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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

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

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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