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.
The police 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 involved.
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 sense? 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 callously either.
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 involved.