How to Protect Children From Parents

Children today are warned against potential kidnappers, school shootings and TV violence, among other things. But what's to protect them from … their parents?

The need is clear following a string of odd child negligence and abuse cases in recent weeks:

A mother in Pomona, Calif., on May 24 allegedly put her 2-year-old daughter inside an active, coin-operated public laundry washer. Police were called after the parent, Erma Osborne, 35, and bystanders were unable to unlock the machine door. The girl suffered cuts to her arms and legs. The mother faces felony child endangerment charges.

A mother in Macomb Township, Mich., allegedly left her 12-day-old baby in the back seat of her car last Monday as she slept off a night of drinking in her apartment. She faces child abuse charges.

A woman in Oakland County, Mich., has been accused of starving her 10-year-old son for days as punishment for being disrespectful. Prosecutors have filed a neglect petition against her.

And in Georgia, a 21-month-old boy is fighting for his life after his mother left him alone in a hot car as she claimed to be taking packages into her home. Chemia Cullins, 22, told police on May 24 she only left her son alone only for a short time. But prosecutors did not believe her and charged her with child cruelty, aggravated assault and reckless conduct.

Charges have been filed in all these cases, which are far too common in the United States. According to the most recent statistics by Health & Human Services' Administration for Children and Families', approximately 903,000 children nationwide were victims of abuse or neglect in 2001. The data, collected by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, estimated that 12.4 of every 1000 children in the United States were victims of abuse or neglect.

But is fear of prosecution and the threat of losing custody to child welfare services the best way to save children from neglect and abuse? Not according to some experts, who argue the best way protect children is to first protect the parents.

"Parents can get so overwhelmed," said Gloria Rodriguez, founder and National President of AVANCE Inc. Family Support and Education Program in San Antonio, Texas. "In a lot of these crimes, where you find parents doing things like leaving children in the car, the parents are experiencing various stresses in their life where they've either lost their husband or their job or their trying to hold a job while raising their child alone and all these things affect the way they would parent.

Added Rodriquez: "It's an overload.They're in need of an outlet; they need a group to talk to."

No Parent — Or Child — Is Immune

While there are some distinctions — most violence abuse cases involve younger parents, while parents in their mid-30s are more likely to neglect their children — child abuse neglect cases involve parents of all races, age, gender, education and economic status.

Experts agree all parents can become overwhelmed, or suffer substance abuse and mental health problems, leaving them prone to neglect or abuse their children.

And in some abuse and negligence cases, parents simply may not have learned responsible guardian skills, either from their own parents, peers, or counselors. Some abusive or neglectful parents may have been abused themselves and learned their behavior.

But, say some experts, all need support, especially if they are juggling a career and family life or are dealing with troublesome children and feel an urge to escape.

"Any parent — all parents — need support, regardless of ethnicity, race, education level and income," said Rodriguez. "If they live in a poor community, where crime is higher, they can experience even more stress. … Sometimes mothers face hormonal issues after pregnancy that causes changes in the way they act."

Preemptive Abuse Measures

One way to protect children may be to teach parents to protect themselves and deal with their stress more effectively, experts say. Parents must recognize when they are overwhelmed and admit to it early so they can prevent abuse and negligence.

"First they must recognize the stress, admit to it, and get help. They must recognize it early because that's key to really preventing something from happening," said David Burton, assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. "Second, take time out for yourself, as long as you know the child is safe. Third, ask of help from someone, whether it be a neighbor, grandparents, partners, friends — anyone who's available."

Teachers also need to be trained look for signs of imminent abuse, Burton added. While teachers are adept at reporting abuse, they may not know how to detect warning signs.

Couples should also learn to talk about their parenting strategies, he said, and to learn how to communicate with their children, especially if they are troublesome or difficult.

"Spanking doesn't help," Burton said. "Parents really need to learn how to talk to them in a way that reinforces positive behavior. Punishment stops bad behavior in the short run, but it doesn't teach them what's right."

Sometimes Ignorance, or Just Plain Stupidity

Not everyone agrees overwhelming stress is behind child negligence and abuse cases. Some say stupidity is the culprit at times, and a stint behind bars could teach parents to better care for their children.

"I think a few nights in jail or your reporting on the cases in the news could do something [to help protect children]," said Douglas Besharov, former director of the U.S. Center on Child Abuse and Neglect in Washington, D.C.

Added Besharov: "Putting your child in a washer, though … that's just stupid. … But I don't think it's stress, though. Usually in cases where people leave their children in cars, they either don't know about the harm it could do or they get caught up in something else. Something takes longer to be done than expected."

Ignorance may have been behind the case of Tarajee Maynor, who locked her 3-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter in her car on an 86-degree day in Michigan last June while she shopped and got her hair done. The two children later died from the heat exposure.

The mother awaits trial on felony murder charges, but says she did not mean to kill her children and did not realize they could die under such circumstances.

And Maynor is still fighting for her parental rights — she was pregnant at the time of her arrest last year and gave birth to a third child in January. Prosecutors have found no previous instances of abuse or neglect, although she did plead guilty in 1999 to stealing more than $15,000 in jewelry from her employer.

At the time of the deaths, Maynor reportedly was taking classes at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and trying to start her own business. She has pleaded no contest to charges she was unfit to care for the newborn while she is imprisoned, but a final decision on her parental rights is not expected until late July.

Rehabilitating Parents

Isolated instances of abuse and neglect do not necessary mean that the parent is unsalvageable and should have their children taken from them, experts say. A solution that's best for both the parent and the child's safety must be reached, they add.

"In my experience of working with parents for 30 years, I can count on one hand the number of instances where I've said this child needs to be taken away for his own safety," said Rodriguez. "I definitely have hope. … Often, the child is no better off in an orphanage than he is with the parent."

"If the parents need parental training, give them the training," Rodriguez continued. "If they need the counseling, substance abuse counseling, the support for mental health issues, let's give them the support. If they need childcare so that they can hold on to their job and their children aren't left alone at home and become latchkey kids, let's give them the childcare. … We as a society have to decide how we going to see children — whether it's 'their' child or whether it's 'our' child."