The Difference Between Abuse & Neglect

As the FBI and state Department of Justice (DOJ) continue to investigate what appears to be rampant child abuse at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls juvenile correctional facilities in Irma, Wisconsin, I have noted repeated excuses raised by union leaders and some staff for the abuse of these  incarcerated juveniles. These excuses range from blaming Wisconsin’s now infamous Act 10 for breaking children’s wrists, arms and causing serious foot injuries, to suggesting that introduction of methods of highly regarded trauma informed care, are to blame.


Sadly, thus far, the media, union leaders and politicians generally seem more interested in the blame game, rather than examining the real consequences on these troubled youths when they suffer abuse and neglect at the hands of those who have the responsibility to keep them safe. While it is certainly appropriate to determine who is responsible and exact the appropriate punishment, that is exactly why the FBI and DOJ are continuing their investigation. It is certainly my hope and expectation that when their investigation is concluded, the appropriate people will be prosecuted and punished.

However, my experience as an attorney who has litigated abuse and neglect cases against a wide variety of care providers for nearly 30 years, I know that it is important to pay attention to the difference between abuse and neglect. Put simply: abuse is intentional and can never be excused by understaffing or other poor working conditions.While I fully support appropriate staffing levels and well trained and supported staff, the lack of these things can never justify breaking the bones of incarcerated youth.

Neglect, on the other hand, can easily occur when there are staffing shortages or poorly trained staff. If there are not enough staff to check on the physical and emotional health of incarcerated youth, then their health can deteriorate and they may harm each other due to insufficient supervision. Similarly, if staff are poorly trained, they may not have the knowledge of how to de-escalate dangerous situations, which may in turn, result in injuries.

In general, neglect is ultimately the responsibility of those who determine staffing levels and training, i.e., supervisors. On the other hand, as stated previously, responsibility for abuse lies with the abuser. Once the FBI and DOJ have concluded their investigation, prosecutions should take place with the understanding of the difference between abuse and neglect to make sure that those responsible for each category of harm are held accountable.

In addition, what must never be forgotten is that children have been abused and neglected under state supervision. These children must be compensated for the harm that was done to them.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.


Response-Ability: Critical to Personal and Organizational Success

The human condition involves making mistakes.  The challenge we have both personally and organizationally is how we deal with those mistakes.  That is where responsibility becomes the key to both personal and organizational growth and strength.

The dictionary definition of responsibility includes:

the quality or state of being responsible: as

:  moral, legal, or mental accountability

:  reliability, trustworthiness

However, when thinking of this important quality in terms of personal and organizational growth, I prefer to break the word into its component parts:

Response Ability=the Ability to Respond

On an individual level, being responsible means having the ability to respond to mistakes one makes by rectifying them when possible and apologizing if it is truly impossible to rectify them.  Few of us do not have the ability to respond, though many of us choose not to respond when we make mistakes or fail in our responsibilities.  Such failures inevitably lead to anger, disappointment and fractured personal relationships.  Most certainly, responsibility cannot mean blaming others for one’s own mistakes and failures, or as depicted here taking the short-sighted approach that problems that you will need to confront are really someone else’s problems.


In my career as a civil rights attorney, mostly in the non-profit sector, when confronting serious governmental or organizational malfeasance, more often than not the wrongdoers rarely accept responsibility for their own actions, much less so the actions of their subordinates, over whom they theoretically have responsibility.  Examples include:

  • the Appleton principal who refuses to take responsibility for the abuse that one of his teachers inflicted on multiple children with disabilities over a number of years right under his nose.
  • multiple school districts’ failure to take responsibility to comply with the reporting requirements of Wisconsin’s seclusion and restraint law; and
  • the Department of Public Instruction’s failure to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) obligations of private voucher schools.

The list, of course, can go on, but when engaging in systems change, one key aspect of achieving real change is to create responsible organizations and governments which have the ability to respond when mistake are made.  The Ontario Human Rights Commission has an excellent description of organizational responsibility as part of its Policy and Guidelines on Discrimination Because of Family Status, a portion of which is worth quoting here:

There is an obligation to ensure that environments are free from discrimination and harassment. It is not acceptable from a human rights perspective to choose to remain unaware of the potential existence of discrimination or harassment, or to ignore or fail to act to address human rights matters, whether or not a complaint has been made.

This obligation can and should extend to both individuals and organizations, in a wide variety of settings.  The next time you are seeking to find out who is responsible for a problem, ask:

Who is able to respond?

If the answer is nobody, or if you are tossed around the organization in a Kafka-esque manner, then you know that the organization has failed to organize itself in a manner in which it can effectively respond to problems which inevitably occur, and is in need of serious systemic change.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.