Breastfeeding 6 Year
Old Considered Child
Abuse In Illinois
By Sue Ellen Christian and Julie Deardorff
Tribune Staff Writers
In an exceptional case, Illinois child protection authorities have taken a 6-year-old boy from the custody of a Champaign mother because she was still breastfeeding him, allegedly against his wishes.
In the view of the mother fighting for the return of her only child, the battle pits American norms about parenting against her right to raise her son as she sees fitóa style that includes allowing the boy to choose when he quits nursing.
To state child welfare officials, the case is about abuse.
Authorities at the Department of Children and Family Services took the boy from the 32-year-old woman's home after a baby-sitter called an abuse hot line and the child subsequently told investigators that he no longer wanted to breastfeed, they said. The mother says she told investigators her son never indicated he didn't want to nurse and that she would continue to breastfeed as long as her son wished.
The agency has determined that the child's living situation constitutes sexual molestation and risk of harm.
"Breastfeeding a child is not the issue," says Deborah Kennedy, DCFS regional administrator in the central region. "It's after he has stated that it is unwanted and she had that information and didn't indicate she would halt that activity ... then you have unwanted behavior on his part and that constitutes abuse."
She added: "In general, any contact between a sexual organ against the will of the child constitutes abuse ... because it's breastfeeding, it's a sensitive issue."
On Monday, final arguments are scheduled in the family court case in Champaign County, which alleges emotional harm to the boy. The case is to determine whether the boy was neglected or abused and whether he should return home to his mother.
The mother says the misguided case is based on society's narrow ideas about what constitutes good parenting.
Research shows that while rare, it is not unheard of for a child to be nursing at 6.
Indeed, some pediatricians and child-rearing experts have come to espouse a revival of old parenting practices, such as extended breastfeeding and sleeping in the same bed with childrenówhat some call "co-sleeping."
DC FS has said that co-sleeping was a factor in its decision to take the child from the home. DCFS investigators say the woman slept naked with the boy, which she denies.
"They are saying because you're not practicing Dr. Spock American-style parenting, you're a bad mom," says the petite, feisty woman who was born on a farm in Downstate Illinois. "What about all those places in the world where the family sleeps in one room and that is co-sleeping and you're telling me all those people are maladjusted? It's cultural bias.
"My son would come to me and ask to nurse," says the woman. "It's not sexual. It was a closeness thing. When he's ready for it, he will ask to end breastfeeding."
A complete understanding of the case is elusive, in part because not all the testimony and evidence is public. The judge in the Champaign County case, Ann Einhorn, has refused to release any documents, and the state's attorney as well as the lawyer representing the boy refuse to discuss the case.
(The Tribune editorial standard is not to name juveniles in investigations of sexual abuse, so the names of the child and the mother, who have the same last name, have been withheld. In interviews, the mother did not request anonymity.)
The woman is the oldest of nine children in a family that she says practiced co-sleeping.
Her current home is a two-bedroom, second-floor apartment, cluttered with mounds of clothes, toys, newspapers and boxes of food through which narrow pathways have been carved. Hoping her son will be home for Christmas, she has purchased about a dozen presentsóa scooter, a book, the game Battleshipówhich sit stacked on the stairs.
The mother works part time at a liquor store and takes continuing education classes. She never married the child's father, who now lives in Oregon and only recently has instigated contact with the boy. He did not return phone calls from the Tribune.
The mother says she practices child-led weaning, which is supported by the Schaumburg-based breastfeeding advocacy organization, La Leche League International, and allows the child to determine when he or she is done nursing.
"My child was weaning himself," she says, "he was nursing for 10 minutes a day and on weekends a little more. I don't think DCFS has any right to be involved in this decision between me and my child."
Natural or the Norm?
DCFS documents given to the Tribune by the mother indicate that the boy told a child protection investigator that he no longer wanted to nurse and had told his mom that; the mother says her son has never communicated that to her.
The documents also indicate that the boy told the investigator that he still shared a bed with his mother and "sometimes when she does not have clean clothes, she sleeps naked." The boy told the investigator that he always slept in clothes.
In an interview, the mother says she has not slept with him naked since he was around age 3, when she stopped because her son commented that she should put some clothes on. Though she has since moved, the mother says her son did not have his own room or his own bed in their former three-bedroom apartment.
Her parenting style and the way she was raised bring to the fore areas of child-rearing that many of today's parents keep private because they are not seen as widely acceptable in society, experts say. While no researcher supports forcing a child to nurse or co-sleeping naked if that creates discomfort for a child, they also say that co-sleeping and extended nursing are both perfectly naturalóit is society that makes them seem unnatural.
Research shows that many women continue to nurse their children well beyond infancy.
Katherine Dettwyler, an associate professor of anthropology and nutrition at Texas A&M University, conducted a study in the late 1990s on 1,280 children whose parents self-reported information about their breastfeeding practices. Of the total, 375 children were still nursing at age 4, 212 children were nursing at age 5, and 67 children were nursing at age 6, according to Dettwyler.
Elizabeth Baldwin, a Miami-based attorney who specializes in breastfeeding cases and is an adviser to La Leche League International, says "there is nothing wrong with breastfeeding at age 6."
"You cannot make a child nurse; either the child has the need or does not have the need," Baldwin said. "We have sexualized the breast to the point where we assume that it is a sexual thing rather than a tool for nursing."
Extended breastfeeding and co-sleeping often go hand-in-hand, experts say.
"Other countries wouldn't even know there was a question to be asked about where should my baby sleep," said James McKenna, a professor of anthropology and the director of a mother-baby behavioral sleep lab at the University of Notre Dame. "It is a recent Western concept engrained in us, an emphasis on individualism and the idea that it's a moral principle that early in life babies and children need to soothe themselves."
McKenna added: "In our society, we equate nudity with the potential for sexuality. It may not be a sexual act at all in the minds of participants; it is externally influenced viewpoints that make it so."
He warned, however, that not all co-sleeping arrangements are necessarily healthy.
"The benefit of any kind of social behavior is determined by the context in which it occurs," McKenna said. "In a healthy human family, sleeping arrangements can enhance that which is already good, or it could be the case sleeping arrangements can enhance that which is already bad."
Focus on Boy's Reaction
The Champaign case is similar toóbut also critically different fromóa celebrated case out of New York state in 1991. In that case Denise Periggo's 3-year-old daughter Cherlyn was taken from her because Periggo had strong feelings of sexual arousal when breastfeeding.
In the Champaign case, experts are divided on how the nursing was affectingthe boy.
A report by Champaign forensic psychologist Dr. Marty Traver,who evaluated the boy upon referral from Judge Einhorn, described an alert, relaxed child who expressed ambivalence about nursing.
"It is clear that [the boy] has suffered some emotional problems as a result of his extended nursing," Traver wrote. "Those problems however do not appear to rise to the level of abuse unless there is evidence that [the boy's] mother nursed him for her own gratification."
"The primary detriment from extended nursing in this case, was that [the boy] was ashamed of doing so and did not feel socially appropriate in doing so," Traver's report states.
"A parent must weigh the damage done by participating in something society does not approve of against the positive effects and advantages of continuing to do so. In this case, as in many others, the parent and child had to keep the continuing breastfeeding a secret because of societal disapproval. This sets the child up to keep other secrets that he cannot yet understand," the report stated.
Traver also said it was not appropriate for the boy to continue to sleep with his mother. "At this age, it would be psychologically harmful for him to be in his mother's presence when she is nude. ... (The boy) must learn to sleep in his own bed and soothe himself to sleep."
But a report by Kate McDougall, a Catholic Social Service social worker who is counseling the mother and child, concluded that while the mother's "parenting style may be considered somewhat permissive, this therapist does not have concerns about [the boy's] safety while in her care." McDougall added that she saw no evidence of any abuse in the relationship.
The boy "has come to feel ashamed and guilty about breastfeeding as a result of his being removed from his mother's care due to their nursing. This therapist has concerns that these feelings of shame and guilt will be exacerbated by further separation," McDougall wrote in a clinical assessment report.
McDougall also stated in her report that she had no concerns about the two sleeping in the same bed and recommended the boy be returned home.
The woman's public defender, David DeThorne, said Traver's testimony stated that the child was embarrassed.
"That shouldn't be a reason the state should get involved," DeThorne said. "She was doing something to him outside the norm, and [perhaps] he didn't want toóthat is open to dispute as well."
He added: "Parents should be allowed to make decisions that might be out of the norm. Most parents don't breastfeed at age of 6, but it doesn't mean it's wrong for the child."
Countered DCFS spokeswoman Martha Allen: "There is a problem when the mother is sleeping naked with a 6-year-old; we live in America and we have our norms too.
"This is a case that not just DCFS but the state's attorney and judge determined was inappropriate and was a form of abuse.
"It's inappropriate for a mother tobe breastfeeding a child at 6 years old and to be sleeping naked with him. The reason DCFS found it an issue was we're looking at the area of sexual abuse when we say molestation. There is risk of actual and emotional abuse. We are in the realm of sexual abuse; that is the reason that we took the child out of the mother's care."
On Monday, Judge Einhorn will hear final arguments from both sides in the Champaign County case. Einhorn may decide on Monday, or she could wait until a later date, to determine whether the boy was neglected or abused. If her determination is that the child was abused, another hearing will be held to decide whether the child can go home or not, and to determine a plan for the mother to get her son back.
Though she wants her son back, the mother also refuses to compromise her methods.
"They took my son because I'm not following the DCFS cookbook on raising a kid," she says. "It's so outrageous, they need to admit they made a mistake and drop it."


This is asinine! Meanwhile, all over the country, children are REALLY being SEXUALLY abused and tortured by REAL sickos. There's a vast difference between bohemian home culture and those who prey on children as sex objects. The governing authorities have nothing better to do than interfere and micromanage the lives of innocent citizens while ignoring horrendous atrocities elsewhere. Surely a case like this can be handled discreetly and with some intelligence... if the boy doesn't want to breast feed, fine. But there's no reason to destroy the mother's life in the process. Why is the system set up to crucify anyone who deviates one iota from the mindless status quo when it comes to raising children? It's certainly not a useful tool in discovery for sexual abuse! It appears to be the easiest thing a bureaucracy can handle to get its budget renewed and increased every year... little fish along the way, too poor to fight back, and ignore the big fish. There's the REAL abuse.

Leave the damn parents alone, Big Brother! We don't need your help in raising them.

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