Is Smoking Child Abuse?
BBC (among others) reports that California will treat second hand smoke as a form of toxic air pollutant. I assume this will empower a new gang of regulators to join the “war on smoking.” I wonder about the effects of these sorts of decisions on smoking parents.
Courts have begun to confront the argument that smoking around children is a form of child abuse. This claim appears to have surfaced repeatedly in child custody battles, but I don’t think it has become a common basis for state intervention in families. With findings like those in California, I suspect that more states will seek to intervene when parents smoke at home. State involvement can sometimes take a positive form – counseling, for example – but it can also result in removing children into foster care. When the household problem is smoking, I’m not sure this is a good thing.
Second hand smoke is bad for kids. For children with special health problems, such as asthma, it can be devastating. So there is little question that when parents smoke at home, they are doing harm. This might suggest that smoking ought to be considered abuse per se. But should it?
First, I’m uncertain whether the health effects are serious enough to constitute abuse. Parents do lots of crappy things to, and around, their kids. Does smoking cross the line? Second, I don’t totally trust state intervention in families. When the household situation is dire, a state must step in to protect children. Perhaps I’m a cynic, but the repeated evidence of incompetence and neglect by some of these family agencies makes me nervous about their involvement except where truly necessary. Third, I’m not convinced that we want mandatory abuse reporters – doctors, psychologists, social workers and (in some states) lawyers – to report every parent who admits smoking around her child. Mandatory reporting damages relationships with clients, reducing trust and, ultimately, the effectiveness of professional services. This damage is justified only when it prevents truly serious harms.
Then there is the slippery slope problem. Once smoking is viewed as child abuse, prosecutions are likely to follow. And in some jurisdictions, convicted child abusers are subject to Megan’s Law notification.
I don’t have a problem with parents introducing evidence of smoking in disputes over custodial and visitation arrangements. In these cases, the child will typically end up in the custody of at least one parent. I think smoking around kids is a bad thing. Smoking around a child with respiratory problems seems clearly abusive. But should smoking around a healthy child be the basis for removing her from parental custody? I don’t have the answer, but I’m not happy with either result.