Choosing your partners carefully

Heck with expensive bourbon and more expensive cigars. There’s nothing like an intriguing endnote about a social service program in Ohio called “Choose Your Partner Carefully” to cap off a sober evening reading a copious federal report about a depressing subject.

More about the intricacies of marrying (or maybe just moving in together) in Marion County in a moment, but first a few words about the 167-page report itself. The 2016 document is the product of the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, a group composed of a dozen men and women appointed two years ago by President Obama and congressional leaders to figure ways of doing what the Commission’s name demands, so hence the report’s name: Within Our Reach: A National Strategy to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.

I testified at a hearing of the Commission last summer in Madison, Wisconsin, emphasizing the direct, albeit routinely ignored connections between high rates of child abuse and deaths on the one hand and high rates of family fragmentation on the other. Not surprisingly, although the Commission had been holding hearings around the country at that point for more than year, I was the first witness to focus on fragmentation. While the final report doesn’t grant the subject the attention it needs, it does give it some meaningful play, which is progress given how these things generally go.

That aside, I’ve heard from others that the report is a solid piece of work which I need to study much more closely. Still, what’s clear right away, subtracting from the document’s persuasiveness, are Utopian – which is to say unrealistic – declarations like this one: “Those who take the work of this Commission forward will pool their knowledge and apply what works. This in turn will lead to the goal of a 21st century child welfare system in which children thrive and no child dies from abuse or neglect” (emphasis mine). If only.

It’s a glorious thought: No American child ever killed again by abuse or neglect. But it’s akin to No Child Left Behind and its absurd goal of every 14-year-old – not most of them, but all of them – reading adequately by a date certain. It’s likewise reminiscent of the goal of another study which had all homelessness in the Twin Cities – not most of it, but all of it – ended by another date certain. Why assorted report writers and other leaders continue setting goals that 99 percent of sensate people know are unreachable remains a mystery to me, but that’s a subject for another day. Also for another day, albeit a sooner one, is the report’s recommendations, which warrant a more detailed review, particularly in light of a related Minnesota report last year. For now, here’s one of the report’s core proposals:

Identifying children and families most at risk of a maltreatment fatality is key to knowing when and how to intervene. Therefore, we recommend that states undertake a retrospective review of child abuse and neglect fatalities to help them identify family and systemic circumstances that led to child maltreatment deaths in the last five years. States will then use this information to identify children at highest risk now, and they will develop a fatality prevention plan to prevent similar deaths both now and in the future. Ensuring that the most vulnerable children are seen and supported is a critical element of this process.

Not dramatic perhaps, but sound.

Back to Ohio as promised. Preceding the endnote in the Commission’s report is a discussion about how “Children residing in households with unrelated adults were more likely to die from inflicted injuries than children residing with two biological parents.” And that in Ohio, “the concern was great enough to prompt a ‘Choose Your Partner Carefully’ campaign in at least one county.” That’s the line that sent me to find out about Endnote 19. Or as we say in the ether:  http:/// This in turn led me to a three-pager published by Marion County Children’s Services, which reads in part:

In 2009, a study published in the August issue of Pediatrics found that 83% of beating/shaking injuries causing the death of a child were at the hands of [a] mother’s partner. . . . The Choose Your Partner Carefully campaign is developed to create awareness of the risk children face when a non-related caregiver is entrusted with their care. Many non-biological partners have no relationship or commitment to the child. They are primarily interested in their own romantic involvement with the parent and become irritated when problems with the child arise. . . . It is imperative that parents realize that when they choose a partner for themselves, they are choosing one for their child too!

A few paragraphs later the handout asks ten good questions.

Does your partner:

  • Show anger or impatience when your child cries or has a tantrum?
  • Call your child bad names or put him down?
  • Think it is funny to scare your child?
  • Make all decisions for you and your child?
  • Tell you that you are a bad parent or that you should not have your kids?
  • Pretend that when he/she hurts your child that you are to blame or that it’s no big deal?
  • Tell you that your child in a nuisance?
  • Have a criminal history?
  • Abuse drugs, alcohol or prescription medication?
  • Get violent or controlling with you?

“If you answered yes to even one of these questions,” the piece begins concluding, “your child might be at risk.” This is followed by phone numbers for childcare resources that parents “may be unaware of.”

A few years later, a Choose Your Partner Carefully campaign, adapted from the one in Ohio, was started in Nevada. If the Ohio effort was ever formally evaluated, I’m not familiar with the study. But researchers in Nevada did, in fact, evaluate the effectiveness of their own educational materials. Suffice it to say results weren’t stunning, as parents who had been “exposed” to the materials did no better on a series of pertinent questions than parents who had not been exposed to them. Leading (plausibly) to the conclusion, they contended, that correct answers were just too obvious and easy for everyone, rather than summing up that the campaign wasn’t working.

It’s surely possible that Choose Your Partner Carefully is no more than an interesting idea, forever incapable of changing the intimate behavior of any parents. Then, again, perhaps it could be sufficiently refined and strengthened. What I do know, more or less, after rigorous research of my own (I emailed an old friend in state government who got back to me with a couple of sentences) is that no social service agency in Minnesota is currently pursuing such a campaign.

After retooling, might it be worthwhile for some agency or organization here to give it a go?

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder & American Experiment Senior Fellow