IPT Book Reviews

Title: Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern About Child Victims   Positive Review Positive Review Positive Review
Author: Joel Best
Publisher: University of Chicago Press 1990

The University of Chicago Press
5801 South Ellis Avenue
Chicago, IL 60637


This small book, consisting of nine chapters and an appendix entitled "Recent Fiction About Threats to Children," was written by a sociologist from the University of California.  Dr. Best is known for his previous attacks on the validity of statistics used to support various children's needs, such as Halloween poisonings and missing children.

Besides an excellent history of child abuse hysteria, Dr. Best highlights where the issue is apt to go with our policymakers.  New claims for expanding definitions of child abuse include smoking, song lyrics, circumcision, drugs during pregnancy, custody disputes, inadequate state social services, no television for children, parental religious instructions, parental child grabbing, and gender-differences in teaching by parents.

Dr. Best blames much of America's hysteria on the media, particularly the "ten second sound bites" (p.102).  All major media fell for the misleading statistics at the beginning, but later began attacking the exaggerations, or what historian Barbara Tuchman calls "relocating facticity" (p.98), with all persons with vested interests inflating the figures to make their case.  ABC's Tom Jarrell and Bettina Gregory helped expose the missing children's inflated statistics.  However, U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia referred to social scientist David Gil as "wishy-washy" and a "namby-pamby" (p.69) when Dr. Gil asked for sanity in reading the statistics on missing children.

This illustrates Dr. Best's point that true facts seldom influence policy emotions do.  Words have consequences, and values also shape policy, but truth is a weak third, and the first loss of any social war.  Although the child-saving movement started with a concern for physical safety, it quickly was jerked away from sane professionals and was expanded into all parent-child areas.

The book closes with an excellent set of references.


Although theoretical, this may be the best intellectual history of child abuse hysteria ever assembled.  Dr. Best's description of potential new areas to be labeled "child abuse" will chill the hearts of most parents in this country.  The description of the role of the media is excellent and illuminating.  The book is highly recommended.

Reviewed by LeRoy Schultz, Professor of Social Work, West Virginia University.

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