← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

On the Morality of Executing Child Sex Abusers: Part 2

close up photograph of jail cell bars

Recently, I discussed the potential consequentialist justifications for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s new bill reintroducing the death penalty for those who commit sexual battery on a child under the age of 12. I argued that, for the most part, these justifications seemed lacking. It’s important to note, however, that there are a number of other ways in which we might justify punishment. In this article, I want to consider an alternative approach: namely that of retributivism.

While consequentialism looks forwards to the potential goods that can be achieved by punishment, retributivism instead looks backwards for its justification. According to the retributivist, the necessary harm of punishment is justified purely on the basis that the offender committed a crime – regardless of what future goods may (or may not) be achieved by this punishment.

There are many cases in which consequentialism and retributivism will disagree on whether punishment is justified. Imagine a case where a community passes a new law forbidding skateboarding in its downtown pedestrian mall. While this law is welcomed by the community at large, it is met with vehement opposition by a small minority. One of this group decides to openly break the law, skateboarding through the mall in protest. This hooligan is apprehended, and the judge must now decide whether or not to punish him. Suppose, however, that punishing this particular hooligan will serve only to foment further dissent and encourage even more cases of skateboarding protests.

The consequentialist justifies punishment on the basis of its deterrent effect – that is, its ability to deter future instances of crime (committed by both the offender and the wider community). In this case, then, the consequentialist will seemingly be forced to concede that punishing the hooligan is not justified. The retributivist, on the other hand, will disagree. Since retributivism is backwards-looking – paying no mind to the consequences of the punishment, and instead focusing solely on the fact that the offender committed a crime – it will still hold that punishment of the hooligan is justified.

It’s worth considering, however, precisely what it is about committing a crime that makes it justifiable to punish an offender. One common way of doing this is to claim that by committing a crime, an offender forfeits certain rights. Why? Well, we might argue that my possession of a right necessarily entails a duty to respect that right in others. Thus, when I violate the right/s of another, I forfeit my own corresponding right/s. We can call this Forfeiture-Based Retributivism.

There are many cases where Forfeiture-Based Retributivism provides a straightforward justification for a case of punishment. Consider, for example, the death penalty as a punishment for murder: My possession of the right to life entails a corresponding duty to respect your right to life. Thus, when I violate this right (i.e., by committing a murder) I simultaneously forfeit my own right to life, and in doing so empower the state to intervene and execute me for this crime.

It’s an intuitive approach – and one that underpins many discussions of how we treat offenders. It is, however, deeply problematic. If the right we violate dictates the right we forfeit, then this will lead to all sorts of strange conclusions regarding the punishments that the state is justified in administering. Consider the skateboarding example above. The hooligan has clearly violated their duty to not skateboard in a pedestrian area. According to the Forfeiture-Based Retributivist, this would entail the hooligan losing their corresponding right. But it’s unclear precisely what that right would be. A right to not have others skateboard in their area?

In other cases, the punishments endorsed by Forfeiture-Based Retributivism move from the absurd to the unacceptable. Consider the crime here under discussion: sexual battery on a child. In committing this crime, an offender violates their victim’s right to bodily autonomy in the most reprehensible way imaginable. According to Forfeiture-Based Retributivism, this offender would subsequently forfeit their own right to not have their bodily autonomy violated in this very same way. Put simply: Forfeiture-Based Retributivism seems to suggest that the perpetrator of sexual assault should be punished by also being sexually assaulted.

Some might find this an acceptable outcome. But most will not. While we might wish to see such offenders punished severely, we will most likely stop short of endorsing that rapists ought to be raped in retribution. This, however, seems to be precisely what Forfeiture-Based Retributivism entails.

An alternative way of providing a retributivist justification might be to simply claim that an offender simply deserves to be punished. We can call this Desert-Based Retributivism. The notion of desert should be a familiar concept for most. Basically, it boils down to the idea that good actions should receive good consequences, while bad actions should receive bad consequences. Suppose that one of my students writes an exceptional essay, while another plagiarizes an incredibly poor essay. The former, it seems deserves a good grade, while the latter deserves a bad grade. Why? This is harder to explain, but it seems to be rooted in the fact that the state of affairs in which the good student receives a good grade is better than the state of affairs in which they don’t. Likewise, the state of affairs in which the bad student receives a bad grade is better than the state of affairs in which they don’t.

Can Desert-Based Retributivism provide a justification for sentencing child sex offenders to death? Possibly. But while it might be clear that the abhorrent actions of these offenders deserve bad consequences, Desert-Based Retributivism fails to provide a specific answer to just how bad those consequences should be. Are they deserving of the most serious punishment at our disposal? This remains unclear. But there’s also a deeper problem with Desert-Based Retributivism: namely, that it justifies punishing the innocent. There are many people who deserve bad consequences despite having broken no law. Consider the vile racist, or the unrepentant philanderer. Racism and infidelity are not crimes, but these individuals clearly seem to deserve punishment for their actions. Should the state, then, punish these individuals, despite the fact that they are (legally) innocent? If we think not, then it seems we might have to look elsewhere for a potential justification for punishment.

While punishment is something we often accept without question, its justification requires careful consideration. This is particularly true where the punishment involves ending a human life. While few would argue that those who commit sexual battery on a child should receive punishment, a reasoned justification for the severity of this punishment is much more difficult to provide. Perhaps we think that child sex abusers should receive our most severe penalty for reasons of deterrence – but this approach is fraught with complications. We might, on the other hand, think that these offenders have forfeited certain rights, or simply deserve to be punished as severely as possible – but problems arise here too. Ultimately, this means that our discussion of the severity of punishment appropriate for child sex abusers needs to be carefully carried out on the basis of reason, not emotion. It’s unclear that the legislative procedure behind Florida’s new law followed any such process.

On the Morality of Executing Child Sex Abusers: Part 1

photograph of hands on jail bars

Several months ago, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill reintroducing the death penalty for those who commit sexual battery on a child under the age of 12. Such laws were previously found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. But even so, it’s worth considering what – if any – moral justification could be given for responding to child sex abuse with the most serious punishment at our disposal.

In order to make sense of the relevant arguments, we first need to consider precisely what punishment is. Whether it’s a fine, a prison sentence, or the death penalty, punishment seems to necessarily involve harming an offender in some way. But this is problematic. Ordinarily, we assume that there’s a strong moral prohibition against harming other people. We need to explain, then, why it’s permissible to treat some people (i.e., those who commit a crime) differently to other people.

One way in which we might do this is by being consequentialist in our reasoning. Consequentialism – as the name suggests – evaluates the morality of our actions based on the consequences they achieve. While there are many different varieties of consequentialism, they all agree that the right thing to do is that which maximises the good. A consequentialist, then, will argue that while punishment does involve harm to the offender, this harm is offset by the greater good it brings about for our society. What is that “good”? Generally, a reduction in future crimes. The central mechanism by which this is done is deterrence. Punishment is intended to deter an offender from reoffending. But this isn’t all. The punishment of an offender also acts as a wider deterrent for other members of society. Having seen the consequences of wrongdoing, those who might have committed a crime will (hopefully) no longer do so.

Taken together, the deterrence of the offender as well as the general population reduces the likelihood of future crimes and their associated harms. The consequentialist argues that this overwhelming good is sufficient to outweigh any harm caused to the offender.

It’s a straightforward approach, and one that many will find intuitive when thinking about why punishment might be justified. But a number of issues arise. For one, there may be cases where punishment doesn’t maximize the good. Consider a case where a crime is committed by a respected member of the community. Suppose that punishing this particular individual will create no deterrent effect and will, in fact, have far-reaching negative consequences in the form of anger and disillusionment across the community. In such a case, it seems that the consequentialist approach will recommend against punishment.

There might also be cases where consequentialism will recommend punishing the innocent. Suppose, for example, that imprisoning one innocent individual will be enough to deter an angry mob that – if left unchecked – will go on to cause widespread injury and destruction across town. In such a case, a consequentialist approach may very well tell us that punishing that person is the right thing to do.

There are ways that the consequentialist might avoid such problems. One solution would be to argue that while particular cases of punishing the innocent or failing to punish the guilty might maximize the good, adopting such practices as a rule would – in the long run – create more harm than good. But there are deeper problems with the very thing that forms the foundation of the consequentialist approach: namely, deterrence. In order for a punishment to deter, it must be something that the potential offender considers when deciding whether or not to commit a crime. But there are many situations in which this won’t be the case. Those who commit a crime of passion will be paying little mind to the potential consequences of their actions – punishment included. The same might also be true of those who are under the influence of certain substances, or who suffer from diminished mental capacity. All of these are examples of cases where the possibility of punishment will fail to provide a potential offender a reason to alter their behavior.

In other cases, increasing the severity of punishment for a crime may in fact encourage the commission of other crimes. Claire Finkelstein provides a helpful example of this, noting how an increase in the severity of the punishment for bicycle theft might incentivize those who would have otherwise stolen a bike to now steal a car instead.

Something similar can occur when the most severe punishment – the death penalty – is used for anything less than murder. If someone commits a crime punishable by death, they now have little discouragement from committing further crimes (since it is impossible for them to receive a greater punishment). This may be particularly relevant where someone has an opportunity to commit an additional crime in order to reduce their chances of being caught for their initial crime. Suppose, for example, that someone commits sexual battery against a minor, and that the only witness to this crime is the victim. If the perpetrator knows that they are already likely to receive the death penalty for the battery alone, they will have little discouragement from committing further offenses. What’s more, if they are able to reduce their chances of being caught by – say – now murdering that victim, it will make sense – at least, from their perspective – to do so.

And there are other ways in which an increase in the severity of punishment might have negative ramifications. Legal experts have expressed their concern that Florida’s new policy may in fact decrease the likelihood of incidents of sexual battery on minors being reported. This is due to the fact that most cases of child sex abuse are committed by family members. The fact that such incidents might be punished by death may cause families to be more reluctant in reporting such wrongdoing to the authorities.

Increasing the penalty for a serious crime might feel like the right thing to do. In many cases, it’s our society’s attempt to convey our utter disapproval of an abhorrent act. We must be wary, however, of the nuanced effects these severe punishments might actually have on the commission of crimes. In many cases they will simply fail to deter, while in others they may in fact encourage the commission of additional crimes. In yet other cases, a severe punishment might reduce the likelihood of crimes being reported in the first place – thus allowing the perpetrators to continue to offend.

For this reason, it is difficult to justify Florida’s new law on purely consequentialist grounds. But is there, perhaps, another approach that might provide justification? While consequentialism looks forward to the consequences of our actions, we could instead look backwards to certain facts about the past. This is precisely what the theory of retributivism does – and next time, I will consider whether this approach might provide better support for executing child sex abusers.

Bloodstained Men and Circumcision Protest

photograph of Bloodstained Men protestor

Images of men dressed in pure white with a vibrant mark of blood around their crotch have littered front pages in past weeks. The Bloodstained Men are protesting the practice of male circumcision – removal of the foreskin from the penis. This surgical practice, although less common in many European countries, is widely accepted and largely performed for social, aesthetic, or religious reasons. The World Health Organization estimated that somewhere between 76-92% of people with penises are circumcised in the United States.

While the practice of circumcision has a long history and has been endorsed by many Western doctors, does this make it ethical?

The Bloodstained Men, and other anti-circumcision activists, would argue that it does not: circumcision is a violation of genital autonomy and is a purely aesthetic surgery that only works to detract sexual pleasure and is performed without the consent of the child. Others, meanwhile, support circumcision, citing its possible medical benefits and ability to increase social, romantic, and sexual acceptance. How can we reconcile these two conflicting views?

Consulting our ethical convictions regarding female genital mutilation (FGM) may bring some clarity on this issue. The practice of altering the female genitalia – either by removing the clitoris, parts of the labia, or closing the vagina – has long been considered a morally impermissible intervention in Western society, and on valid grounds. Still, it must be determined whether our condemnation of FGM should inform a similar objection over male circumcision.

Most significantly, many cite FGM as problematic in its attempt to limit sexual autonomy, maintain ideals of purity, and uphold societal expectations around sex and femininity. The intent behind the procedure, then, may be the key to our acceptance of circumcision. Circumcision has long been a religious custom in the Muslim and Jewish faiths, but gained popularity in the United States for different reasons. Most integral to its growth in practice was a belief that circumcision could cure physical and mental health issues, provide an indication of wealth and social status, and prevent masturbation. Although these reasons may have led to its popularity, they have long been proven incorrect, and now the intent behind circumcision is typically associated with ideas of cleanliness, health, or social acceptance (with a focus on genital uniformity with one’s father or peers).

Are these justifications more morally permissible than those for FGM? Like FGM, there is a historic desire to suppress sexual autonomy paired with a current desire to gain social acceptance, and in both cultures the procedure is viewed as an accepted social custom done to benefit a child in some way. It is possible, then, that an evaluation of impact, rather than intent, will prove more useful for our discussion.

FGM is denounced by its lack of medical benefits, and more broadly by its medical risks, with severe forms causing difficulties birthing, infections, and psychological trauma. Does the moral difference, then, lie in the benefits of circumcision? Possible benefits include a decreased risk for HIV or urinary tract infections, easier hygiene, and social acceptance, with the belief that uncircumcised persons will face social persecution, bullying, or romantic/sexual ostracization. Do these reasons warrant genital surgery?

Research has found that these benefits are much more slight than once believed, especially when making a consideration for policy within the United States where HIV rates are quite low and may be better addressed with proper access to condoms, the drug PREP, or comprehensive sex education. In addition, circumcision, like FGM, reduces sexual pleasure; the foreskin, much like the clitoris, houses a majority of the nerve endings in the penis, so its removal reduces sensation. It is widely known, now, that circumcision is not a medical necessity, yet the practice remains a social custom. Social reasons for circumcision may be convincing, but are also similar to those that inform FGM.

Is social normativity enough to warrant the removal or change to a perfectly healthy organ, especially if it reduces pleasure? Even if there are some medical benefits, is this a decision that should be made for a child?

This discussion really comes down to a conversation about informed consent. For surgeries under the age of 18, parents are given the authority to provide consent for their children; this sacrifice of rights is necessary to serve the medical interests of the child. In the case of circumcision, though, there is absolutely no medical necessity; it is a surgery that involves the removal of a natural part of a healthy organ, an organ that increases pleasure later in life. Should parents be able to consent to surgeries that are not medically necessary?

The value we place on bodily autonomy suggests that this is not a decision that should be made by parents, especially as it is often motivated by a desire to “fit in.” Personal autonomy and the right to control one’s own body, especially such an intimate organ, should supersede social and cultural norms. If we do decide respecting cultural customs and desires for social acceptance are more important than our ethical understanding that people should have the right to control their bodies, why do we denounce FGM?

When evaluating the two procedures, it seems as though circumcision shares many of the qualities that make FGM unethical, so shouldn’t we deem circumcision unethical as well? If we decide to continue the practice of circumcision, where must we fall on the issue of FGM? In order to come to a conclusion about circumcision, we must reckon with our moral attitudes towards FGM and determine whether our values of consent and pleasure are more important than our need to conform to social and cultural customs.

The Morality of “Sharenting”

black-and-white photograph of embarrassed child

The cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind — featuring a naked baby diving after a dollar bill in a pool of brilliant, blue water — is one of the most iconic of the grunge era, and perhaps of the ‘90s. But not everyone looks back on that album with fond nostalgia. Just last week, Spencer Elden — the man pictured as the baby on that cover — renewed his lawsuit against Nirvana, citing claims of child pornography.

Cases like this are nothing new. Concerns regarding the exploitation of children in the entertainment industry have existed for, well, as long as the entertainment industry. What is new, however, is the way in which similar concerns might be raised for non-celebrity children. The advent of social media means that the public sharing of images and videos of children is no longer limited to Hollywood. Every parent with an Instagram account is capable of doing this. The practice even has a name: sharenting. Indeed, those currently entering adulthood are unique in that they are the first generation to have had their entire childhoods shared online — and some of them aren’t very happy about it. So it’s worth asking the question: is it morally acceptable to share imagery of children online before they can give their informed consent?

One common answer to this question is to say that it’s simply up to the parent or guardian. This might be summed up as the “my child, my choice” approach. Roughly, it relies on the idea that parents know what is in the best interests of their child, and therefore reserve the right to make all manner of decisions on their behalf. As long as parental consent is involved whenever an image or video of their child is shared, there’s nothing to be concerned about. It’s a tempting argument, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Being a parent doesn’t provide you with the prerogative to do whatever you want with your child. We wouldn’t, for example, allow parental consent as a justification for child labor or sex trafficking. If every parent did know what was best for their child, there wouldn’t be a need for institutions like the Child Protection Service. Child abuse and neglect wouldn’t exist. But they do. And that’s because sometimes parents get things wrong. The “my child, my choice” argument, then, is not a good one. So we must look for an alternative.

We might instead take a “consequentialist” approach — that is, to weigh up the good consequences and bad consequences of sharenting to see if it results in a net good. To be fair, there are many good things that come from the practice. For one, social media provides an opportunity for parents to share details of a very important part — perhaps the most important part — of their lives. In doing so, they are able to strengthen their relationships with family, friends, and other parents, bonding with — and learning from — each other along the way. Such sharing also enables geographically distant loved ones to be more involved in a child’s life. This is something that’s become even more important in a world that has undergone unprecedented travel restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the mere existence of these benefits is not enough to justify sharenting. They must be weighed against the actual and potential harms of the practice. And there are many. Sharing anything online — especially imagery of young children — is an enormously risky endeavor. Even images that are shared under supposedly private conditions can easily enter the public forum — either through irresponsible resharing by well-intentioned loved ones, or by the notoriously irresponsible management of our data by social media companies.

Once this imagery is in the public domain, it can be used for all kinds of nefarious purposes. But we needn’t explore such dark avenues. Many of us have a lively sense of our own privacy, and don’t want our information shared with the general public regardless of how it ends up being used. It makes sense to imagine that our children — once capable of giving informed consent — will feel the same way. Much of the imagery shared of them online involves private, personal moments intended only for themselves and those they care about. Any invasion of that privacy is a bad thing.

Which brings us to yet another way of analyzing this subject. Instead of focusing purely on the consequences of sharenting, we might instead apply what’s referred to as a “deontological” approach. One of the most famous proponents of deontology was Immanuel Kant. In its most straight-forward formulation, Kant’s ethical theory tells us to always seek to treat others as an end in themselves, not as a means to some other end. This approach reveres respect for the autonomy of others, and abhors using people for your own purposes. Thus, even if there are goods to be gained from sharenting, these should be ignored if the child — upon developing their autonomy — would wish that their private lives had never been made public.

What both the consequentialist approach and the deontological approach seem to boil down to, then, is a question of what the child will want once they are capable of giving informed consent. And this is something we can never know. They may develop into a gregarious braggart who shares every detail of their life online. But they may just as likely turn into a fiercely private individual who wants no record of their childhood — awkward and embarrassing as these always tend to be — in the digital ether. Given this uncertainty, what should parents do? It’s difficult to say, but perhaps the safest approach might be to apply some kind of “precautionary principle.” This principle states that where an unnecessary action brings a significant risk of harm, we should refrain from acting. So, given the potential harm associated with sharenting and the largely unnecessary nature of the practice (especially when similar goods can be achieved in other ways; for example, by mailing photographs to loved ones the old-fashioned way), we should respect our children’s right to privacy — at least until they can give their informed consent to having their private lives shared publicly.

The Case of Gabriel Fernandez: Social Work and Public Responsibility

View from street of a large concrete building with thousands of windows. The building is the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts building.

Content warning from the editor: This article contains descriptions of child abuse that might be upsetting to readers.

Recently, Netflix released a documentary series called The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, which has become one of the most watched series on the platform. The documentary explores the death of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was, over the course of a number of months, tortured and beaten to death by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauru Aguirre. Gabriel died in 2013.

Before Gabriel died, there was significant evidence, observed by many people in his life that severe abuse was occurring. Bruises at various stages of the healing process were visible all over his body. Witnesses observed what appeared to be burns from cigarettes being put out all over his shaved head. These burns were also at various stages of the healing process, suggesting that the torture had been taking place over a lengthy amount of time. At one point, Gabriel arrived at school with injuries all over his face. He reported to his teacher that his mother had shot him in the face with a BB gun.

On May 24, 2013, Aguirre called 911. He claimed that Gabriel had fallen while playing with his siblings. It was immediately clear to responding officers that the severity of the young boy’s injuries could not be explained by a simple fall. The medical examiner later confirmed that the death was a homicide—the people who were supposed to care for him had beaten Gabriel to death. They were both arrested and tried for capital murder in the death of the eight-year-old boy. The autopsy revealed that Gabriel’s stomach contained no food. There was evidence of malnutrition, including the presence of kitty litter in his stomach. His sister confirmed that her brother had been forced by Fernandez and Aguirre to consume the filthy contents of the litter box. Prosecutors pursued the death penalty against Aguirre and agreed to a plea deal with Fernandez that resulted in a penalty of life in prison without parole, due to her diminished intellectual capacity.

Gabriel’s death is a great tragedy, but sadly it is not unique in its severity. One thing that makes this particular case unusual is that criminal charges were also pursued against the social workers who did not notice the many troubling warning signs in time to save the young boy’s life. The documentary series explores the multiple levels of culpability involved in the case. How is it that some children who are in clear danger slip through the cracks?

Answering this question is not easy. Arguably, the decision to prosecute social workers for their missteps in the case treats the situation as if it is more black-and-white than it actually is. Based on the documentary’s reporting, it seems clear that Gabriel’s extended family was aware from the time of his birth that living with his birth mother would not be a safe environment for Gabriel. For the first three years after the child was born, his great-uncle and his partner raised him. He was removed from that environment for reasons that included both homophobia and a desire on the part of Pearl Fernandez to increase the amount of money that she was receiving from welfare. Because they observed the abuse occurring, it is plausible to draw the conclusion that the family had a moral obligation to protect the child against abuse.

The sheriff’s office was also aware of the possibility of violence inside of Gabriel’s home. They conducted an investigation that ultimately led nowhere, but they did not inform the prosecutor in the case that an investigation had ever occurred. Despite the fact that their actions in this case might also be viewed as criminally negligent, charges were not filed against any members of the sheriff’s department.

One way of interpreting the question of how children slip through the cracks is a retributive approach. This approach is motivated by feelings of anger and outrage and it seeks someone to blame. This certainly seemed to be the response of the local community. The social workers filled that role for those that wanted vengeance. But it may be the case that we can only start to get closer to answers (and, ideally, solutions) when we loosen our grasp on retributivism and instead try to get a firmer hold on the root social causes of these kinds of problems.

Understanding these issues will crucially involve understanding dynamics of both money and power. Various members of the prosecutor’s office may have much to gain from appearing tough on social workers in a case such as this. The same can be said for the judges and politicians that publicly supported this move. The social workers, by contrast, have very little power in these circumstances—they are underpaid and overworked. The median salary for a social worker in the United States is $46, 270. According to Greg Merritt, a former DCFS Supervisor and one of the defendants in this case, the social workers that he was overseeing were dealing with an average of 30 cases at a time, and that number often got as high as 38. This means that, as a supervisor, Merritt was responsible for overseeing as many as 280 cases. The stressful nature of the job combined with the comparably low pay creates a high burnout rate for social workers. Nevertheless, many of the social workers that choose to stay do so because they genuinely care about improving the lives of the struggling members of their communities. Given the pressures that these workers face, it is reasonable to assume that they will sometimes make mistakes.

At its heart, this is a case about social values. If we are going to be so critical of our social workers that we open up the possibility of criminal action when things go wrong, we should take steps that are consistent with putting that kind of value on the work that social workers do. First and foremost, the funding for social programs should increase. If we want to maintain very high expectations for our social workers, we should employ more of them at higher salaries. If communities want to direct their rage at social workers when things go wrong, they should make sure that their initial expectations of those employees are reasonable.

We also need to make sure that we aren’t tying the hands of social workers by failing, as voters, to pay attention. In recent years, for-profit organizations have entered into contracts with governments to assist in providing social services. LA County in particular entered into an arrangement with Maximus, a for-profit organization, that at the end of the day is motivated by profits rather than by the well-being of citizens. These motivations result in cost cutting measures such as denying overtime. Clearly, overtime in many of these cases is not just useful, but crucial. We should be thinking, as communities, about whether these are the kinds of services that should ever be privatized and therefore controlled by free market systems.

We should also understand that these kinds of cases always involve competing, important values. All things being equal, we care about both privacy and parental rights. This can make going into a home and conducting a thorough inquiry while treating the parties involved with the appropriate amount of respect and human dignity challenging. Complicating matters further, the parties involved are often deceitful. Some reports of child abuse are unwarranted, and social workers are neither mind readers nor fortunetellers.

It is also important to recognize that taking a child away from his or her family is extremely traumatic for everyone involved. Social workers tend to pursue this possibility as a last resort. Workers need to also be aware, on a meta-level, of the possibility of bias in their decision-making, as a disproportionate number of children of color are removed from their homes by social services.

All of these considerations need to be balanced against concerns for the well-being of the child. Needless to say, this makes the jobs of social workers very difficult, especially when they are dealing with heavy caseloads.

Finally, there are questions about how technology might potentially help to adjudicate these kinds of cases. Software that employs algorithms to identify predictive risk factors may remove some of the burden of tea leaf reading from the shoulders of social workers. These programs would flag certain cases as deserving of increased attention, preventing the likelihood of outcomes like Gabriel’s. These algorithms are not, of course, immune from their own cluster of moral issues. The data used to construct them comes from social services that tend to focus on poor communities. The models that they create might have problematic racial implications. They might also create blinders to the recognition of problems that aren’t flagged by the algorithm.

Child abuse and neglect are byproducts of society at its worst. These events can motivate us to point fingers and to demand payback. It is important to remember however, that there really is no such thing as payback. Nothing that we can do as a community will bring kids like Gabriel back to life. It is more productive to understand that the perfect storms that lead to tragedies like this are caused by problems that are systemic. They require a renewed commitment to our values, which will also require rethinking systems of power and money.

(In the Fernandez case, on January 8th 2020, a California Court of Appeals threw out the case against the social workers.)

Law Enforcement Surveillance and the Protection of Civil Liberties

In a sting operation conducted by the FBI in 2015, over 8,000 IP addresses in 120 countries were collected in an effort to take down the website Playpen and its users. Playpen was a communal website that operates on the Dark Web through the Tor browser. Essentially, the site was used to collect images related to child pornography and extreme child abuse. At its peak, Playpen had a community of around 215,000 members and more than 117,000 posts, with 11,000 unique visitors a week.

Continue reading “Law Enforcement Surveillance and the Protection of Civil Liberties”

The Social Welfare of Child Maltreatment Prevention

Social constructs of parenting and childrearing norms change over time as the idea of the “right” or “best” way to raise a child is continually debated, such as the social acceptability of spanking. A recent article in The Atlantic titled, “Welcome to Parent College,” explores this notion and the ethical dilemmas surrounding an increasing number of classes across the U.S. that teach parents how to be parents, a little-explored corner of the healthcare realm. Triple P, the Positive Parenting Program, is the curriculum behind the parenting class at the San Francisco center. The class includes parents who have been proven or suspected of committing child abuse and have been referred by social workers, as well as those who are simply at the ends of their ropes, like those who have acknowledged their own tempers and waning patience with unruly children.

Continue reading “The Social Welfare of Child Maltreatment Prevention”

Crowdsourcing Justice

The video begins abruptly. Likely recorded on a phone, the footage is shaky and blurry, yet the subject is sickeningly unmistakeable: a crying infant being repeatedly and violently dunked into a bucket of water. First it is held by the arms, then upside down by one leg, then grasped by the face as an unidentified woman pulls it through the water. Near the end of the video, the infant falls silent, the only remaining audio the splashing of water and murmured conversation as the child is dunked again and again.

Continue reading “Crowdsourcing Justice”