Accused of Being a Child Pornographer
Today’s Salon features a devastating article by a parent who found himself trapped in the system and accused of being a “child pornographer.” His crime? Taking pictures of his kids.
Shortly before Thanksgiving 2004, I took my three kids camping in Mistletoe State Park near Augusta, Ga., with my best friend and his two kids. After six years in Savannah, my family was about to move to France for my wife’s new job as an administrator for an American company. We had all been camping together before and figured the trip would be a great getaway from all of the packing, painting and stresses of moving, and would allow the kids to be together for one last time. Our wives decided to stay home to organize the packing and spend some quiet time together to say goodbye.
For us, camping has always been a back-to-basics experience. We pack in all food and supplies to our remote site and take out trash and whatever is not consumed. For toilets, we dig holes with entrenching shovels and cover our traces. We teach our kids respect and responsibility in the forest. And we teach them to have a good time.
As usual during the trip, we took several photos. Because I forgot my digital camera, I bought a disposable camera at a gas station on the way to the campground. I took pictures of the kids using sticks to beat on old bottles and cans and logs as musical instruments. I took a few of my youngest daughter, Eliza, then age 3, skinny-dipping in the lake, and my son, Noah, then age 8, swimming in the lake in his underwear, and another of Noah naked, hamming it up while using a long stick to hold his underwear over the fire to dry. Finally, I took a photo of everyone, as was our camping tradition, peeing on the ashes of the fire to put it out for the last time. We also let the kids take photos of their own.
When we returned on Sunday, I forgot the throwaway camera and Rusty found it in his car. He gave it to his wife, whom I’ll call Janet, to get developed, and she dropped it off the next day with two other rolls of film at a local Eckerd drugstore. On Tuesday, when she returned to pick up the film, she was approached by two officers from the Savannah Police Department. They told her they had been called by Eckerd due to “questionable photos.”
One officer told Janet “there were pictures of little kids running around with no clothes on, pictures of minors drinking alcohol,” she recounted for me in an e-mail. “I asked to see the pictures and was told I couldn’t. I explained there must be a mistake. I was kind of laughing, you know, ‘Come on guys. There must be an explanation. This is crazy. Let me see the pictures.’ The officer told me that he personally did not find [the photos] offensive and that he had camped himself as a kid and knows what goes on.” But the officer also told Janet that “because Eckerd’s had called them and that because there were pictures of children naked, genitalia and alcohol, they would have to investigate.”
Read the whole thing, because it’s a pretty horrifying story of how, in our justifiable zeal to stamp out child pornography and molestation, we’ve eliminated common sense from the system entirely. Here’s the money quote.
I realize no one would argue with sincere efforts to protect children from harm. As a parent, I know all too well the real dangers our kids face on a daily basis and I applaud any efforts to make their world a safer place. But our experience underscores the harm that is being inflicted on children and parents by investigations based on uninformed definitions of pornography or abuse.
“If we get down to the bottom line, there is no clear-cut definition,” said Dean Tong, who wrote “Elusive Innocence: Survival Guide for the Falsely Accused,” after being jailed and then spending 10 years and $150,000 to clear himself of abusing his young daughter. Now a forensic consultant in thousands of false-accusation cases across the country, Tong told me that even most police officers are not well enough trained to interpret the law, let alone photo lab employees. Tong said that when facing the slightest doubt, law enforcement officers “err on the side of the child,” noting the potential results: “I see families stripped and ripped apart in the middle of the night.”
It’s for exactly reasons like this case that we need easy-to-interpret legal standards and constraints on government action. Cases like this are why we need clear standards of evidence.
Do you know what the worst part about cases like this is? All that money, all that time, and all those resources spent over the months of investigating some parents that anybody with half a brain would recognize as innocent equals time, money, and resources that weren’t spent going after actual child molesters. Why? Because in politicians zeal to look like they’re “tough on crime”, they don’t bother to write clear laws that go after the real bad guys. And then when legislator’s try to fix stuff like this, their electoral opponents accuse them of trying to “make it harder to put away child molesters.”
The other problem is that we don’t have any real oversight over police officers or child welfare social workers. Oh sure, there are nominal programs, but nothing really tough. Think about it–for months, these people had their lives turned upside-down, their reputations slandered, their relationships strained–and absolutely nothing happened to the cops and bureaucrats who put them through it. Nothing at all.