The widely publicized case of a women caught on videotape beating her 4-year-old daughter in the parking lot of a Kohl's department store in Indiana has sparked a national debate about child discipline and the role of the state in preventing child abuse.

Madelyne Toogood, 25, found herself in the center of a media frenzy over the weekend after she was arrested on a felony charge of child battery arising from the store surveillance tape which showed her beating her daughter Martha in the back seat of a SUV for about 25 seconds. The incident was broadcast repeatedly over the weekend by national television networks on prime time news.

The now infamous Toogood admitted during a press conference following her arrest that she didn't realize how bad the beating was until she saw the tape ... and that she was mortified by her actions. She added that while there was no excuse for hitting her daughter that way she was having a "bad day" and lost her temper. Still, she insisted, she is not "a monster."

As a result of the incident Child Protective Services placed young Martha Toogood in a foster home until it could be determined if a member of her extended family could take care of her.

The level of media coverage for an alleged child abuse case is unprecedented. Thousands of such cases go unreported in this country every day. This one made the 6 o'clock news only because of the intensity of the attack and the fact that it was captured on videotape, which gave viewers a sense of the rage often involved in child abuse. It is not a pretty sight, a grown woman waling on a defenseless child less than half her size.

The public seldom gets to see such a graphic depiction of child abuse, even though it is an epidemic in this country. The U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect estimates that five children die of maltreatment every day. Hundreds of thousands more are injured. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources reports that approximately 3 million cases of alleged abuse are turned in to child protective service agencies each year and that about 1 million of them are substantiated. A child abuse case is reported every 10 seconds in this country.

In light of these statistics it is strange that media coverage of this national tragedy is limited to the coverage of one sensational case in a parking lot somewhere in Indiana. The barrage of media coverage surrounding Madelyne Toogood - coupled with the lack of coverage about the national scourge of child abuse - confirms once again that television networks are more concerned about ratings than the more noble goal of elevating public awarness.

There is another side to this story that is difficult to discuss without being considered soft on child abuse. That is overzealous social workers whose job security rests in having child abuse cases to prosecute.

We don't in any way want to minimize the unacceptability of child abuse - it is a serious national problem - but by the same token there is something about the meddling of crusading social workers who see an abusive parent behind every child cut, scrape, bruise or whine. They believe that there is absolutely no reason to ever lay a hand on a child, that "spankings" are a form of assault and battery. Consequently there are parents who feel so intimidated by threats of jail, legal action or foster homes that they are afraid to discipline their children. We get to hear about those kids on the evening news after they have gunned down their classmates at school.

It is easy to sit back in righteous indignation and judge people like Madelyne Toogood a rotton mom. But as anyone who has raised a child knows, parenting is a difficult job that involves walking a fine line between being too lenient and being to harsh. Many good parents have strayed over to one side of that line or the other but it does not mean they are bad parents.

By all means let's attack child abuse as the social ill that it is. At the same time let's not be too judge the parenting of others. R.S.

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