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Public Administration and Institutions that Commit Child Abuse or Neglect: Part 1 – Confronting the Problem

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
April 28, 2023

This column begins a series on a painful and disturbing topic: child abuse and neglect. The focus is not the child welfare social systems that intercede when children are subject to abuse and neglect from their primary caregivers. The United States, fortunately, has come a long way from when the first laws protecting the rights of children were forged on top of laws against harming animals. My focus is on the unfolding crisis for public administration systems dealing with institutions that have become systematic sources of child abuse and neglect.

For more than a decade now, investigative journalism, and actions in various courts around the United States, have revealed systematic patterns of child abuse and neglect occurring within institutions that have deep roots in American daily life. I’m not going to be shy about listing some of these institutions:

  • The Catholic Church
  • The Boy Scouts of America
  • The Southern Baptist Convention
  • The Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I realize that all four listed above are known for their ties to the Christian faith. I want to be clear that I have been a practicing Episcopalian, member of several different parishes in Pennsylvania and Maryland, a church treasurer, a member of a church vestry and a consultant to churches over the past 30 years. This series of columns is not a thinly veiled charge against Christianity from the perspective of atheism.

Rather, this series grows out of frustration seeing my local governments in Maryland struggle to come to terms with reports of institutions systematically committing child abuse and neglect. Instead of taking firm actions to safeguard children, these local governments seem frozen amidst an administrative paralysis when trying to respond to the facts. And these facts are truly horrific: Across the United States and over the past 70 years or so, hundreds of thousands of children have suffered grievous abuse and neglect. As it stands, the only recourse available to the victims are individual civil lawsuits for monetary damages. Even when these legal actions produce settlements and fines that should result in institutions being permanently shut down, somehow they persist.

One of the reasons that they persist is that governments with jurisdiction choose to let them.

Certainly, a crucial factor is that many officials within government have a long personal history with these institutions. Confronting their systematic failures is very painful and difficult to accept.

But do we live in a country where the personal ties of our officials should determine the capacity of government to protect children from child abuse and neglect?

Another reason that they persist is the separation of church and state supposedly “baked in” to the fabric of American democracy, along with the corollary value of religious freedom.

But do we live in a country where one limited, and possibly incorrect, interpretation of the concept of religious freedom should determine the capacity of government to protect children from child abuse and neglect?

You may be familiar with the recent spate of investigative journalism about the first three institutions on the list above but not any issues of note regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their problems first came to my attention through 2017 reporting by National Public Radio regarding the opposition inside that church to children attending college. According to the report, the top leadership of the Jehovah’s Witnesses instructed parents not to support sending children to college out of two beliefs: (1) secular higher education will undermine faith and (2) the end of the word is imminent, so college is a waste of time and money. Consequently, less than 10 percent of the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses attend college compared to about 35 percent of the general population. Not attending college translates into less skills on the job market and basically tracks the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses into the lower tiers of the American job market for life.

Imagine what would happen if I went to my local government in Montgomery County, Maryland, and urged officials in the child welfare office to take action against Jehovah’s Witnesses parents for denying children a college education. My best guess is a bewildered look, some shrugs and a tangible desire to be anywhere else at that moment. The reactions would stem from my urging action against an institution that encourages child neglect (denial of educational opportunities) rather than against individual households.

I fully understand and appreciate the division between politics and administration in American government. My concerns here are not about politics nor am I calling for legislation. We have plenty of laws on the books that make it clear there is institutional culpability in the cases I have referenced. The core of the problem is that our entire administrative system simply is unprepared to confront and address that institutional culpability.

Yet, even as I write these words, more children are being harmed in ways that will haunt them for the remainder of their lives. I expect that this country can and will fix this in the 21st Century.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and is an executive-in-residence at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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