Perspective: Attacking the Problem
By Richard Layman
Originally published in Current Issues, Volume 1: Child Abuse, 1990
Andrew Vachss has served as a field investigator for the U.S. Public Health Service; a casework supervisor for the New York City Department of Social Services; special investigator in Biafra, during the Nigerian civil war, for the Save the Children Federation and the Community Development Foundation; deputy director of the Medfield-Norfolk Prison Project; director of the Intensive Treatment Unit, a maximum security prison for juveniles and youths, under the auspices of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services; planner and analyst in the Yonkers, New York, Crime Control Coordinator's Office; and, since 1976, an attorney limiting himself to matters concerning children.
CI: How much credence do you place in the various surveys about the prevalence of child abuse and neglect?
VACHSS: I don't place much. The media, which have been, despite my criticism, the only real force for social change in the area of child maltreatment, have increased awareness. That has without question increased case reporting. But there's no hard evidence to indicate that a 300% increase in reporting means a 300% increase in cases. I am not myself convinced, except for certain technological changes, that there's any more child abuse going on today than there was twenty years ago.
CI: The latest National Incidence Study supports that conclusion.
VACHSS: The problem with any of these surveys is that it's very easy to play with them. But basically the surveys represent a swinging pendulum. There was a time when any kid who complained of incest was judged to be nuts and treated as somebody with psychotic fantasy. Now people are saying that one out of every four children in this country will have been sexually abused by the age of eighteen. I find that equally ludicrous from my ground-zero point of view.
CI: How do you combine your law practice with your interest in the welfare of children?
VACHSS: My law practice is exclusively limited to the representation of children and youth. That encompasses everything from defending a child accused of a crime to representing a child who is the victim of one, and everything between, including civil litigation, adoptions, representing children who are the battleground in a divorce—there's no limit to it.
CI: How do you define juvenile?
VACHSS: I define juvenile as anyone younger than an adult.
CI: Is there an age limit? Suppose a twenty-five-year-old comes to you with a problem.
VACHSS: If a twenty-five-year-old comes to me—and this has happened—and says, "I was sexually abused by my father when I was eleven, and I wasn't able to discuss it or do anything about it because I was in kind of a psychiatric coma; but I've been in therapy for three or four years, and now I want to do something about it," I wouldn't exclude her as a client.
CI: But the action that is taking you to court has to have occurred when the child was under eighteen, say?
VACHSS: Yes, generally.
CI: How many lawyers are engaged in the practice of juvenile defense?
VACHSS: I just got a copy of Who's Who in American Law, 1990. In order to find a place for me—my category is "Children and Youth"—they simply put me under "Other." I looked through everybody else in "Other," and there are some fairly exotic specialties, but none listed as "Children and Youth." There are lawyers who do exclusively juvenile defense, but they tend to be people who work for a public defender's office, assigned to juvenile defense.
CI: Is that because kids don't normally have enough money to hire attorneys?
VACHSS: That's part of it, and they are also extremely difficult clients. But I think the main reason is that it's not a lucrative practice. Also it is not even mentioned in law school, much less taught.
CI: How are you brought together with a child who needs your help?
VACHSS: One way is that parents or guardians are accused of abusing their child. The law doesn't permit them to hire a lawyer for the child for obvious reasons—they'd be in conflict. On the other hand, the government entity which is prosecuting them for child abuse really represents the government agency, not the child. The child has independent interests, so the law provides for independent counsel. That counsel is appointed like a rotating wheel. You have to qualify to be on the wheel, and then when your number comes up, you're assigned to a specific case.
CI: So you're sort of like a public defender?
VACHSS: Sort of, except that you're private. You're not required to take any case, and you're not paid a salary. Indeed, all this talk about pro bono is pretty funny, since the wages the government pays you to do this work are something like an eighth of what the average lawyer gets. But the way I've just described isn't the only way I get to represent kids. I've been hired directly by kids; now we're talking about teenagers. I've been hired by parents or caretakers to represent a child against a third party, for example, when a child is abused in a day-care center or by a youth group leader. I'm also referred cases by everybody from doctors to cops to nurses to social workers.
CI: Do child abuse cases constitute the majority of your work?
VACHSS: Yes, in one way or another they do, especially since in a number of so-called juvenile delinquency cases I've handled there's proven to be significant child abuse in the child's background. I don't represent a kid who's been in a car accident.
CI: It would seem that your involvement with child abuse as a children's advocate would be limited to the most severe cases. Of the six categories of maltreatment, which command your attention most frequently?
VACHSS: It's very hard for me to answer that simply, because I find the types comingling. I never find discrete, statutorily perfect child abuse. Prototypically, a child is an incest victim of her father, with the knowledge and complicity but not direct participation of the mother. The child's younger brother sees all this going on and is raised in this sexually perverted, highly aggressive household and is emotionally abused by that. So you have abuse, neglect, and emotional neglect all in the same pot. I've represented children in circumstances in which they have literally been driven to suicide attempts and not a hand was placed on them; they were never touched in any way. People always ask me what's the worst type of child abuse. It is obvious from the question that they are looking at the problem not from the viewpoint of the victim, but from that of the observer. "Worst" is whatever's happening to the child.
CI: Worst is a subjective word.
VACHSS: Absolutely. And one person may think, depending on his particular personal take, that a priest molesting a child is the worst type of abuse, because it is the abuse of a religious trust. Another might say a father doing it, because that's the abuse of a parental trust. Some might say physical torture is worse than sexual abuse that doesn't involve violence. Others might say killing a child is the worst. I don't think it matters from a child's perspective.
CI: It would seem that emotional neglect might be just as traumatic for a kid as physical abuse.
VACHSS: I can give you proof: the proof is that physical injury heals. You don't need to go further than that. When you see somebody still in post-traumatic stress disorder ten or fifteen years after the event, or you see somebody acting out grotesquely, insanely, or criminally as a result of what was done to him as a child, it's not because he can still see the burn marks. It's because the emotional baggage is stronger than any other. The other way you can prove that point is this: sexually molested children who are molested by caretakers have far more difficult recovery periods than those molested by strangers. A kid who's molested in his own house has to carry the burden of guilt for that molestation as well as the pain. If you're molested by strangers, you look to family members to comfort you. If those same comforters are actually the abusers, you exacerbate the trauma.
CI: Your work must depend heavily on investigation.
VACHSS: Almost exclusively. Without quality investigation, you can't prove your case, and I either do it or direct it. I have personally investigated cases and still do, especially the interrogation that is part of investigation. I have a team of people who are necessary, because it's not simply like a private eye looking for clues. You also need very skilled therapists. Sometimes you need a person who's trained in clinical hypnosis; sometimes you need a doctor who can use a regression form of hypnosis aided by something like sodium amytal. Sometimes you need people who can go places where other people don't want to go, and there you'd more likely use a private investigator. It's a combination of different kinds of people that you need for these cases.
CI: It sounds very expensive.
VACHSS: It probably would be, but over the years I've put together a crew of people. I get calls from people I don't know—people who saw me on television or read about me in a book—who get in touch to say that they're good at some part of this process, and if I ever need help, to give them a call.
CI: So if they aren't strictly volunteers, they are people willing to devote themselves to the work for reasons other than remuneration?
VACHSS: Yes. But that doesn't mean it's not expensive. We are serving a client, so if I undertake a case—let's say a civil lawsuit—it's my requirement that the child be in therapy. I won't represent a child who isn't, because we don't want to make our own damages. Say a child is raped in a day-care center. If you don't give the kid therapy, by the time the case comes to trial you have a wonderful little basket case to put on the stand. If you do provide therapy, the kid is far more oriented and focused, and appears to be less damaged.
CI: We read in the paper about psychologists and social workers who are themselves able to manipulate children in these cases. How do you respond to that?
VACHSS: Anyone can manipulate anybody if the power relationships are appropriate. I don't deny that a psychologist can manipulate a child, nor would anybody deny that a parent or a significant caretaker can manipulate a child. You hear the point about manipulation raised most often in matrimonial litigation. Typically, the mother says that the father abused the child, and the father claims the mother brainwashed the child.
CI: As in the highly publicized recent case of Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, who just got out of jail after serving a term for not allowing her daughter to see the father as stipulated by a court order?
VACHSS: That's a classic example. Of course, what that child has to say is of almost no value now. The child has been seen by too many people over too long a period of time under too much pressure. You'd have to sort the truth out of it all by an independent investigation; it wouldn't come out of the child's mouth anymore. Children are not different from adults. They can lock into a reward-punishment syndrome and respond in a way that they think is going to be best for them. But there are things you can do about this, and I'll give you one simple example. Let's say a kid has been coached by Mommy. He says to me, "Daddy did this; Daddy did that"—the whole litany. Then you ask the questions out of sequence and see if you get the same result. Assuming that you do, now you've got a whole list of things that the child says were done to him. Now you ask a very simple jackpot question: How did it feel? It's very hard to program somebody about feelings. It's fairly easy to do it around recollections, but feelings are a whole different story. The other thing that I want to stress is that I use independent verifiers. If I have a report of abuse, I will send the kid to one person for verification and maybe another person entirely for treatment. I don't rely strictly on anybody's statement. Corroboration is the name of the game. Also, I don't put psychologists in a position to benefit from manipulation. When we hire therapists for children, they're paid. That's it. They don't get a bonus if we're successful in a lawsuit.
CI: In news reports of child abuse cases, it often seems an act of cruelty to put a child through the system of examination and cross-examination required to get a conviction. How do you feel about this?
VACHSS: I profoundly disagree. I think the media have done a horrible disservice to all of us in describing this process, whether out of concern or out of laziness I don't know. Is it cruelty to have a three-year-old child swim? No. But it could be if the child didn't know how to swim. Court testimony is exactly the same thing. The truth is that, in an overwhelming majority of my cases in which I've had kids testify, it was an empowering experience rather than traumatizing. The effect has to do with preparing the child for what's going to happen and working therapeutically with the child around his expectations. Certainly if you simply put a child in a chair and started screaming at him, it would be traumatic; it would be for anybody. But the media view of what it's like isn't what it needs to be like. I also think it's in the interest of pedophiles and all child abusers to keep spreading this negative message through the media. That encourages good-spirited, good-hearted people not to pursue cases.
CI: I assume that, in the interest of the accused's rights, there are no restraints at all on questioning children in court, except for the normal judicial rules on cross-examination; so an attorney can be as ruthless as the law permits.
VACHSS: Yes. But whether it's effective or not can depend on who's on the jury. Jurors are human beings, and some of them just don't like to see children abused. The only thing that's really different in these trials, despite all the rhetoric, is that to some extent, in some jurisdictions, you can physically shield the child from having to eyeball the perpetrator, whether this means testifying on closed-circuit television, or testifying behind a screen, or simply having the furniture arranged in such a way that there doesn't have to be direct eye-to-eye contact. And a child has his or her own defenses too. If you scream at a child enough, the child just starts to cry or melts down. That doesn't necessarily mean that he's lying, and most people understand that. Sure, it can be a horrible experience for kids. It's not fun for anybody to testify in court. But you've got to remember that if a child was abused, essentially what was abused was a power relationship. It's a horrible feeling of helplessness to be at the mercy of an abuser. In court, despite all the screaming and yelling, nobody's going to physically or sexually abuse a child. And very often we're confronted with this reality: if you do the warm, caring thing of not having the child testify, it could mean that he goes back and lives with the abuser.
CI: Are court-appointed advocates, such as guardians ad litem, useful in protecting a child's rights and guarding against what might be called judicial child abuse?
VACHSS: I want to be very, very clear about this. Are they useful? The answer is, they can be. Are they ever a substitute for actual representation by lawyers? No. Underline no. Repeat, NO. I think that concept represents one of the most pernicious trends in child protective work in this country today. There are states—and Florida is an excellent example—where a child who is the victim of abuse will not be represented by a lawyer but will be represented by a "court-appointed special advocate" [CASA]. These people are not lawyers. Because they're not lawyers, they can't represent a child in terms of the totality of that child's needs. They can't file a motion. They can't argue before a court with any kind of force. I'll give you some concrete examples. If a child tells a secret to a court-appointed special advocate there is no attorney-client privilege. That child is not guaranteed the confidentiality that he would have in speaking to an attorney. We have a standard in American justice called effective assistance of counsel. Under that standard, if you're accused of a crime and your lawyer is incompetent, your case could be reversed, because you're entitled to minimal effectiveness. No non-lawyer can meet that standard. The whole Court Appointed Special Advocate concept gets its power from the idea that it's cheap; it's cost-effective. That's utter nonsense. You look at a state like Florida that could provide a stream of attorneys for a Ted Bundy and can't provide one attorney for an abused child. I think there's such a moral difficulty with that, that it's unresolvable.
CI: On the other hand, in the typical case, can an attorney who has a busy workload be expected to provide the kinds of out-of-court support that a child in difficulty might need?
VACHSS: I don't know what "out-of-court support" means. I know that a lawyer is supposed to do his job, and if that job involves out-of-court support services, those services are supposed to be provided. If the attorney doesn't have the personal resources, the attorney makes application to the court for such resources. I think the idea of having a lay person involved who's going to be sort of a friend to the kid and watch out for the kid and visit the kid and all that stuff is really valuable. However, I don't think that person can ever be a substitute for an attorney. That's the bone of contention here.
CI: But does the guardian ad litem program suggest that the guardian is an attorney- substitute?
VACHSS: Absolutely. The ad litem program takes the position, what do you need lawyers for? Lawyers for kids are no good anyway. They're lazy, they're overworked, they're incompetent—blah, blah, blah. You scratch those people and they will bleed the belief that lawyers really don't belong in child abuse court.
CI: Is it your feeling that the ad litem program ought not to be done away with but rather altered so that the guardian works under the supervision of the attorney who's directing the case?
VACHSS: I don't believe that they have to be under anybody's supervision. They can be independent all they want. They can be the strongest advocates for the kid they want. In fact I'd like to see them there saying the lawyer's not doing his job. I don't want them subservient to anybody. I just don't want them as a substitute for counsel. Here's the ridiculousness of it: If I'm a kid twelve years old in a state that has this wonderful program instead of attorneys for kids and I'm an abused kid and I want an attorney, you know what I have to do? Commit a crime. Then the law guarantees I have an attorney. The reasoning of the law is this: Children in a juvenile court who are accused of delinquency are entitled to an attorney because they risk serious consequences, such as being incarcerated. Since when is being returned to abusers or molesters not a serious consequence? I think if children could vote, this guardian ad litem as substitution for lawyers would last about thirty seconds. You could go ask somebody who's charged with an SEC violation if he wants a warm, caring volunteer or a lawyer who's an expert in the field. Nobody's asked the kids yet. If they're sincere, then their program ought to be able to stand on its merits. Where it stands today is that it's cheap. It doesn't cost anything.
CI: A change of subject. How widespread is child pornography?
VACHSS: To understand that question, I have to determine if you understand the difference between width and depth. When people ask that question, they want the usual nonsensical statistics. That doesn't help. Let me explain why. Crime chases dollars. Those people in a position to produce child pornography have determined, and rightly so, that every pedophile is an inexhaustible well, so that one pedophile would, if he could, possess all the kiddie pornography in the world. You find that the well is being filled, and that product is created to fill it. How many kiddie porn buyers are there? Nobody could know, but those that do exist are consumers with a voracity that you can't imagine. Therefore, when you ask how widespread it is, are you talking about the amount produced, the amount consumed, the width or the depth? Those are the things you have to look at.
CI: Do you see a direct link between pornography and child sexual abuse?
VACHSS: Yes. But what kind of pornography are you talking about? It has to be defined.
CI: Do you want to define it?
VACHSS: My definition is that kiddie pornography is the photograph of a crime, and therefore per se illegal in my view; it should be prosecuted as such. What I mean by pornography is the graphic depiction of sexual activity. Pornography is certainly connected to sexual abuse when it's used by predators to desensitize victims. If a predator has a ten-year-old boy in the house and shows him photographs of ten-year-old boys engaged in sexual activity, and the kid sees enough of it, his impression—especially if he sees it on videotape—is that this is happening, this is OK, and his thresholds are reduced. That's one distinct way pornography and child abuse are connected. And other way they're connected is through the product. Under my definition the producers have criminally abused children sexually to produce that pornography. I do not agree that anybody who reads Playboy magazine is a deviant.
CI: Is it correct to assume that there are a few centers where people are producing magazines, videotapes, photos?
VACHSS: That's right and wrong. There are a few centers where magazines are being produced, but there are countless places in which porn is generated. Child pornography is pretty much a cottage industry now. Any deviant with a Polaroid camera or a hand-held camcorder can make his own stuff. It's not made commercially in the sense that they'd make five hundred copies of a Polaroid shot, but it certainly is trafficked in.
CI: Do you have a means of tracking the activity of chronic child abusers?
VACHSS: I keep a computer database of two kinds of information. One is highly specific information involving cases I have personally worked, because I'm constantly looking for correlations and for things to kick in from the past. It's been enormously helpful in literally solving cases. But also in there is a huge amount of information that I've obtained outside my personal caseloads. Most of that comes in over the transom. People hear about what I do and send me stuff. Some of it relates to child pornography. I also have received audiotapes, pictures letters that purport to be from and about rather famous people, alleging that these people are predatory pedophiles. Clearly the people sending such material are sending it for a reason. I don't fancy myself the police force, but every piece of information we get is checked, and the idea is to keep in the computer only information that we're absolutely satisfied is true. I'm not privy to police records, and the police don't tell me whom they've just arrested.
CI: Do the police track the activity of pedophiles?
VACHSS: I don't know. But I do know that—except, I believe, in California—convicted offenders are not even required to register with the local police. That means that in most jurisdictions a guy who has been involved in child pornography and has a record of abusing children can get a job as a schoolteacher or working in a nursery or day-care center. It happens in New York all the time.
CI: Are you an advocate of a federal law to require such registration?
VACHSS: Yes, a federal law to require it, on a central computer database. But that's not enough. What is critically needed is a law, requiring that any place employing people to work with kids must check with that registry, and that if they fail to do so, the employers are strictly liable for whatever happens. That would give employers the strongest financial incentive to use the registry.
CI: Is there any federal attempt to track the activities of child abusers? I assume that would fall within the auspices of the FBI.
VACHSS: There is an FBI pedophile task force, though I'm not sure what it does. I don't know of any effort actually to track the movements of such people.
CI: You stated that the juvenile offenders you defend are often child abuse victims. Would you elaborate on that?
VACHSS: Basically there are only two ways to account for criminality: criminals are born, and criminals are made. There's obviously some dispute on that, but I don't think any rational person in 1990 disputes anymore that there are specific ways in which the twig can be bent so that you can get a very evil tree. I have never represented a predatory, life-style-violent kid who did not have significant child abuse in his background. That doesn't mean that every kid who goes joyriding or throws a brick through a window—or even every kid who shoots somebody—was a child abuse victim. But it certainly means to me that when you have a depraved kind of crime such as rape, sodomy, or stabbing a little kid, you're going to see a reason for it. And consistently what emerges is that we have an abused child now acting out. It's important for me to say at this point that explanation is not justification. I'm not saying that anybody has a get-out-of-jail-free card because he's an abused child. What I'm saying is that this knowledge we have could help us interdict the worst kind of criminality before it flowers.
CI: What kind of interdiction would you suggest?
VACHSS: I suggest, very bluntly, that the only genuine crime prevention program in America, without question, is child protective services, which provide people to investigate and proceed against child abusers.
CI: Is there a model program?
VACHSS: There may be some minor-league model program somewhere, but what I am talking about is government action. It's strictly a government function.
CI: You are suggesting an ambitious and complicated network of psychologists, social workers, investigators?
VACHSS: Absolutely, with professionals at the legal end as well, to handle these cases in court. Such a program should be well funded and have highly recruited, highly trained personnel. It should be seen as an opportunity to change the course of America's future. Instead, we have quite the opposite situation: child protection programs are basically the garbage can of social services.
CI: What you're talking about now is political action, because it would take political force to set up such a system. Are there any politicians, particularly on a national level, who've expressed an interest in the problem?
VACHSS: No, not to me. There are plenty of organizations that live on grants and are constantly giving politicians awards. But I don't see the evidence of any such effort. We have a war on drugs that is universally described as ludicrous and a failure, and yet nobody begrudges multibillion-dollar injections into it. Child protection services are the least trained, least paid, least respected professionals out there.
CI: You must see the effects of drugs every minute of your day, and the effect from generation to generation of drug users. Cocaine-addicted babies are news now, for example, and I know you've had cases involving addicted mothers. Recently you had a case in which you got custody of the fetus of a drug-addicted mother.
VACHSS: Yes. That case is just over, by the way; the child has been freed for adoption. You must understand, though, that, unlike the way it was reported, that case wasn't about cocaine addiction. The fact that the child was born with a positive toxology for cocaine had nothing whatever to do with it; it was purely circumstance. We had a mother who was a serial child-abuse offender, and this was unequivocally not related to her own drug abuse. In fact, she is the example I use all the time when people like Bennett say, "Well, if we legalize drugs, we're going to have kids born addicted," and "Drugs are causing child abuse." This is a woman who abused children before crack existed, and, because of her life-style and personality, got involved with drugs and continued to do what she had always done: to wit, abuse children.
CI: Nonsexual physical abuse?
VACHSS: Yes. These kids were beaten badly enough to require significant medical attention. When this woman became pregnant, it was clear to me that we were facing the situation of having a child born into an environment which had produced several other abused children. As a preemptive strike, I sought a court order saying that, upon the child's birth, he would be in imminent danger of abuse and should be removed from her custody.
CI: What does "preemptive strike" mean?
VACHSS: By "preemptive strike" I simply mean that I wasn't waiting for the baby to be born. It had nothing to do with fetal rights; it was saying that an event is going to take place, and when it does, we're going to have a child in danger. I want to have the court order in my hand before that time. The entire intent was to do what all the good-hearted liberals say they want to do and cannot do, which is to prevent child abuse. Everyone talks about prevention. Everyone loves prevention. It's cheap; it's cost-effective to talk about it. My position is that you can't prevent child abuse. By and large child abuse isn't preventable. In this case it was.
CI: Are there types of child abusers?
VACHSS: There are three types—understand that these are general categories with some overlap. First, there are the inadequates, who simply don't know how to parent. A good example is a twelve-year-old girl with a baby of her own. Such people benefit immeasurably from so-called rehabilitative services. They really can be helped, and they deserve all our efforts. The second category is people who are crazy (and by that I mean card-carrying crazy), and the third is people who are evil. The distinct problem we have is that we merge one category into another and ignore the third. When someone sodomizes a baby, it's likely to be said that that person is "sick." That's wrong. When somebody does something outrageous to a child, we say the person is crazy, and that's often wrong. Social work doesn't recognize the concept of evil; it's not part of their "dynamic." There has to be a cold-blooded attempt to separate the categories and to respond accordingly on a pure triage model. That is, we must put every effort into what can be saved, but not waste precious resources in trying to save what cannot be.
CI: How do you feel about mandatory sterilization of parents, male and female, who are proven irresponsible?
VACHSS: I'm a hundred percent opposed to it, not because of the right of the parent, but because it reminds me too much of the Third Reich. I don't know where it would stop. We might be comfortable about making a decision about sterilization today about those people who are so over the line that we have to make that decision about them, but I don't know where that line would blur tomorrow. I don't want to be in a society that sterilizes humans against their will. The next thing you know, we'd start sterilizing defectives and inadequates. I don't know where it would stop.
CI: If somebody is interested in finding out more about child maltreatment not as a researcher but as an individual who is concerned about the problem and wants to help, where can he go?
VACHSS: I can give you the names of specific places where people can find out more about child abuse, but the second part, help, is a complicated issue. It's one thing if you want the names of places where people can go to use their own skills in working with kids. But if by "help" you mean changing the system, that's an entirely different answer. The organization that I'm happiest with is called the Children's Safety Project, and it's right here in Manhattan. Anyone willing to put in a relatively small amount of time in such a place would learn more than they ever wanted to know about every form of child abuse, and be able to be of service. They have used people there whose skills range from martial arts to working with clay to custodial care. This organization directly treats abused children. It doesn't do consciousness-raising, doesn't do informational brochures, doesn't hold conferences, doesn't give plaques, doesn't have dinners. It works directly with victims of abuse, every day, and it works with them not just therapeutically, but in an empowerment way. It prepares them for court; it prepares them to deal with the rest of their lives, not just the individual trauma.
CI: What can people do who are interested in influencing legislation?
VACHSS: There's only one way to do that, and that's by the development of a single-issue, megalomaniacal group modeled on (I say this with all due respect) Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Or, if you want to go the other way, the anti-abortion people, or the National Rifle Association. You need a group that says to a politician, "I care nothing about your stand on El Salvador or the environment. I don't care about anything except this one issue. And my response to you is strictly dependent on your response to this issue. If you vote in favor of what I want I will knock myself out to support you, I will raise funds; I will do everything I can to see that you're elected and stay elected. If, however, you oppose it, regardless of what you do on other issues I will work just as hard for your opponent."
CI: And there's no place to start except at the very beginning, this is your interest?
VACHSS: Yes, I absolutely believe so.
CI: We hear more and more about criminal groups recruiting children to commit crimes that have high exposure and a high risk of being caught, so that if the kid is caught, he goes through the juvenile system and doesn't have to worry about the same kind of penalties an adult would risk. Is there any way to confront that problem?
VACHSS: Yes. Right now we have very flabby laws concerning exploitation of children. We have laws that say you're not supposed to rape children—although, of course, if you rape your own child, that's incest and it's considered "family dysfunction." But leaving that aside, we seriously need laws that specifically say the utilization of children for criminal purposes is an independently actionable crime, and it should be a very serious major-felony one.
CI: Would that be on a national level or a local level?
VACHSS: I don't believe in local levels; that just encourages bad people to change jurisdictions. I don't believe in federal law because federal law enforcement isn't generally at the street level. What I believe in is uniform laws. Any lack of uniformity promotes injustice. I think there need to be irreducible minimums; in other words, if you do x to a child, the minimum you can look at is y response, whether you're in Alaska or Alabama.
CI: Is there somebody paying attention to this problem?
VACHSS: There may be. The government funds an enormous amount of stuff. I'm particularly fond of the example in which some crony of Ed Meese's was given about a million dollars to study whether Playboy and Penthouse were causing juvenile delinquency. We have something called the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. If you ask around among people in the field, they won't be able to tell you what this place does, except give grants. We don't have a Pentagon in this war that's being fought concerning children. We need a wartime mentality and a separate agency that is specifically going to protect children, and it should be constituted in the guise of crime prevention. It's very simple: If the American public bought the proposition that today's victim is tomorrow's predator, then out of self-interest, which is the great American motivator, we would see a change in the laws and in the enforcement of those laws as that enforcement affects kids. That's the bottom line. Those young human beings who are running around scaring us to death had a genesis. If we accept that that genesis was child abuse and neglect when they were much younger, we have a chance not just to do some good, but to do some good for ourselves.