Wendy Murphy: Child abuse is a hate crime, too

Wendy Murphy

The feds released a new report last month showing that hate crimes – defined as targeted violence against people based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, association or “perceived characteristic” – are up 8 percent.

But precious few people or organizations complained that the report makes no mention of violence against children – and it’s time we started asking why. The whole point of hate crime laws is to recognize (by ramping up the punishment) the extra harm done when a person is selected for victimization precisely because of their vulnerable status in society.

No class of people is more vulnerable, or suffers more violence, than children.

Sex predators have between 50 and 150 victims before they get caught the first time. I bet the average anti-Semite doesn’t hurt nearly as many Jewish people, yet we have laws firmly in place to redress violence based on a victim’s religious status.

And when a couple of Muslim-American business owners were targeted for vandalism crimes in the aftermath of 9/11 – law enforcement officials acted swiftly with hate crimes prosecutions to send a clear message of intolerance. But when scores of children are severely abused, the heavy hand of government becomes a limp wrist.

According to the federal government, 190,000 hate crimes are reported each year for all categories. This averages out to about 30,000 reports for each “type” of person harmed. And this measurement covers all “reported” crimes – including those that might be false, can’t be proved or are never brought to court.

On average, 100,000 “substantiated” child sex abuse crimes occur each year – which is likely an extremely low estimate of the real problem because 90 percent are never reported.

Of those, many are valid, though not counted as substantiated because the child is too young, too scared or for some other reason is unable to provide strong enough evidence to convince the decision-maker to take action.

Thus, it’s fair to say that the single crime of child sex abuse occurs at least 10 times as often as all “hate crimes” put together.

Four year-old Rebecca Riley of Hull died a horrible death allegedly at the hands of her own parents. The Department of Social Services file was full of previous allegations of neglect and physical and sexual abuse involving other children, but nothing much was done.

For all their alleged targeted crimes against children, the Rileys got a few visits from social workers.

Is it not painfully obvious that if violence against children were a hate crime, there would have been an faster, more effective response? Remember the Muslim business owners? Nobody said about the vandals, “let’s call in some social workers to provide therapy and sensitivity training.” Nope – the reaction was swift and harsh because, people said, hate crimes have no place in civilized society.

Fair enough – but doesn’t violence against children undermine civility, too?

Child abuse causes physical and psychological damage. It inhibits learning, costs taxpayers a fortune in health care and other human services, and literally breeds new abuse because adult survivors bring their broken childhoods with them everywhere – to parenthood, to marriage, to school, to relationships with friends and communities and to the workplace.

Whether it’s the predator down the street or Uncle Charlie – the message has to get out there that we understand and honor the essential and defenseless nature of childhood.

Wendy Murphy is a leading victims rights advocate and nationally recognized legal analyst. She is an adjunct professor at New England School of Law and radio talk show host. She can be reached at wmurphy@fac.nesl.edu.