Protecting the innocents

AS we move into the holiday season, with its promise of warmth and cheer within the family circle, news accounts reminding us how much within many families still needs healing are particularly poignant. There is the Steinberg case in New York City, in which adoptive parents are being held in connection with the fatal beating of their six-year-old daughter; the LaLonde case in Massachusetts; and the Morgan case in Washington, D.C., where mothers have chosen jail rather than reveal the whereabouts of daughters they believe to be at risk of abuse by their divorced fathers. And then the Fedders case, in which a domestic relations master ruled that a man who beat his about-to-be ex-wife was entitled to a share of the profits from the book she wrote on surviving her ordeal.

We could go on, but we won't. We're sure you've seen the stories, too.

Sometimes, as in the Fedders case, just getting more enlightened and sensitive individuals onto the bench may be much of the answer. But so often it is more complicated than that. The right of individuals to protection from public authorities can seem in conflict with the rights to privacy of the suspected or accused abusers. It's hard to imagine a situation that puts a greater strain on one's faith in due process and innocence until guilt is proved than hearing of a child's distress.

Still, we are not helpless before all this. Basic good neighborliness, alertness, can count for much. Individuals, including even children, who make it a point to keep the lines open to everyone around them never know when they may have an opportunity to provide a safe harbor, however briefly, to someone in trouble. A simple smile or ``hello'' on the street can do much to communicate concern and trustworthiness.

And every effort made to appreciate the value of each individual will contribute to an atmosphere in which violence is less prevalent, and in which victims feel more empowered to seek help - confident of getting it.

Practical steps can be taken, such as better coordination among and within municipal agencies, so that, for instance, police can quickly determine whether the address they are being called to has been the scene of previous domestic incidents. Arresting those charged with domestic violence, rather than just encouraging them to kiss and make up with their partners, has been found to reduce repeat offenses - and puts perpetrators on notice that society does not sanction violence in the home any more than on the street.

Teachers, social workers, and others on the front lines can be given more systematic training to deal with these problems.

Society needs to grow away from the mentality that sees domestic violence in terms of ``spats'' and ``squabbles'' and ``firm parental discipline.'' Marital and parental rights do not constitute a license to violence. Family - whether the ``nuclear'' family, or the larger family of the community - should be a supportive structure that helps all its members. Nothing less has any claim to the name.

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