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Christine James-Brown Headshot

Bad Boys Bring Lessons

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What do Mel Gibson, Roman Polanski, Lawrence Taylor and Russian spies have in common? They are now poster boys (and girls) for larger societal issues facing children.

Lately, the news has been ripe with stories about alleged bad behavior by many notable Hollywood and sports figures, from domestic violence to rape. Add to that mix, the intrigue of a busted up international spy ring that left a number of spies' children parentless, and a real theme emerges as does a learning opportunity about the plight of children.

As these issues get ripped from the headlines, the Child Welfare League of America often fields calls from reporters and industry professionals asking for perspective since children are the benefactors of the bad decisions. The truth is that Mel, Roman, LT and the Russian spies help put a face on children-related issues by drawing attention to situations that put children at risk every day in communities nationwide.

Consider these sobering statistics:

• In 2007, there were nearly 3 million reports of child abuse and neglect. Of those deemed abuse and neglect, 59 percent of these were neglected, 10.8 percent were physically abused and 7.6 percent were sexually abused.

• Girls ages 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.

• More than 3.3 million children witness domestic violence annually, having a negative affect on their development, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

• Abuse and neglect leads to nearly 500,000 U.S. children being placed in foster care.

As the numbers illustrate, whether it is violence or abuse by trusted adults or parent incarceration, children unfortunately bear the brunt of adult bad behavior. However, the numbers don't tell all. The Russian spy ring is an example, providing an instructional opportunity about what happens to children after parents are arrested. Unlike children whose parents abuse their children, parents get a chance to appoint someone (if they want them) to care for their children. However, the experience is still exceptionally difficult for children whose lives are upended...once again due to parent misbehavior.

The spy ring also raises another below the radar issue about parent incarceration: What happens to children of detained immigrants? An unintended consequence of immigration enforcement is that sometimes children and parents get disconnected. Compounding the issue, child welfare officials are often notified late -- if at all, and communities out of fear are reluctant to seek help to get children and families reconnected.

A new critical piece of reform legislation promises to make a difference. The Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections for Separated Children Act (HELP), introduced by Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI), will help Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) better protect children in the course of its work, keeping children from unnecessarily entering foster care. Specifically, the bill helps detained parents and guardians make care arrangements for their minor children upon apprehension. In addition, the bill prevents long separations of parents and their children as well as ensures that they are able to regularly communicate with their children, the child welfare system, and family courts.

The reality is that laws and child welfare professionals alone can't make it all better. One of the best ways as a nation to keep our children safe is by making better decisions. Putting more funding and effort into preventing child abuse by educating parents about how to be good parents is a start. Also, helping educate women about how to avoid being a victim of domestic violence and date rape will also make a difference. And finally, each of us as citizens and friends has a responsibility to recognize the signs of abuse and neglect...and to offer help.

We all should be appalled by the purported bad behavior exhibited by these recognized names. Unfortunately, as disturbing as these reported acts are, there are thousands and thousands of children whose reality this is every day...and not just when famous or infamous people make headlines. Using these incidents as chances to see the bigger picture and search for meaningful solutions is an unfortunate benefit of bad boy behavior. Let's not let these headlines pass by without making a child's life better.