In this week’s episode of “Parent Shaming via Social Media,” Erika Burch posted pictures of a man allegedly dragging his young daughter by the hair in a Cleveland, Texas Walmart. Ms. Burch’s photos have now gone viral, and she’s riding the media wave by making daily talk show appearances. Those television segments are immediately followed by fierce “expert” debates over whether Ms. Burch is a heroic protector of children, or a villainous meddler who should have minded her own business.
As an actual expert in child-protective matters, I’ve got to speak up on this one. First, the father’s behavior: it’s Grade-A bad parenting. Dragging children around by their hair, while not life-threatening, goes far beyond social norms for discipline. Even if the child wasn’t seriously injured by the incident, there’s no question that her father’s behavior was hurtful. Whether this father had a legal right to conduct himself in that manner is another issue entirely. Corporal punishment is legal, as are many other lousy parenting choices. Corporal punishment becomes illegal when it is deemed “excessive” by authorities. And while there’s no hard and fast rule for what makes punishment “excessive,” factors such as injury to the child, use of a foreign object, the child’s state of mind, and the circumstances surrounding the punishment are relevant. Such an inquiry is the responsibility of child-protective professionals – not of bypassers in Walmart, or of gossip hounds on Twitter or morning talk shows.
Should Erika Burch have just minded her own business? Hell no. Protecting children is everyone’s responsibility. Ms. Burch knew that, and confronted the father, which was a risky, but potentially effective method of protecting the child in an immediate sense. It’s what Ms. Burch did next that was a bad choice. If she had serious concerns about the incident she witnessed (and she certainly should have, because a parent who exhibits violent, degrading behavior toward a child in public may well be doing a lot worse in private), she should have alerted proper authorities. Child-protective investigators and social workers are trained to evaluate parental behavior, and they are best suited to gather information and take appropriate action.
Most states have laws that require certain professionals – such as teachers, doctors, therapists, and police—to be “mandated reporters” for suspicion of child maltreatment. If those professionals suspect child abuse or neglect and fail to report to appropriate authorities, they may face sanctions. Non-professionals, like Ms. Burch, may not be required to report child maltreatment, but certainly should report it when appropriate.
Human nature discourages people from becoming involved in situations like this one; parents, in particular, know that children’s public behavior doesn’t always paint an accurate and consistent picture of their respective home lives. But the law already takes the complexity of parenting into account. For example, there is a Texas statute giving absolute immunity to any person who makes a report of alleged child abuse:
a) A person acting in good faith who reports or assists in the investigation of a report of alleged child abuse or neglect or who testifies or otherwise participates in a judicial proceeding arising from a report, petition, or investigation of alleged child abuse or neglect is immune from civil or criminal liability that might otherwise be incurred or imposed.
Bottom line: it’s not going to hurt you to try and protect a child, so make the call.
The protocol should be very simple. A person witnesses maltreatment of a child and becomes concerned for the child’s safety. That person calls the local child abuse hotline (here’s the one that Ms. Burch could have used) and puts the matter into the hands of professionals who are trained to handle it.
By contrast, sharing photographs via social media as a means of creating an electronic judge and jury is not only insufficient to protect children, but is also dangerous for a would-be good Samaritan. Sharing unauthorized pictures, especially when a child is in those pictures, can give rise to liability for defamation and invasion of privacy. Using social media as a child-protective tool is lazy and risky. A person who legitimately believes a child is in danger has tools at his or her disposal – but Facebook posts are not those tools.
In the case of the little girl in Walmart, the local police department ultimately did hear about the incident and began its own investigation, in coordination with Child Protective Services.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.