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The Child Abuse Backlash: A Time of Testing

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

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.

  • Standardize Procedures: Child abuse investigation is not a hobby. It is not a game for amateurs. We must establish irreducible minimums of competence in all investigative and fact–finding procedures, and we must be assured that professionals adhere to such standards. While it is true that no investigation is better than the investigators who conduct it, it is equally true that the establishment of minimum standards&mdashsh;including an operational manual—will ensure a floor below which no investigation should fall. The way to build a body of knowledge on which the profession (and the public) can rely is to establish the reliability of certain procedures. If we do the same thing enough times and achieve the same results, the relationship between the two will have probative value. While all psychology is a combination of art and science, it is the scientific base of psychology which provides its validity.
  • Professionalism: A government unwilling to make a significant financial commitment to child protective work is a government unwilling to protect its constituents. All backlash promoters complain about the lack of training and level of education of caseworkers. Some of those complaints are valid. The concept of "generic" casework in which caseworkers who process paperwork are trained and paid the same as those responsible for investigation and management of child sexual abuse cases is ludicrous and should be abolished. The idea that "in–service– training consisting of a few lectures (and for which a passing score is assured by mere attendance) is a substitute for clinically supervised training is equally without value.
  • Specialization: Even a commitment to training is worthless if such "training" is going to be uniformly applied to everyone who qualifies by virtue of civil service or longevity. Resources spread too thin become transparent. Child protective agencies must immediately begin to identify those outstanding individuals most suitable for advanced training—and must provide that training, including but not limited to financing graduate work for those who qualify. The eventual goal must be that only certified social workers or those working directly under supervision will conduct investigations into child sexual abuse. The reasons for this are glaringly apparent: if we do not develop a cadre of experienced, committed, clinically–trained caseworkers, the combination of poor pay, low status, and unsolvable problems will contribute to the burn out phenomenon so common in the profession.
  • Independent Evaluation: A child reported as sexually abused should be interviewed as few times as is possible—preferably only once. The interview should be conducted by an individual selected at random from a professionally–certified panel of experts who have specific clinical training in the process, follow established protocols, and have been accepted as expert witnesses by the courts. The experts on this panel should not be employees of the government in the geographical area in which they serve. The interview should be videotaped so that it may be viewed by all parties during the forthcoming proceedings, whether or not the matter reaches a court. If a finding of child abuse syndrome is made, the child should be referred for therapy to a different panel member. This procedure should apply even if the report of sexual abuse is made by a party in matrimonial litigation. This is to prevent such litigation being treated as a private lawsuit which can be settled or dropped if the adults agree. It will also prevent any individual from paying another expert to "invalidate" the original diagnosis in the guise of providing therapy. And it will discourage entrepreneurism among those who hold themselves out as "validators." No professional would want to be open to the charge of having created his or her own clients. No trial involving the sexual abuse of a child should become a battle of the experts, rewarding the party with the ability to retain the best "hired gun." If the issue is already joined, the parties could each be allowed to veto one particular expert from the total panel, and any panel member could be excluded on proper grounds, such as a conflict of interest.
  • One more important point needs to be made about "validation." The word is often used, but little understood. True validation has investigative, therapeutic, and evidentiary value. Those are separate distinct areas, with profound implications for the child protective professional, subject children, and those against whom allegations are made. If validation is employed (as it should be) as an integral part of every investigation into child sexual abuse, it will exclude some targets, and include others. Used in such fashion, two vital benefits emerge. First, the validator is not a "party witness" any more than any other investigator. Thus, any issue of bias or prejudice will be left to the trial court and there will be no predicate to the now–popular demands for "secondary" validation. Second, the therapeutic process will begin for the children well in advance of any adjudication. This is especially important in an era when the gap between accusation and trial is often many months. Let even "investigative" validators be drawn from a pool of those previously certified as experts by the courts, even further eliminating the possibility of "party witness" status. Therefore, all validators should begin as investigative. Some will progress to therapeutic, still others on to evidentiary activities ensuring objectivity at the root is a matter of both fundamental fairness and effectiveness—goals even the most fervent backlash advocates will not disclaim.

  • Objective Analysis: Is it true that "90 percent of prisoners have been abused as children" or that "children growing up in America have a one in five chance of being sexually abused before they reach age 18?" Is there a quantifiable link between early child abuse and later juvenile and adult crime? Research into these and related topics has the most profound implications for the future of this country. It should be adequately funded and awarded without regard to politics.
  • Unity of Purpose: There is no point in conducting simultaneous, independent investigations which only invite territorialism and inconsistency. Multiple investigations inevitably mean multiple interviewing of the child, which contributes to the "melt–down" effect likely to result in a victim standing mute in a final desperate effort to stop the pain. Whether investigation into child sexual abuse is criminal or civil in focus, the methods should be the same. Police officers and social workers have much to learn from each other, and the process should begin at once. The goal should be the establishment of a single unified team which makes its findings known simultaneously to the police and to child protective authorities.
  • Independent Representation of the Child: A child in a sexual abuse case has needs and legal interests distinctly separate from any of the adult parties. If we condone the sham of permitting one of the adult parties to hire the child's legal representation, we have tainted the process beyond repair. The "best interests of the child" is a nice phrase (and comes naturally to the lips of all sides in any child protective litigation), but each party will always have his or her own self-interested view of how to achieve this laudable end. The only viable solution is to have counsel for children in such cases independently appointed.

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.


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