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Closed Structures And Fuzzy Boundaries

From the perspective of the traditional paradigm, child protection is a closed structure. Consider, for example, the desire to recognize and appropriately respond to suspected instances of child maltreatment. The structure is first limited to a particular population of children, e.g., all children in a limited area such as a state, service district, or county. Within that area, anyone such as a neighbor or concerned citizen may volunteer as an observer or “reporter.” Additionally, some residents of the area such as teachers, child care workers, doctors, police, and others who regularly interact with children and parents are designated as mandated reporters.

The above results in what we may think of as the report pool. Included in the pool are instances of suspected maltreatment ranging from more to less serious, from more to less potentially harmful. Think of this range as falling along the horizontal axis of a graph from more serious toward the left and less serious toward the right. Now consider what proportion of actual instances of maltreatment is captured into the report pool. Although we do not know with certainty, we may assume most – but not all – instances of severe maltreatment are reported into the pool. It is equally reasonable to assume the proportion of reported instances compared to actual instances goes down as the severity decreases. This results in a reporting line starting high on the left of the graph where severity is high and gradually descending as severity decreases. The reporting pool is limited to those instances of suspected maltreatment falling under the reporting line. Please keep this graphical representation in mind as the discussion proceeds.

Visualize the reporting pool with its descending line starting higher on the left and descending to the lower right. Note the line represents the proportion of reported, suspected instances of maltreatment. Now consider the number of children affected by maltreatment. Based on data from the reporting pool and on the above noted assumptions, the number of affected children increases as the severity of suspected maltreatment decreases. As we move to the right in the graph, the number of children increases. There are a low number of maltreated children toward the left and increasingly more as the focus moves to the right.

Visualize the increase in the number of maltreated children as an increase in density. It is like the dots in a digital picture. Here, the dots are very scattered toward the left, becoming increasingly dense as one’s perspective moves toward the right. There are only a few, widely separated dots at the extreme left and the view toward the extreme right is nearly solid. The same concept could be represented by a shift from nearly white on the left to nearly black on the right. Based on this conceptual framework, it is reasonable to assume at least as many, if not more, maltreated children fall above the reporting line as are captured within the reporting pool.

Now introduce the establishment of public policy and legislative action as they relate to maltreated children. As a matter of public policy, more severe instances of child maltreatment are clearly seen as contrary to the public interest. At the same time, less severe instances of child maltreatment are seen as not warranting governmental intervention. Using the graph introduced above, public interest includes only a portion of the reporting pool. At some point on the horizontal axis, insert a vertical line, with abuse and neglect toward the left of the line and all other maltreatment toward the right. The portion of child maltreatment under the reporting line and to the left of the vertical line just drawn represents child abuse and neglect and is the focus of public child protection activity.

As we can easily see, most child maltreatment falls outside of the abuse and neglect parameters. Further, the division between abuse and neglect on the one hand and all other maltreatment on the other hand is more correctly understood as a range as apposed to a clear boundary. The definitions of abuse and neglect are clear at the extremes; but as the incident shifts closer to “all other maltreatment,” the boundary becomes fuzzy and open to judgment and interpretation by child protection workers. Whether a specific instance of maltreatment is classified as abuse or neglect may vary significantly from worker to worker, from place to place, and from time to time.

We may conclude from the above the reporting pool itself is a relatively closed structure excluding most maltreated children. Additionally, this closed structure has relatively fuzzy boundaries. The fuzziness exists between which incidents are referred into the reporting pool and which are not and which are classified as possible abuse and neglect and which are not. These fuzzy boundaries are, then, the primary focus for further legislative activity and public policy debate.

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Please send comments or questions to Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. || and visit