1 Framing Child Neglect: A Content Analysis of National and Regional U.S. Newspaper Coverage Julie B. Arthur A Capstone Project Presented to the Faculty of the School of Communication in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Masters of Arts in Public Communication Supervisor: Prof. Caty Borum Chattoo April 25, 2012
2 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT ii Copyright 2012 Julie Beth Arthur All rights reserved. To obtain permission to use material from this work, please submit a written request via to:
3 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT iii ABSTRACT Child neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver fails to provide for a child's basic needs or protect the child from harm. Similar to but distinct from child abuse, child neglect is a complex societal issue that receives limited research and media attention. The communication theories of agenda setting and framing explain the media's potential impact on public understanding of topics covered and beliefs about their importance. As such, studying media portrayals of child neglect can offer insight into public knowledge and attitudes on this topic. This study presents the results of a content analysis of child neglect coverage in two national and two regional U.S. newspapers using a constructed week sample of articles published during federal fiscal years 2009 through Major findings include: a) most articles used episodic framing that focused on individual-level circumstances of child neglect; b) over-represented story elements include child fatalities, non-family perpetrators, and serious perpetrator consequences; and c) national newspapers used more thematic framing, and such articles were more likely to discuss long-term child consequences, contributing factors to maltreatment and system-level issues. This study's results can inform media and child welfare professionals' collaborative efforts to improve child neglect portrayals and increase public understanding.
4 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT iv TABLE OF CONTENTS Introduction... 1 Goals and Organization of Paper... 4 Literature Review... 5 Section I: Child Maltreatment and the Professional Response... 5 Overview of Child Maltreatment... 5 Overview of Child Neglect... 7 Risks and Consequences of Child Neglect... 9 Professional Responses to Child Maltreatment Section II: Public Understanding of Child Maltreatment and the Media Public Understanding of Child Maltreatment Media and the Role of Agenda Setting Media and the Role of Framing Episodic and Thematic Framing Improving Media Coverage of Child Maltreatment Methods Results Articles Maltreatment Type Specific Cases Perpetrators Child Consequences and Fatalities Contributing Factors to Child Maltreatment Blame Perpetrator and Family Consequences Systemic Factors National and Regional Coverage Episodic and Thematic Frames Discussion Types of Neglect or Abuse Child Consequences and Fatalities Perpetrators and Consequences Contributing and Systemic Factors National and Regional Coverage Episodic and Thematic Framing Conclusion References Appendix: Codebook... 61
5 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT v List of Figures Figure 1: Percentage of Child Maltreatment Victims by Maltreatment Type, Figure 2: The Vicious Cycle of Child Abuse Coverage in the Media Figure 3: Percentage of Articles Mentioning Areas of Analysis Figure 4: Percentage of Articles Mentioning Types of Neglect and Abuse Figure 5: Types Reported in Articles Mentioning Perpetrators Figure 6: Consequences Reported in Articles Mentioning Child Consequences Figure 7: Factors Reported in Articles Mentioning Contributing Factors to Maltreatment Figure 8: Consequences Reported in Articles Mentioning Perpetrator Consequences Figure 9: Factors Reported in Articles Mentioning Systemic Factors Figure 10: Significant Differences in Factors Reported in National and Regional Newspapers Figure 11: Thematically-Framed Articles by Newspaper Figure 12: Types of Maltreatment in Episodically and Thematically-Framed Articles List of Tables Table 1: Types of Child Neglect and Abuse Covered in the News Table 2: Factors Significantly Related to a Report of a Child Fatality Table 3: High-Level Comparison of National and Regional Newspapers Table 4: Significant Differences in Factors Reported in National and Regional Newspapers.. 40 Table 5: Significant Relationships Between Types of Maltreatment in Episodically and Thematically-Framed Articles Table 6: Factors Significantly Related to the Use of a Dominant Thematic Frame Table 7: Factors Significantly Related to the Use of a Dominant Episodic Frame... 43
6 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 1 INTRODUCTION Seven-year-old Nixzmary Brown died at the hands of her stepfather in January 2006 in Brooklyn, New York, but the fatal wounds she suffered that day told only part of her story. While her stepfather and mother were both convicted of manslaughter and unlawful imprisonment for tying Nixzmary up in the apartment they shared, Nixzmary's mother received an additional charge: endangering the welfare of a child. The prosecution for the case proved she ignored and at times encouraged her husband's beatings of her daughter. At the trial's conclusion, the lead prosecutor declared that the verdict sent a message that Nixzmary's mother was guilty of "acts of omission" and that for parents, sometimes "it's not just what you do, it's what you don't do" (Fahim & Moynihan, 2008, October 18). Records later revealed Nixzmary came to the attention of New York City's child welfare agency several times, but the supervisor and caseworker assigned to those reports missed the signs of the parents' abusive and neglectful behaviors. As a result, the city's court system made an unprecedented decision to charge both workers with criminal negligence for failing to provide adequate services to Nixzmary and her family, services which may have prevented her death (Buckley & Secret, 2011, March 25). The case sparked public outrage and spurred efforts to overhaul the city's child welfare system. To date, nearly 800 news articles have reported on or mentioned Nixzmary's case, including international coverage in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Four years later on the other side of the country, two-year-old Joana Rendon was found alone and crying one summer night in downtown Petaluma in Sonoma County, California. Too young to know her address or parents' names, police canvassed the area and distributed her picture to the media in search of her family. Joana's mother was not identified until the next morning; she was found at her boyfriend's house, unaware for at least 11 hours that her child was
7 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 2 missing from the bedroom where she slept and had wandered more than a mile away. The police noted signs the mother had been drinking the night Joana went missing; she had a blood alcohol level of 0.04 when she was tested that morning (Payne, 2010, September 13). To add to the confusion of that night, an ex-girlfriend with a history of climbing into the window of the room where Joana slept had recently confronted Joana's mother and her boyfriend. Joana's mother was charged with a felony count of child neglect, but the charges were dropped after a preliminary hearing resulted in inconclusive evidence. The last news report on the story indicated continued uncertainty among authorities regarding how Joana ended up more than a mile from home, and an assistant district attorney is quoted as reporting that the investigation is ongoing. "When we receive information that somebody is putting children at risk, we need to act on it," she said (Payne, 2010, September 13). Thirteen articles were published about Joana and her family none reaching beyond the local papers in the San Francisco bay area. The parallels between these stories may not be obvious at first, but they both demonstrate the need to improve media reporting and, thus, public understanding of the complex nature of child maltreatment and the ways in which child neglect and child abuse differ. Doing so would contribute to societal support for children and families and improve community efforts to identify and respond to warning signs to prevent child maltreatment before it occurs. Not until Nixzmary's tragic death did the city's child welfare agency piece together the many indicators that her family needed help. Though the evidence in Joana's case was not strong enough to take legal action, the potentially troubling indicators of alcohol use and domestic disputes still could have been addressed. Only one of the news reports of Joana's story briefly mentioned child welfare services for her family to determine if she should be removed from home; there were no larger discussions of the need to address the family's risks to try to make sure the incident
8 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 3 wouldn't occur again. Meanwhile, Nixzmary received no news coverage before her death. If more stories like Joana's accurately depicted the issues around neglect and ways to prevent it, perhaps more children could be saved from experiencing a similar fate. As Nixzmary and Joana's stories indicate, the neglect of children by their parents and caregivers is a troubling and complex social issue that has the potential to be misunderstood by individuals and misrepresented in the media. Neglect is closely related to child abuse and is often discussed in conjunction with, and in fact eclipsed by, the larger topic of abuse. Together, neglect and physical, sexual and emotional abuse are usually combined into the term "child maltreatment," but it is important to note that all forms of maltreatment have their own unique causes and consequences as such, neglect is a distinct social issue that deserves its own scholarly pursuits and public awareness efforts (McSherry, 2007). Child neglect is four and eight times more common than physical or sexual abuse, respectively, yet neglect is much less studied in research and covered in the media than abuse (Children's Bureau, 2011; Smith & Fong, 2004). Given the power of the media to shape public perception through agenda setting and framing, studying depictions of child neglect in the media is critical to exploring public understanding of the issue. By choosing which stories to publish on a daily basis, the media can set the agenda regarding which issues the public believes are most important (McCombs, 2004). Beyond agenda setting, journalists can also frame stories in certain ways to influence the audience's understanding of the issue being covered (Druckman, 2011). There are many useful ways that frames can help audiences make sense of an otherwise complicated issue, but when the issue is framed in such a way that does not reflect reality, it can also be detrimental to the audience's understanding (Aubrun & Grady, 2003). When episodic or thematic frames are used, they can
9 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 4 even affect the audience's perception of responsibility for addressing an issue, that is, whether individuals are solely responsible for their problems or the society as a whole is expected to help them. (Nisbet, 2007). Goals and Organization of Paper Very little research exists on the way child neglect is portrayed in the media this study aims to fill that gap. The goals of this research are: a) to describe what types of neglect are covered in U.S. newspapers and what circumstances surrounding child neglect and abuse are addressed; b) to test for differences in national and regional newspaper coverage of child neglect; and c) to examine the use of dominant episodic or thematic frames in stories about child neglect and their potential impact on public understanding of the issue. This paper will present the results of a content analysis of stories about child neglect in two national and two regional U.S. newspapers over a three-year period. The results of this study will equip media and child welfare professionals with information on frames being used to characterize the child welfare system that serves at-risk children and their families and will help professionals improve the coverage of child neglect. Ultimately, the public will benefit from a greater understanding of the issues surrounding child neglect and support for the larger role society can play in preventing child maltreatment and reducing its impact. This research paper is organized in the following ways: First, the literature review that opens the paper provides an overview of child maltreatment, child neglect, its causes and consequences, and the systems that respond to and prevent maltreatment. This section then reviews public understanding of child maltreatment and the impact of the media on the public. To provide a theoretical framework to this research, particular attention will be paid to scholarly literature on agenda setting and episodic and thematic framing in relation to depictions of child
10 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 5 abuse in the media and the individual versus societal role for addressing the issue. Finally, this paper details the methods for content analysis and presents results of the research. The paper concludes with a discussion of significant findings and recommendations for practice and future research. LITERATURE REVIEW Section I: Child Maltreatment and the Professional Response Overview of Child Maltreatment Child maltreatment, or child abuse and neglect, is broadly defined by the federal government as: "Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm" (Children's Bureau, 2011, p. vii). Within this broad framework, each state is responsible for defining child maltreatment in law and enforcing criminal and civil penalties against parents and caregivers who commit child maltreatment (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011b). The most common categories of child maltreatment are physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. State child protective services (CPS) agencies are responsible for receiving and responding to reports of child abuse and neglect, in coordination with other state agencies and community-based organizations (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011d). CPS agencies are usually located within what are commonly known as child welfare services the broader system of services that
11 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 6 investigates reports of child maltreatment, supports maltreated children and their families and coordinates foster care and adoption for those children who cannot remain with their families (DePanfilis, 2006). The federal government has collected national data on the prevalence of child maltreatment annually since 1990 (Children's Bureau, 2011). According to the most recent statistics, published in the report Child Maltreatment 2010, 3.3 million reports of suspected maltreatment were made in federal fiscal year 2010 involving the safety of roughly 5.9 million children. After screening the reports, state CPS agencies investigated nearly 1.8 million possible cases of child maltreatment. As a result, states determined there were nearly 700,000 unique child victims of maltreatment, or 9.2 victims for every 1,000 children in the population. Figure 1 resents statistics on the percentage of children experiencing different types of maltreatment in 2010 (children can experience more than one type). Figure 1: Percentage of Child Maltreatment Victims by Maltreatment Type, 2010 Source: (Children's Bureau, 2011).
12 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 7 According to the Children's Bureau (2011), neglect is by far the most common form of child maltreatment it is experienced by more than 78 percent of all maltreated children. In comparison, less than 18 percent experience physical abuse and less than 10 percent of maltreated children experience sexual abuse, meaning maltreated children are four to eight times more likely to experience neglect than physical or sexual abuse, respectively. However, as discussed below, numerous sources indicate there is a "neglect of neglect" in both professional and public arenas. For example, a search for child abuse in a scholarly psychology index yielded nearly 10 times more articles than for child neglect, and a basic Google search resulted in roughly 26 times more results for child abuse than for child neglect. Overview of Child Neglect Beyond the broad federal definition, "neglect" is commonly defined in many states' laws as the "failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for the child to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the degree that the child's health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm" (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011b, p. 3). The most common categories of neglect are: Physical neglect: Abandoning the child or refusing to accept custody; not providing for basic needs like nutrition, hygiene, or appropriate clothing Medical neglect: Delaying or denying recommended health care for the child Inadequate supervision: Leaving the child unsupervised (depending on length of time and child's age/maturity); not protecting the child from safety hazards, inadequate caregivers, or engaging in harmful behavior
13 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 8 Emotional neglect: Isolating the child; not providing affection or emotional support; exposing the child to domestic violence or substance abuse Educational neglect: Failing to enroll the child in school or homeschool; ignoring special education needs; permitting chronic absenteeism from school (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012) Professionals face a number of practical difficulties applying laws when working with parents who may have neglected their children. Standards are subjective regarding what is considered an appropriate level of child care and they also vary greatly depending on the social norms of the family's culture and the community in which they live (Grayson, 2001). For example, a culture in which shared caregiving is the norm may see no problem with leaving young children in the care of their siblings, perhaps in a way that would be considered inappropriate in the United States (Smith & Fong, 2004). In addition, some state laws include exceptions for determining neglect, such as financial considerations for physical neglect and exemptions for medical neglect based on religious beliefs (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011b). Not only is it difficult to address legal exceptions to neglect and varying standards of care, but performing an assessment and proving an instance of neglect is often more difficult than investigating physical or sexual abuse (McSherry, 2007). Neglect usually involves the absence, rather than the presence, of a certain behavior. Whereas abuse often manifests itself in outward signs, such as a bruise on the child's arm or indications of sexual contact, neglect more often results in harm to the child that may not be as easily identifiable except in severe cases (McSherry, 2007). These practical limitations and assessment complications are unfortunate
14 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 9 because the consequences of neglect are just as serious as those of physical or sexual abuse, especially as the harm caused by neglect accumulates over time (DePanfilis, 2006). Risks and Consequences of Child Neglect Researchers have identified a number of factors related to the child, parent, family, and larger community that place children at greater risk of neglect. Though one risk factor does necessarily result in child maltreatment, the presence of multiple risk factors increases the cause for concern. Common risks include: Younger children and those with developmental delays Parents with limited parenting or child development knowledge and lack of social support Parents experiencing stress, mental health or substance use problems Families in poverty or those experiencing domestic violence Unsafe or violent communities and those with limited access to supports like child care, health care, and social services (DePanfilis, 2006) Neglected children, especially those who are chronically neglected, may experience the following short- and long-term consequences: Impaired brain development, malnutrition and poor physical health Intellectual or cognitive delays that may result in poor academic performance Difficulty forming relationships and secure attachments to others Behavioral or conduct disorders and delinquent behavior (DePanfilis, 2006) The most tragic consequence of child neglect is death. Of the estimated 1,560 children who died from maltreatment in 2010, neglect caused or contributed to more than 68 percent of all child maltreatment-related deaths (Children's Bureau, 2011).
15 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 10 Beyond the detrimental impact on the child and family, neglect affects the larger community and, indeed, the larger society. A recent study funded in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that just one year of confirmed cases of child maltreatment results in total lifetime costs to society of $124 billion (Fang, Brown, Florence, & Mercy, in press). The estimate includes costs based on physical and mental health care for the victim, services such as child welfare, criminal justice and special education, and lost productivity of the victim and family, especially of children who die due to maltreatment. To underscore the urgent need to address child maltreatment, Fang et al. (in press) noted the cost per case is comparable to that of other prominent public health issues, such as stroke and type 2 diabetes. The authors of the above study concluded that professionals and policymakers must implement and steadfastly support intervention services to reduce the impact of maltreatment when it occurs as well as preventive efforts to stop child maltreatment before it starts. As the next two sections describe, the fields of child maltreatment intervention and prevention have grown in size and effectiveness over the last 50 years, though much work remains to be done to improve public awareness around the issue. Professional Responses to Child Maltreatment The most recent statistics clearly indicate child maltreatment is an issue that touches the lives of millions of Americans. Although general children's aid societies were popular in urban areas in the late 19th century, widespread professional and public attention to child maltreatment only began in the last 50 years. Dr. C. Henry Kempe and colleagues coined the term "battered child syndrome" in a 1962 article published in the journal of the American Medical Association.
16 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 11 In the article, the authors described indicators of both abuse and neglect and discussed how pediatricians should respond to signs of maltreatment during visits with families. About the identification of battered-child syndrome, Leventhal (2003) mused some 40 years later: "The authors' point was to inform the reader that physical abuse was not a rarely occurring phenomenon, but rather a common problem that was already recognized (but likely seldom spoken about) across the country." As child maltreatment emerged in the public sphere, a flurry of legislation led to the rapid expansion of research on and services to address the issue. Beginning with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in 1974, a number of laws have been passed and amended in the last four decades that provide the foundation for state child welfare services for children and families at risk or impacted by abuse or neglect. States providing child welfare services to families must meet the requirements outlined in federal law to be eligible for certain types of federal funding (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011d). Most families found to be abusive or neglectful, or at risk of maltreating their children, receive support and treatment services from the state child welfare agency to ensure child safety and family stability; only in severe cases, usually involving sexual abuse or serious physical abuse, may charges be filed or the police notified (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011c). Neglectful families often face risks that also require the support of related service providers, such as substance abuse and mental health services, public welfare, housing, training and workforce development, schools, and community-based organizations. This last form of support is particularly important; state agencies have limited amount resources to offer families, so most professionals highlight the need to activate informal supports such as family, friends, neighbors,
17 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 12 and the larger community to help neglectful families (Schene, 2001). In short, state child welfare agencies alone cannot be expected to solve the problems families may face. Beyond serving families after they have maltreated their children, preventing child maltreatment before it occurs is key to reduce risks and increase strengths in families. When responding to reports of child neglect, there is a recognized tendency for CPS agencies to screen out cases of neglect in favor of responding to physical or sexual abuse because abuse appears to present more urgent issues regarding the child's safety (DePanfilis, 2006; Schene, 2001). This tendency poses a significant barrier to prevention, because families reported for neglect are more likely to be reported to CPS again in the future (DePanfilis, 2006). Offering preventive services when families first come to the attention of CPS gives professionals an early opportunity to address the family's risks and reduce the chances of maltreatment. Broadly speaking, child maltreatment prevention focuses on increasing the inherent strengths in families, often called protective factors, in order to reduce risks like those mentioned earlier. Prevention programs often raise awareness of child maltreatment, improve parenting skills and resilience, and increase supports for families, especially those with young children (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011a). Despite the promise of child maltreatment prevention and the array of services available to parents who have abused or neglected their children, the size of the issue indicates that more needs to be done. Improving the public's understanding of child maltreatment, its causes and consequences, and ways to prevent it would likely benefit the efforts of child welfare researchers and professionals, but in order to do so, a key public influence must also be examined: the media. The next section discusses the public's understanding of child maltreatment and describes relevant communication theories that impact the depiction of social issues in the media.
18 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 13 Section II: Public Understanding of Child Maltreatment and the Media Public Understanding of Child Maltreatment Although the size and sophistication of child welfare and prevention services grew in the last half century, public understanding of child maltreatment failed to match that growth. Many researchers contend this failure is due in large part to the media's influence on public knowledge. For example, Pfohl (1977) describes the media climate after battered-child syndrome was introduced in 1962, when news and magazine outlets published sensational stories with, "titles such as 'Cry rises from beaten babies' (Life, June 1963), 'Parents who beat children' (Saturday Evening Post, October 1962), 'The shocking price of parental anger' (Good Housekeeping, March 1964), and 'Terror struck children' (New Republic, May 1964)" (p. 320). At that critical time when child maltreatment was first entering the public sphere, the author suggests those types of news stories subconsciously supported the labeling of abusive parents as "sick" and helped Americans distance themselves from the issue of child maltreatment rather than garner support for parents in need of help. Since that time, the public's understanding of issues related to child maltreatment can best be characterized as waves of panic in each of the decades that followed. The concern for battered children in the 1960s gave way to incest, missing children, child pornography, and cults in the 1970s, followed by ritual abuse and maltreatment in child care institutions in the 1980s (Fister, 2003). In a sweeping review of the "molding" of child abuse in the last 50 years, Hacking (1991) identified two main consequences of media coverage of child maltreatment: although it raised public awareness of the issue, by labeling the abusive parent as evil, the media initiated the trend that continues today which downplays the role of society in addressing child maltreatment.
19 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 14 In 1984, the Washington Post published an op-ed by long-time columnist Richard Cohen titled "The new anxiety over child abuse." In that op-ed, Cohen wondered whether the incidence of child maltreatment is increasing, or society is just beginning to pay more attention to it than ever before. He describes the stress experienced by families, particularly those in dual-earner households, and discusses the potential causal relationship between stress and child maltreatment. Cohen concludes: "instead of solving a problem, we simply preach an ethic of overreach in which people are told they should be able to do it all -- and that failure, of course, is their own fault." His op-ed is a harbinger for the problem we still face today: not that child abuse exists, but whether we as a society will accept responsibility for responding to it. Given the effect of the media on public understanding, particularly an issue as complex as child maltreatment, how can communication theories inform our efforts to address it? The following sections describe agenda setting and framing theories and how they apply to the field of child maltreatment. Media and the Role of Agenda Setting Agenda setting theory can offer the field of child maltreatment critical insights into how and why audiences care about certain issues while largely ignoring others. Through agenda building, a function of the media that precedes agenda setting, news organizations have the ability to control the public's agenda by choosing which topics to cover and with what frequency. Although the issues related to agenda building go beyond the scope of this study, this description of agenda building by Nisbet (2008) offers some context: "...news coverage is not a reflection of reality, but rather a manufactured product, determined by a hierarchy of social influences that span levels of analysis" (p. 1). It is important to remember that simply by choosing the topics
20 FRAMING CHILD NEGLECT 15 addressed in the news on a daily basis, the media impact which topics the public believes are important. Agenda setting involves the media's ability to control the topics the public perceives as important (McCombs, 2004; McLeod, Kosicki, & McLeod, 2009). According to agenda setting theory, the frequency with which the media cover certain topics causes the audience to care more about those topics or believe they are more salient in their lives. One key contributor to the agenda setting effect is the audience's limited capacity to attend to multiple topics; since the public cannot pay attention to every topic at all times, the media's choices influence which topics are on the "public agenda" (McCombs, 2004). Agenda setting results in priming the audience to think about the topic in question: through priming, the topic becomes more accessible in the audience's mind when the information is first processed and when it is recalled later (McLeod et al., 2009). In one of the earliest studies demonstrating the effects of agenda setting, McCombs and Shaw (1972) surveyed voters on what they believed to be important issues during the 1968 presidential election and found that the results fluctuated closely with the issues the media covered. The authors noted that simple correlation without causation could not be the reason for the similarities because the media was the primary source of information about the campaign, since at the time it could not be gathered through other means. Although the number of opportunities for the public to gather information has exploded since the article was published, research over the past four decades has confirmed that the media nonetheless continue to have an effect on what topics the public deems important (McLeod et al., 2009). McCombs and Shaw's insights into the audience's information sources are particularly relevant to the issue of child maltreatment, because it remains at times a private topic, one that
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