“The Protected Faithful: Governmental Response to Religious Child Abuse”

CatholicChurchAbuseScandalGraffitiPortugal2011“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death.”

— Proverbs 23:13-14

 

Child abuse policy has been connected to many contentious issues in American politics, namely federal intervention in state affairs, parental prerogatives, and the rights of children. However, the relationship between child abuse policy and the constitutional mandates that Congress not establish a religion or prohibit its free exercise is particularly divisive. Religion has a consequential effect upon this recent discussion of child abuse policies.

When referring to its definitions and the statistics about its prevalence, according to Hopper (2009), the very notion of ‘child abuse’ is a controversial idea (Costin, Karger, & Stoesz, 1996). From the binding and attempted sacrificial slaying of Isaac by Abraham to the mauling of children by two bears at the request of Elijah to the mocking, lashing, and crucifixion of the ‘Son of God’ to the sexual misconduct by Catholic Priests in recent days, our communities of faith are riddled with imageries of child abuse. Society has nearly always seen acts of child abuse as a private matter to be handled by the family and the faith. Only the most rare, grotesque cases were considered by the state (Nelson, 1984). It is only in recent decades, however, that child abuse has come to be commonly known as a social problem necessitating government intervention.

The entrance of child abuse into the national agenda and its accepted status as a social problem by the U.S. government is more recent than one would imagine (Nelson, 1984). There was brief interest in child abuse as a social problem in the late 1800’s, particularly due to the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) and the famous “Mary Ellen” case. Moreover, the creation of the U.S. Children’s Bureau was a step in securing child abuse in the social conscious of the U.S. (Nelson, 1984). The onslaught of war in the 20th century, however, forced national attention to child rights onto other programs, effectively ending all progress. Attention to child abuse was nearly forgotten until the notion of equitable treatment slowly gained national attention under the umbrella of ‘child welfare’ in the New Deal and Great Society legislative eras (Nelson, 1984).

Over the past few decades, laws and policies concerning children have increased and become more focused on the safety and well-being of children (Young, 2001). For instance, in 1974 the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) was enacted. The legislation effectively solidified child abuse as a national agenda item, dispersing $86 million dollars for research. CAPTA was intended to curb child abuse and offer reasonable actions for treatment. This public law allowed for grants to states if they had procedures in place for dealing with child abuse. CAPTA gave minimum definitions for child abuse that the states were to follow (Stoltzfus, 2009). This law was revised in the 1988 Child Abuse Prevention, Adoption and Family Services Act, and again in the 1996 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act Amendments, and in the 2003 Keeping Children and Families Safe Act.

The federal government has determined minimum definitions of child abuse as a matter of federal law, most recently, in the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003. This legislation requires that states include minimum definitions of abuse in their statutes in order to receive federal monies, but the state may go further in how it defines child abuse.

However, the federal government has determined that definitions of abuse are not to be construed as a forceful mandate that prohibits religions from acting contrary to that religion’s proscriptions, particularly with regard to withholding medical treatment, offering spiritual prayer/healing as a means of healthcare, or neglecting to provide basic needs such as food (fasting) as well as engaging in corporal punishment. The federal law establishes a directive that permits the individual states to decide if they will allow for exemptions to the definitions of child abuse. Therefore, some state legislatures have enacted constitutional amendments that provide ‘religious’ exemptions to the definitions of child abuse. [1]

Ultimately, this project lays the groundwork for a more comprehensive book project that I am working on that discusses the interaction between religious expression and child abuse, particularly how and why Congress and the individual states assent to the idea that religious ideologies that are carried into practices are not understood as violating the federal or state enacted definitions of child abuse if and when the abuse occurs in accordance with the tenets of the religious faith, which could be argued essentially negates the importance of mitigating the child abuse this legislation intended to diminish.

There seems to be an ontological supposition that God’s law as dictated in religious texts has more authority than the law designed to protect children from abuse. The inclusion of religion into the discussion of child abuse policy creates a dramatic conflict of interests and alters child abuse policies and laws. The religious exemptions to U.S. child abuse policies create problems for children, their parents, and the states as well as the First Amendment. Completing this larger project would produce interesting results, given the importance of religion and politics in our political dialogue.

Governmental involvement in how parents introduce their children to religious tenets, disciplinary actions, and child-rearing practices is now predicated on the legal notion of parens patriae. This concept refers to the government’s legal ability to intervene on the behalf of a child when the parents are not comporting themselves responsibly or are acting neglectfully and/or abusively towards the child—according government statutes. It is common knowledge that the federal and state governments have consistently and progressively intervened. The parameters for this intervention are set by federal and state legislative mandates and they are extensive.

Conversely, freedom to practice one’s religion has been a perceived component of American life since the beginning of the Republic. Moreover, the metaphoric wall of separation between the church (religion) and the state Jefferson so masterfully spoke of is often considered a fundamental element of American government. However, a brief study of case law indubitably proves that the United States has clearly struggled to define its complicated relationship with religious expression. This intersection of religion and politics in American public life is so often wrought with images of walls, discussions of accommodation, and notions of neutrality as well as a common opinion that there exists a freedom to exercise that religion. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the freedom of religious expression and the notion of a ban on government-established religion are not without clarifications. The interconnected and conflicting ideas of religious expression, law, and government policy are the paradigmatic example of this struggle; the relationship between child abuse policy and the constitutional mandates that Congress not establish a religion or prohibit its free exercise is particularly divisive.

Understanding why Congress and many states have decided that ‘religious’ exemptions to child abuse are necessary and do not act contrary to its mitigation will become clear through the overall assessment of how the inclusion of religion into the policy discussion engenders a dramatic conflict of interests and alters child abuse policies and laws. There has not been a study with a comprehensive, empirical approach to how religion shapes child abuse policy. Such a study brings attention to an issue that is often overlooked by policy-makers and the general public. Therefore, the purpose of this research will explain why, how, and to what extent religion impacts federal and state child abuse laws and policies.

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A more quantitative version of the aforementioned research will be presented at the Annual Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Conference in Indianapolis, IN in October 2014.

I also sort of wrote about this a while ago for the State of Formation while the scandal at Penn State was taking place.

[1] Currently, there are 30 states — the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam — that offer state constitutional amendments that allow parents to practice faith-based medical care for their children without threat of prosecution. Three of the states_, however, provide a specific exemption for members of the Christian Science movement. Of the 30 states, 16 provide for the medical intervention by the courts if the child’s condition warrants it (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2010).

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