Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Defining Child Abuse

Here's an interesting question: what constitutes child abuse? Or, to put it another way, what kind of harm has to be inflicted on a child before we're willing to let the government step in?

I ask this because there's a post at Dispatches about an Arkansas bill that would make it illegal to smoke in a car if there is a child present. I concur with Ed that this seems to be particularly invasive, but at the same time I'm finding it hard to argue against it.

If you agree that secondhand smoke is dangerous (a big "if", but that's another discussion) then its hard to argue that its OK to expose children. Now its possible to argue that children spend a small fraction of their lives in cars and, as such, that exposure during car rides wouldn't be sufficient to pose a long-term danger to child. So lets get bolder, and propose a hypothetical law banning smoking in a private residence that is home to a minor.

The potential harm to the child (again, stipulating that secondhand smoke is dangerous) is substantial in this situation, since the child spends a majority of its early development at home. The public generally supports the government's right to intercede (at least with other peoples' kids) in the case of child abuse, so should be amenable removing children from such an environment. And yet if such a law were to pass there'd be no end to the uproar, because very few people would consider exposing a child to secondhand smoke to be child abuse. Why is that?

It could be the passive nature of the act. Do we have an expectation that abuse must consist of an overt act, like hitting a child? Yes, to some extent, but we do recognize child abuse of a more passive nature as well. Neglect, for instance, is abuse by omission rather than commission, and children are commonly removed from their homes in such circumstances.

A more important factor, I believe, is that the results of exposure to secondhand smoke are not immediately apparent. We have no problem calling is abuse when the result is a burn or a broken limb, but if the result is instead some sort of chronic health problem (which could be attributed to some other source) we're not inclined to draw such a conclusion. The irony here is that burns and breaks will heal, while chronic conditions are, well, chronic. Exposure to secondhand smoke has a far greater chance of affecting a child's long-term wellbeing than these common forms of physical abuse.

There's also the issue of mental/emotional trauma to consider. Does there have to be mental/emotional damage before we'll consider something to be abuse, a component which is absent the case of exposure to secondhand smoke? I'd argue that the answer here is "no", since physical signs of abuse are often sufficient to sustain such charges.

It would seem that exposure to second hand smoke meets the criteria for child abuse. If you believe that the government has a right (perhaps even a responsibility) to prevent child abuse then it follows that you've got to get on board with initiatives designed to reduce children's exposure to secondhand smoke. I don't see any clever way out of this one.

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