Like countless parents, Cynthia Stewart of Oberlin, Ohio, is an ardent amateur photographer who loves to take pictures of her child. As has happened to a small but disturbing number of such parents around the country, Stewart is now facing prosecution for making “child pornography” and is being investigated by child protection services for possible child abuse.
What happened? In a now-familiar scenario, a technician at a Fuji Film processing lab turned in to authorities a roll of film containing pictures of Cynthia’s 8-year-old daughter, Nora, at various stages of taking a bath. Add a zealous county prosecutor and a good dose of inflammatory news coverage–the Cleveland Plain-Dealer did a front-page story, a local TV news broadcast put Cynthia’s mug shot on the screen, the Oberlin News-Tribune covered her arraignment under a banner headline “Bus driver, parents charged with abuse” (the parents being a couple who had starved their 5-year-old down to twenty-five pounds)–and you have all the ingredients necessary for the financial and emotional destruction of a family that has done nothing wrong, nothing unusual, nothing that would have seemed remarkable when they themselves were children.
I should explain that Cynthia and her partner, David Perrotta, Nora’s father, are Nation people. David, who is now involved in the magazine’s electronic publishing projects, used to be the magazine’s operations manager, running our computer system, not to mention patiently and good-humoredly helping premodern butterfingers like me retrieve lost work and wrestle with e-mail programs. The love and devotion of David and Cynthia for their little girl is obvious to all who know them. It was, indeed, largely to give her a safe, happy, unfrenetic childhood in a close-knit community that in 1997 he and Cynthia relocated to Oberlin, where Cynthia, who attended Oberlin College, has lived for most of the past thirty years. Until she was placed on “voluntary” leave of absence as a result of the charges against her, she worked as a schoolbus driver, and is a well-known and well-liked local figure, who has much support in the town.
How does it happen that one day a mom is taking her daughter to Suzuki violin class and the next she is being led from her home in handcuffs as a child pornographer and hit with two felony charges, each carrying a maximum eight-year sentence? Even by the famously subjective standards of obscenity law, Ohio’s child pornography statute, passed in 1996, is seriously flawed. Take the two provisions Cynthia is accused of violating. The first, on its face, seems to criminalize the mere taking of a picture of a child “in a state of nudity,” with exceptions for certain purposes, among which the family photo album is not mentioned. (Ohio case law has determined that “nudity” must mean a presentation of the child that is both lewd and graphically focused on the genitals, but the statute itself has not been amended to reflect that, and a prosecutor does not have to advise a grand jury of the relevant rulings.) The second count involves “pandering,” which usually means selling or procuring or distributing something illicit and sexual–some sort of sordid exchange between two or more people. In Ohioese, however, it seems to mean that the prosecution plans to argue that the pictures show Nora masturbating.