalizing seeking help. Indeed there are more and more organizations offering such tools and information, but it is far from the level of a public health campaign like hand washing. And when maltreatment does occur or substantial risk of maltreatment exists already? Currently, most families reported for concerns about child maltreatment receive little or no assistance. This is because we have not chosen to adequately plan or fund our response so far. Estimates indicate this lack of foresight may be costing us much more than we might have thought (http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childmaltreatment/economiccost.html). Let’s talk.