Expert advice on what parents can do to prevent child sexual abuse
by Brittany Freeman
Denver7 Investigates has spent months investigating allegations of sexual abuse in Colorado schools.
We spoke with an expert on child sexual abuse prevention to discuss steps parents can take to try to protect children from being abused, and prevent children from becoming abusers.
Anne Auld is the Director of Programs for Illuminate Colorado, a statewide organization that helps develop programs, policies and initiatives aimed at keeping kids safe.
Auld said research shows about 90% of child sexual assaults are perpetrated not by a stranger but instead by someone the child already knows like a relative or an authority figure.
With that in mind, Auld said the responsibility falls on parents to be vigilant about who has access to their children and how those interactions happen.
“What I really want parents to hear is that it is their responsibility as adults to prevent child sexual abuse. It is not a child's responsibility to prevent that,” Auld said.
Take steps to ensure your child is not alone with an adult away from home
Auld says parents need to have what may feel like an uncomfortable conversation with everyone who has responsibility for caring for their children, from daycare to school to church to summer camp to sports teams.
She wants parents to ask about policies around a child being alone with an adult – and make it clear, you don't accept that.
“As an adult, that's my responsibility to make sure that my kids are not in situations where they can perhaps be perpetrated on,” Auld said.
When leaving your child in the care of others, she says parents should always ask how many adults will be supervising your child at all times, and what happens when one of the adults has to leave the room. If an adult needs to have a meeting with a child, ask that doors are kept open so others can see what's happening.
And make sure your kids get the message too.
“I'm telling my kids that they are not allowed to be alone with an adult. I don't want to wrap them in bubble wrap and put them in the basement and never let them talk to anybody, but I want to make sure that they know the expectations I have of adults, and if that's not happening, [I tell them] ‘If you're finding yourself in situations where you're alone with adults, you're making sure there are other kids there or another adult comes in,'” she said.
She offered the same advice for one-on-one text or email communications between your children and teachers or coaches. She said parents should ask to be copied on such emails and texts.
She also suggests saying something if you see an adult who seems to be getting too close to a child.
“A rule of thumb is, are there adults who are wanting to spend more time with your kid than you want to spend with your own kid? That's kind of a red flag,” Auld says. “[Say] ‘I've noticed that you're spending a lot of time with so-and-so. Can you tell me about that?' So that's not a confrontational message, it doesn't throw people off, but it lets people know, 'I've got my eyes on you.'”
If you have suspicions someone is hurting a child, call Colorado's 24-hour child abuse hotline at 844-CO4KIDS.
Early childhood conversations are key
Experts recommend talking with children early in their lives about the parts of their bodies that no one should touch.
Children should be told to tell their parents or a trusted adult if someone crosses those boundaries and to say no when they feel uncomfortable.
Auld also underscored how important it is for parents to respect a child's boundaries when they do say no.
Auld referred to advice released by the Girl Scouts which advised parents not to force daughters to hug relatives over the holidays if they do not want to. The piece caused some controversy, but Auld said the advice is spot-on.
“If a child feels uncomfortable giving a hug or a kiss, we need to respect that boundary that they are creating, so that they understand that they are having some say over their body. Later on, that sends a mixed message, that ‘Okay, you're telling me I can have boundaries and now you're telling me that I have to do this with an adult. I made this boundary for my body, I told you, I used words and said I don't like this. But you said no, you have to do it anyway.' And we wonder why when kids get older they have some confusion about their boundaries.”
Experts also recommend talking to children about the act of sex by the time they turn eight years old. While that may seem too young to parents, experts say the conversations happen on the playground around that age and parents want to make sure their children feel comfortable asking them questions about sex and their bodies as they grow.
Auld also suggests when parents talk with young kids they avoid using nicknames for a child's anatomy and use the proper language instead.
“When we use other terms like 'cookie' or 'biscuit' or all of those other words, we are now setting our kids up to have a different language from the adults around them. So should a child need to disclose that they're being abused, we may have an adult who's not going to understand what that child is telling them, because they're not using the right terms,” Auld says.
When something happens at school or in the news, talk about it
Auld says uncomfortable news like the arrest of a teacher accused of sexual abuse can also present opportunities to begin a conversation with your child.
“I think a lot of times as parents we feel like we have to have all the answers. That we're afraid to start conversations because we're like, 'What if they ask about this and I don't know?'” Auld said. “But it's as easy as, 'This happened, here's the letter that came home … What do you think about that?'”
Auld said it's simple to begin a conversation by simply asking your child what he or she thinks about something that happened at school or in the news.
“We don't always know the level of knowledge that our child has. So gauge what do they know about this? What do they know about the relationship [between a teacher and a student]? What do they think about the relationship? What do they think happened in that relationship? Just asking them what they think about this lets us gauge where they are with this situation so that we can ask some additional questions on top of that,” she said. “It's a super straightforward, easy button moment, that opens up an entire conversation. It doesn't have to start complicated.”
Experts recommend using open-ended questions in these types of conversations which will help reveal opinions the child has already formed, and allow parents to clear up any misinformation the child may have. Experts also advise using these conversations as an opportunity to ask your child if they know of anyone else who may have been hurt, or if there is anything else they want to talk about, to encourage children to open up if anything has happened to them.
Building empathy and discussing consent can prevent abuse
We asked Auld not only for tools for parents to protect their children from abuse, but also asked for tools that could help parents raise children who do not commit abuse themselves.
“When we can build empathy in children, and this is both boys and girls, when we can build that ability to be able to say, 'I've done something, I see how that hurt somebody, I can put myself in those shoes and feel that feeling,' that right there lowers our risk for every type of abuse later in life that they could possibly perpetrate,” Auld said.
“That's something that starts really little. That's like what happens when they hit somebody and you say, 'How do you think that made them feel?' That's part of that empathy-building piece,” she continued. “So [we want to be] really working on that as they go through life, especially in that elementary time period, moving into middle school. We really want that empathy piece to be strong because when they can put themselves in somebody else's situation, they're less likely to hurt somebody.”
Auld also said parents need to talk with children about consent throughout their lives.
“Consent starts when kids are really little. It starts with toys and taking something from somebody. It's not always in a sexual realm that we have to talk about consent. But that's a conversation that we're starting when they're really little and we're building on it as time grows, so the time that we're at adolescence, we've got that foundation,” she said.
As children get older, Auld said it's important to talk about consent with both boys and girls – both to protect them, and to make sure they understand the importance of being sure another person has consented in a sexual situation.
“We need to be having conversations about consent all the time with both our boys and our girls. What does true consent actually look like, and at what point are you old enough? Here's our legal definition of when you're old enough, but when do you feel like you'd be old enough for that?” she said. “And what happens when that person's older? What happens when that person's in a position of authority? Not only is it illegal for them but what does that look like. How do you think they could get in trouble or you could get in trouble? How do you think that they're different in their emotional levels to be able to have a relationship together?”
Child sex abuse: Police estimate 20,000 men in UK potential threat to kids
by Jon Rogers
Investigators monitoring a single online chatroom in 2017 identified 4,000 men using it from the UK alone, Simon Bailey has said.
Mr Bailey, who sits on the National Police Chiefs' Council and leads child protection, estimated the number of men who pose a sexual abuse threat to children at more than 20,000.
He added the figure was comparable to the number of current and former terrorism suspects.
Mr Bailey also warned that due to the limited resources of the police it was impossible to tackle all the perpetrators, saying that the force had to focus on the most dangerous offenders.
He said: “We are having to prioritise the threat. Some lower-level offenders cannot be arrested and taken to court. There is just not the capacity.”
Mr Bailey also said that reports to child protection experts were up 700 per cent since October 2013, but said some of that rise wad due to a greater willingness to report the crime.
Earlier this month, the NSPCC said there had been a 31 per cent increase in the number of reported cases of child sexual abuse in the UK compared to the previous year.
In the first 11 months of 2017, the National Crime Agency received 72,000 referrals about online child sexual abuse imagery, up from 6,000 in 2010.
Mr Bailey, who is the chief constable of Norfolk, said there was no doubt the danger of child abuse had grown, even if awareness of the issue had too.
He told The Guardian: “I think there is more sexual abuse of children being perpetrated both physically and virtually.
“There are more men than five to 10 years ago who are trying to abuse children.
“If a child flashes their breasts to someone online it can still cause great damage [to that child].
“I believe there are tens of thousands of men that are now going into chatrooms and forums with a view to grooming children.
“Technology has afforded an access to children that people who have a sexual interest in children never had before.”
He added the children being harmed were not just those from homes where parents are neglectful but from all walks of life.
He said: “The victims have included children of very capable and very caring parents. It does not recognise social status. The victims include children of middle-class, educated parents who think they are internet-savvy.”
Mr Bailey also claimed teachers needed to warn of the dangers of child sex abuse.
He said: “We need the same warnings about sexual abuse in schools, in the same way as we do for terrorism.
“Young people need to be educated about the risks, and spot the signs of exploitation and have the confidence to report it.”
Mr Bailey also called on tech companies to do more as live streaming becomes widely used.
He said: “Software providers have a critical role in policing the environment they create.
“They have a social and moral responsibility to make their platforms safe for children to use.”
The Home Office said: “We are supporting a robust law enforcement response, developing new capabilities to identify and protect victims and working with the internet industry to remove illegal images and tackle grooming.
“This is a global problem that demands a coordinated global response. Internet companies have made progress but they must work harder to remove and stop online child sexual exploitation.”
Detectives: Man beat 6-year-old stepson to death for sneaking out of bed to get cookie
by Mary Stringini
SEFFNER, Fla. — Detectives have charged a man with first-degree murder after they say he threw his 6-year-old stepson against a wall and beat him to death at a Seffner motel.
Jack Junior Montgomery, 31, has been charged with felony first-degree murder for the death of his stepson, 6-year-old Brice Russell.
According to the arrest affidavit, an employee at the Masters Inn in Seffner called authorities to report loud yelling in a room which sounded like an adult male yelling at a child saying to "beat the kid" and "push the kid over here".
Around 1:00 a.m. on Saturday, HCSO responded to conduct a welfare search. A HCSO deputy met with a male who identified himself only as "Jack" and advised that the loud noise was him playing his music loudly. He told the deputy that he was in the room with "his children" and pushed the door open enough for the deputy to see the children sleeping in a bed towards the back of the room.
The three siblings told detectives that they woke up to find Brice crying. They say they witnessed Montgomery hitting their brother and throwing him around the room.Detectives say that their stepfather threatened the same violence against the other children if they did not join in with him and strike their brother. Under imminent fear of being hurt by Montgomery, one child did strike Brice.
According to the arrest report, the children saw their stepfather pick Brice up by the leg and throw him against a shelf along the wall. The children told detectives they saw blood coming from his nose and mouth and that their brother never woke up after that.
Through the course of the investigation, detectives determined that Montgomery had punched the child in the face, mouth and stomach with a closed fist, threw the victim around the hotel room and shoved his face into the carpet.
After the investigation, it was determined that Montgomery had punched the child in the face, stomach, and mouth with a closed fist.
Post Miranda, Montgomery told authorities that he picked Brice up and threw him onto the bed after finding Brice trying to sneak out of bed to get a cookie, according to the arrest affidavit. Montgomery said that Brice hit his head on the headboard when he threw him onto the bed, but said that he was fine after that.
#Bullycide: Problem Solvers guide to teen suicide resources
by Jeremy Hubbard
DENVER — The suicide death of 10 year old Ashawnty Davis last month in Aurora has sparked a conversation about so-called “Bullycide,” (when students are bullied to the point of being suicidal). Davis' family says she killed herself after a video showing her in a school yard fight was posted online. The FOX 31 Problem Solvers have put together this special, looking at the issue of Bullycide, and the staggering teen suicide rate here in Colorado.
Experts say, recognizing the warning signs of bullying is key to prevent depression and suicide. Every day an estimated 160,000 children in the U.S. stay home from school out of fear, according to Dr. Sheryl Ziegler, a Denver child psychologist who is an expert on bullying.
To identify bullying warning signs, Ziegler provided a some tips.
Parents should look for changes in children's sleeping and eating patterns
Know when children's friendships are lost or change in some way
Connect to children's social media accounts and know the passwords
Ask: “What was the high and low of your day?”
“Every day all of us experience something that was a low of some sort,” Ziegler said.
Experts said children — not adults — are usually the ones who first sound the alarm on bullying.
That knowledge is highlighting the need for schools to focus more on educating kids to speak up.
Several school districts have posted bullying prevention resources on their websites.
Douglas County School District
Denver Public Schools
Aurora Public Schools
Adams County 12 Five Star Schools
Ziegler said cyberbullying has the greatest reach and often happens without anyone knowing. She warned many children will create secondary social media accounts parents are unaware of.
The bullying can sometimes lead to suicide.
“Suicide rates have doubled in the past decade,” Ziegler said. “We have a very serious problem.”
HelpGuide.org provides some tips on how to recognize warning signs of suicide.
Talking about suicide: Words about dying or self-harm
Withdrawing from others: Isolating themselves and a desire to want to be alone
Self-hatred: A person may feel worthless or ashamed and say things like “everyone would be better without me.”
If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or depression, the following resources are available:
Colorado Crisis Services Hotline (1-844-493-TALK): If you are in crisis or need help dealing with one, call this toll-free number 1-844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255 to speak to a trained professional. When you call Colorado Crisis Services, you will be connected to a crisis counselor or trained professional with a master's or doctoral degree.
Colorado Crisis Services Walk-In Locations: Walk-in crisis services are open 24/7, and offer confidential, in-person crisis support, information and referrals to anyone in need. Visit http://coloradocrisisservices.org to find locations.
Colorado Child Abuse & Neglect Hotline – 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1-844-264-5437 as the best resource for readers to report suspected child abuse and neglect.
The number serves as a direct, immediate and efficient route to all Colorado's 64 counties and two tribal nations, which are responsible for accepting and responding to child abuse and neglect concerns. All callers are able to speak with a call-taker 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Experts say if you see the warning signs in someone you love it's a good idea to talk to them.
HelpGuide.org recommends saying things such as “I have been feeling concerned about you lately” or “I wanted to check in with you because you haven't seemed yourself lately.”
It's important to listen to them, be sympathetic, and take them seriously.
If you, or anyone you know, is having suicidal thoughts you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
You can also text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Fetal homicide, parental rights bills take effect in NH
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A new law allowing murder charges to be brought against those who cause the death of a fetus is among those taking effect on Jan. 1 in New Hampshire.
Nearly 40 other states already have fetal homicide laws. New Hampshire's version would allow fetuses that have reached 20 weeks after conception to be considered victims of murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide or assisted suicide.
Another bill taking effect Monday deals with the termination of parental rights in cases of sexual assault. The new law presumes that termination of the biological father's rights is in the best interest of the child when a birth is the result of a sexual assault. A third new law gives grandparents preference as guardians in cases of parental drug abuse.
Learn the signs of abused children
by Cheri Hinshelwood
With children, small changes can indicate big troubles. From sudden fears to aggression, child abuse and neglect change children.
“We urge adults to pay close attention to children around them. Unexplained behavioral changes can signal a child or family needs help,” said Cindy Brown, MD, a child abuse pediatrician at Mission Health.
Whether it's physical, emotional or sexual, child abuse is under reported. Recent data from Child Protective Services suggest Western North Carolina has higher rates of neglect and child abuse than other parts of the state. Closely tied to untreated parental mental illness, addiction, the adult's own abuse or economic hardship, this dark history can repeat itself.
“Most often, abuse doesn't stop unless it's reported,” said Brown.
Signs of trouble
Sudden aggression, fighting or hurting animals
Child's injuries not matching the explanation
Depression, withdrawal or mood swings
Sudden struggles with school work
Regression like sudden bed wetting or toileting accidents at school
Fears of going home or of certain people
Sudden fears of being touched, going to the bathroom or specific places
Changes in how affection is shown
Wearing long sleeves and pants even in hot weather
Dirty clothing, malnourishment or changes in hygiene
Caregivers verbally demeaning children, withholding affection or isolating children
Child Safety Team
The Child Safety Team at Mission Health, led by board certified child abuse pediatricians, partners with local child protective services departments, law enforcement and mental health professionals at Mountain Child Advocacy Center.
The Child Safety Team is specially trained to gather information from and provide medical evaluation to hundreds of children when suspicions of neglect or abuse are reported. Care is coordinated with the child abuse experts at the Mountain Child Advocacy Center, who provide evidence-based counseling and treatment.
What you can do
Take note. Behavior changes can be a gauge of children's home lives.
Don't wait. Immediately report suspicions of abuse to Child Protective Services.
“Abused children can make incredible recoveries when they are in loving, nurturing homes and get the therapy they need,” said Brown.
For questions about our child abuse prevention and treatment, call the Mountain Child Advocacy Center, located at Mission Children's Hospital Reuter Outpatient Center, at 828-213-9824.
Manhattan DA joining fight to enact Child Victims Act
by Kenneth Lovett
ALBANY — Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance is joining the fight to enact a long-sought after bill to make it easier for child sex abuse victims to seek justice.
Vance will join a group of survivors and other advocates in front of the Fearless Girl statue in Manhattan on Tuesday to call on Gov. Cuomo to include the bill to extend the timeframe that a victim has to bring a civil or criminal case in his proposed state budget. It's due to be unveiled later in the month.
“This bill reflects what we know about child sexual assault today: it can take a long time for someone to be ready to report it to law enforcement, and this delay is common, it is understandable, and it should not bar a survivor from seeking justice,” Vance said.
The DA, who credited Cuomo for supporting the Child Victims Act in previous years, said the bill would “enable our prosecutors to hold more abusers accountable, and get justice for more survivors.”
While the state District Attorney's Association last year supported only the part of the bill dealing specifically with extending the criminal statute of limitation on child sex abuse crimes, Vance “will join advocates in asking for the entire bill to be included in the 2018 proposed budget,” his spokeswoman said.
With the state new legislative session set to begin on Wednesday, survivor Bridie Farrell, Michael Polenberg, of Safe Horizon, and bill sponsors Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal and Sen. Brad Hoylman, both Manhattan Democrats, hope the current spotlight on sexual assault resulting from the #MeToo movement will help the bill's chance of passage after a dozen unsuccessful years.
“We survivors have been raising our voice for decades — and it's time for Albany to listen to our pain, stories, and resiliency and to protect the most vulnerable among us: children,” Farrell said. “Gov. Cuomo, we are demanding you include the Child Victims Act in your 2018 budget to make New York a safer, more just place for survivors of child sex abuse.”
Hoylman added: “By including the Child Victims Act in the state budget we can turn moment into movement and secure true justice for survivors.”
Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi Monday wouldn't reveal whether the governor plans to highlight the issue in his State of the State speech and if it will be included in his 2018-19 budget proposal.
He previously said that “It is outrageous that as a result of arcane laws, these victims have been denied their day in court. We are working with the advocates to determine the most effective way to achieve these much needed reforms.”
Cosleeping Kills Scores of Babies in Florida Every Year
by Jessica Lipscomb
On a Thursday in November 2007, Sherkendra Burch breastfed and burped her 6-week-old daughter, S'marri, and laid her down for the night on a queen-size bed. At midnight, Burch crawled in beside the girl and fell asleep gently holding her, the same way she did every night. But when the 20-year-old first-time mother awoke the next morning, she couldn't find her baby.
It was a little before 7 when Burch flicked on the lights and saw S'marri's tiny feet dangling from the edge of the mattress.
"My baby!" she screamed. "My baby!"
Dressed in a pink floral onesie, S'marri showed no signs of life. Burch began CPR while her mom called 911. Paramedics raced the newborn to a Bradenton hospital, where a doctor broke the news that S'marri had suffocated in the night.
"My brain shut down," Burch remembers. "He said that she wasn't coming back, and it's like I didn't hear anything else."
After investigating, detectives closed the case as an unfortunate accident that happened while cosleeping. But the death left Burch with unshakable guilt and a question that haunts every parent in a similar situation: Why me?
"The doctor put me on suicide watch for two weeks," Burch says. "I wanted to go with her... Like, I have no reason to be here anymore. I can't raise a child, so just go ahead and bury me with her."
Every year, sleep-related deaths kill more children than drownings in Florida. Some are smothered while sleeping with their parents; others suffocate after being laid on their stomachs or placed too close to pillows and blankets. In 2016, 176 babies died in unsafe sleeping environments, more than twice the number of children who drowned.
In each of Florida's largest counties, that means as many as a dozen babies are buried every year.
"If you add it together, that's an entire kindergarten class in two years," says Dr. Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the Pinellas County medical examiner's office in St. Petersburg.
Last year in Miami-Dade, at least 12 babies died due to sleep-related causes, including nine who were put to sleep with a parent. And as an influx of young Puerto Rican families cram into small apartments here to escape the ravages of Hurricane Maria, some observers fear that figure will grow in the coming months.
"With the cost of living, there are a lot more people with limited resources who don't have the luxury of having a bed and a crib and a space to put it," says Manny Fermin, CEO of the Healthy Start Coalition of Miami-Dade, which works to reduce the infant mortality rate. "Eventually, I'm concerned where the numbers are going to go."
To understand exactly how deadly the phenomenon can be, consider the final week of May 2017. As Memorial Day weekend began Friday, a 7-month-old girl near Orlando suffocated on a mattress next to her 19-year-old mother. The following morning, a Broward mom woke up beside her 6-month-old son and found him unresponsive. That Sunday, a 10-week-old Orlando-area girl died while sleeping with her mom, who might have been intoxicated.
That Monday, a 3-month-old from the Fort Myers area and a 4-month-old near Tampa stopped breathing after being put to sleep in unsafe adult beds. Tuesday morning, a 9-month-old from Daytona choked to death on a plastic heart in a crib filled with suffocation hazards. By the time the month ended Wednesday, two more children were dead: a 3-week-old preemie from St. Petersburg who suffocated next to his parents, and a 10-week-old from outside Orlando who'd been swaddled and left on his side.
Nationally, research suggests an alarming number of babies are regularly placed in danger by their parents. A 2016 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that about 28 percent of newborns go to sleep with another person, while more than 90 percent sleep with loose bedding or another suffocation hazard within reach.
So why do parents continue to sleep with their young children? Some accidentally doze off while breastfeeding or snuggling with their babies on couches or rockers late at night. Others are simply unaware of the risks of sharing a bed with an infant.
"Their parents or grandparents told them: 'I slept with all of my babies, and they all survived,'" says Pellan, the Pinellas death investigator.
But studies show some educated parents also choose to sleep with their children. Many couples believe sharing a bed encourages bonding with a new baby, while some breastfeeding mothers say it makes feeding a newborn throughout the night less disruptive. Cosleeping proponents such as James McKenna, director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, argue that when steps are taken to mitigate the risks, bed-sharing can be mutually beneficial.
"Mother-infant cosleeping with breastfeeding is humankind's oldest and most successful sleeping arrangement," McKenna writes on his website.
And cosleeping is still commonly practiced in attachment parenting, a '90s-era philosophy that remains popular in middle- and upper-class families. Dr. William Sears, the California pediatrician who coined the term, teaches that bed-sharing is "even more relevant in today's busy lifestyles."
"As more and more mothers, out of necessity, are separated from their baby during the day, sleeping with their baby at night allows them to reconnect and make up for missed touch time during the day," he writes on his website.
Throughout history, though, the practice has remained controversial. As early as the 12th Century, Britain and Germany had laws against parents sleeping with their babies, viewing it as potentially dangerous to children. In the 1600s, fatalities were so common that Italians put their infants to sleep in covered wagon-looking devices called arcuccios that made accidentally smothering them impossible. Mothers who didn't use the device could be thrown in the stocks and excommunicated if they rolled over on their children while sleeping.
Until the late 1800s, it was commonly accepted that babies who died in bed with adults had suffocated. But as cribs came into use and infants continued to die, the theory was called into question. By 1969, the phenomenon known as "crib death" received a more formal name: sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The diagnosis was applied to any baby who died unexpectedly after all other causes had been ruled out.
In recent years, though, the pendulum has swung back: Medical examiners across the nation have come to believe the 12th-century theory was right all along — asphyxiation is the real reason so many babies die in their sleep.
"It's 50 years later, and we still haven't discovered a cause, if [SIDS] really is a disease," says Dr. Michael Bell, the chief medical examiner in Palm Beach County. "You've gotta ask yourself: Is this really a disease or simply a death that's the result of a suffocation, which shows the exact same findings as SIDS?"
After pediatricians began recommending in the '90s that infants be put to sleep alone, on their backs, and in cribs, the number of SIDS deaths across the nation drastically declined. Medical examiners such as Bell say that's because babies' airways are no longer being restricted.
"Suffocation in infants leaves absolutely no marks, no findings — the same thing as SIDS," Bell says. "If you look at all the infants that die suddenly, we discovered that most of them were sharing a bed or sofa or chair with a human being much bigger than them."
In Florida, SIDS deaths have dropped 96 percent over the past two decades, according to state Department of Health records. In 1996, 145 babies were diagnosed with SIDS; in 2016, there were only six such cases.
But the reduction is more or less an artificial victory. While SIDS deaths have declined, the number of accidental suffocations has shot up. Only 14 babies were thought to have suffocated in bed in 1996; in 2016, the count was up to 87.
"The same number of babies are dying," Pellan says. "Just instead of being called SIDS, they're being called something else."
Ten weeks after the death of her blue-eyed baby, Erin Piche-Pitts was hauled off to jail and charged with the aggravated manslaughter of her 18-day-old son, Javier. In front of a gaggle of reporters, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd explained it wasn't the first time the 25-year-old mom had fallen asleep while breastfeeding and suffocated a newborn — in 2009, her 13-day-old daughter had died the same way.
"She was irresponsible, and as a result, she's got two dead babies," Judd said at a December 2016 news conference announcing the arrest. "It's time for her to go to prison. It's time for her to pay the price."
Even though there were no drugs in her system or any evidence she'd purposely harmed her son, Piche-Pitts became one of the unlucky few to be criminally charged in a sleep-related death. Because of the case-by-case nature of investigations — and the difficulty identifying a precise cause of death — parents in similar circumstances can end up facing drastically different consequences.
Compare Piche-Pitts' case to that of Tiffany Morrison, whose 2-month-old daughter, Alicianna Black, died in Hollywood in February 2014. Like Piche-Pitts, Morrison had already lost a child to cosleeping, in 2003. And also like Piche-Pitts, Morrison had fallen asleep in bed after feeding her newborn. When she awoke three hours later, Alicianna wasn't breathing.
Though the two cases are similar, the circumstances surrounding Alicianna's death were arguably worse: Morrison screened positive for cocaine immediately afterward, and Hollywood Police found a baggie of marijuana in the bed within arm's reach of the baby. The state even classified the case as "medical neglect" due to the 29-year-old mom's failure to immediately call 911.
Despite those concerns, no charges were ever filed against Morrison. The Broward medical examiner was unable to determine the cause of Alicianna's death, and police said there was nothing to suggest Morrison purposely hurt her daughter.
"I was unable to determine if there was any criminal intention or criminal negligence to harm the deceased infant," Hollywood Det. Elliot Langley wrote in a final report. "That concludes my investigation into this case."
The disparity in consequences between the two cases highlights the ambiguity involved in investigating sleep-related deaths. Because there's no law against cosleeping or bed-sharing in Florida, police and prosecutors have enormous discretion in filing charges against parents.
A New Times review of hundreds of death investigations in Florida confirms there's virtually no uniformity in how investigators decide which parents go to jail. An analysis of nearly 800 sleep-related deaths investigated by the Department of Children and Families from 2009 to the present, as well as a search of Florida newspaper archives, turned up fewer than ten cases in which mothers or fathers were criminally charged. For each case where an arrest was made, New Times was able to identify a virtually identical case where parents were not prosecuted.
The majority of cases that ended in arrest involved a parent using drugs. In February 2006, 18-year-old Kayla Rice was charged with felony child neglect after her 6-month-old daughter suffocated on a queen-size bed in Polk County. Rice, who admitted to sharing a blunt with friends while her daughter slept, was ultimately sentenced to five years of probation.
Marijuana use was also involved in the November 2009 death of a 7-month-old Broward girl accidentally smothered by her father, who had stayed up all night playing videogames and smoking pot before lying down with her. Thirty-year-old Emanuel Lawrence was charged with aggravated manslaughter and later served a year and a half in prison.
Not every case involving parental drug use ends in an arrest, though. After a 6-month-old girl suffocated while sleeping next to her dad in December 2015, Hollywood Police declined to press charges despite the fact that the father admitted to smoking pot that day.
In a January 2009 case, a Naples-area mother told investigators she drank two glasses of wine before getting into bed with her 2-month-old son, who was dead when she awoke the next morning. The mom tested positive for marijuana and amphetamines, but deputies were unable to determine whether she'd been using drugs the day of her baby's death. No charges were filed.
Among those arrested, Piche-Pitts is an anomaly. Despite having a history of substance abuse, her drug screens came up negative after Javier's death. And the evidence showed she hadn't purposely slept with him but simply dozed off. Despite the accidental nature of what happened, she now faces up to 30 years in prison.
Following her arrest, Piche-Pitts worked out a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty in exchange for six months in jail and 15 years of probation. But on her court date in June 2017, Circuit Judge Mark Carpanini shut the negotiation down, saying she deserved a harsher punishment.
"I don't do this lightly, and I rarely do it, but I can't bring myself to approve this plea agreement," he told the attorneys on both sides. "So I'm going to ask you to go back to the drawing board on this."
Lumped in the same category as violent offenders, Piche-Pitts has been held in jail without bond since December 2016. Over the summer, her lawyer waived her right to a speedy trial, meaning it could be years before the case is heard by a jury.
Sherkendra Burch was home from college working a summer job at McDonald's when she found out she was pregnant. The year was 2007, and she was preparing for her sophomore year at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, where she was studying psychology.
At first she ignored the warning signs, but when several pregnancy tests came back positive, she could no longer deny the baby growing inside her. By the time she made her first doctor's appointment, she was seven months along.
The oldest of seven children, Burch had always felt responsible for her little brothers and sisters, helping her single mother raise them in a modest four-bedroom home in Bradenton. And she was great with kids: As a teenager, she made extra money babysitting and knew from a young age that some day she wanted children of her own.
"Like every girl, I wanted to get married first," she says now, a wistful smile on her face. "Big mansion, lots of money, three trucks in the yard."
It didn't work out that way, though. By the time Burch underwent an emergency C-section October 12, 2007, the baby's father was no longer in the picture. She was 19 years old, afraid, and unprepared, having only a few weeks of prenatal care and not a single birthing class under her belt. But as the doctor delivered her daughter, she was swept with a sense of pride, gratitude, and responsibility toward the perfect, seven-pound baby who emerged.
"It felt good to hear her cry," Burch says. "I can't even explain it, the feeling. It's like, Oh my gosh, I just gave birth to this human being. Like, this person is going to look up to me for everything ... It's just the best feeling in the world."
Burch named her daughter S'marri, a variation on the name of a family friend's son, S'marion, and a reference to the biblical tale of the Good Samaritan. After leaving the hospital, she went home with her mom and prepared to move into her first apartment. She quit school, bought a new car, and set up an interview with Walmart, which promised full-time hours and better pay than her job at McDonald's.
"It was definitely exciting knowing that I was going to have my apartment, have my car, have my daughter, and take on life full force," she says.
From day one, it was clear S'marri was her mother's child — she cried hysterically when anyone else picked her up but would instantly relax in Burch's arms. Her big brown eyes seemed to follow Burch throughout the room, and if Burch went outside to grab something from the car, the baby's gaze wouldn't leave the door until her mom returned. Burch's younger siblings enjoyed playing with S'marri too.
"They loved her to pieces," Burch says. "It was definitely a lot of fun."
But during the transition between living at home and moving into her apartment, Burch wasn't in a rush to buy a crib for her baby.
"She had already been sleeping in the bed with me for six weeks," Burch says. "It didn't really seem like a big deal."
Only a week after Thanksgiving, S'marri took her last breath. Less than two months after her daughter's birth, Burch had to plan the funeral.
"For at least a week, I just could not stop crying," she says. "It was nonstop."
The guilt weighed on her for years. When she gave birth to a second child, Isaiah, in 2010, she sank deep into postpartum depression, terrified something would happen to him.
"It did bring back the memories and just wondering, Can I do this? Is it going to happen again? Am I suited to be a mom? " she says. "I just had to reassure myself that it wasn't going to happen again, and I made a promise to myself and to him that I wasn't going to let it happen."
Burch learned from S'marri's death — before her son was even born, she bought him a crib. Ten years after losing her first child, she has made it her mission to talk to new moms about her experience and her regrets about sharing a bed with her daughter. There are still nights when she wakes up in a cold sweat looking for S'marri, but as time has passed, the guilt has loosened its grip.
"The pain is still there," she says, "but I don't hurt the same."
In a conference room at his office near Miami International Airport, Manny Fermin pulls a portable crib from a cardboard box and begins assembling it on top of the table. Dressed in a black suit and checked dress shirt, the CEO of the Healthy Start Coalition of Miami-Dade quickly switches into dad mode as he pushes the sides of the bassinet into place.
"I'm a father of four, so we always have Pack 'n Plays," he says. "But they're not as easy to put together as you would think!"
Last year, Healthy Start — a state-funded organization that works with pregnant women — distributed 300 portable cribs to Miami parents. Because more families are living paycheck-to-paycheck or in cramped quarters, the goal is to remove barriers to safe sleep.
"The South Florida area has become one of the most expensive places to live, and we're seeing a lot more people doubling up in their living arrangements for economic reasons," Fermin says. In those circumstances, "people also tend to do the bed-sharing with toddlers and little ones, and that's a concern."
For years, child advocates such as Fermin have faced the daunting task of figuring out how to stop or slow sleep-related deaths. Although most of the fatalities are preventable, educating the public has been challenging.
Though handing out free cribs is a popular approach, the tactic has limits. Access to cribs is irrelevant for sleep-deprived parents who accidentally nod off with a baby, and even less useful to moms or dads who ignore or are unaware of the American Academy of Pediatrics' advice against bed-sharing.
One Florida study showed that many parents who had cribs at home weren't using them. After analyzing 39 infant sleep-related deaths in the St. Petersburg area from 2011 to 2015, the Pinellas County medical examiner's office found that 95 percent of caretakers had access to a crib or bassinet, but more than half slept with their babies anyway.
Healthy Start consultant Amy Olen says it's crucial to ask why they made that choice. Studies have shown some parents in low-income neighborhoods sleep with their babies to protect them from rodents, insects, or even drive-by shootings. For others, sleeping with children is a cultural norm.
"There are many, many different reasons why a parent might choose to bring their baby into bed with them," Olen says. "If we're not addressing those reasons in our education or outreach, then I don't think we're going to make as much progress in reducing these deaths."
In the Healthy Start model, a caseworker ideally gets to know families over a period of time, allowing for gentle conversations that don't make new parents feel judged or ashamed. But in recent years, caseworkers have been saddled with other demands that leave less time to foster those relationships.
"We haven't stopped the education, but we've had other crises," Fermin says. "Last year was the Zika virus. We saw over 2,200 pregnant women get tested that required our case management. This year, now we're dealing with the hurricane evacuees from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands."
In 2013, the Florida Legislature shifted some of the educational burden to birth centers, which are now required by law to talk to moms about safe sleeping practices before and after they give birth. Alan Hays, a former Republican state senator who's now the supervisor of elections in Lake County, says he sponsored the bill after meeting with his district medical examiner. The new legislation ultimately passed unanimously.
"I cannot fathom the heartache and the anguish that a parent would go through," Hays says. "The reason that this bill is still so vivid in my memory is that this was one small way that I, as a legislator, could possibly help the families who suffered these tragedies."
Despite the bill's good intentions, the number of sleep-related deaths has actually risen slightly in the years since the new law passed, from 164 to 176 annually. Since leaving the Florida Senate, Hays says he hasn't had the opportunity to track the data.
"I have no idea how successful it's been," he says, "but I would hope that all the birthing centers and hospitals are complying."
After years of investigating deaths in Palm Beach County, Bell is skeptical anything more can be done. "In my office, we maybe get six cases a year. I don't think you're ever going to have zero," he says bluntly. "How many resources are you going to put into getting six down to four or three?"
Instead of pushing for more education, some states have tried to criminalize cosleeping. But those attempts have largely failed. After Republican Wisconsin state Rep. Samantha Kerkman proposed making it illegal to sleep with a baby while intoxicated in 2013, the bill was opposed by everyone, from the Milwaukee medical examiner to the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, where administrators wrote they were "concerned that criminalizing intoxicated cosleeping will not serve as a deterrent to the behavior... but rather encourage delay in reporting and less honest disclosure."
In Florida, no lawmaker has touched the issue recently. And Bell says he would oppose any efforts to put a new law on the books. "The whole idea that there should be charges brought against a caretaker just seems to be overly punitive," he says. "They've already been punished enough. They lost their child. Can you think of anything worse?"
According to a 2016 study published in Current Pediatric Reviews , having bereaved parents talk to new moms and dads is one proven prevention strategy. In 2010, the Baltimore health department filmed talks by three parents whose babies had died while bed-sharing. It showed them in hospitals, social services offices, jails, and jury duty waiting rooms. Four years later, the rate of sleep-related deaths had dropped 46 percent.
Former Bradenton-area Healthy Start director Luz Corcuera says that's why she enlisted the help of Burch.
"When you are going to talk about losing a child to an unsafe sleep environment, we wanted to find someone that had gone through the experience and learned something about it," Corcuera says. "We didn't want to just have a lecture or some brochures."
Burch says it took her about two years following her daughter's death to feel confident enough to tell her story. Over the years, she's given speeches at Healthy Start luncheons and met with new moms one-on-one. She's also connected with other parents who have lost a child while bed-sharing.
"It's kind of therapeutic for them knowing that someone else went through this," she says. "It's soothing for them to hear it from someone who has overcome, who realizes that life does go on and that it's not wrong to be happy again."
This past October 12, a day that would have been S'marri's tenth birthday, Burch went to her daughter's gravesite with her mother and 6-year-old son, Isaiah. They released ten pink balloons, watching them until they disappeared into the blue sky.
Six weeks later was the anniversary of S'marri's death. Burch has forgiven herself, but she can never forget.
"Was it preventable? Yes. But given the moment and the opportunities that I had at the time, I did the best I could," she says. "If I could turn back the hands of time, I would have watched her sleep every night. I would have never gone to sleep until I got her a bed."
Can an Algorithm Tell When Kids Are in Danger?
by Dan Hurley
The call to Pittsburgh's hotline for child abuse and neglect came in at 3:50 p.m. on the Wednesday after Thanksgiving 2016. Sitting in one of 12 cubicles, in a former factory now occupied by the Allegheny County Police Department and the back offices of the department of Children, Youth and Families, the call screener, Timothy Byrne, listened as a preschool teacher described what a 3-year-old child had told him. The little girl had said that a man, a friend of her mother's, had been in her home when he “hurt their head and was bleeding and shaking on the floor and the bathtub.” The teacher said he had seen on the news that the mother's boyfriend had overdosed and died in the home.
According to the case records, Byrne searched the department's computer database for the family, finding allegations dating back to 2008: parental substance abuse, inadequate hygiene, domestic violence, inadequate provision of food and physical care, medical neglect and sexual abuse by an uncle involving one of the girl's two older siblings. But none of those allegations had been substantiated. And while the current claim, of a man dying of an overdose in the child's home, was shocking, it fell short of the minimal legal requirement for sending out a caseworker to knock on the family's door and open an investigation.
Before closing the file, Byrne had to estimate the risk to the child's future well-being. Screeners like him hear far more alarming stories of children in peril nearly every day. He keyed into the computer: “Low risk.” In the box where he had to select the likely threat to the children's immediate safety, he chose “No safety threat.”
Had the decision been left solely to Byrne — as these decisions are left to screeners and their supervisors in jurisdictions around the world — that might have been the end of it. He would have, in industry parlance, screened the call out. That's what happens to around half of the 14,000 or so allegations received each year in Allegheny County — reports that might involve charges of serious physical harm to the child, but can also include just about anything that a disgruntled landlord, noncustodial parent or nagging neighbor decides to call about. Nationally, 42 percent of the four million allegations received in 2015, involving 7.2 million children, were screened out, often based on sound legal reasoning but also because of judgment calls, opinions, biases and beliefs. And yet more United States children died in 2015 as a result of abuse and neglect — 1,670, according to the federal Administration for Children and Families; or twice that many, according to leaders in the field — than died of cancer.
This time, however, the decision to screen out or in was not Byrne's alone. In August 2016, Allegheny County became the first jurisdiction in the United States, or anywhere else, to let a predictive-analytics algorithm — the same kind of sophisticated pattern analysis used in credit reports, the automated buying and selling of stocks and the hiring, firing and fielding of baseball players on World Series-winning teams — offer up a second opinion on every incoming call, in hopes of doing a better job of identifying the families most in need of intervention. And so Byrne's final step in assessing the call was to click on the icon of the Allegheny Family Screening Tool.
After a few seconds, his screen displayed a vertical color bar, running from a green 1 (lowest risk) at the bottom to a red 20 (highest risk) on top. The assessment was based on a statistical analysis of four years of prior calls, using well over 100 criteria maintained in eight databases for jails, psychiatric services, public-welfare benefits, drug and alcohol treatment centers and more. For the 3-year-old's family, the score came back as 19 out of a possible 20.
Over the course of an 18-month investigation, officials in the county's Office of Children, Youth and Families (C.Y.F.) offered me extraordinary access to their files and procedures, on the condition that I not identify the families involved. Exactly what in this family's background led the screening tool to score it in the top 5 percent of risk for future abuse and neglect cannot be known for certain. But a close inspection of the files revealed that the mother was attending a drug-treatment center for addiction to opiates; that she had a history of arrest and jail on drug-possession charges; that the three fathers of the little girl and her two older siblings had significant drug or criminal histories, including allegations of violence; that one of the older siblings had a lifelong physical disability; and that the two younger children had received diagnoses of developmental or mental-health issues.
Finding all that information about the mother, her three children and their three fathers in the county's maze of databases would have taken Byrne hours he did not have; call screeners are expected to render a decision on whether or not to open an investigation within an hour at most, and usually in half that time. Even then, he would have had no way of knowing which factors, or combinations of factors, are most predictive of future bad outcomes. The algorithm, however, searched the files and rendered its score in seconds. And so now, despite Byrne's initial skepticism, the high score prompted him and his supervisor to screen the case in, marking it for further investigation. Within 24 hours, a C.Y.F. caseworker would have to “put eyes on” the children, meet the mother and see what a score of 19 looks like in flesh and blood.
For decades, debates over how to protect children from abuse and neglect have centered on which remedies work best: Is it better to provide services to parents to help them cope or should the kids be whisked out of the home as soon as possible? If they are removed, should they be placed with relatives or with foster parents? Beginning in 2012, though, two pioneering social scientists working on opposite sides of the globe — Emily Putnam-Hornstein, of the University of Southern California, and Rhema Vaithianathan, now a professor at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand — began asking a different question: Which families are most at risk and in need of help? “People like me are saying, ‘You know what, the quality of the services you provide might be just fine — it could be that you are providing them to the wrong families,'?” Vaithianathan told me.
Vaithianathan, who is in her early 50s, emigrated from Sri Lanka to New Zealand as a child; Putnam-Hornstein, a decade younger, has lived in California for years. Both share an enthusiasm for the prospect of using public databases for the public good. Three years ago, the two were asked to investigate how predictive analytics could improve Allegheny County's handling of maltreatment allegations, and they eventually found themselves focused on the call-screening process. They were brought in following a series of tragedies in which children died after their family had been screened out — the nightmare of every child-welfare agency.
One of the worst failures occurred on June 30, 2011, when firefighters were called to a blaze coming from a third-floor apartment on East Pittsburgh-McKeesport Boulevard. When firefighters broke down the locked door, the body of 7-year-old KiDonn Pollard-Ford was found under a pile of clothes in his bedroom, where he had apparently sought shelter from the smoke. KiDonn's 4-year-old brother, KrisDon Williams-Pollard, was under a bed, not breathing. He was resuscitated outside, but died two days later in the hospital.
The children, it turned out, had been left alone by their mother, Kiaira Pollard, 27, when she went to work that night as an exotic dancer. She was said by neighbors to be an adoring mother of her two kids; the older boy was getting good grades in school. For C.Y.F., the bitterest part of the tragedy was that the department had received numerous calls about the family but had screened them all out as unworthy of a full investigation.
Incompetence on the part of the screeners? No, says Vaithianathan, who spent months with Putnam-Hornstein burrowing through the county's databases to build their algorithm, based on all 76,964 allegations of maltreatment made between April 2010 and April 2014. “What the screeners have is a lot of data,” she told me, “but it's quite difficult to navigate and know which factors are most important. Within a single call to C.Y.F., you might have two children, an alleged perpetrator, you'll have Mom, you might have another adult in the household — all these people will have histories in the system that the person screening the call can go investigate. But the human brain is not that deft at harnessing and making sense of all that data.”
She and Putnam-Hornstein linked many dozens of data points — just about everything known to the county about each family before an allegation arrived — to predict how the children would fare afterward. What they found was startling and disturbing: 48 percent of the lowest-risk families were being screened in, while 27 percent of the highest-risk families were being screened out. Of the 18 calls to C.Y.F. between 2010 and 2014 in which a child was later killed or gravely injured as a result of parental maltreatment, eight cases, or 44 percent, had been screened out as not worth investigation.
According to Rachel Berger, a pediatrician who directs the child-abuse research center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and who led research for the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, the problem is not one of finding a needle in a haystack but of finding the right needle in a pile of needles. “All of these children are living in chaos,” she told me. “How does C.Y.F. pick out which ones are most in danger when they all have risk factors? You can't believe the amount of subjectivity that goes into child-protection decisions. That's why I love predictive analytics. It's finally bringing some objectivity and science to decisions that can be so unbelievably life-changing.”
The morning after the algorithm prompted C.Y.F. to investigate the family of the 3-year-old who witnessed a fatal drug overdose, a caseworker named Emily Lankes knocked on their front door. The weathered, two-story brick building was surrounded by razed lots and boarded-up homes. No one answered, so Lankes drove to the child's preschool. The little girl seemed fine. Lankes then called the mother's cellphone. The woman asked repeatedly why she was being investigated, but agreed to a visit the next afternoon.
The home, Lankes found when she returned, had little furniture and no beds, though the 20-something mother insisted that she was in the process of securing those and that the children slept at relatives' homes. All the appliances worked. There was food in the refrigerator. The mother's disposition was hyper and erratic, but she insisted that she was clean of drugs and attending a treatment center. All three children denied having any worries about how their mother cared for them. Lankes would still need to confirm the mother's story with her treatment center, but for the time being, it looked as though the algorithm had struck out.
Charges of faulty forecasts have accompanied the emergence of predictive analytics into public policy. And when it comes to criminal justice, where analytics are now entrenched as a tool for judges and parole boards, even larger complaints have arisen about the secrecy surrounding the workings of the algorithms themselves — most of which are developed, marketed and closely guarded by private firms. That's a chief objection lodged against two Florida companies: Eckerd Connects, a nonprofit, and its for-profit partner, MindShare Technology. Their predictive-analytics package, called Rapid Safety Feedback, is now being used, the companies say, by child-welfare agencies in Connecticut, Louisiana, Maine, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Early last month, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services announced that it would stop using the program, for which it had already been billed $366,000 — in part because Eckerd and MindShare refused to reveal details about what goes into their formula, even after the deaths of children whose cases had not been flagged as high risk.
The Allegheny Family Screening Tool developed by Vaithianathan and Putnam-Hornstein is different: It is owned by the county. Its workings are public. Its criteria are described in academic publications and picked apart by local officials. At public meetings held in downtown Pittsburgh before the system's adoption, lawyers, child advocates, parents and even former foster children asked hard questions not only of the academics but also of the county administrators who invited them.
“We're trying to do this the right way, to be transparent about it and talk to the community about these changes,” said Erin Dalton, a deputy director of the county's department of human services and leader of its data-analysis department. She and others involved with the Allegheny program said they have grave worries about companies selling private algorithms to public agencies. “It's concerning,” Dalton told me, “because public welfare leaders who are trying to preserve their jobs can easily be sold a bill of goods. They don't have a lot of sophistication to evaluate these products.”
Another criticism of such algorithms takes aim at the idea of forecasting future behavior. Decisions on which families to investigate, the argument goes, should be based solely on the allegations made, not on predictions for what might happen in the future. During a 2016 White House panel on foster care, Gladys Carrión, then the commissioner of New York City's Administration for Children's Services, expressed worries about the use of predictive analytics by child-protection agencies. “It scares the hell out of me,” she said — especially the potential impact on people's civil liberties. “I am concerned about widening the net under the guise that we are going to help them.”
But in Pittsburgh, the advocates for parents, children and civil rights whom I spoke with all applauded how carefully C.Y.F. has implemented the program. Even the A.C.L.U. of Pennsylvania offered cautious praise. “I think they're putting important checks on the process,” said Sara Rose, a Pittsburgh lawyer with the organization. “They're using it only for screeners, to decide which calls to investigate, not to remove a child. Having someone come to your home to investigate is intrusive, but it's not at a level of taking a child away or forcing a family to take services.”
The third criticism of using predictive analytics in child welfare is the deepest and the most unsettling. Ostensibly, the algorithms are designed to avoid the faults of human judgment. But what if the data they work with are already fundamentally biased? There is widespread agreement that much of the underlying data reflects ingrained biases against African-Americans and others. (Just last month, the New York City Council voted to study such biases in the city's use of algorithms.) And yet, remarkably, the Allegheny experience suggests that its screening tool is less bad at weighing biases than human screeners have been, at least when it comes to predicting which children are most at risk of serious harm.
“It's a conundrum,” Dalton says. “All of the data on which the algorithm is based is biased. Black children are, relatively speaking, over-surveilled in our systems, and white children are under-surveilled. Who we investigate is not a function of who abuses. It's a function of who gets reported.”
In 2015, black children accounted for 38 percent of all calls to Allegheny County's maltreatment hotline, double the rate that would be expected based on their population. Their rate of being placed outside their home because of maltreatment was even more disproportionate: eight out of every 1,000 black children residing in the county were placed outside their home that year, compared with just 1.7 of every 1,000 white children.
Studies by Brett Drake, a professor in the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, have attributed the disproportionate number of black families investigated by child-welfare agencies across the United States not to bias, but to their higher rates of poverty. Similarly, a 2013 study by Putnam-Hornstein and others found that black children in California were more than twice as likely as white children there to be the subject of maltreatment allegations and placed in foster care. But after adjusting for socioeconomic factors, she showed that poor black children were actually less likely than their poor white counterparts to be the subject of an abuse allegation or to end up in foster care.
Poverty, all close observers of child welfare agree, is the one nearly universal attribute of families caught up in the system. As I rode around with caseworkers on their visits and sat in on family-court hearings, I saw at least as many white parents as black — but they were all poor, living in the county's roughest neighborhoods. Poorer people are more likely not only to be involved in the criminal-justice system but also to be on public assistance and to get their mental-health or addiction treatment at publicly funded clinics — all sources of the data vacuumed up by Vaithianathan's and Putnam-Hornstein's predictive-analytics algorithm.
Marc Cherna, who as director of Allegheny County's Department of Human Services has overseen C.Y.F. since 1996, longer than just about any such official in the country, concedes that bias is probably unavoidable in his work. He had an independent ethics review conducted of the predictive-analytics program before it began. It concluded not only that implementing the program was ethical, but also that not using it might be unethical. “It is hard to conceive of an ethical argument against use of the most accurate predictive instrument,” the report stated. By adding objective risk measures into the screening process, the screening tool is seen by many officials in Allegheny County as a way to limit the effects of bias.
“We know there are racially biased decisions made,” says Walter Smith Jr., a deputy director of C.Y.F., who is black. “There are all kinds of biases. If I'm a screener and I grew up in an alcoholic family, I might weigh a parent using alcohol more heavily. If I had a parent who was violent, I might care more about that. What predictive analytics provides is an opportunity to more uniformly and evenly look at all those variables.”
For two months following Emily Lankes's visit to the home of the children who had witnessed an overdose death, she tried repeatedly to get back in touch with the mother to complete her investigation — calling, texting, making unannounced visits to the home. All her attempts went without success. She also called the treatment center six times in hopes of confirming the mother's sobriety, without reaching anyone.
Finally, on the morning of Feb. 2, Lankes called a seventh time. The mother, she learned, had failed her three latest drug tests, with traces of both cocaine and opiates found in her urine. Lankes and her supervisor, Liz Reiter, then sat down with Reiter's boss and a team of other supervisors and caseworkers.
“It is never an easy decision to remove kids from home, even when we know it is in their best interest,” Reiter told me. But, she said, “When we see that someone is using multiple substances, we need to assure the children's safety. If we can't get into the home, that makes us worry that things aren't as they should be. It's a red flag.” The team decided to request an Emergency Custody Authorization from a family-court judge. By late afternoon, with authorization in hand, they headed over to the family's home, where a police officer met them.
The oldest child answered their knock. The mother wasn't home, but all three children were, along with the mother's elderly grandfather. Lankes called the mother, who answered for the first time in two months and began yelling about what she considered an unwarranted intrusion into her home. But she gave Lankes the names of family members who could take the children for the time being. Clothing was gathered, bags packed and winter jackets put on. Then it was time for the children to get in the car with Lankes, a virtual stranger empowered by the government to take them from their mother's care.
At a hearing the next day, the presiding official ordered the mother to get clean before she could have her children returned. The drug-treatment center she had been attending advised her to enter rehab, but she refused. “We can't get in touch with her very often,” Reiter recently told me. “It's pretty clear she's not in a good place. The two youngest kids are actually with their dads now. Both of them are doing really, really well.” Their older brother, age 13, is living with his great-grandfather.
In December, 16 months after the Allegheny Family Screening Tool was first used, Cherna's team shared preliminary data with me on how the predictive-analytics program was affecting screening decisions. So far, they had found that black and white families were being treated more consistently, based on their risk scores, than they were before the program's introduction. And the percentage of low-risk cases being recommended for investigation had dropped — from nearly half, in the years before the program began, to around one-third. That meant caseworkers were spending less time investigating well-functioning families, who in turn were not being hassled by an intrusive government agency. At the same time, high-risk calls were being screened in more often. Not by much — just a few percentage points. But in the world of child welfare, that represented progress.
To be certain that those results would stand up to scrutiny, Cherna brought in a Stanford University health-policy researcher named Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert to independently assess the program. “My preliminary analysis to date is showing that the tool appears to be having the effects it's intended to have,” Goldhaber-Fiebert says. In particular, he told me, the kids who were screened in were more likely to be found in need of services, “so they appear to be screening in the kids who are at real risk.”
Having demonstrated in its first year of operation that more high-risk cases are now being flagged for investigation, Allegheny's Family Screening Tool is drawing interest from child-protection agencies around the country. Douglas County, Colo., midway between Denver and Colorado Springs, is working with Vaithianathan and Putnam-Hornstein to implement a predictive-analytics program there, while the California Department of Social Services has commissioned them to conduct a preliminary analysis for the entire state.
“Given the early results from Pittsburgh, predictive analytics looks like one of the most exciting innovations in child protection in the last 20 years,” says Drake, the Washington University researcher. As an author of a recent study showing that one in three United States children is the subject of a child-welfare investigation by age 18, he believes agencies must do everything possible to sharpen their focus.
Even in Illinois, where B.J. Walker, the director of the state's Department of Children and Family Services, is terminating its contract with the companies that developed Rapid Safety Feedback, predictive analytics is not dead. “I still believe it's a good tool to make better informed decisions,” Walker told me in December. Walker knows Cherna and Dalton and saw the long process they went through to develop the Family Screening Tool. “They're doing a careful job,” she said. “Their transparency has been laudable. And transparency isn't often your friend, because you're going to make some mistakes, you're going to stumble, you're going to make changes.”
Cherna and Dalton are already overseeing a retooling of Allegheny County's algorithm. So far, they have raised the program's accuracy at predicting bad outcomes to more than 90 percent from around 78 percent. Moreover, the call screeners and their supervisors will now be given less discretion to override the tool's recommendations — to screen in the lowest-risk cases and screen out the highest-risk cases, based on their professional judgment. “It's hard to change the mind-set of the screeners,” Dalton told me. “It's a very strong, dug-in culture. They want to focus on the immediate allegation, not the child's future risk a year or two down the line. They call it clinical decision-making. I call it someone's opinion. Getting them to trust that a score on a computer screen is telling them something real is a process.”
Locally sponsored bill to prevent child abuse better signed into law
by Meaghan McGoldrick
Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed into law a new bill to help curb child abuse statewide.
The legislation – which was sponsored in the senate by State Senator Marty Golden – will establish a temporary New York State commission to study child abuse prevention and make recommendations for the implementation of child abuse prevention programs across the state.
According to Golden, prevention programs, while proven effective, are currently only available to a small number of families at risk of abuse and neglect with home visits only made available to about 10 to 14 percent of eligible families.
The temporary commission would come together to help serve more at-risk families via prevention programs that not only address child abuse but other aspects of family dynamics which threaten a child and a family's well-being.
“There is no place in our homes, schools or society for child abuse, and the unfortunate reality is that it is happening all too often in New York,” said Golden. “We must truly examine and figure out how to stop this violence that is destroying too many children reverse this trend that is damaging many families.”
Safety should be state's top priority with children in state custody
"Preventing and responding to sexual abuse of children is not, and cannot be, the responsibility of HHS alone," Julie Rogers said. "It is a community problem, which will need solutions and action from many in our communities."
It's imperative that Nebraska step up its efforts to keep children in state custody safe from sexual abuse.
During 2013-16, at least 50 Nebraska children suffered sexual abuse while in the state's care or after being placed in an adoptive or guardianship home, the state inspector for child welfare reports.
The actual number is likely higher, Julie Rogers reported, since some cases to the state child abuse hotline were screened out incorrectly or not investigated properly. In addition, some cases go unreported.
Twenty-seven of the cases involved children in foster homes, state-licensed residential homes or state-run facilities. The remaining 23 cases involved former state wards who were sexually abused in the adoptive or guardianship homes where the state had placed them.
Rogers has made 18 recommendations for HHS and seven for the broader child welfare system. HHS met with Rogers regularly during preparation of the report, sharing information and input.
The department has accepted most of Rogers' recommendations and points to steps it has taken or will take, including improved procedures for the state hotline and increased oversight of foster homes and residential facilities, plus strengthened reporting and investigations.
It will be up to members of the Legislature to decide this session whether to appoint a special oversight committee to monitor the child welfare system, as proposed by State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln.
Among Rogers' sensible recommendations for the broader system: improving the recruitment of foster families and ensuring that law enforcement agencies share child abuse reports with HHS.
“Preventing and responding to sexual abuse of children is not, and cannot be, the responsibility of HHS alone,” Rogers said. “It is a community problem, which will need solutions and action from many in our communities.”
Her report cited a range of factors that contributed to the sexual abuse problem: Some caregivers and child welfare professionals were too quick to dismiss allegations. Some allegations were not appropriately reported or screened for investigation.
In addition, Rogers wrote, heavy workloads and high turnover complicate child welfare workers' ability to handle cases properly. Foster homes and residential care facilities in some cases were not properly reporting sexual abuse and were not equipped to prevent it.
Keeping vulnerable children safe is a fundamental obligation for society. The entire array of relevant institutions — HHS, licensed residential homes, the juvenile justice system and law enforcement — should work in coordinated fashion to strengthen how Nebraska carries out that all-important duty.
#MeToo in Our Schools: Hearing Black Girls in the Sexual Abuse Backlash
by Sikivu Hutchinson and Ashunda Norris
In 1991, African American law professor Anita Hill's testimony against Clarence Thomas transformed her into a feminist icon in the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace. Building on Hill's legacy, women in corporate America, state and federal government, college campuses, and the entertainment industry have exposed perpetrators, challenged victim-blaming, and mainstreamed a #MeToo movement that was initiated by Tarana Burke , a black woman. Yet, when we turn on the TV and see debates about this brave, new heightened consciousness, the faces and voices of black women and girls are often missing. This is despite the fact that approximately 34-50% of African American girls have experienced child sexual abuse.
As educators and mentors in Los Angeles schools, we see how they have become fertile ground for unchecked sexual harassment and sexual violence. In an informal survey conducted at three South L.A. high schools by the Women's Leadership Project (WLP), a majority of girls of color felt unsafe on campus and had experienced some form of sexual harassment. Some felt victimized by a jock culture that encourages boys to openly rate girls' bodies, sex partners, and desirability, spilling over into toxic social media attacks. As a result of these experiences, respondents said that they felt less confident about themselves and did not feel supported at school. For many girls, going to school in an environment where sexual harassment is normalized can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and self-harm.
Sexual harassment in schools often takes the form of catcalling, touching, ogling and being called out of one's name. Terms like “bitch”, “ho”, “ratchet”, “thot” (that *h* over there) are frequently used to demean African American girls in ways that echo their specific history of institutionalized rape and dehumanization in the U.S. under slavery. As a form of sexual harassment, use of these terms reinforce a violent culture and climate that is normalized by a “boys will be boys” mentality. This mentality is often cosigned by teachers and administrators. As a result, girls find that simply walking around campus becomes a minefield fueled by widespread ignorance about behaviors that qualify as harassment.
Shania Malone, a member of the WLP, and a senior at Dorsey High School who is openly bisexual, says that she has been harassed by a female student. Malone also shared that she attempts to take preventive measures to curb sexual comments. “I usually wear my backpack really low to cover my butt. I also wear clothes to cover up my shape and curves.”
Serenity Smith, another senior at Dorsey, related that she has been made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe at school. Young men frequently joke about her body. “They think they can say stuff like: ‘I'll blow your back out, your ass is looking mighty fine today, and your pussy is showing today' and not get into trouble because their behavior is justified.”
The sexualization of black girls at very young ages contributes to an atmosphere where sexual violence against them is viewed as inconsequential. If black girls are stereotyped as “unrapeable” , then everyday sexual harassment is something that “they bring onto themselves”.
A recent Georgetown University study on cultural perceptions about black girls concluded that they are widely viewed as more mature, less innocent, and less in need of protection than white girls. Racist, sexist perceptions such as these contribute to higher rates of suspension, expulsion, and incarceration among black girls. According to the African American Policy Forum, black girls are routinely overpoliced in public school environments. On a national level, black girls are suspended nearly six times more than white girls, and are more harshly disciplined for lesser or similar offenses than white girls. Further, the Human Rights for Girls advocacy organization has concluded that exposure to “sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls' entry into the juvenile justice system.” These factors, coupled with a culture that condones sexual violence against them, make many black girls feel that they have nowhere to turn when they are victimized.
Dorsey senior and WLP member Tayah Hubbard stressed that many black girls feel like they won't be believed if they tell someone they've been sexually harassed or abused. For Hubbard, “black girls are told ‘oh you're strong and you can get through it.” Hubbard sees a connection between the dearth of social services, after school programs, and counselors in predominantly black and Latino schools and the high numbers of students who are pipelined into prisons instead of college.
Hubbard and her peers in the WLP recently led sexual harassment prevention workshops with classmates of all genders. But although new sexual harassment policies are being touted on Capitol Hill and in the State Legislature, sexual harassment and sexual violence prevention education that speaks to the specific circumstances of girls of color is not part of the curriculum in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The #MeToo movement has disrupted the national status quo of silence and invisibility around sexual harassment, yet, when it comes to validating the experiences of girls in communities of color, the silence is still deafening.
Prep school reveals 10 former teachers had improper relationships with students
by Joshua Rhett Miller
Ten former teachers at a prestigious prep school in upstate New York engaged in improper relationships with students, including sexual misconduct, according to an email sent Friday to alumni.
The email from the Nichols School in Buffalo came just hours after a 1994 graduate, Elizabeth Russ Mohr, revealed in the Buffalo News that she had a sexual relationship at 17 with her then-48-year-old physics teacher, Arthur Budington.
The email to alumni, which was obtained by the newspaper, said an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations also found that three previous administrators either knew of the misconduct or should have been aware of “inappropriate relationships” between staffers and students.
A total of 76 people were interviewed by an outside law firm as part of the investigation launched by the school's board of trustees. Those interviews included 33 former students, as well as 18 current or former Nichols faculty members, according to the 85-page report .
In all, credible reports of “sexual misconduct or inappropriate emotional relationships” between students and 10 former faculty members were identified, ranging from the 1960s through the mid-2000s.
Four former teachers, including Budington, were identified in the report by name since the evidence of misconduct against them was strongest.
Budington, according to the report, admitted having sexual relationships with two 17-year-old female students at the school.
But the email, sent by the chairman of the school's board of trustees and headmaster Bill Clough, said “no one currently working” at the school was involved in the misconduct and that former teachers involved in sexual misconduct there aren't currently teaching elsewhere.
Mohr, meanwhile, told the newspaper that her consensual relationship with Budington began in 1993 and continued for about four years after she graduated. Some of their encounters happened in Budington's office at the school, she said.
“The most shameful time of your life is painful to look at,” Mohr, now 41, told the newspaper. “It affected the way I looked at myself. It affected the way I looked at authority figures. There was lasting damage. There were things I had to work on. It took me 10 years of therapy to get past it.”
Budington admitted that what he did was wrong but claimed to have never been a predator.
“I was a divorced teacher, very shy with women, who fell in love with a beautiful young student,” he told the newspaper. “Liza was the most brilliant, amazing person I have ever known, and I will always love her. I consider her a friend to this day.”
Budington's conduct would've been considered statutory rape if Mohr had been 16 or younger at the time of the affair under New York state law, whether or not the sexual relationship was consensual.
The now-retired teacher still insists he never pressured Mohr into anything and said he's lost 25 pounds and lots of sleep since learning of the launch of the investigation.
“I've had people close to me tell me, ‘Get a lawyer, don't talk to anyone about this.' I didn't get a lawyer. I did talk to the investigators,” Budington told the Buffalo News. “I didn't lie. I didn't refuse to talk with them. I'm here talking to you today. I'm not here to defend myself. I know what I did was wrong.”
Congressman fights to ban sick 'child sex dolls'
by Doug Mainwaring
One member of Congress is shining a bright light on the issue of the manufacture and sale of child sex robots, seeking to prohibit their import into the United States.
While some assert that the increasingly lifelike sex dolls will serve as a deterrent to criminal sexual acts against children by pedophiles, many experts believe the nascent, burgeoning industry will encourage sexual predation, leading to an increase, not a decrease, in the sexual exploitation of children.
Some of these dolls resemble children as young as three years old, and can be customized to feature lifelike facial expressions, including sadness and fear.
The Curbing Realistic Exploitative Electronic Pedophilic Robots (CREEPER) Act , which aims to ban importation and distribution of child sex dolls, was introduced by New York Congressman Dan Donovan along with a bipartisan coalition of 12 original cosponsors.
“It's a uniquely vile person who preys on children to fulfill horrific pedophilic urges,” said Rep. Donovan. “During my 20 years as a prosecutor, I put away animals who played out their disgusting fantasies on innocent children. What I saw and heard was enough to make anybody sick. Now, as a legislator in Congress, I'm introducing a bill to ban the newest outlet for pedophiles: child sex dolls. They don't belong in our communities.”
Imported from China, Hong Kong, and Japan, the dolls are purposely mislabeled as mannequins or models to avoid detection by postal authorities.
Law enforcement agents note a correlation between the purchases of child sex dolls by individuals who have history of offenses against children. “[O]f the 128 dolls seized in the UK, 85% percent of the men who imported them were also found in possession of child pornography,” notes a press release from the congressman Donovan's office. “Additionally, psychologists and researchers believe that these dolls reinforce, normalize, and encourage pedophilic behavior, potentially putting more children at risk to harm.”
“In fact, emerging psychology on the topic says these obscene dolls encourage abuse of real children,” said Rep. Donovan in an op-ed in The Hill. “Peter Fagan from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine recently told The Atlantic that child sex dolls likely have a ‘reinforcing effect' on pedophiles, and “in many instances cause [the urge] to be acted upon with greater urgency.”
A Coalition of Robotics Experts, Ethicists and Child Protection Advocates have joined together to support the proposed legislation.
“Child sexual abuse is a heinous crime, one that no child should ever have to suffer,” said Michael Polenberg, VP of Government Affairs of Safe Horizon, a leading victim assistance organization. “How, then, to reconcile civil society's abhorrence of child abuse with the production and import of life-sized, life-like dolls of children to be used for sexual purposes? This is deeply concerning on many levels.”
“There is currently a dramatic rise in the development of talking sex robots powered by Artificial Intelligence,” explained Noel Sharkey, Co-director of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics. “The possibility of making anatomically detailed moving robot replicas of specific children for sexual gratification is now here and is surely a step too far. Such devices will, at the very least, have a pernicious impact on our society and create a threat to the sexual safety of our children.”
“The seizures of child sex dolls illustrates that sex offenders and pedophiles will stop at nothing to reach children,” said Stacie Rumenap, President of Stop Child Predators. “There is no doubt these dolls will be used to lure and groom children, and will ultimately lead to more sexual abuse and exploitation of real children.”
Melanie Blow, COO of the Stop Abuse Campaign said, “Child sexual abuse is an epidemic in our society, affecting one fifth of our nation's children. An epidemic with massive human and financial costs. Anything that normalizes adult sexual attraction towards children will only worsen this epidemic. Child sex dolls and robots that do this are perfectly legal, and that's a problem.”
Kathleen Richardson, Founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots and De Montfort University Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI said, “I have listened to the stories of childhood sexual abuse survivors first hand, and we must do everything to prevent future incidences. Giving child sex dolls and robots to pedophiles will do nothing but encourage harmful acts towards innocent children. A child's safety should never be put below a predators desire or commercial companies profits.”
Some suggest that the ‘child sexbots' (CSBs) will provide a safe outlet for individuals who are sexually attracted to children.
“They envision a future in which pedophiles are prescribed CSBs so they can act out their urges without victimizing anyone,” according to an NBC report .
“There's wide agreement among experts that neither child sex dolls nor CSBs should be freely available for purchase,” continues the report. “But some experts say the time has come to conduct scientific research to gauge their possible use as a deterrent for pedophilia , a psychiatric disorder that causes sexual attraction to prepubescent children and that is now treated with psychotherapy or, in some cases, libido-curbing drugs .”
CSBs Likely to Lead to the Normalization of Sex with Children
While proponents of the manufacture and use of these child sex dolls and robots assert they may have clinical value in curtailing criminal sexual acts against real children, science and medicine suggest that is wishful thinking.
According to a r eport published at Harvard Health , society has good reason to be pessimistic about pedophilia, which “remains a vexing challenge for clinicians and public officials.” The report continues, “Pedophilia is a sexual orientation and unlikely to change.”
There is a “fear that CSBs could normalize deviant behavior — and lead pedophiles to cross the line with real victims. According to the U.K.-based nonprofit Campaign Against Sex Robots , there's no evidence that adult sex dolls or sexbots have curbed demand for prostitutes,” the NBC report continues.
Director of the campaign, Dr. Kathleen Richardson, a professor of ethics and culture of robots at De Montfort University in Leicester, notes, “I've spoken to adults who were abused as children, and they don't support the use of CSBs. They say that pedophiles who offend are so cut off from their own humanity that giving them a machine wouldn't address the underlying problem.”
“For the sake of our country's children,” said Rep. Donovan, “we absolutely cannot allow child sex dolls in our communities.”
Laws targets human trafficking within the lodge business
by Kaplan Contributor
The men came, one after another, to a hotel room in the heart of Orlando's tourism district. For $200 an hour, a 16-year-old girl was forced to have sex with the strangers while her pimp kept watch from a car in the hotel parking lot.
After a week, the girl confided in one of those strangers that she was being held against her will, and he helped her escape.
Staff at the Grand Hotel Orlando near International Drive told detectives they repeatedly saw two people escorting the men to a room. Other guests complained of suspicious activity. Still, the two people — who were later arrested — were allowed to book rooms a few days at a time for two weeks.
Now, bills heading to the would allow victims to sue hotel owners and staff as facilitators for human trafficking if they either knowingly or through willful blindness allow traffickers to rent rooms.
Another bill, authored by Sen. Randolph Bracy III, D-Orlando, would require hotels and motels to have a training program to educate employees on identifying and reporting human trafficking.
Jan Rietveld, general manager of Grand Hotel Orlando, said he welcomes training. The hotel does not have a policy for reporting human trafficking, Rietveld said. But he said staff members know they are not to rent a room to someone they suspect of trafficking.
“I don't want them here. It's that simple. I don't care what they pay,” Rietveld said.
The bills, if passed, stand to impact the Orlando area, the tourist capital of the country, with its more than 400 hotels and hundreds more in the surrounding area.
Walt Disney World, home to 34 resorts and hotels, and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association did not agree to an interview and the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association did not respond to requests for an interview. Both associations are listed as lobbyists of the House bill, filed by Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover. Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, filed the companion bill in the Senate.
A similar Pennsylvania law passed in 2014. A human trafficking survivor and her family against a Philadelphia motel this year where she said she was forced to have sex with hundreds of men over months at a time.
Other hotel groups have taken proactive approaches in recent years. Wyndham Hotel Group and Hyatt Hotels partnered with The Polaris Project, a national anti-human trafficking nonprofit organization, to provide training. Hilton and Starwood Hotels & Resorts also have training in place.
Orlando is the third-highest city for its number of calls per capita to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, according to The Polaris Project.
Hotels and motels across Florida emerged in 2015 as the most common places where trafficking occurs, according to The Polaris Project, which operates the hotline.
About one out of every six cases reported to the hotline in 2017 occurred in a hotel or motel. Every one of the Sheriff's Office's trafficking cases used a hotel, said Ed Olesen, sergeant over the Criminal Investigations Division.
In Olesen's office, six names of accused pimps who have been indicted are written in a column on a white board. On the adjacent wall, about 40 names of suspected pimps are scrawled across a filled white board in black, green and blue marker. Red circles are around some names.
“All signs for [human trafficking] present,” was written next to one name.
“Pimped by parents since 2 [years of age],” read another note.
In some cases, detectives discovered hotel staff received kickbacks or sexual favors in exchange for their silence, Olesen said.
“A lot of them have said they were approached and told, ‘Don't ask questions and don't service the room at all,'” Olesen said. “They know what's going on or there's an assumption.”
Child sexual abuse: hearing the cry for help is not always a simple task
by Samuel Larner
Child sexual abuse is on the rise in the UK with the NSPCC announcing a 31% increase in police referrals in 2017 compared to the previous year. Worryingly, this is just the tip of the iceberg as child sexual abuse is widely under-reported. My research has revealed that a major factor in this issue is the use of language and a safeguarding system which is sometimes deaf to a child's cry for help.
There are many reasons why a child will not tell anyone that they are being abused, including fear, shame and confusion. It is therefore important that adults are aware of behaviours that may be symptomatic of sexual abuse.
Greater awareness of potential indicators of sexual abuse is undoubtedly crucial for helping adults to recognise when there may be a problem. But as a linguist, I am particularly troubled by reports of children who attempted to disclose sexual abuse, but felt that they were never heard . That is, their attempts to seek help failed.
The disclosure stage (the point at which an allegation of sexual abuse is made) is crucial in determining what action is taken, if any at all. The recipient must firstly acknowledge that a child has reported sexual abuse and then be willing to act.
There are several reasons why children's voices may be unheard. Sadly, cases where recipients have not acted appropriately, either through minimisation or cover-up are numerous. Second, since children often do not make a clear disclosure, the full extent of their abuse may not always be apparent. They may only partially report the abuse, they may minimise the extent of the abuse, and they may lack the vocabulary to convey the full extent of their abuse.
But another reason why disclosures go unheard may be linked to the linguistic skill of the adult the child confides to.
In data that I am currently analysing (online counselling sessions between victims of sexual abuse and ChildLine volunteers) some children talk explicitly about sexual abuse. Within the opening lines of one counselling session, an 11-year-old child stated bluntly that she had been raped.
By contrast, a 15-year-old revealed sexual abuse more cautiously over a conversation lasting one hour and ten minutes. First, she reported she had had sex. Later, she explained that she didn't consent. She then provided details about the level of force. Finally, one hour into the conversation, she asked for clarification over whether she had been raped.
Importantly, it was the counsellor that facilitated the disclosure and helped the child to articulate it. In this example, the process of reporting was very much a two-person interaction. The pressure shifted from the child being solely responsible for making the disclosure to the counsellor supporting and eliciting it.
From this perspective, it is understandable why some children report how they've tried to tell someone what has happened to them – but have not been heard. It is possible that the adults they spoke to were either not skilled in drawing out the information or following safeguarding advice and training were reluctant to do so for fear of contaminating the child's evidence.
Support versus evidence
The problem is that an allegation made in an anonymous counselling session is very different to a disclosure made to a teacher or social worker. In a ChildLine counselling session, the focus is on supporting the child. By contrast, teachers and social workers are duty bound to report disclosures and the statement that the child produces constitutes evidence, which may be used in subsequent criminal proceedings.
Guidance for social workers and teachers highlights the need to collect accurate and complete information from the child, reporting only the words that the child has used and without using leading questions.
This creates an apparent paradox since my research suggests some children rely on an adult to help construct their disclosure precisely so they can produce complete information. While the evidential approach is designed to collect uncontaminated evidence, it potentially fails those children who need adults' help to actually say the words.
In my data, a 12-year-old girl explicitly asked the counsellor to ask her questions because she found it easier than providing an unprompted narrative. Teachers are explicitly told that how they speak to the child can affect the evidence and questioning should be kept to the minimum. The child is expected to articulate their abuse independently.
It seems, then, that there is a potential tension between the needs of the child in making a disclosure and the needs of trusted adults who are in a position to help the child. For many children in my data, their concern was not with prosecuting their abuser. Many explicitly said they did not want this. What they often wanted was emotional support, reassurance that they did nothing wrong, and clarification about what had happened to them so that they could begin to make sense of it.
For as long as safeguarding policies place emphasis on the quality of evidence collected, rather than focusing on helping children to understand and verbalise how they've been abused, children's voices will continue to be unheard.
Judges, Lawyers Not Always Comfortable With Comfort Dog
by Gabrielle Porter
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) — When the Mesa County District Attorney's Office became the second prosecutor's office in Colorado to obtain a facility dog, handler Kathi Raley knew what she wanted the pup to do at work.
"My vision was that she would be involved from the beginning of these sex assault on a child cases," said Raley, the office's victim/witness coordinator who in March 2016 obtained Tilly the Labrador retriever from California nonprofit Canine Companions, which provides facility dogs free of charge to criminal justice professionals.
Raley wanted Tilly in the room to provide comfort with child victims during forensic interviews with law enforcement officers and professionals at the Western Slope Center for Children. Raley wanted her available to cuddle the kids while they met with prosecutors after criminal cases were filed. She hoped Tilly would be allowed to accompany young victims to the witness stand to testify against their abusers, to lie quietly out of sight of jurors, to lend strength and comfort.
In the 18 months since Tilly officially started work, it hasn't quite worked out that way.
While several prosecutors have requested permission, Tilly has only accompanied sex assault victims to the stand in three jury trials, each of which was presided over by District Judge Valerie Robison.
In several other cases, judges have sided with defense attorneys who objected to Tilly's presence, raising concerns about due process and the possibility that a dog could make jurors unfairly sympathetic to a child victim.
"I understand that judges have to watch out for the rights of the defendant," said Raley, who has worked in the criminal justice field for more than 20 years. "However, it is disappointing to me that she has not been used anywhere close to her full potential."
More than one judge has turned down what Raley calls a "Tilly motion," which have been filed in several types of cases.
Chief Judge Brian Flynn said no last year to Tilly accompanying the victim in the case of David Tussing, who was accused of attempting to kidnap a developmentally disabled teenager in 2015. Defense attorney Andrew Nolan argued that Tilly's presence would hinder Tussing's constitutional right to confront his accuser, and his right to a fair trial.
"A facility dog accompanying a child witness to the stand presumes the victimhood of the child witness by imparting a sense of vulnerability that may evoke sympathy from a jury before the testimony is even received," Nolan wrote. "The facility dog undermines the presumption of defendant's innocence by bolstering a child witness' image as a despondent, fragile victim in need of protection and sympathy."
In August 2016, now-retired Judge Thomas Deister denied a request that Tilly accompany multiple victims during the trial of Larry Church, who would later be convicted of sexually assaulting nine girls and women over the span of several years.
Deister agreed to allow Tilly to accompany the adult victim during the trial of Dustin Strouse, who was eventually convicted of a misdemeanor sexual offense.
However, after Deister retired, Judge Gretchen Larson reconsidered the issue and ruled against Tilly's presence.
When Tilly has been allowed to accompany a victim to the stand, it's "been really wonderful," said Chief Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Springer, who prosecuted two of the three cases in which Tilly was allowed at trial.
The child victim of rapist Cory Collins had to testify before jurors twice about abuse inflicted upon her when she was just 3 1/2 years old, according to Springer. The child had already taken the stand when the judge declared a mistrial.
During the first trial, Raley said the girl had a difficult time even talking from the witness stand. At the second trial, Robison allowed then newcomer Tilly to accompany the child, lying quietly under the table and out of sight of jurors.
"She told her story, and very eloquently," Raley said. "And that individual was sentenced to prison."
Springer said the little girl's family still speaks glowingly about Tilly.
"The family's reaction to Tilly has always been amazing to me," Springer said. "The people that love that child had a lot of concerns (about her testifying)."
Tilly was also admitted during the recent trials of Dax Anderson and Larry Pitre, both in Robison's courtroom, according to court records.
On the law enforcement side, Tilly was only present during about 17 percent of forensic interviews conducted at the Western Slope Center for Children during 2017, according to figures provided by Raley and verified by the center.
Fruita Police Detective Lisa DiCamillo wrote in an email that the only reason she wouldn't use Tilly in an interview with a child victim is if the child was afraid of or allergic to dogs.
She's never had a case where Tilly was used in court, but DiCamillo has had the dog in the room with her during several interviews.
"(Kathi Raley) brings her to the interview and during the interviews, she usually sits or lays on the couch with the child," DiCamillo wrote. "From what I have observed, the child pets and strokes Tilly, who is or has been sleeping and at times snoring, which seems to lighten things up for the child and me, too."
Not all law enforcement officers are sold on Tilly as a resource to use in every forensic interview. Mesa County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Megan Terlecky said her organization views Tilly as a terrific tool, but she has spoken to some investigators who haven't used the dog while interviewing a child sex assault victim.
"They explain to me that when they do these interviews, they need to create an environment that is stress-free, calming, but is also distraction-free so they can focus on the task at hand," Terlecky said. "If they can accomplish that without using any other tools . that's typically what they try to do."
Terlecky said the investigators she spoke with told her a situation where they think they've needed Tilly during an interview has yet to arise.
"The dog is an extremely useful tool as they help our victims go through the criminal justice system," Terlecky said. "The forensic interview is just one piece of that."
According to Raley, the most supportive fans of Tilly have been the community.
Children at Mesa View Elementary School took it upon themselves recently to raise money to help pay for her living expenses, which otherwise Raley covers herself.
Raley has given talks to groups including the Grand Junction Lions Club, the Rotary Club of Grand Junction and Mesa County Republican Women. Tilly was even the featured guest at the Roice-Hurst Humane Society's gala this summer, Raley said.
Raley called local support "amazing" but said she wished courtroom and interview doors were open a little more often.
"The community has been very receptive," she said. "(And) our office understands the benefits she provides, but again, it's disappointing."
25 Signs of Emotional Abuse
You need to learn how to identify abusive conduct, take a strong stand against it and acquire the necessary skills to protect yourself from future abuse
by Sinta Ebersohn
Sometimes, emotional abuse can be so subtle that we don't even realize we're being emotionally and mentally abused by someone's words or actions. Even though there are no visible bruises, the damage should never be underestimated.
How can it be abuse if it is so subtle? This kind of conduct systematically undermines your dignity and leaves you utterly vulnerable and defenceless. Being bullied by a person close to you whom you trust and love dearly, is probably one of the most difficult things to make sense of and can erode one's self-esteem to a life-threatening extent. Abuse does not only happen between couples – parents abuse children, children abuse their parents and it is common among scholars, siblings, friends and colleagues. Here is a list of common abuse tactics that you need to take very seriously, if they are occurring on a regular basis:
Any problems in your day to day living somehow always end up being your fault – even things you have no control over.
When you run out of milk, it is because you don't do proper grocery shopping.
If the children are late for school, it's because you didn't get them out of bed early enough.
When your partner neglects their duty, it wouldn't have happened if you reminded them.
2. Buying Make-Up Gifts
Some people will avoid addressing an issue or resolving a conflict, by buying a gift to make up for it. This does not allow you to sort out stuff, but only brushes the problem under the rug, from where it will emerge time and again.
A classic example is arriving with a bunch of flowers or some other gift, when they have a guilty conscience or plan to tell you something that they know will upset you.
When you have an unresolved argument, your abuser will offer you a gift and expect all to be forgiven and forgotten.
Instead of apologising for hurtful behaviour, abusers will expect a gift to make up for it and even be insulted if it is not accepted.
3. Control of Resources
Any attempt to control your access to joint resources such as finances, transportation, means of communication etc., should be seen as abusive because it robs you of your independence and freedom.
If you are in a relationship where you share a joint bank account and you don't have direct access to that money or money of your own, it is not fair.
Anyone who insists on checking your phone and itemised bills, is possessive and aims to have control over your interaction with other people.
Those who always insist on driving (even if it's your car) because they say they're a better driver than you, are being disrespectful.
Being constantly criticised, leads you to believe you can't do anything right and that everything is your fault. It wears you down to the extent of believing you do not deserve any better.
Whenever someone helps you with something, but they tell you how incompetent you are for not being able to do it yourself, you are being bullied.
If you do something or take time for yourself, you are accused of being selfish.
When you are driving, you are being bombarded by instructions and criticism, which is insulting and only makes you nervous.
In emotionally abusive relationships, one partner makes demands which the other partner feels obliged to meet.
The abusive partner will expect to be served when hungry or thirsty.
The abused partner will perform most of the household chores due to a sense of obligation.
The one who always decides whether and when you are intimate, is abusing the other.
An unfaithful partner does not respect the commitment you made to each other. Multiple affairs are a clear sign that promises made are blatantly disregarded.
You are blamed for the affair because you are so horrible your partner is driven into the arms of someone else.
Your partner claims to be so lonely in your relationship that they turn to others for love and affection.
The cheater accuses you of withholding sex or denying intimacy, giving them an excuse to satisfy their needs elsewhere.
7. Distrust & Jealousy
Does your partner get overly jealous whenever you socialise, check your text messages or read your e-mails? Are you constantly being accused of cheating? Then you are dealing with abusive behaviour and an attempt to control you.
“You left me by myself all evening and chatted to so and so for hours. Is there something going on between the two of you?”
“We shouldn't have any secrets between us, so I have every right to read your messages, not so?”
“Why don't you want me to see who called? Do you have something to hide?”
8. Excessive Rules
Rules that dictate how you should live your life, do certain things or run the household, are another common way bullies attempt to overpower and control you.
The house has to be perfectly tidy and quiet before your partner gets home at the end of the day.
You are only allowed to go to certain places if accompanied by your partner.
There are normal activities like reading, listening to certain music or eating a treat, which you have to do secretly or when you are alone, because this person does not like you doing it.
If you live in constant fear of upsetting this person's mood, because they are so unpredictable that you never know how they're going to react, their reign of terror is a clear sign of abuse.
A healthy relationship is based on mutual love and respect. If you are in any way afraid of someone, or afraid of what they might do in a particular situation, you are being abused already.
If you and everybody else in your household are walking on eggs all the time, for fear of upsetting someone about the smallest things, it is an abusive situation.
When you'd rather not do something that is important to you, or refrain from doing what seems like the right thing to do because you are afraid of someone's reaction, you are being bullied.
This is a very dangerous form of manipulation, which eventually makes you doubt your own sanity. Has your partner ever said something or done something and at a later stage tried to convince you that they didn't do it and you remembered it wrong? If you allow this to happen regularly, you will start questioning your own ability to recall events and eventually doubt whether you can be trusted to remember anything.
“I did tell you about it, you just don't remember it.”
“I never did that, you are imagining things.”
“You said it was fine when I checked with you. Don't try and deny it now.”
Abusers will pretend to feel guilty about something they've done, to manipulate you into minimising the transgression and focusing more on feeling sorry for them, so that you will forgive them and even console them.
“I am so sorry I totally ruined your party. I didn't mean to be such an idiot.”
“I will never forgive myself if you don't get that promotion because of me.”
“Will you ever be able to find it in your heart to forgive me?”
12. Holding Grudges
Abusive people often like being the victim. When they feel wronged by you, they regard you as “bad” and themselves as “good”. This way, they can justify their disproportionate anger towards you as well deserved punishment and therefore hang on to it for a very long time.
When your partner feels you have been emotionally withdrawn, they might withhold affection or avoid intimacy as punishment.
If your spouse feels left out because you had an enjoyable outing without them, they might refuse to go anywhere with you for a period of time.
An abusive partner would feel justified to keep secrets from you indefinitely, if you neglected to tell them something which they regarded as important.
One of the oldest tricks in the book, is forbidding you to see your friends, convincing you to sever ties with your family or getting you to move far away, thereby systematically isolating you from the rest of the world and making you dependent on them for social interaction.
There is “something about your friends” and your partner does not trust them, so you feel obliged not to see them anymore.
A family member is accused of wrongdoing and no longer welcome in your home.
Your spouse has an argument with someone close to you, refuses to resolve it and leaves you in an awkward position not being able to maintain contact.
14. Keeping Score
A person who keeps score of wrongdoings between partners for the purpose of constantly reminding you of it and also for justifying their current righteousness, is abusive. It becomes a competition to determine who has messed up the most and owes the other one more.
I always have to wait for you when you're late, so don't complain about me being late.
You were not available when I needed you, so don't expect me to support you now.
You were unfaithful to me, so I have every right to cheat on you now.
Abusive & manipulative personalities will lie about simple, everyday things for no reason. They will also lie about the big important stuff, without blinking. These lies are used to maintain control of the information that you get, thereby keeping you in the dark when and where they want to. When confronted about their lies, the usual response is incredible anger.
White lies are told about their whereabouts and plans.
A very impressive picture might be painted of themselves, which is not entirely true.
Details of a past life might be omitted completely.
A manipulator is a master at getting you to do things you wouldn't normally do. They manage to convince you to act out of character, go against your beliefs or compromise your boundaries, because that would be better for you.
They will invite people to your home, whom you don't like or trust and force you to socialise with them.
They will convince you to forgive an indiscretion, regardless of the hurt it caused you.
They might lead you to believe that ending a meaningful friendship is the right thing to do for the sake of your relationship.
17. Name Calling / Labelling
Although this is one of the most obvious signs of abuse, name calling is often excused with “they didn't really mean it”. Beware when this becomes a habit and when an abuser goes as far as to “label” you with some mental disorder, there should be red flags.
Calling you derogatory names in a moment of anger is not acceptable, even if they apologise for it afterwards.
Sometimes an abusive person will give you a nasty nickname and pretend that it is only a joke when you dislike it and accuse you of being too sensitive.
Beware when someone attempts to pin a dysfunction or personality disorder on you, such as: “you're obsessed” or “you're a psychopath” or “you need help”. They are in no position do so.
Abusers love to neglect people by giving them the silent treatment, withholding affection or disappearing for days on end. In severe cases, they might even deny you access to basic supplies such as electricity, water or food.
Ignoring or not responding to you for whatever reason, is not acceptable in a healthy relationship, especially if it persists for a prolonged period of time.
Rejecting your affection or denying you affection, is a sure sign of calculated manipulation with the purpose of hurting your feelings or making you feel guilty.
In severe cases of abuse, a victim might be punished by having to go without a meal or having other basic needs not met.
19. No Reciprocation
In a healthy relationship, both partners would spend time and energy to make each other happy. However, if you are spending the majority of your time trying to keep your partner happy and they hardly ever put in any effort, you are being bullied.
You are always the one to create an opportunity for the two of you to do something romantic together.
Every birthday or anniversary, you go to a lot of trouble to make a special occasion but your spouse does not even remember the dates.
Little spoils like making coffee, showing affection and offering to help with something are always initiated by you while your partner hardly ever reciprocates.
20. Passive Aggression
Instead of communicating openly, your partner drops hints or makes insinuations to taunt you until you get upset or angry. When you respond in this frame of mind, they feel justified to complain and attack you with full force.
Rather than tell you what they're upset about, they'll give you the silent treatment until you confront them, which they use to make it seem like you're the one who has a problem.
Instead of asking for help directly, they'll do the task in a loud and exaggerated manner, to draw your attention and when you offer help, they'll blow up about you never helping them with anything.
When you've had an unresolved conflict, they'll suppress their anger but treat you abruptly and find petty ways to irritate you until they elicit a reaction out of you, which they'll use against you.
Some abusive people expect you to ask their permission before doing certain things that adults would normally do independently, in order to control you.
You need their permission whenever you want to leave the house on your own.
You need your partner's approval before buying anything.
Before meeting with certain friends or family, your partner has to grant you permission.
22. Rage & Remorse
Some bullies display predictable patterns of outrage, followed by deep remorse and promises that it will never happen again. These cycles repeat and escalate every time.
If a person has a habit of temper tantrums and profuse apologies thereafter, only to be repeated about the same issues, it is abuse.
A regular cycle of arguments, which always end in tears and self-pity, is manipulation and a sign of bullying.
If you are afraid to upset someone, for fear of incurring their wrath, you are in an abusive situation.
23. Responsibility for Emotions
If someone is feeling down and expects you to cheer them up, or blames you for their emotional state, you are being bullied. If they resent the fact that you are in a better state of mind and demand that your life revolve around their emotional well-being, the situation is abusive.
“I am feeling sad and you know you're the only one who can cheer me up.”
“See how you have upset me now.”
“You make me feel this way or that way.”
Comments and actions that threaten your well-being and the relationship whenever you have a disagreement, is emotional blackmail and undermines the sense of security we all deserve within a healthy union.
A person who turns their back on you and walks out of a conversation or disagreement, is abandoning the relationship, leaving you feeling hopeless.
When someone is lashing out at you in anger and threatens to hit you, it should be regarded in a very serious light, because it might become a reality one day.
Threatening to harm or even kill themselves, is a very mean way of keeping you tied to them through an unhealthy sense of obligation.
When someone tries to force you into doing something or face negative consequences if you don't, you are being controlled with an ultimatum.
“If you don't do this right now, I'll never forgive you”.
“You have to help me, otherwise I'll be ruined for life.”
“Give me one more chance, unless you want me to go away and never see me again.”
No-one should tolerate this kind of treatment! Behavioural patterns like these are abusive, manipulative and not conducive to healthy, happy relationships. It is very difficult to free yourself from an abusive relationship, but it can be done. Seek professional help if you feel that you are being abused. You need to learn how to identify abusive conduct, take a strong stand against it and acquire the necessary skills to protect yourself from future abuse.
Gov. Greg Abbott declares January Human Trafficking Prevention Month
by Ashley McElroy
AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday proclaimed January as Human Trafficking Prevention Month in the state of Texas.
“The heinous crime of human trafficking is not confined to some remote country; it is happening right here, and even children have become commodities for the pleasure of sexual predators and the profit of traffickers," Abbott said. “The State of Texas will not tolerate the inhumane practices carried out by coercive and manipulative criminals. We provide serious penalties for human traffickers, and we continuously look for ways to better serve the victims.”
In Texas more than 300,000 people are victims of human trafficking , according to a study by the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work. About 79,000 of those are young Texans being sold for sex.
In Bastrop County , The Refuge for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking is working to bring those numbers down. They are currently building a refuge ranch in for survivors of sex trafficking. The refuge will be able to house nearly 50 residents and will offer a school, therapy and counseling.
What to do if you think someone is being trafficked
The Texas attorney general lists steps anyone can take to report human trafficking:
If the situation is an emergency or you believe someone is in immediate danger, call 911. Tell them you think it may be human trafficking situation so that it can be routed to the proper investigators. Follow that call with a call to the National Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-3737-888 or report online at Report@PolarisProject.org.
Include actionable information, names, descriptions of what you saw, heard, when and where. If vehicles are involved try to include license plate numbers or makes, models and colors.
Call as soon as possible after you make the observations. The fresher the information, the more likely law enforcement can take action.
Don't intervene yourself. Traffickers can be dangerous. Allow law enforcement to respond.
Call the Department of Public Safety. They have victim advocates who specialize in human trafficking stationed across the state. Department of Public Safety Victim Service Counselors
Call Child Protective Services if a child is involved. Tell them you have concerns for trafficking during your intake call or online report. 1-800-252-5400. Texas Abuse Hotline Login
Call the Office of the Attorney General, Human Trafficking Prosecutor at 512-463-1646 or email at email@example.com.