If you haven’t seen the photos
yet, you will. Images of a couple passed out in their car as a 4-year-old boy
sits helpless in the backseat have been circulating around social media at lightning
speed since first being posted by the City
of East Liverpool, Ohio, on September 9. The woman, pictured above in a 2013 Facebook profile photo, is the little boy's grandmother, according to police.
Along with the photos, the
police department also publicly released the original police report—identifying
all involved by their full names.
The intent was to paint a
picture of the devastating effects of heroin use. The actual result was
unfortunately far more exploitative and disturbing.
department made no attempt to blur the face of the little boy so clearly being
victimized by the adults in charge of his care. The media has made that effort,
at least, but as everyone knows—once images make it online, there's really no
covering up the tracks left behind. That child’s face will forever be linked to
this incident. And that is 100 percent the fault of the police department that
should have been vigilant in protecting him.
Yes, what happened to this
little boy is horrifying—no child should ever be put in such a dangerous
situation, or be left in the care of such obviously neglectful adults. But the
East Liverpool Police Department, alongside the City of East Liverpool, managed
only to further victimize him in their effort to make an example of the addicts
No effort at all was made to keep his identity a secret. Which begs the
question: Exactly who were the police serving and protecting here?
Why, when responding to what
was clearly an emergency situation (the woman involved was unconscious and
suffering from an overdose, with the police report noting she was turning blue)
was the response to hold her head up and take pictures to highlight how far
gone she was, rather than to jump into action and revive her?
Why, when handling a case with
a minor, was no attempt made at protecting that minor’s privacy?
And why would any police
department ever fail to see the exploitative nature of sharing these images
online in the first place?
Yes, the motivation and intent
is clear—and, at least on the surface, good. Addiction is an epidemic in this
country, and one could argue that if these images prevent even one person from
going down that path, perhaps the good outweighs the bad.
But here’s the problem: The
likelihood of these images having that effect is incredibly low. In fact,
studies have found that shaming addicts is literally the worst
thing you can do. It doesn’t help or prevent relapse. More often, it pushes addicts back
over that edge.
The driver of the vehicle
told police he had been trying to get the woman in his passenger seat to the
emergency room. One might question why he wouldn’t have called 911, but if this
is how his local police department treats addicts, doesn’t it kind of make
Perhaps if we treated addicts with compassion instead of disgust, a
difference might actually be made.
Both the man and woman, who were given an opiate antidote by emergency medical services on scene, have
been charged, and Child Protective Services has stepped in and ensured
the little boy is now in the care of safe
relatives. Authorities said the child was the woman's grandson. The man pleaded no contest to driving under the influence and child endangerment, and was sentenced to 180 days in jail on each charge, served concurrently, and fined. The woman pleaded not guilty to charges of child endangerment, disorderly conduct and a seatbelt violation.
However, nothing is
accomplished by sharing images of them at their worst moment online with this sweet
little boy staring on from the back seat, probably just waiting for the police
officer conducting that little impromptu photo shoot to unbuckle him, pick him
up and offer him some comfort instead.
There is no compassion here. No
respect or human decency. There is just a gross and exploitative effort at the expense of a family clearly suffering from the consequences of addiction.
No parent (or grandparent) should ever put his
or her child in this position. But no police department should ever act so
There are no winners here. Only
a bunch of adults behaving very badly, and a little boy at the center of it
whose needs and rights have been so completely taken for granted by all