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.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. Richard Gardner says:

    Then there was the part about the social worker having never been camping, so had zero frame of reference to assess the situation. She was amazed that children were near a campfire.

    So we now have legal warrantless searches from Child Protective Services (or equivalent), along with mandatory snitch laws if you suspect something might be happening.

  2. Anderson says:

    Jesus, wait until Georgia finds out about Sally Mann.

  3. This is obviously an attempt to lay the groundwork for an attack on Barbara Bush and her son, George W. 😉

    Remember after the 2000 election fiasco, President Bush showed a picture of Jeb when he was two or three years old, just out of the bathtub and naked? I thought it was brilliant and devious and never considered it odd at all. Parents do that sort of thing. Not odd at all.

  4. floyd says:

    who ever said anybody from the government had “half a brain”?? i remember freedom in america, though it was already feeble; and i have lived long enough to watch it die from the torture of ignorance, from a people grown too dull for self reliance.

  5. Christopher says:

    LOL!

    Not a true story guys. You were all fooled.

    Way to go, Alex.

  6. Steve Verdon says:

    Christopher,

    On what do you base that claim? Arresting parents for taking innocent pictures of their children nude isn’t unheard of.

    Personally, the overzealousness of the legal system in this area is why there are no such pictures of my son. I figure I can’t count on either common sense or intelligence on the part of my fellow Americans.

    Floyd,

    Well said.

  7. Anderson says:

    who ever said anybody from the government had â??half a brainâ???? i remember freedom in america, though it was already feeble; and i have lived long enough to watch it die from the torture of ignorance, from a people grown too dull for self reliance.

    Except of course when the same government is holding hundreds of people in Guantanamo Bay for five years without charging them with anything. THEN the gov’t is all-wise and not to be questioned.

  8. John Burgess says:

    Itâ??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.

    Here’s where you may be opening the door to legal mischief.

    “Easy-to-interpret standards” are the problem, not the solution. They are, in fact, what were used to create this headache for this guy. The “easy-to-intepret” standard applied was

    Photo(naked kids + genitalia + alcohol) = pedophilia

    No interpretation was needed, simply checking off the boxes and coming to a conclusion (however erroneous that might be).

    Attempts to simplify mean that all the context, all the nuance get lost and innocent behavior suddenly becomes criminal.

  9. But Scalia has already said that the increasing professionalism of police forces, including a new emphasis on internal discipline, will prevent stuff like this!! Why do you hate America, Alex?

  10. Steve Verdon says:

    Well Christopher…you got anything to back up your claim that the story is false?

  11. floyd says:

    anderson; the governments actions are a “reflexion”[sic] of the values of the people we elect, and reelect,and reelect, and reelect ad-nauseum

  12. Steve Verdon says:

    Well Christopherâ?¦you got anything to back up your claim that the story is false? Hello…?

    I’m going to hazard a guess that you are talking out of your third point of contact…again, Christopher.

  13. Laura Cloyes says:

    I can tell you all from personal experience that this is not unheard of and I am sure it is a true story. in may of 2005 I attended the wedding of 2 friends. I forgot my digital camera at the reception site and went to inquire about it the next morning. It was not to be found. I figured one of the cleaning crew probably snagged it and I would never see it again. Oh well… 2 days later a knock on my door. The police on my front steps holding my camera. Great! I thought someone found it and it was being returned to me. My business card was in the case. However, no they were actually there because my camera had been turned in to them because of some questionable pictures. I had been to visit my 2 god children 2 weeks before the wedding and there were some pics of them and their parents and me in the camera. They were 4 and 2 years old at the time and did allot of running around naked that weekend. There were 6 pictures out of about 17 that had some nudity. pretty regular toddler stuff. Most of the pics showed the same kids, clothed hugging my neck or sitting with me in a chair or on the floor. Long story short, I told the cops that this was a misunderstanding and these kids were my god children and here were pictures of them on my bookshelves and on the fridge. We could just pick up the phone and call my best Friend and her husband and they would verify that they were standing right there when I was snapping pics and the kids were just being kids. Lets call them right now I said. But no that wasn’t what we did. The cops asked if they could have my computer and any other cameras I had at home. I said why? To see if there are any more child porn in your possession. I was shaking by now. No they could not have my computers. They would be back with a warrant. They never called my friends. They came the next day with warrant and took my only computer and would not give me a copy of my client data base with which I make my living. I hired and attorney. My computer was kept by the State for 3 months. Child Services investigated my friends and were pleased to report a safe happy environment for kids. Still no computer. I was never charged. It cost me almost $4,000 in lawyer fees and 3 months without a way to work and I am a Realtor. No database, no sales. 3 months. Read the article and I know they were truthful. I happens and it is horrible.