This election year, we must demand that politicians pledge to protect our children, says a noted child advocate. It's time to ask our Presidential candidates...

What Are You Going To Do About Child Abuse?

By Andrew Vachss
Originally published in Parade, August 22, 2004

The day a trail I was following led me to a tiny baby with a sexually transmitted disease, my life changed forever. That was almost 40 years ago, when I was an investigator with the U.S. Public Health Service. Later, as a caseworker with the New York City welfare department, I learned the soul-crushing effects of a government-created culture of poverty. In the now-vanished country of Biafra, I witnessed genocide. Children as victims, children as targets … children without a voice. As director of a maximum-security institution for violent youth, I learned the horrific consequences of not rescuing some children from abuse. And as a lawyer whose only clients are children, I discovered the final truth: When we fail to protect children, we ultimately fail to protect ourselves.

A man I'm proud to call my friend is a former abused child who transcended his childhood. He became a decorated war hero, an award-winning journalist, a brilliant storyteller and a gifted orator. He has never stopped serving his country. Recently, my friend asked me, "Is child abuse increasing or decreasing? Everything I read seems to have a different message. What's the truth?"

I told my friend he was asking the wrong question. What he should be asking is, "Who cares?"

Does that seem harsh or unfair? After all, aren't children "our No. 1 priority?" Aren't they "our greatest natural resource?" Don't all Americans agree that child protection is our most important obligation—not just as citizens in a democratic society but as human beings?

The answer to those questions cannot be found in studies or statistics. The essence of a culture is in its performance, not its proclamations.

Only behavior reveals truth. And where can this truth be found? We have one certain way to measure the importance of any subject: We simply observe how it is addressed—or ignored—by those running for office.

In any major electoral race, the candidates are forced to take a position on every issue for which there is a constituency. This is a fact of American politics: One cannot run for national office without an unambiguous stance on abortion, gun control, the environment, capital punishment and many other issues of deep concern to clearly identifiable groups. And such groups cannot be placated with nebulous generalities. They demand the details: What legislation will be passed? What programs will be funded?

Demand Real Answers

Soon, the Presidential candidates will meet to debate. But we know from past experience that child protection will not be on the agenda. All we ask of the candidates is a declaration that they "love children" and "support the American family." The candidates tacitly agree to a mutual nonaggression pact, never challenging their opponent's pro forma platitudes. So the question, "What are you going to do about child abuse" never gets asked, much less answered.

Politicians get away with this because the public demands nothing more. Any catchy-sounding phrase will suffice. Does anyone really believe that "no child is left behind" in America? Has anyone ever actually visited that mythical "village" that is raising our children?

Supposedly, debates are aimed at that special constituency which eludes the pollsters—the undecideds. But any honest person will readily admit that, when it comes to hot-button issues that divide America, the undecideds are a micro-minority … if they exist at all. The voters already have made up their minds on issues like abortion or gun control-all that remains is for the individual candidates to declare themselves pro or con.

Despite all the pious rhetoric, there is no identifiable constituency whose vote is directly tied to child protection. Children may be important to us all, but child protection has never been a make-or-break issue when we vote for our leaders.

Take A Hard Look

Why do so many states have an incest loophole—laws which offer far more lenient penalties for sexually abusing one's own child than for committing the exact same crime against an unrelated victim—in effect, a criminal justice bonus to predators who grow their own victims? Is that because we "respect the family unit," or because, even in modern America, children are perceived as the property of their parents?

Why do some states refuse to provide legal counsel for children who are the subject of abuse or neglect cases, instead offering those most vulnerable victims the "services" of volunteers with no legal training? Is that because the volunteers are more caring or because it's so much cheaper that way?

Why do the media promote the image of child victims as participants in the crimes committed against them? A former governor of Oregon recently admitted to repeated sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl. The state's major newspaper reported this series of ongoing crimes as a "relationship" and characterized the conduct as an "affair." This would be much more shocking were it not so common.

Is this how we love our children? Is this how we protect them? Sure, when a child is abducted by a stranger, it's front page news. When a child is murdered by his own parents, the talk-show switchboards light up with "concerned" citizens expressing their outrage. When a baby is abandoned in a garbage can, hundreds of offers of adoption flood in. But all this attention eventually fades like the spotlight at the end of a one-act play. And none of it ever unites Americans to the point where we demand fundamental change. Instead, we settle for the counterfeit currency of political sound-bites.

The hard, cold truth is that the protection of children has never been a political priority. We all rage about special interest groups influencing government, but when it comes to child protection, it has yet to occur to us to become one.

Acknowledge The Dangers

In some countries, children are chattel. They are used as laborers, conscripted as soldiers, forced into prostitution and pornography—even their organs are harvested for profit. In America, we should not delude ourselves that child exploitation does not exist just because we passed laws against it. No matter what the stats show in any given year, those who work at ground zero—in social work, law enforcement, medicine, education and countless other professions—know the truth: Children in America are not safe.

For some, the danger lurks in shadows. For others, it's on the Internet. Or within the children's "circle of trust"—teachers, coaches, babysitters, day-care workers, religious personnel, youth leaders. But, as always, the greatest danger to children is from within their own families. Child abuse may be up or down in any given year, but it is always a fact. And addressing it is never on the national agenda.

Some phenomena can be reduced to figures and formulas. We know, for example, how to measure our Gross National Product. But we have yet, as a society, to acknowledge that children are our Net National Product. We have yet to agree that the ultimate test of a country is how it protects its children.

Politicians get elected—and keep their jobs—only by being good listeners. If we really want to protect our children, it's time to tell every candidate what matters to us most, in the one language they never fail to understand.

© 2004 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

PARADE Contributing Editor Andrew Vachss—a lawyer whose only clients are children—also is the author of 18 novels, His latest, "Down Here," recently was published by Knopf.