The phrase “children at risk.” involves complex layers of taboo and stigma that come from forces the child has no control over, but must accept the punishment for. Every culture handles the duality in a different way. Contemporary culture with its deeply potent confusion of sex, violence and commodification (money) offers little help, so individuals -- who themselves may have been corroded by bad childhoods -- just wing it, sometimes happily and other times with destructive injustice that they are motivated to keep secret.
1. Deep philosophical assumptions about children are opposite to each other: on the one hand they are considered “pure,” innocent, close to God who cherishes them, and angelic in a toy-like sentimental way. On the other hand they are considered little animals, uncivilized, dirty, disobedient, and deserving regular punishment. This doubleness is irreconcilable.
2. A child’s value is determined by family. Having no family or a rejecting family or an exploiting family means that that child suffers and is crippled because the culturome -- the “memes” that connect it to other people -- are not “built” in an orderly line of development. The cues they give others, the meanings they take away, just don’t fit. To survive and because no child can help it, he or she simply seizes on whatever can be grasped without help, seriously distorting potential, leaving out basics and grafting on harmful habits and assumptions.
3. “Bad children” are stigmatized to the point that movies are made about “demon children” or “possessed children” and the ordinary resentment of kids towards authority figures is exaggerated beyond reality, criminalized. The power of children is feared, resented, and punished. The real paradox between powerless innocence and emotional potency shapes culture-wide reactions in mythology, like the representation of the Christ as both a newborn and as a fully mature man.
4. Dirt and disease are feared in several ways. Children have to be taught NOT to put everything into their mouths for fear of contamination and poisoning and yet that’s their basic instinct and way of interfacing with the world. In the days before habitual use of soap and water, sewering away of excrement and garbage, and antibiotics, children with their undeveloped immunities were subject to what are called “childhood diseases”: measles, chicken pox, mumps, whooping cough, tonsillitis, colds and flu.
More exotic diseases exist in tropical countries full of insect vectors. A high percentage of the children die at a young age. And yet starving women in Africa carry their dead babies a hundred miles, unable to put them down. One of the most recurrent images in Third World documentaries is the mother outside with a small child in a basin, gently washing it. Victorians who had the resources dressed dead babies elaborately and photographed them.
Children as vectors are not much discussed, though they may have carried HIV since before birth, their diapers may be dangerous (polio transmission after immunization was a concern when live but attenuated virus was administered), and children who are used sexually carry all the usual transmissible germs. People who work with small children are notoriously prone to catch colds and flu. Polio, called “infantile paralysis,” was a virus that targeted children in much the same way that HIV originally targeted gays.
5. A child’s appeal and the normal impulse to fondle, cuddle and kiss can become sexual, but then if there is guilt or a wish to dominate and control, that can turn petting to harm and abuse. Our culture and others consider children to be property of parents, “owned,” therefore authorizing whatever is done with them, even starvation, caging, perversion and the withholding of life-saving medical care. The category “child” tends to overlap with the categories of pet and toy, to be marginally inanimate.
The American Humane Society strives to protect both children and animals. One of the earliest cases of child abuse prosecution is famously a little girl who was orphaned and abused. Her rescuer wrapped her in a horse blanket and set her up high on the judge’s bench, asking, “Is this not a little animal who deserves our care and protection?”
6. Children arrive so uncontrollably and abundantly, in spite of the provisions for contraception and abortion, that they exceed the capacity to care for them, particularly when the adults are themselves damaged. Morality -- left over from the times when babies died and whole groups could thin and disappear unless fertility outstripped mortality -- prevents any sensible limits on giving birth. Everyone wants to control everyone else’s bodies. Poor people are told they cannot afford babies, but that they must have them, and yet there’s no help for raising them. This is considered moral.
The desperate necessity of simply selling children, in part to save the lives of those kept in the family, can be overwhelming. Jonathan Swift’s idea that the babies of Irish poor people be sold in butcher shops, considered a delicacy properly roasted for elaborate meals on the tables of the rich was only a more direct -- and some would say more humane -- strategy than letting them die by inches because of political policies that left them starving homeless.
On the other hand, children are constantly stolen as valued objects for trafficking, needed replacements because children “age out” of being attractive, or get sick, or just die. With the ubiquitousness of HIV infection, children meant for sexual use may simply be killed -- certainly not treated, which is very expensive. If they are simply thrown out, they become vectors.
7. Society treats children as livestock: gathering, incarcerating, maintaining at minimum standards, and occasionally using violence or adult strategies (solitary confinement, lack of food, restraints, electric shocks) to keep them under control with a minimum of employees. Therapy, medical treatment, contact with former intimates, education are all either skimped or omitted. The public is not allowed to know any of this.
8. Maybe children have always known about toxic substances but in modern times things that fume and poison are everywhere from glue to prescription drugs and the search for unconsciousness as bliss is constantly promoted -- miserable lives are certainly motivation enough. Drugs are continuous with suicide, making the transition easy.
The previous considerations have applied to infants, toddlers, and children in what is called “latency” though the pre-adolescent years of 6 to 11 or so, when a child seems to be self-sufficient and in some cultures begins to work. They are actually the most important identity-creating years of a person. This is the period when a child becomes smarter than Lassie, more thoughtful than a chimp, more personally unique than any other human, more able to grasp ethnicity and religion. Damage in these years is indelible and yet these are the years of exploration and voluntary risk as a child becomes more self-determining. They are also years when a child is useful for labor, able to master something like rug weaving and keep at it day after day. Toddlers are commercially useful only as sexual objects.
It is in adolescence that the “wickedness” of the pre-adult not-quite-children, is always suspected and often enacted. A boy may be as big and strong as an adult; a girl can produce a baby. Sexuality is demonized by some and exploited by others. A blurry boundary between non-consensual and the age of adult responsibility means confusion for the law. The culture raises the desirability of the bodies of these ages above all others. Even haute couture models are commonly teenagers.
Management of the trafficked teen must be harsher, more psychological, more drug-based in order to compensate for the near-adult ability of this person to rebel. Sexual use can be expanded if the near-adult can begin to participate actively, to interact emotionally, to become attached to the “owners” or even devoted. In addition, even pimps and tricks “fall in love,” meaning they become obsessed and will not release their possessed humans, like Jefferson refusing to free his quarter-black children and half-black second wife.
At adolescence people begin to pair off, a natural impulse that creates generative marriage commitment to support children or same-sex partnerships useful in war and hunting. If the near-adult attaches to an exploiter, he or she becomes vulnerable emotionally. Lives can become a desperate plummet from infancy to death.