Skip to main content

America’s Failing Child-Protection System


June 2, 2023

In her recent Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver describes the situation of a young boy whose father dies before he is born. His mother struggles with addiction, but Demon manages to get by somehow—mostly with the help of his next-door neighbors. His situation goes south quickly, though, around the age of 10, when his mother invites her new boyfriend, Stoner, to live with them. He beats Demon, locks him in his room for days at a time, and makes him scrub the floors with bleach until he practically passes out from the fumes. And Stoner prevents Demon from having any contact with the caring neighbors. It is Stoner’s presence in the home that arguably leads to Demon’s entry into the foster care system. She watches idly, frightened to lose this man, as her child is subject to the worst kinds of maltreatment.

Though we don’t like to think about it much, one of the primary functions of parents is protecting kids from other adults who would do them harm. In the popular imagination, this takes the form of keeping strangers from pulling children into an unmarked white van. But in reality, this means ensuring that they are left with a babysitter whom we have vetted, or that they are enrolled in a school whose staff we trust. This especially means keeping dangerous adults out of our homes. Children, like Demon, who are living with a nonrelative male are 10 times as likely to be abused as those who are living with two married parents.

But much of our public attention and public policy seems to focus on “stranger danger.” Parents scour the registry of sex offenders to make sure that their children stay away from those who live within a certain radius of the school, for instance. They worry about adults hanging around a playground.

Recently, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that his state would now consider the death penalty for people who have committed sexual battery or child rape against someone under the age of 12. “We think that in the worst of the worst cases, the only appropriate punishment is the ultimate punishment,” DeSantis said last month. This may sound like just desserts for a convicted child molester, but such a policy will not go very far to protect vulnerable children, and may actually make convictions for these crimes harder to secure. Most incidents of sexual abuse are dealt with by state and county child welfare agencies—not prosecutors—because almost half of the perpetrators are direct family members. And that does not account for abuse committed by, say, a mother’s boyfriend living in the home.

Even the cases of sexual abuse by priests followed a similar pattern. Priests often targeted children of widows or single mothers for their abuse. These men were not strangers. In a 2018 article about the phenomenon, Stacey Honowitz, Florida supervisor of the Florida State Attorney’s Office Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit, said, “I think pedophiles and manipulative people like that are probably more fearful if they know that the dad is present. … That’s what I’ve seen. If dad’s in the picture and showing strength, predators are a little bit more hesitant to deal with the kid.” Women would welcome the help and guidance for their sons from priests, not realizing the danger they were placing them in. As a lawyer for some of the abuse victims in Boston told the Globe, “The scenario hasn’t changed. … They were vulnerable children from basically fatherless homes where the mothers were overwhelmed and relying on the priests for help.”

There were approximately 60,000 substantiated incidents of child sexual abuse nationwide in 2021, the most recent year for which we have data. But fewer than one in five cases of child sex abuse are actually prosecuted nationwide according to the Department of Justice. As a report from the DOJ notes, “child sexual abuse (CSA) cases are notoriously difficult. … Medical evidence is available in less than 5% of the reported cases of CSA and the prosecution often must rely on the testimony of a child.”

But in cases which involve family members, it is even harder because children and other witnesses may be reluctant to testify. Imagine how much more reluctant they might be now they know that their testimony could send a parent or relative to their death. Such a highly publicized move by the governor may actually discourage victims and witnesses from coming forward.

If we really wanted to protect children from sexual abuse, we would be doing more to keep children away from their abusers. Unfortunately, the driving ideology of these agencies is to keep children with their families or reunite them after briefly removing them to foster care. The Adoption and Safe Families Act, which was passed in 1997, required states to make “reasonable efforts” at family preservation before terminating parental rights. But lawmakers allowed that there might be “aggravated circumstances” that would make such efforts unnecessary or inappropriate. Those included “abandonment, torture, chronic abuse, and/or sexual abuse.”

Tragically, many states keep trying to reunite children with parents even after they have committed unspeakable offenses. A case in Pennsylvania, for instance, saw three adolescent girls sent back to the home of their father who’d repeatedly raped them. In fact, analysis of federal data by Sarah Font of Pennsylvania State University, found that nearly half of children exiting foster care in 2019 were reunited with families from whom they’d been removed in the first place. As Font notes, “even with exceptions, the default is still to [make] reasonable efforts” to keep the kids with their abusers.

The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence notes that “Reunification after child sexual abuse is a topic that can bring up intense feelings, but the reality is that many who are convicted of a crime and sent to jail or prison do eventually return to their homes and communities.” It is one thing, of course, for these adults to return to their communities. It is quite another to return them to a home where they have sexually abused a child. Nevertheless, the Center’s website notes, “Even when the person who abused a child is held accountable for his or her crime, at some point, the community and his or her family will still need to interact with them in some way.” These should be two separate questions: reintegration into the community versus reintegration into a family with minor children.

The author of that particular article, Jennifer Benner, Resource Development Specialist for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, says that, “If at any point the child who was sexually abused does not wish to move forward with reunification, the process must be stopped immediately.” But why are we leaving such matters up to the child? As Benner herself notes, “it is a common and conflicting experience to love the person who hurt you, longing for that relationship to exist without the abuse.” Yes, and children don’t always know what’s best for them. While Benner says that children’s safety should be the “priority,” there seems to be no adult-imposed criteria for whether this is a good idea at all.

And so the field of social work has continued down this bizarre path. In its guide for reunifying adolescent sexual abusers with the family members they have victimized, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) recommends that the adolescent, “Take responsibility for their actions” and “Recognize the emotional experiences of, and the impact of the abuse on, the victimized family member(s).” This seems like a tall order for any adult sex offender, let alone an adolescent. The ATSA also advises offenders to “Engage in restorative justice work, in which one aim is to make amends for the harm caused to the victimized family member(s) and others.” What does that even mean? Meanwhile it recommends that the victims “Practice self-care and resiliency skills.”

Pennsylvania has a training protocol for how social workers should go about placing kids back with the family members who have sexually abused them. A handout that accompanied a presentation entitled “Family Reunification and Case Closure in Child Sexual Abuse Cases” given by the Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center (the state’s contracted provider of child protection caseworker training), provides instructions for how family members should supervise the abuser during overnight visits. There is advice about putting locks on bathroom and bedroom doors, as well as ensuring that the abuser remains clothed unless in the bathroom or his own bedroom. And then it notes: “If he needs to leave the bedroom during the night he should awaken his wife (girlfriend) and inform her of what he is doing.” The report offers nothing less than a blueprint for keeping dangerous adults in homes with children.

Florida does not appear to have the same protocol, but it is one of several states that bypass reunification efforts only after the child has been removed twice due to sexual abuse. (Imagine if this was the standard for priests or gymnastics coaches!) Especially given the high recidivism rates among child sex abusers—one study “found a five-year sexual recidivism rate of 23 percent and a 15-year sexual recidivism rate of 35 percent for molesters of boys”—it is hard to imagine how this second chance policy is justified.

And experts tend to agree that even those numbers are an undercount, given how frequently sexual assault goes unreported. Moreover, those numbers are for adults who have been caught and held accountable, something that is not happening in many families. If Governor DeSantis really wants to signal that he is interested in protecting children, he should forget about the death penalty and institute a “one-strike-and-you’re-out” policy instead.

From suicide to substance abuse, the longterm effects of child sexual abuse are as awful as they are numerous. And then there is the extraordinary loss of trust that these victims experience when family members who know about their abuse fail to act or fail to separate them from their abusers. But it’s not just their parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles. Our system too is failing them.

About the Author

Naomi Schaefer Riley