Watching Child Abuse Online

Composite image of children smoking marijuana

An internet search for babies drinking beer or toddlers smoking marijuana will yield dozens of images and videos. But what many are posting as humor could be considered child neglect or abuse.(Photos: Google Image)

by Justin Pye

Of the top six most viewed Youtube comedy videos, three feature infants. The world is obsessed with images of adorable children.

But, there is a darker side to cute baby videos on the Internet. In 2010, a video surfaced online showing a two-year-old girl smoking a blunt [marijuana rolled in cigar paper] as cartoons played in the background. If viewers thought they were mistaken when seeing the embers glow when she puffed, or her little arm waving the smoke away, all doubt was erased when the camera zoomed in to prove that the child was smoking marijuana.

After the cell phone video was posted, the child’s 21-year-old Ohio mother, Jessica Gamble, was arrested and faced three felony charges and over a decade in prison. She pleaded guilty to charges of corrupting another with drugs and tampering with evidence. She was sentenced to six months in jail, had to complete a six-month training program consisting of parenting classes, job preparedness and drug awareness, spend an additional three months training at a rehab facility and then serve two years of probation.

Meanwhile, the child stayed with a relative until Gamble’s sentence and trainings were finished.

As more content showing potential child abuse is posted on social media networks, child welfare agencies are seeking how to address the new phenomenon of maltreatment allegations that are substantiated virtually.

Though exposing children to illicit substances is not a new problem, the Vice President of Policy and Public Affairs for the Child Welfare League of America, Linda Spears, says in that in the social media age people have been inclined to publish without censorship.

“I don’t think this is necessarily an increase in the number of kids who are being maltreated,” said Linda Spears, vice president of policy and public affairs for the Child Welfare League of America. “I think this is the kind of thing that’s been going on behind closed doors for a long time. What the difference is, is that those people who inappropriately sat there and laughed now have a phone, video and post it.”

Among the other highly-visible child maltreatment allegations stemming from social media posts:

• In May, a 24-year-old Washington mother, Rachelle Braaten, was arrested after a cell phone video surfaced of her two-year-old smoking marijuana from a bong. The boy and another 5-year-old were taken into protective custody.

• This month a video was posted on Twitter of a toddler smoking a marijuana blunt under the care of his uncle in Michigan; no charges have been filed.

Children smoking marijuana is not the only issue. There have also been cases of alleged alcohol abuse and physical abuse by a parent posted online.

Alameda County, Calif., which includes Oakland, uses Structured Decision Making (SDM), a widely used risk assessment tool, used by Child Protective Services when responding to charges of maltreatment and creating subsequent response plans.

But it is often difficult to prove claims made from images or videos, said Mari Smith, child welfare supervisor for Alameda County Children and Family Services.

“Guardians will say, ‘Oh, that was just the way it looked online, they weren’t really doing that,’” Smith said.

Smith says it comes down to what’s in the report. Investigators have to ask questions like: Is this a recurring or isolated incident? Does it meet our hotline tools specifications? Has this family had previous interaction with the system?

“Unless we see [the abuse] our hands are kind of tied,” Smith said.

California cases in which abuse or neglect is substantiated are reported to the state Department of Justice and then follow the regular pipeline for being entered into the system. Service providers and police from counties throughout the state have begun to discuss the issue of child maltreatment published on social media, but no formal initiatives have been launched to address it, according to Smith.

When the social media cases cannot be substantiated, Smith said, many of them are referred to one of the agency’s community partners. One is Another Road to Safety, a program focused on prevention and intervention that aims to keep families together and their children from formally entering the child welfare system.

By and large, Spears of CWLA said, child welfare agencies do not actively monitor social media for child maltreatment. All service providers are mandated reporters, which means they are bound by law to report potential child abuse or neglect they may come across, but they aren’t out looking for it on the Internet.

“I’d like to see it result in more education around the treatment of children,” Spears said. “Social media is the tool by which we’re learning about what happens – that it’s happening is the biggest concern to me.”

James M. Hmurovich, the President & CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America sees the increasing prevalence of child abuse being shared on social media as a sign of America’s need to “invest in being the stewards of all children, not just the ones that are related to us.”

The general public has an attitude not to intervene into the family lives of others, Hmurovich said, but when abuse flies freely on social media “it’s the fault of the public, we ought to do something about it.”

Additionally, the Internet provides a source for information with which advocates can plan strategic child abuse prevention.

“This is a chance to see what the American public really thinks about the treatment of children,” Hmurovich said, “If we see something we have to report it.”

Justin Pye is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Journalism for Social Change summer fellow.

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