Author Archives: Roger Canaff

About Roger Canaff

Roger Canaff is a widely known child protection and anti-violence against women advocate, legal expert, author and public speaker. Mr. Canaff, a practicing attorney, has devoted his legal career to the eradication of violence against women and children, first as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in Alexandria, Virginia then as a Special Victims ADA in the Bronx, New York, and then as an Assistant Attorney General with the state of New York in their Sex Offender Management Unit. In June, 2009, he joined the U.S. Department of the Army as a Highly Qualified Expert training and advising Judge Advocate General (JAG) military prosecutors on sexual assault and other special victims cases. With over 10 years experience, he has prosecuted cases involving sexual and physical abuse against children and adolescents, and also sexual assault against adults, the elderly and persons with disabilities. Mr. Canaff served in the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, a unit of the National District Attorneys Association in Alexandria, Virginia for two years between assignments as an ADA. He continues to provide training and speak publicly to other attorneys, medical experts, law enforcement officers, victim advocates and the public on all issues related to the investigation and prosecution of child abuse and sexual assault. Currently he serves on the Board of Directors as president of End Violence Against Women, International (EVAW), an organization that provides training, technical assistance, research and advocacy. He has also been featured in two multi-media resource tools, one a training video sponsored by the National Judicial Education Program (NJEP) on presenting medical evidence in sexual assault trials, and the other an interactive DVD-ROM produced under the U.S. Department of Justice, President’s DNA Initiative, on developing testifying skills as a Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner.

“Pet Vet” Barbie: Your Daughter is Better Than This

A few years ago I made a point to call out Mattel’s Barbie “I Can Be” series (the Barbie doll series that supposedly encourages girls to envision what they can accomplish professionally) for this depiction of a veterinarian:

mattel-barbie-i-can-be-pet-vet-20060875

Almost four years later it really hasn’t gotten much better. Then very recently I discovered through friends a reality show called The Incredible Dr. Pol which airs on the Nat Geo channel. Pol and his colleagues, one of whom is a young female veterinarian, are featured treating domestic and farm animals in Central Michigan.

Not being a veterinarian or anyone with experience in animal husbandry or farming, I can’t comment on the genuineness of what’s portrayed or how truly “incredible” Dr. Pol or his staff are. But I can say that the depiction of the women on Pol’s show, one a staff vet who is depicted training other young women who appear to be veterinary students or interns, is far more realistic and less offensive than anything Barbie suggests about how a veterinarian will dress and what her work environment will be like. The female vet on Dr. Pol’s show was identified as “Dr. Brenda.” Like most veterinarians, she appears to eschew four-inch heels and a dangerously high hemline. Instead she is seen literally wrestling distressed farm animals and stitching up injured ones in often sweat-soaked medical scrubs.

If you have a daughter who might be drawn to veterinary medicine, I’d ask you to consider introducing her to these kinds of depictions of the life of a highly educated, skilled, compassionate and tough woman who is also a doctor of veterinary medicine.

I’m not a parent myself, but this seems to me to be a better idea than encouraging your girl child to strive to be someone’s fetishized and insultingly sexist depiction of a professional. She’s better than that. Period.

An Inconvenient Truth About Pedophilia: It’s a Curse, Not a Choice

6028playground_swingA friend sent me this link to a New York Times op-ed on pedophilia, the technical term for the DSM-Vparaphilic mental health diagnosis that describes a person (usually a male), sexually interested only in pre-pubescent children.

Apparently, the DSM itself (the “bible” of mental health professionals) will not describe pedophilia as a sexual orientation, but rather a paraphilic disorder. This is basically a sexual predilection detrimental to the object of the interest, and which causes the sufferer significant distress or difficulty dealing with it. Since pedophiles are solely, sexually focused on prepubescent children, any manifestation of the disorder will be- in essence- harmful and unacceptable. Rightfully, we punish such manifestations, including consumption of child pornography as well as “hands-on” offending.

Regardless, I know of no reputable mental health expert who would call pedophilia a “choice.” When it comes to the persistent, chronic sexual attraction to prepubescent children, what we’re dealing with is more of a burden.

Or more bluntly, a curse.

What’s chosen is behavior.  Sexual behavior involving prepubescent children should remain 1) anathema to what is societally acceptable, and 2) severely punished. I’ve spent a career seeking to do these things.

But the author of the op-ed makes valid points when she discusses the need to understand pedophilia instead of just aiming vitriol and anger toward those saddled with this miserable circumstance. There are, as she notes, people with pedophilia who do not act out in response to deep-seated urges. They understand the concrete wrongness of sexually acting out against children, so they painfully but dutifully deny themselves a sexual life.

In my opinion, with a career of seeking to protect children from child molesters behind me, I believe these successfully restrained people should be commended for this, particularly when their concern is more for the children they might harm as it is for the legal or societal consequences they might face. Certainly, they should not be further marginalized, ostracized, or hated. But regardless of how balanced any appeal to common sense or baseline compassion might be, hatred and viciousness are usually what pedophiles encounter.

And so they remain in the shadows, untreated and more deeply misunderstood.

We still have almost no idea what causes pedophilia; correlations between childhood experiences (abusive or non-abusive) have been at best inconclusive. If it’s genetic, we’ve yet to discover a traceable etiology. We know that the vast majority of victims of childhood sexual abuse do not turn around themselves and abuse later in life or “become” pedophiles. Rather, it seems more ingrained, but we don’t know why or how.  We also know that, while most confirmed abusers will claim past sexual abuse, even the threat of a polygraph exam during treatment will bring those claims far down.

So we’re dealing with a very dangerous mystery. But largely as a society, we’re interested in nothing but punishing pedophiles, regardless of their actual status as offenders. If they have this desire, too many of us seem to believe that they’re worthy of the worst we can legally (or otherwise) dish out to them.

The comments to Dr. Margo Kaplan’s piece in the NYT are enlightening in this regard. While some applaud her for her courage in being a voice of reason, many more seem to fall into a couple of categories that, while understandable to some degree, are irrelevant. First, there are commenters who simply make legally and psychologically incorrect assertions, and lump pedophiles into the far larger subset of child molesters, most of whom are not pedophiles. Second, there are woefully unfocused comments that address the harm done to the victims of pedophiles (or people they assume are pedophiles) with no further thought.

Focusing on victims and prevention of harm is more than understandable; it’s completely appropriate and it needs to continue to be our highest priority. But we must also understand what drives offending- particularly when the drive is so despised that passion chokes that understanding.

Again- most predatory, sexual offenders are not pedophiles. The word is grossly overused and misused. Regardless, there are harmful pedophiles in our midst. We need to stop them, but in order to do so, we need to understand them.

Blind hatred won’t help. Blind hatred never helps anything.

 

 

 

Blackness and Corporal Punishment: Understandable Concerns Against Necessary Intervention

About a week ago I published a piece on what I believe is the essential wrongfulness of corporal punishment. Since then I’ve had several discussions with well-meaning and thoughtful people of color who to tend to agree with me in principle, but who also think I’m failing to appreciate some very important nuances involved. Bluntly, it’s been about how we judge- and are judging particularly in the wake of the Adrian Peterson case- black folk for the kind of parenting that has been deemed sad but also necessary for generations.

I’ve heard that I cannot possibly relate to the experience of a black person in this country, whether now or 300 years ago. This is true. I’ve heard that beating children was often done out of love and desperation until shockingly recently, because deeply loving parents of black boys in particular would rather instill fear in them than bury them, because that fear- of a white woman, a white sheriff, and a host of other things- was not present. I’ve heard that there is a still a basis for some of those fears even today. These things are also true.

Underneath it all, I’ve perceived this tone from several people of color, assuming I can put it fairly into my own words: It should not be the added prerogative of a (still) white-controlled society and criminal justice system to decide that black folk are even more criminally liable than they were before, this time for parenting as they have seen necessary for generations- particularly when it was that oppressive white society that created the need for such discipline in the first place.

In plain speech, how the hell is it just or correct that the centuries-old terrorism of white people over black people now gets to be used against them when they beat their children out of the love and fear that said terrorism created?

I really can’t argue with that. But I have to.

First, although the criminal justice system I used to actively participate in was then and is still deeply flawed, it’s the only one we have. Every decision maker in the system- cops, prosecutors, judges, probation officers, etc, need to be aware of the institutional racism and bias we can’t even fully recognize in ourselves. Although this certainly doesn’t apply to people of color in the system itself (black jurists and investigators, etc) as much as it does to people like me, it can apply to some extent. Bias is universal. We all need to be kept in check one way or another.

I don’t believe that all forms of corporal punishment should be outlawed in any event. I just think it’s wrong and unnecessary in any form. But the laws in place in every state I know of (the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse has some excellent compilations of state statutes) are fairly reasonable where the line between discipline and abuse is concerned. When crossed, it should be addressed by the civil child protection system and the criminal law.

Secondly, to confront child abuse is to understand that culture and tradition, however justified or necessary, can be used as a cruel cover. Simply put, there are people of every imaginable ethnic background who beat children not out of fear, but because they are lazy parents, or worse, because they are acting cruelly as a result of a variety of reasons, from misplaced rage to pure amusement, and using cultural support as a convenient excuse.

To the extent that anyone is unfairly using the once necessary and unfortunate but largely love-based traditions of black families against them (legally or otherwise), I agree there is a problem. The devil is in the details, but those circumstances can and should be considered when we respond to what we call child abuse. We’ve found enough reasons to jail black men in particular. I can appreciate why it seems so deeply offensive for people who look like me to suggest yet another reason for doing so.

But first and foremost, the infliction of physical pain on every child should be stopped and condemned if not made categorically illegal. History and truth matter. But children matter more.

Adrian Peterson, Culture, and Why Wrong is Still Wrong

Corporal punishment is wrong. Brutal corporal punishment of the kind Adrian Peterson is suspected of wielding against a 4 year-old child is both wrong and thankfully illegal.

But what about cultural norms- like the one espoused by Charles Barkley recently- that claim acceptance for ‘whipping,’ and imply that an unfair standard could be wielded against a traditionally oppressed minority? The answer is that those concerns are understandable. But ultimately they are excuses. And cultural excuses do not legally or morally excuse child abuse.

I was spanked (and occasionally, although rarely, worse). It was the wrong thing to do. I hold no resentment against my parents for it; they were doing the best they could with the resources and insight they had at the time. They have been honorable, loving and supportive otherwise, and gave us the tools we needed to navigate life in a largely healthy and successful manner. But the fact remains: Hitting us was unnecessary, and ultimately did more harm than good.

I have friends who remain conflicted about the value of spanking (either in terms of how it influenced them or how it might be appropriate for their children). One concern I hear is that the choice to spank could lead them to be considered ‘criminals.’ Or, if they were spanked, that their parents- most of whom were loving and decent otherwise- could be considered ‘criminal’ in retrospect.

But the issue is not a legal one when it comes to spanking within limits. This remains lawful in all states and will likely continue as such. The ‘limits’ are usually that visible marks may not be left. Generally, you can cause pain or discomfort with a hand or an object such as a paddle, but you cannot significantly bruise or scar your child.

Many of us had parents who did bruise or scar us, though. Often, they were decent, loving parents in every other important respect. But if they exceeded the limits of what is criminal today, they were dreadfully wrong, period. Of course they’re not in danger of criminal liability in most cases, and in most cases they shouldn’t be. But we can still acknowledge their failings, albeit in the context of a very different life. For those of us who were spanked within legal limits, in a planned, non-angry context (the ‘gold standard’ for corporal punishment), we can be confident and thankful that we were, in all likelihood, not deeply or permanently harmed by the experience.

Regardless, that experience is not necessary. And the risks outweigh the benefits.

The bottom line seems to be that there is conflicting evidence on whether spanking is hurtful and leads to more aggression, anger, dysfunction, etc. But I know of no evidence suggesting that hitting children has measurably positive outcomes, particularly in light of the physical and psychological risks (my mentor Victor Vieth wrote a great law review article on the subject).

What lingers in distinct cultural and groups and minorities, of course, is this uncomfortable notion: A form of discipline that many among them have practiced for ages will now be criminalized by the majority population. Particularly since that majority lacks a pattern of respect and fair-dealing with the minority, this is understandable. To some in minority communities (many of which are disadvantaged and disenfranchised), the threat of a powerful and moneyed majority seeking to criminalize them further for what’s always been done strikes them as unseemly, to say the least. There are also members of strict religious communities who cite scripture in support of hitting children. They, too, will understandably be concerned about a secular majority imposing its views on them despite what they believe is God-ordained.

I don’t blame either group one bit.

But still, hitting children is wrong. Objectively and essentially so. In extreme forms, like the one doled out to a toddler by Peterson, it’s rightfully condemned and legally prohibited. In mild forms, it will likely not be criminalized in the U.S. for a long time, if ever. But either way, it should be condemned and phased out permanently, regardless of cultural identity or religious imperative. The reason is simple: There is one thing which must trump cultural or religious sentiment- the welfare of individual children.

 

 

The Rice Videotape: When An Unblinking Eye is Ugly But Necessary

HiResUnmanned, stationary video is a cold observer. It will not blink in disbelief. It will not turn away in horror. It will not cloud over with tears of pure, human empathy. But sometimes it’s the only accurate source for the truth about what individuals are capable of. Not monsters. Not demons. Just people.

In 2011, a Texas family court judge was forced to acknowledge the sadistic and brutal beating of his 16 year-old daughter who suffers from cerebral palsy because of a hidden webcam she set up in desperation. In 2013, a 14 year-old French girl compelled an admission of sexual abuse by her father through the same technology. These two children would likely never have been believed were it not for the passive, electronic observer that forced action, justice and- importantly- an acceptance of responsibility from the attackers.

Enter Ray and Janay Rice.

Ms. Rice considers her husband’s breathtakingly vicious attack of her, and then his dragging her body, skirt hiked up on a cold, hotel floor moments after, to be a part of their private lives. She seems yet to acknowledge a single act of wrongdoing on his part, instead characterizing what he did as “a moment in our lives.” She appears to be willing to support and stand by him regardless of what he did to her, what he might have done before, and what he might do again- even while she is pregnant with his child.

What are the chances, then, that Janay would ever have been forthcoming about what was done to her in that now infamous elevator- assuming she could even remember it accurately? Forget about the courtroom. What about the kind of honest detail that might have led to forcing Ray Rice to take real responsibility for a possibly permanent brain injury? What about the kind of detail that might have compelled him to examine his character and his choices, especially now that he will be a father?

Given her public statements, it is not likely that Janay would have spoken at all to anyone who might have made a difference, whether an NFL official, a judge, a counselor or anyone else. She’s in love. She’s made her choice.

But where criminal acts concerned, not all of the choices are hers to make. There are at least two entities that have an interest when a crime of violence occurs and criminal charges are brought: The victim herself (or himself) and the community as a whole. The community in this case- at least Atlantic County, New Jersey, the prosecutorial jurisdiction where this crime took place- has a right to the truth, as much as it can be ascertained, in order to decide what Ray Rice did to violate their laws and what he deserves because of it (no comment, for now, on how the case was legally resolved).

Without the video, it is highly unlikely that Rice’s brutality would ever be fully known- both in terms of the lightning blow he was willing to unleash into a woman’s face and the callous way in which he then dragged her around. Even assuming an out of character, mental snap due to rage, Rice could have knelt beside her and comforted her. He could have called for help and admitted a terrible, momentary wrong. Instead he dragged her like an inconvenient bag of garbage. We know that now, because we’ve seen it.

What Janay Rice is 100% correct about is that the repeated, for-entertainment viewing of the video tape of her abuse is exploitive and abusive itself; her pain should not be minimized nor her feelings invalidated. She is unfortunate with regard to being married to a public figure and now being at the center of a tragically public case. But given her unwavering support of a man who attacked her, given the child who will soon become a part of their dynamic, and given a desperate need for society as a whole to wake up to the undiluted reality of intimate partner violence, there is value in the videotape’s existence if not gross proliferation.

It’s awful. But it’s the truth. And the truth matters, even when love would conceal it.