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Voices for Children: Andrew Vachss

Originally published in Children's Voice,Volume 6 #2, 1997
Child Welfare League of America

The leading authority on child abuse, and an outspoken advocate for its victims, Andrew Vachss is an author and attorney in New York City who represents children and youth exclusively. In his widely varied career, he has been a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases for the U.S. Public Health Service, a social caseworker for the New York City Department of Welfare, a community organizer in Chicago; a juvenile probation officer; and a director of a maximum security prison for aggressive violent youth. His articles appear in Parade magazine and other national publications. His most recent novel, False Allegations, is published by Alfred A. Knopf.

CV: Why are children your only clients? What led you to this specialized practice?

AV: Children are my only clients because child protection is all that I'm interested in. I wanted to be as close to the front line as I possibly could, but I did not want the handicap of working for an institution or agency - both of which I had experienced. While I was directing a prison for violent youth, I decided to go to law school and exclusively represent children; and that's what I've done ever since.

It was at the Public Health Service that I first discovered the widespread devastating impact of child sexual abuse. I had encountered child abuse before in a variety of forms; but, frankly, before that job, it never occurred to me that human beings had sex with their own children.

CV: Do you believe that child abuse itself is on the rise or that just reports of child abuse are increasing?

AV: The technologically enhanced forms of child abuse are on the rise. For example, before instant photography, pedophiles had to involve themselves with a ring of confederates simply to process particular films. With technology of video cameras and the Internet, the commercial viability of child sexual abuse has been discovered.

If you're talking about what society sees as the "traditional forms" of child abuse — mostly intrafamilial — I don't believe there's any evidence that it has increased. But there is great evidence that reporting it increased, that discovery has increased, and that attention is being paid.

In some respects, however, because of advances in this country, there's less child abuse. For example, child labor, although not unheard of, certainly is not above ground and legal as it used to be. We don't have a situation like Pakistan, where children are chained to looms, or Thailand, where children are chained to beds in brothels.

CV: Do you believe that child abuse is over-reported in this country?

AV: There are certainly reports that are not true, and every one of those is an over-reporting. But in terms of an epidemic or a witch hunt, certainly not.

CV: What must our society do to adequately protect our children and ensure that innocent people aren't falsely accused and that those who are guilty are weeded out?

AV: We need to put money and resources and the effort into getting the finest investigations we can so that only wrongdoers fear the consequences. The more skilled, the more professional, the more authenticated, the more supervised the investigations are, the greater the possibility that the truth will be found. And it is the truth that protects both children who have actually been abused and adults who might have been falsely accused.

CV: Is our society doing an adequate job in that direction?

AV: Absolutely not. The bottom line is, are we willing to pay for the same level of professionalism in child abuse investigations that we pay for, say, investigations of terrorism? We have an FBI academy that produces some of the best investigators in the world. Where is its analog in child protection? We pay people who pick up garbage far higher salaries than we pay people to protect children. We pay police sometimes twice as much as caseworkers who have to go into the same areas unarmed, without any of the investigative training that detectives get.

Ironically, the difference between what you would spend to protect a child when the child is small and what you have to spend to deal with the havoc that the child wreaks, if you don't protect the child, when that child is a teenager, is enormous. But what politician wants to fund a project that won't bear fruit for 15, 20 or 25 years? Politicians don't have the courage or the commitment to support something that will not bear fruit within their immediate terms of office. And the public is not demanding it.

CV: Then are we losing the war against child abuse?

AV: No. We wouldn't be having this conversation 30 or 40 years ago. There was a time when the concept of lawyers for children in abuse cases would have been science fiction. You couldn't say the word "incest" in public broadcasts. There was no child abuse in the newspapers in the 1950's. The term "battered child syndrome" is part of the normal lexicon, but in 1955 there was no such thing. So, in four short decades, we have come an enormous distance. We have information now that could enable us to make vital, species-changing progress.

Of course, what happened was that the media "discovered" what it had not acknowledged. There was a big media splash, and there was a predictable backlash, but some of it's perfectly valid. And if we address that, we'll be separating the perpetrators who are hiding behind the mask of false allegations from people who are actually and legitimately concerned about it.

CV: What are your views on family preservation and family reunification?

AV: I'm totally in favor of family preservation and family reunification. I'm totally opposed to family being defined by biology. Families should be defined operationally. I don't believe in the ownership of human beings. Children are not someone's property.

Efforts at family reunification or family preservation should be highly focused, highly concentrated, and delivered at high speed. If they fail, the child should have an opportunity to be raised by an actual family as opposed to a biological one. I believe in intensity of effort, but over a short span. Children rot in foster care, they rot in a court system, while these vain and incompetent attempts at so-called rehabilitation persist, and you end up with an unadoptable child who is then raised by an unfeeling, uncaring state system and who comes back to haunt us.

Most people who abuse their children are inadequate parents; parental inadequacy can be directly addressed by a service delivery system, and most of those families can be reunited. But I also believe there are people who are evil, who hurt children for their own pleasure or their own profit, and that a penny spent on trying to reunite them is a penny wasted. I don't believe people who sodomize their own babies are human beings who have any further right to their children.

CV: What are your thoughts about the issue of confidentiality?

AV: The death of Elisa Izquierdo in New York City is a classic example of the hypocrisy that permeates child protection and the reason why the public is so utterly cynical about it. Whose confidentiality? That dead baby's? I've never understood that, and I think that child protection has really damaged itself by taking this isolated, insular attitude and saying, "You cannot look at what we do. You cannot criticize what we do. What we do is sacrosanct." We can have public hearings in Congress about the CIA, about the FBI, about Iran-contra. But we're not allowed to have public hearings about the way child protective agencies do business? That's just plain wrong.

CV: What's your view on the case currently before the Supreme Court regarding the Kansas law in which the state can incarcerate indefinitely sex offenders and others considered to have mental problems once their prison sentences are served?

AV: I consider that law to be a terrible cop-out. The defect in all these sexual psychopath laws—which in effect say, "We're going to incarcerate you based on what we believe you might do or are likely to do"—is this: Why are they being released from prison anyway? No one wants to confront that. It's much easier to pass some law like this, so you can beat your chest and say you're protecting the public. But why is it that, routinely, the person they're talking about has an incredible history of preying on children and has never been given a life sentence? For the chronic, calcified, repetitive predator, a life sentence, incapacitating that human being, is the appropriate response. Not these serial, installment plan sentences, which produce new victims time and time again.

CV: Can they be rehabilitated, or is the best we can hope for to keep them behind bars so they don't have victims?

AV: I believe a person who commits any offense has a rehabilitative potential that can be charted, based on intensity and the earliness of the intervention. Do I believe that 13-year-old sex offenders have a better chance at rehabilitation than 33-year-old sex offenders? Absolutely. Do I believe that chronicity probably determines rehabilitative potential? Absolutely.

These are some crimes, however, that are so clearly indicative of sexual sadism, of absolute sociopathy, that I don't know any rational professional who would talk about rehabilitation. Some people do what they do because they like to do it. They have no remorse; they have no regret, except at being caught. Teaching them a new language, teaching them justificatory self-esteem boosting nonsense, teaching them to ape expressions of remorse, just makes them better predators.

To me, rehabilitation means to return to a state of former functions. Since the average predatory pedophile has committed dozens of offenses before he or she is ever arrested, I don't accept the prospect of rehabilitation. However, if it's a crime below a certain violence level, I would not seek lifetime incarceration for that person unless they reoffended.

CV: What about your "Don't! Buy! Thai!" campaign?

AV: The facts about the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Thailand are not in dispute. The question, then is what can one do about it? Following the model of apartheid in South Africa, or numerous other areas—in fact, following the model of the civil rights movement in the United States—what one does to change the behavior of others is place pressure on them in the same area they're seeking to gain. So, if babies are being sold for money in a country, economically punishing that country is a way to alter that conduct.

It always amazes me when people say, "Won't a boycott of Thailand hurt innocent Thai people?" People have no problem boycotting tuna packers because of danger to dolphins, or department stores that sell fur coats, or countries that traffic in rhino horns. And they certainly have no problem boycotting Chinese goods because of human rights violations. I don't know of any greater human rights violation than to traffic in babies for commercial exploitation. That's what's behind the boycott.

It's also something everyone can do. You don't have to send anyone a check, you don't have to march in parades, you don't have to wear a sign. You can simply make an ethical decision that you will not buy goods produced in a country that will not protect its own children or that profits from that lack of protection.

CV: How can people learn more about the boycott?

AV: They can contact Don't! Buy! Thai!, on the Internet.

[Note: The boycott ended 12/20/00. For the complete story, click here.]

CHILDREN'S VOICE, Volume 6 #2 - Child Welfare League of America
Published in the Winter 1997 issue of Children's Voice © 1997 Child Welfare League of America, Washington, D.C. reprinted by special permission.


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