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Crimes Against Children
Practical Applications of a Moral Imperative

by Andrew Vachss
Originally published in 1 Justice for Children 3, 1985

A well–dressed man is speaking to a multi–disciplinary gathering of professionals in the child protective field. Quietly recounting how he anally sodomized his infant daughter, he says, "I really only hurt myself."

One of the watching social workers thought this to be a rare burst of insight rendering the man especially amenable to rehabilitative services.

The man meant that he hadn't used Vaseline.

In the United States of America in 1985, the child who becomes the target of intra–familial sexual abuse is the quintessential victim. Trapped in a miasma of guilt, terror and prematurely awakened sexuality, such a child lives a nightmare. The oppressor is also the protector; the messages are so mixed as to be inseparable; and the reality is intolerable. Symptoms are perceived as aberrations. Desperate attempts at communication are ignored. And even eventual disclosure brings not relief but denial, blame and pressure to recant.

The child protection system is not a "system" at all. Rather it is a Balkanized collection of self–protecting agencies and institutions, each more concerned with its own statistics (and budget) than its mandated duty. From the police officer who said, "All kids make these things up," to the prosecutor disgusted with a frightened child's inability to "tell a straight story," to the social worker who wants to "hold the family together," to Law Guardians1 totally unfamiliar with the complexities of litigation in cases of intra—familial sexual abuse, to judges who tolerate their continued representation of children, to investigators who believe that incest is confined to the bottom of the economic spectrum, to card–carrying degenerates who believe early sexualization of children is beneficial2, to juries who "want to hear more evidence" when there isn't any, to a court process of endless interviews and heightening pressure, the system makes a mockery of our most sacred obligation—to give all children irreducible minimums of safety and protection.

Limits of Training and Screening

Yet training is no more the solution to these profound problems than screening is the solution to now–epidemic cases of sexual abuse within day care facilities. The proposed screening of day care personnel may reveal those individuals with prior criminal records—a laudable goal—but its potential benefits are microscopic. The sacred icon of confidentiality, so beloved of social work agencies, will be raised as a barrier between those who seek to protect children from adjudicated abusers and their rightful targets. Thus so long as only criminal justice records are open to scrutiny while child abuse records remain closed, our day care centers will be free of former armed robbers (a crime quite amenable to rehabilitation) and abound with those who have tortured their own children. In this case as usual, politicians remain purely reactive: the media's exposure of abuses and demands for reform are met with legislation which satisfies a gullible public yet accomplishes nothing.

And to train personnel in the mechanics of child sexual abuse investigation without first ascertaining whether the trainee has psychological or philosophical impediments to adequate performance is an equal waste of time. Many child protective workers have a background in public welfare, and too many of them are reluctant to "take the breadwinner out of the home." Is this a professional judgment or a personal one? The inescapable fact is that screening, while necessary, is distinctly secondary to supervision. Better a day care center staffed exclusively by individuals with criminal records who are subject to ongoing, professional supervision than one staffed by those with clean records left to their own devices.

How many more prosecutions of intra–familial sex offenders would occur if prosecutors were not judged on their conviction rate? How many children would be spared sexual abuse in day care centers if each worker were required to waive the confidentiality of child protective records? How many more cases of child sexual abuse would surface if social workers were required to submit all suspected cases to therapeutic specialists (validators) in the area of intra–familial child sexual abuse? How many more cases would actually reach the courts if all reports of sexual abuse triggered not only the response of a social worker but the assignment of a Law Guardian to the child at the same time?

...the system makes a mockery of our most sacred obligation—to give all children irreducible minimums of safety and protection.

These questions cannot be answered quantitatively at this time (although perhaps the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention might be willing to finance such a study instead of their current voodoo investigation into the effect of Hustler magazine on juvenile delinquents), but there is no question but that protection of children and thus the welfare of society would be significantly enhanced.

Guiding Principles

In an article of this note3 it is possible to do no more than begin a list of immediately needed reforms. Even this truncated list must be set within an operational context. For too long, child protective work has lacked a moral imperative. For too long, sexual abuse of children has been seen as a social work problem—a perspective which ignores the realities of what now threatens to become an epidemic. Thus, before proceeding to the list of proposed reforms, it is necessary to establish some basic principles under which we should operate from this point forward:

  • The sexual abuse of children is a crime. It may additionally be a mental disorder, a social problem, and/or an indication of family dysfunction ... but it is always a crime.

  • The first, primary and predominant priority in cases of child sexual abuse is protection of the child. Not preservation of the family unit, not rehabilitation of the offender, but protection of the child.

  • All issues of "family unit treatment" must be resolved in favor of the child's emotional, psychological, and physical safety. (This neat phrase often translates into non–referral to court.)

  • A social worker charged with protection of the child and simultaneous rehabilitation of the offender is a professional schizophrenic. The child is minimally entitled to independent advocacy of his or her needs and interests throughout any process triggered by a report of suspected sexual abuse.

  • Professionals must begin to distinguish between abusers who simply never learned to be parents and those who exploit a power relationship with their own children for personal sexual gratification and/or profit. The profession must stop whining about limited resources and develop a triage mentality—i.e., focus attention on those who could benefit substantially from rehabilitative services and leave the remainder to the criminal court.

  • Sexual abuse has profound consequences for its victims. And untreated child sexual abuse has a predicable range of fallout including delinquency, drug abuse, suicide, and mental illness. Such fallout negatively impacts on the larger society, often when the former victim turns predator.

  • Identification, treatment, and follow up of cases of child sexual abuse cannot be limited to a single agency. Unless and until we establish a continuum of care for all children with the ongoing participation and cooperation of all agencies, public and private, victimized children will continue to fall through the cracks in the so–called "system."

  • All agencies, from day care centers to schools to social services to probation to mental health, must participate jointly in a consortium model to provide services. Consideration of politics, ego, and turf, while significant to individual agencies in terms of their own survival, are antithetical to the survival of children.

  • Immediate Reforms

    With these guiding principles firmly in place, the following reforms are capable of immediate institution:

  • All child protective and service agencies should have available the services of an on–staff validation team. This would include personnel specifically trained in diagnosing and treating intrafamilial child sexual abuse syndrome4 and those trained in quasi–criminal investigations. The training provided would be sufficient to qualify the validators as expert witnesses in court and to meet selected standards, preferably suitable for certification. Specifically barred as training would be the usual three-hour "sensitivity to the issues" briefings and the bizarre practice of rotating trained personnel to other divisions where newly–acquired skills atrophy. It is not necessary to train all CPS workers in validation techniques, any more than it is necessary to subject all sexual abuse cases to validation. The validation process is psychologically intrusive, and is not indicated where there is sufficient other material (such as direct admissions, medical evidence, strong corroboration, eye–witnesses, or photographs) to substantiate the case.

  • The initial validation interview with the child should have both an investigative and a therapeutic component, should utilize standard protocols, including anatomically correct dolls, non–verbal communication (such as drawings or pantomime), and play therapy, and should take place within a specially equipped Validation Suite.

  • The Validation Suite should be equipped with video and audio tape capability for preserving the child's statements. With the exception of actual testimony (if required) at trial, the trained validator should be the only individual conducting interviews with the child. This provision would avoid the —melt–down" effect on a child who is over –interviewed and elects adamant silence as his or her only weapon against painful psychic intrusion.

  • The child's video or audio–taped statements should be admissible at all non–trial proceedings, including those before a Grand Jury.

  • The validation should be counted as corroboration for trial purposes5, if the validator is accorded expert witness status.

  • In those jurisdictions which fail to implement required training, an independent validation panel should be established whose members would be called on a rotating basis in all suspected cases. Such a panel would not be a party witness but would testify on its findings in each case.

  • Child protective services workers should be trained in the legal process, courtroom demeanor, and the basic rules of evidence.

  • Upon filing of a sexual abuse report, the child should be assigned an independent Law Guardian who should have authority to proceed with a case even if child protective services elects not to do so. They should be selected from an independent panel of lawyers, each of whom should be specifically trained, serve an apprenticeship with veteran practitioners, and be subject to at least annual evaluation of performance.

  • Law Guardians should be supervised by a qualified office or agency with the authority to remove if inadequate6.

  • The confidentiality of child abuse records should be used only to protect the child, not the perpetrator (or the agency).

  • Similarly, a Law Guardian defending a child on acting out (e.g., delinquency) or acting in (e.g., runaway) charges should have full access to the child's family records if prior abuse or neglect cases had been reported to Child Protective Services.

  • Day care centers, camps, and other child care institutions should be subject to unannounced visits from specially trained investigative personnel.

  • Schools should be required to institute personal safety courses7 for all students, including those in kindergarten.

  • Physicians should be required to draw sufficient blood from any aborted fetus of an unmarried child under 16 living in her home for later H.L.A. test purposes should an allegation of incest arise.

  • A massive program of public education must be undertaken but not the usual narration of endless horror stories. It should be specifically aimed at refuting the ugly mythology that permeates too much of our societal consciousness: children fantasize, children have poor memories, children lie to manipulate, nice (translate, middle class and above) people do not sexually abuse their children, etc.

  • Or, Business as Usual

    Failure to implement these (and other) recommendations for specific change means business as usual. And business as usual in the child protective field means that the production lines will keep punching out the horribly impaired products of child sexual abuse: children who act out in delinquency and violence, children who act in with suicide, drug abuse, and kiddie prostitution, and children who act crazy by fleeing into the dark realm of insanity or multiple personality. Each undiagnosed and untreated child victim of sexual abuse is nothing more than a self–destruct mechanism masquerading as a human being. And when they implode or explode, they not only injure themselves and others, they pass judgment on us all.

    Many (perhaps well meaning, perhaps not) individuals have stated that the current emphasis on child sexual abuse may degenerate into a "Salem Witch Hunt." That's not very likely. ln Salem, there were no witches.


    1. Although interchangeably called Guardians Ad Litem in some jurisdictions (a technical term meaning "for the litigation"), Law Guardian is the preferred term, especially since the duties of this office extend past the conclusion of the trial and should begin prior to any proceedings in a courtroom (see Reform #5).

    2. Such as the North American Man–Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) or the Rene Guyon Society whose motto is "sex before eight or it's too late."

    3. The author is currently at work on a book devoted exclusively to this subject.

    4. See, for example, Handbook of Clinical Intervention in Child Sexual Abuse, by Suzanne Sgroi (Lexington Books, 1982).

    5. See landmark decision of New York (Westchester County) Family Court Judge Sandra Miller in Matter of Tara H. October 19, 1984, New York Law Journal, p. 15. c4H.

    6. Although the issue of "ineffective assistance of counsel"is often litigated in criminal cases (see, e.g. Strickland v. Washington, 104 s.Ct. 2052 (1984) how such an issue could surface in a child protective matter is problematical. The child himself could not institute such an action, and his own Law Guardian (in the rare case of an appeal) would be unlikely to assert such a ground. Only an independent body with oversight and enforcement capability can assure minimum standards of representation for children.

    7. Modeled on New York City's Safety and Fitness Exchange program (S.A.F.E.). See, Your Children Should Know, by Flora Colao and Tamar Hosansky (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1983).

    © 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.


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