Saturday, October 04, 2014

Alex Campbell on Battered Women And The Failure To Protect Children

Alex Campbell has written a worthwhile article on the way laws in several US states can punish a battered woman when her child is murdered by the batterer (the article contents include descriptions of brutal violence aimed at children).  The objective behind the laws that sometimes achieve that result is a laudable one:  to make sure that parents protect their children:

At least 29 states have laws that explicitly criminalize parents’ failure to protect their children from abuse. In Texas, where Lindley lives, the crime is known as injury to a child “by omission.” In other states, it goes by “permitting child abuse” or “enabling child abuse.” In addition, prosecutors in at least 19 states can use other, more general laws against criminal negligence in the care of a child, or placing a child in a dangerous situation.
These laws make parents responsible for what they did not do. Typically, people cannot be prosecuted for failing to thwart a murder; they had to have actually helped carry it out. But child abuse is an exception, and the logic behind these laws is simple: Parents and caregivers bear a solemn duty to protect their children.
These laws are not all the same.  Some, such as the Texas law, allow extremely long sentences to be given to the parent who failed to protect.  Only a few state laws allow any consideration of the possibility that the parent accused of failure to protect might have been another victim of a domestic abuser.

And that is what most of Campbell's article addresses:  That battered women might be given prison sentences as long as forty-five years for failing to protect their children:

No one knows how many women have suffered a fate like Lindley’s, but looking back over the past decade, BuzzFeed News identified 28 mothers in 11 states sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for failing to prevent their partners from harming their children. In every one of these cases, there was evidence the mother herself had been battered by the man.
Almost half, 13 mothers, were given 20 years or more. In one case, the mother was given a life sentence for failing to protect her son, just like the man who murdered the infant boy. In another, the sentences were effectively the same: The killer got life, and the mother got 75 years, of which she must serve at least 63 years and nine months. In yet another, the mother got a longer sentence than the man who raped her son. In one more, a father fractured an infant girl’s toe, femur, and seven ribs and was sentenced to two years; for failing to intervene, the mother got 30.
These cases might not be a random pick from all cases where a child is killed by the father, stepfather or boyfriend of the mother.  But they do suggest that mothers are held to a very high standard of what it means not to protect a child.  More evidence on that comes when the reverse types of killings are analyzed:  where the mother (or the female partner of the father) is the killer:

The laws against failing to prevent child abuse are written to cover both fathers and mothers. And, in fact, women perpetrate 34% of serious or fatal cases of physical abuse of children, according to the latest congressionally mandated national study of child abuse. But interviews and BuzzFeed News’ analysis of cases show that fathers rarely face prosecution for failing to stop their partners from harming their children. Overwhelmingly, women bear the weight of these laws.
BuzzFeed News found a total of 73 cases of mothers who, regardless of whether they were battered, were sentenced to 10 years or more. For fathers, BuzzFeed News found only four cases.
White, Lindley’s prosecutor, couldn’t recall prosecuting any fathers for failure to protect from physical abuse.
“Mothers are held to a very different standard,” said Kris McDaniel-Miccio, a law professor at the University of Denver whose expertise is domestic violence. She said that the lopsided application of these laws reflects deeply ingrained social norms that women should sacrifice themselves for their children.

Some of that difference may be due to the fact that women are more likely to have custody than men when the birth parents of the child are not together.  But looking at those cases in some detail would be useful, to see whether mothers and fathers are treated as equally responsible to protect their children.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Be Very Very Afraid. The Reason, Right Now, Is Ebola.

It has taken me a few hours to recover from the mistake of trying to absorb today's news and tweets and soundbites, because the overall message I get (whether that is the message that's being sent) is to panic.  And today we are to panic about Ebola in the US.

Panicking is the mature and adult reaction, my friends*.  Or at least the headline writers believe that clicks will rise if a bit of panic is in the air.  Thus, even  sound and rational articles about the Dallas Ebola case have headlines which  ask whether we should all panic or at least describe people who are not sure if they should panic**.  And some articles can barely squeeze in a few facts about Ebola. 

Why not just give all the information about how one can catch Ebola and how one cannot catch it?  To their credit, most articles try to do some of that (though not all), but the information is often buried deep in the body of the article or qualified by terms such as "health authorities claim."

And few write-ups seem to understand the public health actions of tracking and containing.  For example, that Daily Male Mail's screaming headline "Up to 100 exposed already in Dallas Ebola shambles" is such utter rubbish.  The point is to create panic.  This is what that 100-people figure actually represents: 

The immediate priority of health officials is contacting all those who might have come into contact with Mr. Duncan after he became symptomatic, which is when the disease can spread.
Health officials said to think of the contact tracing as moving in concentric circles. Health officials focused first on those who had the closest and most intimate contact with Mr. Duncan after he became symptomatic because they are at the greatest risk of infection. That group includes at least four family members and three medics who are being isolated.
 The next group includes those who had more casual contact with Mr. Duncan after he grew sick. More than a dozen people in this category will monitored by the authorities for 21 days, which is the longest documented time it has taken for this strain of Ebola to begin to cause illness.

All bolds are mine.  The point is that hundred people most likely have not been exposed.  The reason they are identified is for the public health authorities to define the largest possible circle within which any possible new cases could come from, so that action can be swift and future spread of the disease can be stopped. That's how epidemics are fought.

So.  Whatever the problems in the treatment of the first Ebola case in the US in Dallas (and there were problems), we are not all going to die of Ebola and we cannot get it from asymptomatic individuals who happened to have been in the same airplane with us.  Come to think of it, the ordinary flu is killing a lot more people right now in this country, I'd bet.

I understand that new threats trigger an odd primitive reaction of this type in us humans (remember SARS?)***, while we can comfortably live with pretty high risks of death from traffic accidents or the flu.  But we could override that primitive reaction by vaccinating ourselves with all the relevant facts.

On the other hand, things could be much, much worse.  For instance, libertarians could be in power in Texas.  Here's a libertarian opinion on the proper role of the government in controlling communicable diseases:
Carla Howell, National Libertarian Party Political Director, says “governmental bureaucracies” involved with epidemic control are ineffective compared to private and voluntary efforts, in addition to costing too much money and violating individual rights. 
"The sole purpose of government is to protect our life, liberty and property from harm caused by others in those few instances where the private sector cannot do a better job," Howell writes in an e-mail to Newsweek. “Containing Ebola in Africa is best left to private charities such as Doctors Without Borders rather than the NIH [National Institutes of Health] or the CDC. Screening is better handled by airlines and private hospitals that are both liable for damages and fully free of government red tape. (Sadly no such hospitals exist today in the United States).”
Mmm.   Bolds are mine.  The point Howell misses is that the control of epidemics is  one of those areas where everyone  agrees that we need the government.  Even arch-conservatives agree.

That Howell doesn't  suggests to me that she is unaware of the public goods/private goods dichotomy.  The private sector cannot do as well as the public sector in controlling epidemics, because of that public good aspect.  This is true of for-profit firms but it's also true of nonprofit organizations, because they lack the enforcement ability which is necessary when patients must be quarantined or areas closed off or entrants to a country checked.

Isn't it nice that the many panic topics for today don't include libertarians running the US public health system?

*As that silly rhyme tells us:  "When in doubt or danger, run in circles, scream and shout. " It should really be "When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout."  Rhymes better.

**Inside this story, for example,  the relevant information can be found, but you have to search for it:

None of the children have symptoms, and the chances that they passed the virus to other people at the school are extremely low, health officials said. Even when people are infected with Ebola, they are not contagious until they get develop symptoms. And even then, the virus can be transmitted only through bodily fluids and close physical contact.

***It has several characteristics.  One is the fear caused by not-knowing, the fear of something new, a sinister monster rising from the fog, suddenly.   Another one is an odd insistence for zero risks as the only acceptable ones (when we accept positive risks in most areas of life), the refusal to be reassured by an expert stating that something has an almost-zero probability of occurring.  A third one is the near-total focus on the new threat.  All these are probably useful behavior patterns when a new wild predator, say, entered the area where prehuman humans (heh) lived, but is less beneficial when it is applied to ISIS, SARS, bird flu, Ebola and so on, especially by those who are far away from the actual threats and get the reaction triggered by news. 

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Training To Be Batman's Wife. Gender Lessons From Children's Clothing.

Here are two t-shirt stories about gender.  They cropped up almost simultaneously.

 The first one, by Melissa at Shakesville, is about t-shirts licensed and approved by DC comics:

On the left, we've got a men's shirt that depicts a scene inspired by Superman/Wonder Woman, which, you'll remember, was a romance themed title developed last year to appeal to women since why would we ever want to read a comic book that's not about kissing? (edit: it's actually from a cover of Justice League 12, however, because DC does sure love their crossovers) The text reads "Score! Superman does it again!"...

Also, Wonder Woman's a lasso-less "it" now, we guess. Yeah, that's why her arm's all weird at the bottom of the shirt; she's supposed to be lassoing Superman in the picture. But why present a powerful female superhero using one of her trademark symbols as a marker of sexual agency when you can instead present her as a stiff, rigid board to be scored upon?

On the right is a shirt from the juniors department of Walmart, which says "Training to be Batman's," and then "wife" in a different more stereotypically feminine font. It's a little known fact, but you are not allowed to spell the word "wife" in any font other than cursive.

The second story, from Canada, is pretty similar.  It is about onesies for infants for sale at Target:

Baby onesies at a Target store that label little boys as future superheroes and little girls as their dating partners has sparked online outrage after two University of Waterloo professors called attention to their message. 
Target Canada responded to questions from CBC News about the pyjamas in an email on Tuesday.
Company spokeswoman Kalynn Crump replied: "Target strives to treat all our guests with respect, and it is never our intent to offend anyone. We appreciate the feedback we’ve received and will continue to listen to our guests to ensure we offer merchandise that appeals to, and reflects, our diverse guest population.”
When asked if Target would remove the onesies from the shelves, Crump said Target didn't "have any plans to make adjustments to our assortment at this time."

There's the Superman S-symbol in both, but the message is a bit different for boy and girl babies.

The topic isn't the most important in the world but worth thinking about.  For example, try to imagine what would happen if we did a gender-reversal on those messages.  I doubt a single t-shirt or onesie would be sold.  Second, note the way the female messages are preparation for the female sexual role, even though these pieces of clothing are meant for children.  

But I get that these are jokes intended for the people reading the messages in the clothes, and most of those are adults.  Even the different script for the word "wife" in the upper picture is because the idea is that the reader will get surprised by that addition:  "So she's in training to be Batman?  No, but Batman's wife!  Heh."

In a way t-shirts and onesies of this type are training tools. 

What's Fun To Watch Today

On the net, that is.  You might begin with this Republican voter ad aimed at women.  It's utterly hilarious:

Note the equation between picking a bridegroom (or a bridal dress!) and picking a candidate, the attempt to make the debate a mother-daughter one and the idea that political issues are like the cost of a wedding dress. I love it because it shows how very hard someone thought about how to interest women in the Republican Party, then the light bulb: weddings!

Besides, I thought that prospective brides are supposed to be Bridezillas who want to the most expensive wedding dress possible?  At least that's the danger with the stereotyping the Republican Party does here.

To balance out that one, Nadia Kamil does feminist burlesque

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Girl Brains And Boy Brains, Take #456789. By Dr. Michael Mosley

The BBC Horizons had a program on this idea:

Do you have a "male" or "female" brain? Are there really significant brain differences between the sexes and if so, do these differences matter? BBC Horizon investigates.
When it comes to the tricky and explosive question of how much, if at all, male and female behaviour is driven by brain differences, Professor Alice Roberts and I sit on different sides of the fence.
I believe that our brains, like our bodies, are shaped by exposure to hormones in the womb and this may help explain why males tend to do better at some tasks (3D rotation), while women tend to do better at others (empathy skills), although there is, of course, an awful lot of overlap and social pressure involved.
Alice, on the other hand, thinks these differences are largely spurious, the result of how the tests are carried out. She worries that such claims may discourage girls from going into science.

The debate between Roberts and Mosley may have been quite good, even wonderful, but I'm not writing about that since I haven't watched it.  Instead, I want to write about this advertisement for it by Michael Mosley.  Or call it priming?

Yes, it's priming.  We are introduced to Mosley's arguments in great detail, from 3D rotation to empathy skills to, later, specific pieces of research.  We are not introduced to any of Roberts' arguments, except in the general sense that she believes the differences (all of them?) are largely spurious, based on how the tests are carried out, and worries about girls being discouraged from going into science.  Thus, we get one set of arguments in great detail and nothing but vague noises from the other set of arguments.  Perhaps this is understandable.  Mosley obviously wants to present his point of view as the correct one.  But it's important to note how the story is told.

This is particularly important, because the two pieces of research Mosley particularly mentions are pretty controversial ones!  He loves the work of Simon Baron-Cohen (the PS to this post is a good explanation why Baron-Cohen's basic theory about what distinguishes the female brain from the male brain is problematic) and he loves the Ingalhalikar et al. brain imaging study (which I covered in some detail here and its reception here and here).  To pick those two as examples of solid and sound research on biological sex differences in the brain is a bit shocking.

Mosley likes Baron-Cohen's idea of the female brain as mainly good at empathizing:  understanding the emotions of others and relating to them,  and the male brain as mainly good at systemizing:  the analysis, creation and understanding of systems.  If that sounds a bit like the old argument that women are emotional and men are rational, well, it is in the same family.  There's no earthly reason why a person cannot be both empathizing and systemizing or (almost) neither*, yet the basic theory  treats the two as competing and sex-linked characteristics.  And that's why men are more likely to be nerds:

One of the scientists who has most strongly influenced my beliefs is Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University.
He argues that, broadly speaking, there are two different "brain types". There are empathisers, who are good at identifying how other people are thinking or feeling, and there are systemisers, people who are more interested in trying to take apart and analyse systems i.e. people who are a bit nerdy.
We are all a mix of the two, but most of us are more one than the other. Men tend to sit more along the systemising end of the spectrum, women at the empathising end, though there are plenty of exceptions.

Got it?  If not, you should go back and re-read the end of this post.  Then notice that Mosley, too, interprets empathizing and systemizing as mostly mutually exclusive characteristics.

And created by biology, especially by the amount of testosterone a fetus may have experienced during pregnancy:

But is this simply the product of social conditioning? Professor Baron-Cohen thinks not, that exposure to different levels of hormones in the womb can influence the brain and subsequent behavour. Some of his most intriguing findings have come from on-going research into a large group of children who have been followed from before they were born.
At around 16 weeks gestation, the children's mothers had an amniocentesis test, which involves collecting samples of the fluid that bathes the womb. The researchers measured levels of testosterone in the fluid and have since discovered intriguing links between those levels and behaviour.
"The higher the child's pre-natal testosterone" Professor Baron-Cohen told me, "the slower they were to develop socially. They showed, for example, less eye contact at their first birthday". They also had a smaller vocabulary when they were toddlers and showed less empathy when they were primary school age.
On the other hand he found that being exposed to higher levels of testosterone in the womb seems to enhance some spatial abilities. "Children with higher levels of pre-natal testosterone were faster to find specific shapes hidden within an overall design."

Monday, September 29, 2014

On US Infant Mortality

Why is the US infant mortality rate so high?  The international rankings place US somewhere in the vicinity of Croatia, despite the US being about three times as wealthy.  A new study by Alice Chen, Emily Oster and Heidi Williams uses microdata to compare the US with Finland (picked for having very low infant mortality rates) and Austria (picked for both representing the average in Europe and for data comparability). 

The study suggests a greater role for post-neonatal mortality (deaths in months one to  twelve) than earlier studies which focused more on neonatal mortality rates.  It  concludes that the post-neonatal disadvantage of the US is driven:
almost exclusively by excess inequality in the US: infants born to white, college-educated, married US mothers have similar mortality to advantaged women in Europe. Our results suggest that high mortality in less advantaged groups in the postneonatal period is an important contributor to the US infant mortality disadvantage.
In other words, the fates of infants born to less advantaged women in Austria and Finland are better, on average, than the fates of infants born to similarly less advantaged women in the US. 

Why that is the case isn't completely clear from the study.  For example, identifying the causes of death after the neonatal period is helpful, but not completely so.  My guess is that part of the difference lies in the fact that the less advantaged groups in the US are less likely to have low-cost access to health care or a permanent relationship with a health care provider. 

The concrete recommendation the authors of the study make focus on the idea of home nurse visits for new parents:

Identifying particular policies which could be eff ective is beyond the scope of this paper and is an area that deserves more research attention. One policy worth mentioning is home nurse visits. Both Finland and Austria, along with much of the rest of Europe, have policies which bring nurses or other health professionals to visit parents and infants at home. These visits combine well-baby checkups with caregiver advice and support. While such small scale programs exist in the US, they are far from universal, although provisions of the A ffordable Care Act will expand them to some extent. 
Randomized evaluations of such programs in the US have shown evidence of mortality reductions, notably from causes of death we identify as important such as SIDS and accidents.
At least in Finland (I'm not sure about Austria) these operate in conjunction with the ante-natal clinics, as part of a process which begins before the woman gives birth and continues with checkups by specialized nurses, first at the home of the family and later at the same clinics that were used for ante-natal care.  Put in another way, all this is an example of accessible health care.