Chris Neary is a producer for On the Media.
The Definitions Behind Statistics
Friday, June 01, 2012 - 02:53 PM
Between 2009 and 2010 the number of children who died as result of abuse or neglect in Florida dropped from 197 to 136. That's a big drop from year-to-year. It turns out, however, that children might not actually be much safer in Florida since, according to the Miami Herald, the drop can be attributed the Department of Children and Family Services narrowing the definition of what is considered abuse and neglect.
Subtle word changes dramatically affecting statistics happens to be the topic the first story in this week's episode. In it, Brooke speaks Chris Woods from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the way the Obama Administration broadly defines "combatant" -- a strategy that might be keeping civilian casualty counts low.
But back to child neglect in Florida. Again, according to Miami Herald, prior to 2010 the Department of Children and Family Services recorded cases in which children died by drowning in a swimming pool or being smothered in bed when a parent rolls over onto them (the most common ways children die in Florida) as neglect or abuse. The Herald notes that in many of these cases parents are intoxicated. The Herald reports that in 2010, the Department began defining abuse and neglect as essentially "a willful act by the caregiver."
Bruce McIntosh, a Florida doctor that heads that state's Department of Health's Child Protection Team said the new definition "assumes that a caretaker could credibly claim not to know that it was dangerous to leave a child unsupervised around a body of water."
There's no proof that the Florida DCF's intent was to deceive, but the episode underlines how looking at statistics alone - without understanding the way the numbers are being defined - is only half the story.