Penn State officials set to appear in court on arguments seeking dismissal

December 15, 2013

Three Penn State officials, accused of covering up child abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky are scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday for a pretrial hearing before Dauphin County Judge Todd Hoover in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The three include former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley, former vice-president for business and finance Gary Schultz, and former President Graham Spanier. Criminal charges were first filed two years ago against Curley and Schultz and last year against Spanier.

They are charged with perjury, obstruction, conspiracy, child endangerment and failure to properly report suspected child abuse. Among other things, they are charged with knowing about sexual abuse allegations against Sandusky and failing to report them.

On Tuesday, the court will hear the defendants’ arguments that charges against them should be dismissed based on compromised representation by counsel during grand jury investigations. While they were accompanied to investigations by the University’s Chief Counsel Cynthia Baldwin, they have raised questions about her impartiality and conflicts, since she was representing the University. In fact, she cooperated with investigators and later testified against the three defendants, providing information that was used against them in the grand jury report.

These defendants have made these Baldwin-related arguments in a sealed appeal to the State Supreme Court, which declined to take up the appeal, indicating that the arguments could be made before Judge Hoover.

See also article at New Haven Register, Penn State ex-officials, accused of cover-up, set for court, Dec. 14, 2013, Associated Press.

TEDx Talk on Family Trauma

November 29, 2013

Robbyn Peters Bennett, LMHC, CMHS, a psychotherapist, educator, and child advocate who specializes in the treatment of trauma-related mental health problems resulting from the effects of early childhood stress, abuse and neglect, has given a fantastic and highly informative talk at TEDxBellingham titled, “Violence – A Family Tradition”.

Please take a look.

Parental Alienation Syndrome

November 12, 2013

In 1985, an American psychiatrist named Richard Gardner developed the concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome (“PAS”). According to Gardner, one parent involved in a family court case often accused the other of abusive behaviors toward the couple’s children in order to alienate the accused parent from the children. A large proportion of Gardner’s focus was on sexual abuse allegations. Not only did he believe that there was an epidemic of false allegations of sexual abuse, but he also stirred controversy by arguing in his writings that pedophilia is a normal variant of human sexuality. Gardner’s theories of parental alienation, while subject to criticism, fundamentally impacted the family court system in the United States and even internationally.

Since that time, family courts and others discussing family court proceedings have believed in the idea that one parent (often the mother) tends to negatively influence her children against the other parent, with the goal of interfering with the parental relationship. This belief became ingrained in the family court rulings and practices, even leading to changes in the law. Included in this belief is the understanding that the “alienating” parent will go so far as to invent child abuse and/or domestic violence by the other parent because the alienating parent is deeply and immorally motivated to cause alienation between the accused parent and the children.

These policies led to a relatively common practice of parents who report abuse in family court being disbelieved, with judges, lawyers, law enforcement officers, and experts declaring that such allegations during the course of a custody battle have no weight. There was, and probably continues to be, an unofficial presumption that when abuse is reported by a parent or a child during custody proceedings, that it likely is untrue. While PAS was never officially recognized as a syndrome in the DSM, the diagnostic statistical manual of mental disorders, its inclusion was seriously considered and debated.

Actor Alec Baldwin even wrote a book in 2008 about what he believes was his experience with PAS during his divorce proceedings.

These beliefs have led to many shocking results in custody cases including protective parents who report concerns of abuse themselves losing custody and visitation rights to their children, being declared alienators who are unsupportive of the accused parent’s relationship with the child. They have led to practices including family court systems in which highly compensated custody evaluators come up with standard recommendations in line with the prevalent PAS philosophies of the court system and judges who rubber-stamp these recommendations.

Several jurisdictions have been investigated for these failings in recent times, as a number of active nonprofit organizations have sprung up to protest these leanings. These nonprofits have pointed to numerous horrible scenarios in which protective parents have worked through the court system at protecting their children from abuse by the other parent, reporting information in a timely and accurate manner, and themselves ending up banned from contact with their children or strictly limited from that contact due to an alienation finding, while the abusive parent is given unsupervised and frequent contact with the children, the court failing to protect the children from abuse that in quite a few cases even led to the children’s murder by the abuser.

For these reasons, I was surprised to read today that in 2008 an Australian psychological board disciplined a prominent Australian psychologist for relying on PAS in a family court case which had led to loss of custody by a mother. The Board found that he “acted in a way that constituted unsatisfactory conduct” thus violating the code of ethics. See the Australian article at:….

While the latest version of the DSM-V rejected PAS for inclusion, the influence of PAS continues to this day.

Perhaps courts should err on the side of caution when it comes to children

October 28, 2013

In a horrific case that I read about this morning, it appears that a father raped and murdered his 14 year-old daughter months after a California court awarded him custody. He had an extensive criminal history, including incarceration for a domestic violence conviction, as well as a history of child molestation. Sometimes, I wonder what some family court judges are thinking in making custody decisions.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for this father based in part on a special enhancement of “committing murder ‘before or during’ rape, sodomy and oral copulation, according to court documents.”

You can read more details about this sordid and sad situation at the following link:

A giant step backward

October 13, 2013

The Sixth District Court of Appeal in California on Tuesday that parental corporal punishment of a twelve-year old girl with a wooden spoon hard enough to cause bruising should not have automatically been labeled child abuse by the social worker in the case, remanding the matter to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing on intent to cause injury. The Court of Appeal stated that corporal punishment can amount to reasonable discipline, even when it causes physical injury, so long as the parents did not intend the injury.

I find this ruling terrible, a huge step backwards for society, and contrary to recent studies on the effects of corporal punishment on the human mind and human development. Other child welfare professionals with whom I attended a conference on the medical effects of child abuse on Friday agreed.

Recent studies have shown the following concerning corporal punishment:

  • It leads to increased aggression.
  • It lowers IQ scores.
  • It leads to problematic social behaviors, including lower peer status, less positive reciprocity with peers chosen as friends, ratings by peers as more aggressive and less cooperative, by parents as more disturbed, and participation in social networks with more insularity, negativity and atypicality.
  • It leads to school behavior problems.

Research has also disproven the potential analysis that it is the most difficult children that become subjected to corporal punishment by parents. In one study, researchers trained parents in more than 500 families to eliminate or reduce their use of corporal punishment, and child behavior improved.

Additionally, it has been shown that parents frequently cover up their behaviors toward children that might be socially unacceptable, and that children frequently deny them as well. Thus, it appears to me that in the Sixth District California case, the parents’ claim that they had not previously physically disciplined their twelve-year-old daughter who was exhibiting problematic and negative behaviors was likely a fabrication.

The United States is one of the hold-outs on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in contrast with many countries that have outlawed corporal punishment in the home – and seen positive results. Sweden banned all corporal punishment of children in the home in 1979. Americans are strongly attached to their beliefs in the parental right to hit children, having passed it down through the generations. However, statistics show this attachment is irrational and harmful to our society.

Los Angeles DFCS Under Fire after Abused Boy’s Death

August 10, 2013

Gabriel Fernandez came to school with multiple physical signs of severe abuse. Take a look at the sad photos. He was killed at age 8, his mother and her boyfriend charged with capital murder with the special circumstance of torture. At the time of his death, Gabriel had a fractured skull, three broken ribs, BB pellets embedded in his lungs and groin, cigarette burns on his skin and several teeth knocked out of his mouth. There were reported patterns of continuing injury.

Gabriel’s neighbors and teacher made numerous calls to Child Protective Services (CPS), yet investigator reports continued to find referrals “unsubstantiated” or “unfounded”, taking no protective action. At the time of Gabriel’s death, one referral was still open, months after the state deadline for completing the investigation.

Los Angeles CPS is under fire for failure to protect, and people are calling for criminal charges against the social workers assigned to the case.

While the Los Angeles Department of Family & Children Services (DFCS), which has been the subject of multiple audits and reports in recent months, has now announced the formation of a Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, the Commission is headed by a former CPS director, and child welfare advocates have expressed concerns about objectivity.

DFCS Union representative David Green blames funding cuts and caseloads. However, this appears insufficient to explain the 570 child deaths under the Department’s purview in the past 18 months.

An in-depth independent report presented to DFCS director last April noted numerous investigative failures and called for reform to the systemic approach for handling child abuse reporting and response. One of the items mentioned was regular use of the terms “unsubstantiated” and “unfounded” without clarification.

Child Protective Services Investigations

September 27, 2013

When people report child abuse, Child Protective Services (“CPS”) workers investigate the referrals. The process of those investigations is governed by the policies and procedures instituted by the administrators and legislators in the state and county of the agency at issue.

The reality of these investigations is also affected by multiple other factors, including staffing, the workloads of the social workers conducting the investigations, supervisor oversight, and a number of human factors, including political pressures and personal predispositions of the investigating staff.

The pressure on CPS workers is of course great, as are the consequences of their daily decision making. It would be difficult to argue that their jobs are easy.

However, because the consequences of the decision making of the investigators receiving child abuse and neglect reports are so important and serious, we need to be mindful that these processes be ultra-fair, ultra-effective, and strongly supported. Most of us would also agree that decision making should always err on the side of protecting a child at potential risk.

The news recently seems awash with problems reported from multiple jurisdictions.

The system in Virginia Beach, Virginia is under fire (again) for the recent death of a malnourished 13-month old boy who appears to have literally starved to death despite numerous reports to CPS. This occurred while the county was in the process of revamping its child protection system after the sad death of a 10-month old child in a foster home three years prior.

CPS actions in Buffalo New York are now being questioned, with several investigations instituted into CPS practices, where a 5-year old boy died of blunt force trauma after what appears to be a severe beating by his mother’s boyfriend (who has now been charged with second-degree murder for the death) despite multiple reports by family members. This follows another highly publicized situation in the same jurisdiction in which a 10-year old boy died of an apparent severe beating by his stepfather also after numerous reports to the child protection agency.

We need funding in this area. Workers’ caseloads are very high. While laws now generally require reporting of suspicious cases by numerous professionals, we need those referrals to be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, not dismissed offhand due to immediate denials or lack of direct proof.

Rejected Children

September 11, 2013

In some ways, society has come a long way since the Middle Ages, when children were regularly sent out by their families into indentured servitude and and babies were sent away to wet-nurses. In others we have not.

The subject of human trafficking has been a hot topic of discussion recently, and I have heard horrendous stories of children and adults sold as slaves, trapped in shocking conditions, abused and used, sold as commodities, raped, and beaten. At least recent public discussion has lead to broader awareness of these terrible facts, and at least some policy and enforcement work is being done to attempt to improve them.

However, the type of child cruelty described in this article and its extent, is not part of the public discourse: The Child Exchange, America’s Underground Market for Adopted Children, Reuters, Megan Twohey, September 9, 2013.

Apparently, there are people who regularly engage in what is termed “rehoming children”, meaning advertising for replacement children who are the products of failed adoptions, often on the internet. Of course, these are children whose parents originally placed them for adoption. These children then must relive the pain of being rejected. Sometimes, adoptions fail, and adoptive parents indicate that they cannot handle parenting the child and have made a mistake. Predators may prey on this sad situation and these children may be placed with people who specialize in rehoming cases, such as the Easons described in the Reuters article. There is no government review or oversight of these homes, and often these parents may have previously had their parental rights terminated through the child welfare system as to their own children.

Please take a look at the sad story of Quita, a girl adopted from Liberia, then rejected by her adoptive parents and sold on the internet in an unregulated transaction.

Parenting Without Borders by Gross-Loh

August 25, 2013

When Christine Gross-Loh and her family moved from the United States to Japan for several years, Gross-Loh observed a number of fascinating things about the variability of parenting styles in different countries. While growing up as part of the educated middle class in the United States, she learned to assume that certain parenting approaches and techniques are best, she learned that parents in other countries can raise well-adjusted, independent, successful children using totally different approaches.

After making her observations in Japan, Gross-Loh traveled to and studied parenting practices in a number of other countries, becoming fascinated with the subject. These included Japan, Italy, Finland, France, and China, among others.

In her recent book Parenting Without Borders, Gross-Loh relates what she observed and learned during this process.

She was surprised to find for instance that parents in the majority of the world co-sleep with their babies and do not require nighttime independence during infancy. While the current American norms strongly reject co-sleeping as negative and even dangerous, she learned that promoting the continuing attachment though co-sleeping may lead to greater independence. She also learned that small children who spend practically all their time with a parent in their earliest years can end up happy and independent.

Additional parenting practices Gross-Loh addresses include the American parent’s “hovering” mentality for older children – the belief that a parent has to monitor the child’s social interactions and ensure they are all supportive of the child’s self-esteem. She found that in a number of other countries, parents leave children to navigate their own time and social relationships as they get older.

Gross-Loh discusses and analyzes numerous other parenting practices, finding primarily how important it is to realize that an ethnocentric view of what constitutes good parenting can be problematic. She believes that we Americans have a lot to learn from others which may challenge our assumptions as to what good parenting is in a healthy way.


July 30, 2013

Our parents’ behavior toward us in early infancy and even in the womb fundamentally affects our brain development, behavior and experience throughout our lives. Research is now showing that in infancy, our brains are forming neural connections at an incredible rate, our experience is affecting how our genes express themselves through epigenetic programming, and our need for attachment to our primary caregivers is critical and primal.

In infancy, we are at our most susceptible. It is a time of great opportunity and tremendous vulnerability. Research shows that loving attuned caregiving by our parents during this early time leads to a healthy foundation on which a productive, happy, empathic, intelligent, loving individual is created for life. It is also showing that traumatic experiences during this time period lead to brain abnormalities and altered gene expression.

Take a look at this brief article by Madeleine Kunin for the Huffington Post: The First Thousand Days in a Baby’s Life.

Consider how easy it is to harm an infant. The infant is weak, needy, susceptible, unable to communicate effectively. Sadly, abuse toward infants is quite common, those who are driven to commit evil acts often finding the most undefended victims.

A recent study on abuse in infancy showed that we could help in prevention by catching early incidents and injuries.

Public awareness of these issues is critical and changes in policies can lead to great social improvement. We reap what we sow.