Police in Lincoln County, Mo., say a 6-year-old boy was subjected to a violent kidnapping arranged by family members who worried he was “too nice” and wanted to scare him to teach him to be warier of strangers.
According to the account from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office: The boy’s aunt arranged for a male co-worker to do the kidnapping, with the consent of the boy’s mother and grandmother. He then lured the boy into his truck, told him he would never “see his mommy again,” and showed him a handgun. The man bound his hands and feet, blindfolded him, and took him to the family’s basement. After more trauma, the boy was taken upstairs for a lecture on stranger danger.
All four adults are now charged with a range of crimes including felony kidnapping and child abuse.
While the alleged actions are an extreme example, the case does prompt a closer look at the phenomenon of parents harming their children by misguided attempts to do them good.
“There’s a lot of psychological abuse because parents say things to children that they think are going to teach them a lesson, like, ‘I’m going to leave you here,’ without knowing the terror that may evoke,” says David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center in Durham.
“The problem with fear is, it’s a very primitive response and it doesn’t always work out the way the parents want,” Professor Finkelhor says. “Children, when they are afraid, may learn the wrong lesson ... [or] may come to fear their own parents rather than the peril that their parents are trying to educate them about.”
Parents can find ways to teach their children without unduly scaring them – by explaining certain dangers to them and showing them how concerned and anxious those situations make the parents feel.
“Parents who are concerned about their children should consider working with their school's social worker or psychologist to develop more appropriate strategies” rather than resorting to scare tactics, writes Kate Zinsser, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in an e-mail to the Monitor.
When it comes to child abuse, one end of the spectrum is parents or other caregivers who act out of anger or have impulsive reactions to a child – violently shaking a baby, for instance. At the other end of the spectrum, the adults think they’re doing something good, such as using corporal punishment to discipline a child, but unintentionally injure him or her in the process.
In Massachusetts, for instance, the death of an 18-month-old girl is being investigated after she apparently suffocated when a plastic bag that was placed on her head for a home lice treatment slipped over her face while she was unattended.
What complicates the picture, Finkelhor says, is there are many cases in which a parent claims good intentions, but it turns out a very strong emotional reaction or impulse was involved as well.
2013 saw an estimated 679,000 substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect in the United States, a rate of about 9 per 1,000 children, according to a recent report by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Of those, about 8 out of 10 children faced neglect and 18 percent faced physical abuse. In the most extreme cases, abuse and neglect led to the deaths of 1,520 children that year.
It’s a pressing problem. But it’s also one that has seen significant declines in recent decades. Child abuse went down by about 52 percent between 1990 and 2007, with child neglect going down about 6 percent, the Crimes Against Children Research Center reports.
Researchers don’t know exactly what’s behind the declines, but everything from an improved economy to more effective interventions could be contributing.
In the recent Missouri case, investigators became involved when a school official who heard something from the child reported a suspicion.
The fact that the boy’s situation was discovered, and he has since been placed in protective custody, hints at the important role of mandatory reporting laws. Passed largely in the 1970s, these laws have helped bring about a “sea change” in the role schools have played in identifying abuse and neglect cases, Finkelhor says. Not only are school staff more alert, but there are also many programs in place now to encourage children to tell someone what’s happened to them.
In 2013, three-fifths of abuse and neglect reports were made by professionals, and education staff were among the top sources, reporting 17.5 percent of cases, according to HHS.