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Child Abuse: A Ticking Bomb

by Andrew Vachss
Originally published in Change: A Juvenile Justice Quarterly, Vol. V, No. 3, 1982


  • A young man sits on Death Row, awaiting execution for the rape–murder of a 13 year–old girl. A newspaper article, bemoaning the failures of a criminal justice system that seems to permit endless delays of his execution due to legal appeals, mentions in passing that the young man's early life was marked with protracted child abuse that can only be described as torture.
  • A 19 year–old prostitute who specializes in the "badger game" (in which the victim is lured to a hotel room to be beaten and robbed by her pimp) explains how her stepfather "broke me in" to the racket. When the sexual abuse was discovered, the girl was removed from the home "for her own good" and placed in a state institution. The stepfather entered an outpatient rehabilitation program in the community.
  • A 15 year–old boy, sentenced as an adult for homicide of a rival gang member, tells the probation officer who must prepare the pre–sentence report how his mother would chain him to his bed when she went out at nights; how his body was permanently scarred with an electric cord to teach him to "obey" and how his mother eventually killed his younger brother by boiling him to death in a bathtub full of scalding water. He talks about being raised in a series of foster homes and juvenile institutions and then says, "I know I'm a man now. I can make a life, and I can take a life."
  • And a proud child molester, upon his sentencing for multiple counts of child sexual abuse and using children for sexual performances on videotape (to be marketed and sold), tells the judge the children enjoyed themselves, bitterly stating, "I thought children had rights."
  • When does yesterday's victim become today's predator? How many more years must the juvenile justice profession hang its head in shame when the media loudly announces that some young murderer has been "in the system" for years before his crime? For every youthful killer previously known to juvenile justice, how many murdered children were "previously known to social services?" When will our profession wake up and realize that the media has been reporting on the same child, only at different stages in that child's "development?"

    The juvenile justice profession has traditionally been reactive in the extreme, responding to public outcry and political expediency with the grace (and some would say the morals) of a dancing cobra. Yet the serious, violent, habitual juvenile offender, the most overt symbol of the profession's abject failure to serve the public, was first dismissed as unworthy of the profession's efforts. By his vicious acts, he waived (no pun intended) his right to be treated as a child, and legislatures have fallen over each other in a headlong rush to provide ways in which this beast may be "treated" in the adult penal system. Let the juvenile justice professionals work with vandals, car thieves, and property offenders. For expertise in violence, we must look to the adult correctional system.

    But why should we look to adult corrections? Because of its long track record in rehabilitative and humane services? Hardly. The adult correctional system offers one single tangible benefit to the public: for so long as it maintains responsibility for its prisoners, they will not walk among us. Incapacitation, not rehabilitation, is all that is promised. And to a public which sees violent juvenile crime as the major threat to the quality of life, it is enough.

    Even that "solution," however, is falling far short of the mark. Even with the emphasis on adult incarceration for juvenile offenders, it seems to the public and some professional observers that juvenile and youth crime is on the rise (although the statistical support for this proposition is far short of definitive). Perception of the juvenile justice profession's bankruptcy continues unchecked. What to do?

    "Delinquency Prevention"

    Ever alert to political and public relations considerations, the profession has invented the greatest euphemism of all: "delinquency prevention." If we can't treat the violent juvenile offender once he emerges in our midst‐his hands stained with blood and his mind closed to liberal platitudes—we have to prevent his birth. Like all euphemistic methods of social improvement, the concept of "delinquency prevention" offers tremendous political utility. Some advantages are: "prevention" takes years and years to measure, so the profession is immune from criticism for some foreseeable period of time; "prevention," as currently conceived, is a shotgun approach aimed at such a broad spectrum of the target population that effective measurement of success is impossible; "prevention" appeals to the investment mentality of the public, allowing the belief that "things will get better" while ignoring the tangible evidence which surrounds us; "prevention" allows a focus further and further away from the brutal reality of juvenile violence, permitting "concerned" workers to concentrate on a younger and younger population. Finally, almost any program, no matter how devoid of merit or divorced from reality, can fit within the cosmic scope of "prevention."

    Yet, despite the negatives, the concept of prevention is too attractive to completely dismiss. If we focus on where to begin the prevention effort, what population to target, and who will make these decisions, we reach some inescapable conclusions. There is no prevention of delinquency without intervention in early child abuse. And there is no hope for effective intervention without a unified system of service delivery to children that cuts across territorial lines. For those who would argue that all "prevention" efforts are doomed to failure simply because they rely on the ability to predict future behavior (a skill yet to be acquired by criminologists), the response is that we would not intervene (to "prevent delinquency") unless and until there has been an adjudication of abuse or neglect of a particular child.

    These conclusions are best examined by a look at the public agency production lines which merge, in certain cases, to help produce the violent juvenile. Regardless of jurisdiction, the production systems all have similar names: Department of Social Services, Child Protection Services, Youth and Family Services, Department of Youth Services. The names, like the games, are interchangeable. The child who is brutally abused in his early years is viewed as a quasi–victim by the social services establishment. The term "quasi–victim" attempts to describe the reaction of a system which views abuse as part of a family dynamic, and sees its own role as rehabilitative. The following example will illustrate this point.

    Let us say that a social services agency receives a report of child abuse. If that agency decides that the child's parents are, in fact, abusive, but that prognosis for eventual "rehabilitation" will be enhanced if no case is brought in court, it can proceed, totally unchecked, with its self–selected course of treatment. The agency will have decided that the best interests of both the parents and the child will be served by this course of action. However, while treatment, as decided by the agency, may well be in the best interests of the parents, it is not necessarily true that it will also be in the best interests of the child. Yet this agency decision is never subjected to review; the "facts" (as found by the agency during its own in–house "investigation") are never subjected to challenge; and the very course of the treatment itself is self–evaluated by the promoters of that treatment. The child remains unrepresented.

    When (not if) this occurs, the message the child receives is crystal–clear: your abusers are correct in their behavior; indeed, the Mighty State has, in effect, placed its seal of approval on their conduct. Any notions the child may have harbored about truth, justice, and equity are torpedoed. And if a child learns very early in life that he or she cannot look to society for protection and justice, what is this child's reaction to that very society's anguished screams when some of its individual members reach an increasingly common status— that of "victim?"

    The social services and juvenile justice professions are theoretically fighting the same war. In theory, we are all part of the child protective continuum and all invested with the same philosophy: by protecting the child today we protect society tomorrow. But the two professions, which should be inexorably intertwined to form a protective shield over the physical and emotional lives of our children are, in fact, not even conscious of each other's existence. Instead, we exercise territorial imperatives, blame each other, and achieve nothing.

    The merry–go–round of bureaucratic bungling must stop: a tortured infant must not remain in his dangerous environment because of the lack of suitable placement alternatives; the incest victim must be emotionally supported by the same system that now, too often, allows continuing victimization because incarceration of the family breadwinner will "increase the welfare rolls;" kiddie prostitution cannot be viewed as a "victimless crime;" and the merchandising and sale of children for sexual purposes must be treated as the genocidic crime that it is. Nor should we tolerate a juvenile justice profession that begins "prevention" of delinquency with a child who is already a practicing criminal.

    The time has come for a continuum of care for all children. The time has come for the child protective professions (by whatever name called) to unite, combine resources, and drop the rhetoric in favor of some results. The combined profession (and despite the social–political philosophies of those involved, such a combination must include law enforcement if any meaningful coalition is to result) would accept responsibility for all children, regardless of status.

    The time has come for some realistic performance standards to guide the activities of public agencies. (I am not referring to the laundry lists mass–produced by every so–called "think tank" with sufficient political strength to receive a government grant.) For example, the decision to remove a child from an abusive home or to treat the family as a unit with the child remaining in it should be based on some clear criteria, not on an individual social worker's personal philosophy. Could we not say that those individuals engaged in child abuse because of their situational inability to cope with certain stresses in their life might be good candidates for total–family treatment, while those who abuse children for their own gratification and out of their own needs are not? Isn't a juvenile institution which maltreats its "residents" as guilty of child abuse as any offending parent? And isn't the sexually abusing parent as guilty of endangering society as the individual who builds a bomb and leaves it in an occupied building?

    We can continue to ignore the evidence of professional studies, such as the finding recently announced by the National Institute of Mental Health that many individuals diagnosed and treated as schizophrenics developed multiple personalities as a way of distancing themselves from protracted early child abuse. We can ignore the overt linkages between childhood sexual abuse and prostitution. But we cannot ignore our own senses and deny our own experiences. Charles Manson once said, "You can see me in the eyes of your ten year–olds." Is there any question in our minds which section of your youthful population he was targeting with this horribly prophetic observation? Only human beings, among all life forms, torture their own young. And child abusers are the only criminals who produce their own victims.

    The concept of "delinquency prevention" need not be a sham. But if the juvenile justice profession continues to operate independently of the rest of the child protective networks that are in place (if not necessarily functioning) in every state in the union, it can be nothing else. The current bankruptcy of the child protective profession presents both adversity and opportunity. Perhaps our desperation will now propel us, for the first time, toward building a system that achieves the perfect duality we all claim to seek: to protect the child, and thus to protect us all.

    Juvenile Justice Riddle

    What is the difference between a baby elephant and a baby alligator?

    A baby elephant depending upon his upbringing, training, and treatment can grow into many different things as an adult: he can be a valued partner in many forms of labor, he can be a circus performer and entertain the public or he can become a predator rogue, living only for the pleasure of crushing human skulls beneath his massive feet.

    A baby alligator leaves the egg a deadly killer, existing for no other purpose, and waits only for his full biological growth to attain his maximum potential in this regard. He cannot be trained, and will proceed in a violently linear fashion from birth to death.

    Those of us in the juvenile justice profession have always maintained we are working with baby elephants. Increasingly, the public believes we are working with baby alligators. Unless and until we begin to intervene in early child abuse and neglect and make "delinquency prevention" science as opposed to rhetoric the distinctions between baby elephants and baby alligators may soon be immaterial.

    © 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.



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