By Kelsey J. Nunez
The desire to write this article came to me while I was watching a TV show. One of the characters was a super rich, super popular high school bully. He was so mean, exhibiting piercing cruelty and callousness. It was easy to despise him. But as his character developed, we started to get glimpses into his home life. A father who was always belittling him, a distant mom who was drunk a lot.
Then all of a sudden the scene that made me cry with empathy hit – his dad takes him into a room with a belt, and as the door closes, the camera pans to his mom who finishes her martini while she listens to the sounds of his pain in the other room. This well-connected and admired family had a horrible secret, and the impacts of their physical and emotional abuse was spreading to the son’s victims at school.
As practitioners in the child protection space, we know about the consequences to society when abused children do not get the help they need to heal their traumas, break the cycle of violence, and avoid becoming abusers themselves. I became curious about the impacts of stereotypes and privilege and the common perception that child abuse and neglect is a poor-people issue. That is clearly not true – child abuse occurs in all socioeconomic classes. But does society treat wealthy abusers and their victims differently?
In sum, the answer is yes. While child protection statutes on their face apply to all children equally, affluent abusers tend to be better equipped at keeping the abuse private and navigating the medical and legal system to shield themselves from the consequences.
Child abuse and neglect may be underreported in affluent communities
Many authors have explored why poverty conditions can lead to child abuse and neglect. It makes logical sense that a parent predisposed to harming their children may struggle even more under the pressures of income insecurity and lack of child care, adequate housing, and food. While poverty-based suffering is real and deeply problematic, the child protection system has been criticized for missing child abuse in affluent communities while demonstrating over-interventions and biases against poor parents.[i] There are many nuances to using child protection statutes to alleviate harms associated with poverty. But this article doesn’t go there – it focuses on children at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Abuse and neglect happen in families with enough to eat, a nice home, and plenty of economic resources, but it is often addressed differently by community members, mandatory reporters, law enforcement, and the courts. This issue was flagged in the oft-cited 1981 National Study on the Incidence and Severity of Child Abuse and Neglect, which showed higher levels of abuse in lower income families, noting “the income distribution of children reported to CPS is markedly different than the general population distribution,” and acknowledged that some advocates think this may be due in part to underreporting of higher income families.[ii]
I’m not aware of any modern data on child abuse and household income that shows a proportionate distribution of CPS cases among income levels, or any studies or reports that prove or disprove underreporting. Because the data is what it is, the conversation is mostly conceptual and exploratory. While it’s possible that poor people abuse and neglect their children more than wealthy people do, it is also possible that there may be “skewed perception, detection, and enforcement”[iii]of abuse and neglect in affluent communities. If our goal is to protect more children, then we should seek to understand any inherent biases in the child protection system and how we individually operate within it.
To that end, what follows is a summary of the two main theories of why child abuse in affluent families may be underreported: affluent families have more privacy and affluent abusers have more power to fight government interventions.
The goal here is not to criticize hard-working child protection advocates doing their best, but instead to shine light on systemic biases so we can all be more aware and effective in implementing the Child Protection Act to benefit all socioeconomic classes of children.
Affluent families have more privacy
Families who receive subsidized assistance, such as food stamps, temporary assistance to needy families, Section 8 housing, and Medicaid, tend to be observed and scrutinized by more people affiliated with the state. They are also more likely to be subject to drug and alcohol abuse evaluations in exchange for receiving such assistance. As such, evidence of abuse or neglect is more likely to be perceived by someone unconnected to the family and more willing to report them.
Wealthier families, on the other hand, are better able to keep the goings-on of their homelife to themselves and a small circle of private doctors, schools, and support staff. While doctors, teachers, and counselors are mandatory reporters, there is a risk that they could be compelled to protect the privacy of, or seek alternatives to criminal justice for, a wealthy abuser that pays them well or exerts social influence over them. Less nefarious is the unconscious bias associated with giving “clean, well-to-do” people the benefit of the doubt in suspicious circumstances.
Affluent abusers have more power to fight government interventions
For a variety of reasons, law enforcement can be more intimidating for people who do not have economic means to mount a legal defense or are already scared of police. Abusers with higher income levels and powerful social networks are often more confident in exercising private property/civil rights and challenging the authority of social workers to get involved. They are able to afford private legal counsel to assert riskier positions and resist investigations while fighting each stage of a child protection proceeding, and they may feel more entitled to file formal complaints against child protection agencies.
Awareness can help more children
It is important for attorneys and practitioners in this space to be aware of, and work to reduce the impacts of, these potential biases so we can get more children and families the help they need to break the cycle of violence and neglect.[iv]We know that children who are abused and neglected that don’t receive any interventions are statistically likely to suffer mental health issues into their adult lives and become abusive themselves. Money alone cannot protect a child from these outcomes.
Kelsey J. Nunez‘s boutique solo practice is dedicated to social entrepreneurs and collaborative culture, and she volunteers as an attorney for guardians ad litem in the Fourth Judicial District. In addition to lawyering, Kelsey owns The Vervain Collective, a plant-based apothecary with a natural health treatment room in Garden City.
[i] See generally, David Pimentel, Punishing Families For Being Poor: How Child Protection Interventions Threaten The Right To Parent While Impoverished, 71 Okla. L. R. 885 (2019); Janet L. Wallace, Lisa R. Pruitt, Judging Parents, Judging Place: Poverty, Rurality, And Termination Of Parental Rights, 77 Mo. L. Rev 95 (2012); Jonathan L. Hafetz, “A Man’s Home Is His Castle?”: Reflections On The Home, The Family, And Privacy During The Late Nineteenth And Early Twentieth Centuries, 8 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 175 (2002); Kate Hollenbeck, Between A Rock And A Hard Place: Child Abuse Registries At The Intersection Of Child Protection, Due Process, And Equal Protection, 11 Tex. J. Women & L. 1 (2001).
[ii] Department of Health and Human Services, National Study on the Incidence and Severity of Child Abuse and Neglect (Sept. 1981), at 38.
[iii] Pimental, 71 Okla. L. R. 885 at 904.
[iv] Another interesting resource is the online Reddit thread, “Who else was neglected by affluent parents?”, available at https://www.reddit.com/r/raisedbynarcissists/comments/46vhrl/who_else_was_neglected_by_affluent_parents/. See also, Paracelsus Recovery, Affluent Neglect (Oct. 15, 2015), available at https://www.paracelsus-recovery.com/blog/affluent-neglect/ (describing and offering help for long term impacts from neglect in affluent families).