Who Can We Trust to Tell?

Common sense tells us that during periods of economic hardship there will be more victims of child abuse. People will take out their pain and frustration on those more helpless than themselves. But, surprisingly, during the Great Recession, the number of reported incidents dropped. Can that be?

Back then, a child-welfare expert at the University of Pennsylvania, commented: “The doom-and-gloom predictions haven’t come true.” That assessment relied on traditional sources of information. But according to a recent account in The New York Times, new research suggests that the “real story about child maltreatment during the recession is a grim one.”

Using Google to track searches for such topics as “My dad hit me” or “Why did my father beat me?” or more common searches that include the words “child abuse” or “child neglect,” Seth Stephen-Davidwitz found “the Great Recession caused a significant increase in child abuse and neglect. The Times concluded: “far fewer of these cases were reported to authorities, with much of the drop due to slashed budgets for teachers, nurses, doctors and child protective service workers.” (See, “How Googling Unmasks Child Abuse.”)

After years of declining reports of abuse in the United States, “the searches that seem to have come from abuse victims themselves rose as soon as the Great Recession began. On weeks that unemployment claims rose, these searches rose as well.”

Official statistics seem to be like consciousness, a sanitized and simplified account of the truth. They are what we can tolerate knowing. The Times went on to note: “According to government surveys, between 2006 and 2010, throughout the United States, 52 percent of violent crimes, 60 percent of property crimes and 65 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were never reported to the police.”

Unconscious knowledge is not easy to detect, and not just because the facts are unreported. There are also false leads. Most searches for “rape,” it turns out, come from people looking for pornography.

But, as The Times went on to note, “the contrast between the search data and the reported data tells a sad story about social services in this country. Just when more children are searching for help, we decimate the budgets of the very people who might actually do something to protect them.” Is that further evidence for our not wanting to know? As The Times commented, it is a “sad story,” but how can we make sense of it?

It looks like triage on a massive scale. As unemployment continues, food stamps are cut, violent crimes increase, health care is increasingly unavailable in the cities and Medicare denied to millions, we turn away from those who cannot themselves make the case for our attention, and we take comfort in misleading statistics even when we know they must be wrong.

But perhaps underlying this triage might be a resurgent, underlying sense that abuse is the prerogative of parents. This is common in tribal societies where fathers can beat their children with impunity, send them away, or mutilate them. But perhaps among us now there are more and more who feel what happens to their children is not the business of the state.

I am not suggesting that this is a conscious conviction. But I am suggesting that in our current climate of distrust and resentment of government, people witnessing abuse may well increasingly tend to shrug it off and turn the other way. There is no one to trust with the information.