03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Case of the Walmart Photos, and Beyond

A father of three young girls dropped off a memory stick to the local Walmart to have over 100 family photos printed. Walmart staff felt that some of the nude images were inappropriate, beyond normal innocent childhood bath photos, and per their store policy should be referred to the police for further review. The police agreed with Walmart and began an investigation. Child Protective Services and the Attorney General's office were brought in which led to the children being temporarily removed from the home. The wife, a teacher, was suspended for the duration of the investigation. No charges were brought against the parents and they have since filed two law suits, against Walmart and the State, City, and Attorney General.

Public response initially ran overwhelmingly in favor of the parents in this case. It would be fair to say that most were outraged at what happened to this family and see absolutely nothing wrong with taking cute photos of kids in a bubble bath, a tradition in so many families. Many assumptions about the photos and the case have been made in blogs and related comments, despite the fact that the photos in question have not been released. Were it to be discovered that those assumptions were correct, their outrage may be justified. But we have only to look at the police report, now a public document, to see that this case is far more complex than it seems.

Many complained that a Walmart photo clerk should not have the power to analyze appropriateness of family photos and notify the police. In fact, the police report confirmed that their interaction was with the Walmart store manager and assistant store manager, not the clerk. The police examined the photos at the store and agreed that a handful of them could be construed as either child pornography or erotica. That set the investigation into motion. In separate interviews at separate times, both parents conceded that they understood how the police would find the photos disturbing. The father told the police that he had no plans for the photos but when asked directly by the interviewer whether he would display them in a family photo album, he answered no.

A search of the home found seven cameras and additional nude photos of the children, as well as videos. The confiscated nude images were not limited to bath time play. They included opening birthday presents in the nude, singing and running around the house in the nude, nude shots taken in the kitchen, and shots that appeared to be posed taken on the floor of a bedroom featuring the anus and vagina. The parents are seen in a video encouraging their nude children to "shake that booty," referring to it as a "burlesque show." The wife is heard saying "that's the most I've seen of the female anatomy" as the girls stick their butts to the camera, proclaiming "nice shot," as the father zooms in. There are nude photos of two of the children with legs spread out, each on a different swing, exposing the vagina, another inside the house with both legs spread out shot from behind with a close-up on the vagina. There is a photo of the father seated in the bathtub with one of the girls nude standing above him. One of the girls, the parents reported, routinely sheds her clothes each time she returns home. They call her a "nudist." The father reiterated that he understood why the police were there and why they might find the photos "troubling." He said the photos were not troubling to him because he knew the intent behind them. The wife said she understood why the photos would be alarming since there were so many naked pictures.

During interviews, one of the girls reported that she tickles her own "vagina" but doesn't know who taught her to do that. She said her mother tickles her around her "private" which is the part she uses for "peeing" and it feels good. She said her mom tickles her outside of her naked butt with no clothes on. She pulls down her "undies" and pulls up her shirt and then her mom tickles her, but not inside which is the "important" part. It was noted that the child rubbed or touched her vagina several times during the interview. She also stated that her parents took pictures of her in the shower.

The attorney for the parents has been loud in the media, decrying the unfair treatment of his clients. In an article in the local paper, he claimed to be unafraid of "reasonable people seeing these pictures and understanding the context within which they were taken," adding that "there's nothing immoral, illegal, or unethical about genitalia." He talks a lot about the parents and their feelings, their rights, their lawsuit, their damages, their "intent" and whether it could ever be demonstrated that the photos were meant for "child sexual exploitation."

While the actions of these parents may not rise to the legal definition of child sexual exploitation, you have to wonder if there isn't some exploitation involved. I haven't heard the attorney utter one word about the feelings, rights or damages related to these little girls, ages 18 months to 5 years at the time. If it's about the intent of the person taking the photograph as he is so fond of saying, what about the child who is being photographed? Where is the consideration for its effect on her, both short and long term?

Technically these parents may not be breaking any laws in the manner in which they are raising their daughters. But it would be hard to argue that these children are not living in a sexualized environment. The parents have not provided boundaries for them as to their bodies or their personal privacy. They have introduced them at a very young age to flaunting their bodies for entertainment, to posing nude for the camera on a regular basis during all types of activities, and to the pleasure of their mother's touch in private areas. I believe, however, that the parents do think it harmless or they would not expose themselves voluntarily to the court system where the family culture will be on trial, not a handful of photos that were dropped off at Walmart. But most parents who sexualize their home environment are not aware of its inappropriateness and the possible long term damage it can cause to a child. And therein lies the problem. A sexualized home environment meets the needs of the parent, not the child. "If it feels good, do it" may be a popular adult philosophy to live by, but not the best parenting philosophy. The parents obviously enjoy not just their children's routine nudity and nude play, but they also enjoy documenting it. Their children are the object of that enjoyment and have no real choice in the matter.

I know something about what happens to a child raised in a sexually charged environment when that child becomes an adult. It is the subject of my book, Silver Platter Girl. No, don't listen to the lawyer when he says that the parents are the victims in this story. The real victims are three little girls.