The Child Abuse Backlash: A Time of Testing

by Andrew Vachss
Originally published in Justice for Children, Vol. 2, No.3, 1989

Also available in Russian (

A report came into a local child protective agency from the Child Abuse Hot Line. A woman had haltingly recounted how her five–year–old daughter had complained that her father had "touched me in bad places." The caseworker listened until the account was finished, making careful notes. Then she asked, "Is the mother in the middle of a divorce?"

Child abuse, once largely ignored by the general public, has been the subject of more media attention than perhaps any other issue in recent American history. Driven by a combination of horror and guilt, the public demanded action. As the issue became fashionable—particularly child sexual abuse—money became available from both government and private sources. Intense public education efforts, coupled with more sophisticated "case finding" techniques produced dramatically escalating reports.

No individual, organization or institution seemed exempt. Child abuse was uncovered within day care centers, foster homes, camps and schools. Perpetrators included pillars of communities: leaders in youth activities, religious figures, counselors. Well known public figures came forward to recount their own abuse as children saying they were impelled to do so by the need for society to understand the terror–filled world of the abused child. Once considered a rare phenomenon, child abuse routinely came to be described as an "epidemic."

Politicians reacted to the demand for change. New legislation became the rule around the country. Courts became more responsive to the special needs and unique circumstances of abused children, with innovative techniques developed to interview children and "validate" their accounts. Prosecutors once afraid to touch child abuse cases for fear of risking their treasured conviction rates were encouraged to change their attitudes by media pressure.

But as the intensity built, cries of "witch hunt" began to echo. Critics claimed that child abuse "hysteria" made it impossible for a case to be objectively decided on its merits, pointing to overblown claims and unsubstantiated statistics by "child advocates" as proof of their position.

Today, we are in the midst of a backlash. The same media that heralded a new era in child protective work now gleefully notes the dismissal of celebrated child abuse cases and questions whether the pendulum has swung too far. And those who bowed to media pressure before can be expected to bow again in whatever direction the media wind blows. Expertise in defending those accused of child sexual abuse has become a growth industry—with promise of truly monumental profits.

As a result, we face the very real possibility of returning to the days when child abuse flourished and children paid the price of our national neglect. The fragile gains of recent years may not prove strong enough to withstand these attacks.

The child abuse backlash cannot be defeated with rhetoric. What we need now is a dispassionate analysis of how it came to exist. And if the backlash contains elements of truth, we must confront that truth and respond to it.

First, we should note that backlash advocates largely confine their focus to cases of child sexual abuse. The reason for this is simple: the techniques by which child sexual abuse is proven differ widely from those used in cases of physical abuse. While the "battered child syndrome" is now an accepted part of medical terminology, the process by which a diagnosis of "child sexual abuse syndrome" is made is still thought of as a soft science. And while rhetoric about a child "fantasizing" sexual abuse comes easily to those accused, no such comfort is available to perpetrators confronted with X–rays of their children–s broken bones.

Indefensible Rhetoric

Unfortunately, many child advocates have reacted to the belittling of sexual abuse cases as fantasy or imagination by developing their own equally indefensible rhetoric. For example, there are those who boldly state "children never lie" about sexual abuse. Such a statement is as political as those it is designed to counteract. It is equally without scientific foundation. Unless it is carefully explained that children cannot "make up" something that lies outside their own experience, the "children never lie" position goes so contrary to the natural and normal beliefs of the general public that it is rejected. In America, this will always be so.

When advocates, for example, called the public's attention to the horrible abuses within the juvenile justice system, a sympathetic public listened and even encouraged meaningful change. But when the advocates escalated to rhetoric such as "there's no such thing as a bad boy," the public, well aware that some boys are very bad indeed, lost respect for the entire profession. And withdrew its support for progress.

Thus when backlash advocates speak of "brainwashing" a child to recount a tale of sexual abuse, the rebuttal should not be that this is impossible, but that brainwashing is a difficult, complex process, and that its presence can be detected by a properly trained expert.

Ill–Trained Investigators

Another issue raised by those who believe we have gone too far is the alleged lack of training and expertise on the part of those charged with investigating cases of child sexual abuse. Such critics often find themselves making common cause with graduate–degree social workers who also believe that lack of clinically supervised training is the major defect in child protective work today.

A related area fraught with danger is the validation process by which a specialist determines whether a child is suffering from a form of post–traumatic stress disorder known as "intra–familial child abuse syndrome" or more simply, "child sexual abuse syndrome." Generally conducted by a trained social worker, this process is not a "psychological lie detector" and the expert will not be able to testify as to his or her opinion that the child was truthful when describing sexual abuse. The well trained experts will be able to state in court whether the child showed signs and symptoms consistent with having been the victim of sexual abuse. Often, this is only one tile in an elaborate mosaic of proof including corroboration obtained from both direct and circumstantial evidence—i.e., confessions, eyewitnesses, the presence of sexually transmitted disease. Nevertheless, absent specific standards, a child who is the subject of a sexual abuse case is likely to be submitted to countless "validations" as each side strives not to find the truth but to prove its case.

Parental Accusations

While these and other issues are significant there is no question that the backlash gains its greatest aid and comfort from those cases in which an adult, for tactical reasons, accuses another of child sexual abuse during the course of a matrimonial action. The suspicion and distrustful attitude of many child protective workers toward allegations of abuse which arise during a divorce are not hard to understand. Such workers are accustomed, for example, to one spouse actively protecting the other when a child discloses abuse. (Most incest cases involve the entire family unit against the victim.) And their cynicism is compounded when adults who actively sought abuse charges against their partners while they were separated then pressure the child to deny the account and seek to "drop the case" when they reunite. To deny therefore that adults will fabricate accounts of child sexual abuse in order to gain the upper hand in matrimonial litigation is to deny reality.

To deal with the backlash, we must clean our own house. We cannot and should not seek to stop criticism of child protective efforts. But we must always strive to ensure that such criticism does not gain a foothold from which to attack the very existence of our work. And we can achieve this only by making some immediate internal reforms of our procedures.

Child protective work has made significant progress in the past several years. But the backlash has arrived and it cannot be fought with "concern" or pious proclamations of righteousness. The reforms suggested have been long overdue, but they will not answer every critic. Offered an independent panel of specialized interviewers, they will demand the right to hire their own. The reforms, however, will separate those sincerely concerned by the pendulum swinging too far from those who have a personal ax to grind.

The backlash is a time of testing for all of us. To pass that test, we must meet meritorious criticism with innovation and reform, leaving the self–interested exposed for all to see. When we make child protective investigations into a genuine, professional search for truth, only wrongdoers will fear the consequences.

© 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

Attorney Andrew H. Vachss devotes his law practice to the representation of abused and delinquent children. Author of numerous publications, including The Life–Style Violent Juvenile: The Secure Treatment Approach (Lexington Books, 1979), Vachss has been an aggressive spokesman for child welfare and juvenile justice reform. His highly acclaimed novels Flood (Fine/Signet), Strega (Knopf/Signet), and Blue Belle (Knopf), reflect his extensive knowledge of child abuse, its victims, consequences and combatants.