Child Abuse Prevention Theater

Following the terrorist strikes on 9/11, the American people handed Congress a blank check with only the “For” line filled out: “Make us feel safe again.” Congress has been cashing that check for fourteen years now. Depending on how you juggle the numbers, the USA has spent somewhere between $1.7 and $5 trillion fighting the war on terror (which happens to be the most existential war in American history, the first one waged to defeat an emotion).

However, those numbers don’t reflect the full cost of the war at home. A bevy of federal agencies were created or expanded after 9/11, but the one I have in mind is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA, which employs some 47,000 security screeners and has a ~$7.6 billion annual budget, has done very little to justify its existence. It seems to spend much of its time making air travelers arrive half an hour earlier at the airport, sexually harassing them, helping the DEA steal people’s money, and giving them the chance to show off their smelly socks, all while failing to actually stop weapons or suspected terrorists from making it onto planes.

Critics of the TSA have labeled it an example of “security theater,” or a system designed to make people feel safer without actually making them safer. It’s just a big, expensive show. It was the logical product of the federal government scrambling to do something, anything, to show that they were being proactive in the wake of 9/11.

I was recently thinking of how the concept of “security theater” might apply to other venues. Stripped down to its most essential elements, we should expect such a “______ theater” to be the product of the following circumstances: 1) a crisis provokes widespread outrage, 2) there is near universal public consensus that something must be done to prevent a repeat of the crisis, 3) the governing organization which failed to stop the first crisis tries to maintain its legitimacy by doing something, 4) under those conditions the organization’s prime motive is to insulate itself from blame rather than prevent future occurrences, which means 5) the implementation of processes that prioritize visibility over effectiveness.

I believe my recent encounter with the child abuse prevention program at Penn State more than qualifies under  that definition. Call it “child abuse prevention theater.” This summer, like the past two summers, I am working for a grant project housed at Penn State. The university is in the middle of rolling out a policy mandating that all PSU employees go through three background checks to ensure that they do not have a history of child abuse.

The first background check was the easiest. An hour spent filling out a form online, a $10 payment, and within minutes the state of PA declared that I was not a felon. The second ratcheted up the time commitment by asking for the address of every home I’ve lived in since birth as well as the names of, and my relationship to, every other person residing with me. A week later, the state of PA informed me that none of those addresses correlated to any incidents of child abuse. Finally, it was time for me to send full, and I do mean full, sets of my fingerprints to the FBI. You register online, visit a fingerprint scanner, pay $27.50, and then wait four to six weeks for the FBI to clear you. (The biggest winner of the fingerprint requirement appears to be UPS, which dominates the local fingerprint scanner racket.) The FBI promises to delete your fingerprints after checking you against their national criminal database. (Sure they do…)

In total, filling out the forms, obtaining the fingerprints, and turning in the documents has taken me more than a full working day. And I’m still waiting on the FBI clearance, which means I’m halfway through a summer job without yet receiving a paycheck.

Now, that inconvenience would be well worth it if the process helped prevent child abuse from occurring at Penn State. As someone who was here during the Sandusky abuse scandal, I’m very cognizant of how important it is that Penn State contribute to the fight against child abuse. Go watch the documentary Happy Valley on Netflix this evening for a taste of what it was like here in 2011-2012. Prior to Sandusky, Penn State’s child abuse policies weren’t worth the paper they were written on. Things did (and still do) need to change. Requiring all Penn State employees to go through mandatory reporter training was a good first step.

But I doubt whether Penn State’s universal background check requirement will actually prevent child abuse. Indeed, it might make it even harder to catch.

It throws too wide a net. My summer job is a good example. The job consists of me working from home. I write entries for an interactive, online timeline of American religious history. I’ve never seen a child (other than my own) while “on the job” in my two and a half summers working on the timeline. Most days, I don’t see another human being. Yet I was required to fill out background checks on the basis of pursuing “Employment with a Significant Likelihood of Regular Contact with Children.” There’s a clear mismatch between the two job descriptions.

But maybe you’re asking what harm could result from it? Why not throw as wide a net as possible? Well, the wider the net–and the larger the bureaucracy created to handle the resulting deluge of paperwork–the more likely it is that someone will slip between the cracks. In other words, it may be worth the risk of someone with a child abuse incident on their record working in a non-childcare related job if it made it more likely that Penn State would prevent someone with a similar record from working with children. Throwing thousands of non-childcare related jobs into the same pool as the much smaller number of childcare related jobs runs the risk of diluting the level of scrutiny focused on any one category of employees.

There’s an interesting corollary to this problem in the world of airport security. In the US, the TSA subjects every passenger to a heightened level of security, but in doing so has proven itself incompetent at finding the proverbial terrorist needle in the resulting haystack. In contrast, Israel doesn’t bother with raising the minimum level of scrutiny on all passengers; instead, after the Entebbe incident, Israel’s version of the TSA does a cursory interview with each passenger and only conducts scans or pat-downs on a handful of fliers. There are still civil liberties concerns with Israel’s approach, but from an efficiency and effectiveness standpoint, it’s the better system. Israel focuses its efforts on fewer, higher risk individuals rather than casting a uselessly wide net.

Following Israel’s example, it makes sense for Penn State to focus its efforts on those actually employed in the on-campus daycares, ie the childcare workers, kitchen staff, janitors, etc. Other jobs make sense for that extra scrutiny as well, like recruiters who come in frequent and direct contact with high school students. The change wouldn’t require much other than a little box labeled “in direct and/or frequent contact with children” when Human Resources creates job postings. The total volume of people to track and documents to process would be much smaller, making it less likely that sex offenders will slip through the system through bureaucratic error. Indeed, it makes sense for the child abuse taskforce at Penn State to go beyond the three background checks by interviewing former employers, validating given addresses, and otherwise checking on the provided information. (Very little of that is done now. “Trust the databases” seems to be the watch phrase.)

Instead, Penn State has almost certainly created dozens of new staff and mid-level administrative jobs to oversee the greatly expanded background clearance process. Who knows what the annual expense will be, but it’s likely significant. I’m concerned that doing so doesn’t actually protect any children; worse, it might make it easier for sex offenders to slip through the system. But it allows Penn State to tell the world (and, more importantly, juries considering tort awards) that it’s doing everything it can to stop child abuse. If every employee is required to go through the process, than nobody can say that Penn State didn’t at least try. As long as every is larger than some, Penn State is insulated from future lawsuits and investigations.

It also fits pretty well into the definition of “_______ theater.” Penn State failed to stop or properly report Sandusky’s crimes. National outrage forced Penn State to show that it was trying to prevent a repeat of its prior failures. In order for the NCAA to repeal its penalties on the football program, Penn State implemented some pretty sweeping policy reforms. Those reforms seemingly emphasize visible action over effective action.

Sounds like child abuse prevention theater to me.

I’ll leave you with one last thought. There has been much hand-wringing over tuition increases, ballooning student loan debt, and the misuse of campus funds for non-academic purposes. These are all legitimate worries. It has been noted recently that underlying these problems is the unsustainable growth in the ranks of university administrators. Every time a new initiative, taskforce, or program is instituted, campus bureaucracy swells. Child abuse prevention is no exception. There’s probably a horde of new assistants to associates to vice presidents in charge of child welfare at Penn State since 2011. Bureaucracies never let a crisis go to waste.

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