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.

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.

Contempt of Cop, And That Might Be It

iStock_000004808004_SmallI’ve worked closely with police officers my entire professional life, and I find most to be decent, honorable men and women who do a difficult job with a surprising amount of professionalism. I’m far from anti-cop. But sometimes it appears obvious that breaking the law isn’t what will get you arrested. Simply disobeying a police officer, even with the right to do so, might do it.

That’s anathema to the rule of law.

A disturbing video posted by the African-American political and cultural opinion magazine “The Root” shows a black man arguing with police officers, one male and one female and both white, in St. Paul, Minnesota in January and eventually being tasered and then arrested. It’s news again in light of recent events, and race is an assumed factor. At one point in his filming of the incident, the man interrupts the female officer and says “the problem is I’m black.” The two are then joined by a male officer who immediately demands that he put his hands behind his back. A struggle ensues, he’s tasered and then arrested.

I honestly don’t know if race was a factor for the officers involved. I’d like to think it wasn’t, but I completely understand those who most certainly do. Regardless, what bothered me most about the exchange I saw was simply the illegality of what seems to be happening. Apparently charges against the man for trespass, disorderly conduct and disrupting the legal process were dropped.

Understanding that cell phone video is hardly an infallible source of context in a tense situation, watching this one will not yield a single explanation by the officers as to why the man is being arrested that cites Minnesota law or local ordinance. I watched it repeatedly; I don’t hear it. Reports suggest a store clerk called with some concern about his presence as a possible loiterer although he was in a public place. The responding officer demands he identify himself. He refuses, as is apparently his right under Minnesota law. She appears to follow him as he walks away, at one point explaining her demand saying “this is what police officers do when they’re called.”

That may be, but that doesn’t make the demand legal. And if it’s not legal, and no other crime is occurring, she needs to shrug and walk away. Period. But police officers increasingly seem not to want to do that.

In February, a California Highway Patrolman arrested a firefighter who refused to move a fire truck at the patrolman’s insistence while working a car wreck. The firefighter was ordered released and later filed a complaint. Details are in dispute, but it seems as if he was handcuffed and placed in a cruiser simply because he disobeyed the command of the CHP, regardless of the letter of the law.

Like any institution that provides for trappings of authority, deadly weapons and combat training, police agencies sometimes attract bullies and others with big egos and little patience. I believe this is not the norm in American policing but generally an exception. I’ve not only worked closely with cops all of my life, I’ve befriended many. I’ve heard countless head-shaking stories (that never reach the media) of cops who have not used deadly force despite the actions of belligerent and aggressive people who threaten their lives and refuse to obey reasonable commands.

Still, there is justifiable criticism being leveled against the militarization of American police forces and the rise of the “warrior cop.” Engaging the community from behind barricades with automatic weapons is largely counterproductive and stupid. But what’s worse is ignoring the law and putting people in chains and cages- regardless for how long or to what eventual end- simply because they’ve made a cop angry. It doesn’t work that way. It can’t work that way.

As a young prosecutor I practiced before an old and quirky but wonderful judge named Dan O’Flaherty. He showed me once how he kept a copy of Virginia’s contempt of court statute (the one that allows judges to jail people on the spot for in-court behavior) actually taped to the bench where he sat. His reason? When he was insulted or otherwise disrespected by someone before him, he took time to read the statute and think very carefully before even threatening the person with contempt. Because sometimes what they were doing was infuriating, but not illegal.

Anyone with the honor of wielding a badge and a gun needs to understand that as well.

Chris Anderson of MaleSurvivor: The Invisible Public Health Crisis

A public health crisis so pervasive it’s demoralizing to even consider. But that’s why it’s more important than ever to understand how important it is to know and own that all of us- every one of us- is a potential responder to child sexual abuse. No matter our age, no matter our profession, and no matter what company we keep or who we love.

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