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Children and Animals: Exploring the Roots of Kindness and Cruelty
by Frank R. Ascione, Ph.D.


For those of us who have spent our lives on its front lines, the protection of children is the only "holy war" worthy of the name. To us, the great mystery of life is not why some abused children grow up to become abusive adults, but why so many don't.

Children and Animals: Exploring the Roots of Kindness and Cruelty by Frank R. Ascione, Ph.D.
Purdue University Press; ISBN 1557533776
for online purchase

A cop's world view might vary radically from a caseworker's; a prosecutor's "solution" could be distinctly different than a therapist's; the academic's data might be contradicted by the anecdotal experience of the field investigator. But we all share this core belief: abusiveness is not genetically encoded. It has a genesis, a discoverable taproot. And we all agree that if "prevention" is ever to exist as anything more than a grant writer's buzzword, we have to keep digging.

But, while it is universally agreed that interpersonal violence is the greatest single threat to human civilization, there is nothing resembling a consensus on its etiology. Part of the problem is that people tend to superimpose their personal belief systems over any information presented to them. For example, announcement of a decline in the number of reports of child sexual abuse cases guarantees an instant onslaught of dueling interpretations.

Depending on the expert being consulted, such data "proves" that:

  1. the "tidal wave of false allegations" is finally ebbing; or
  2. "prevention" efforts are finally bearing fruit; or
  3. viewing child abuse as a crime (rather than a "family dysfunction") and prosecuting it accordingly has deterred some perpetrators; or
  4. reduced funding for child protective services has resulted in fewer existing cases being discovered; or
  5. something else.

For the abused child, none of this agenda-driven interpretation matters. And, for the society into which that abused child will eventually be absorbed—or, in some cases, disgorged—none of it helps. But every few decades, a seminal work emerges. A dispatch from the front lines that combines innovative research, critical thought, and penetrating analysis so compellingly that it causes a cultural shift. C. Henry Kempe's The Battered Child Syndrome is a classic example.

A legitimate descendant of that groundbreaking line is Frank Ascione's Children and Animals: Exploring the Roots of Kindness and Cruelty. Its message will reverberate through politics, policy, and practice for generations to come.

To understand the significance of Ascione's work, we need to take a look—a hard look—at the predators who walk among us. Whom do we fear the most? The serial killer? The sadistic rapist? The arsonist who giggles at the flames he created? The pedophile who tortures children for pleasure, and markets the memorialization of his unspeakable acts for profit? Their crimes may vary radically, but the perpetrators are all members of the same tribe, one we now call "sociopaths." And what is the foundational characteristic of every sociopath? A profound, pervasive, fundamental lack of empathy. The sociopath attends to only his own needs, and feels only his own pain. If the pain of others interferes with his needs, it is casually ignored. And if the pain of others becomes his need, it is relentlessly pursued.

Despite enormous (and sometimes almost worshipful) media attention, we know very little about such creatures. We "profile" them endlessly, but we have never been able to predict them.

Few believe we can "treat" such predators. All agree we must incapacitate them. But what if we were granted the opportunity to interdict them? To actually alter the course of their development so that, when they reach full bloom, they are not toxic to others?

This stunning new work—the crown jewel in a career Frank Ascione has devoted to demonstrating the importance of understanding animal abuse in a developmental context—now offers us just such an unprecedented opportunity.

This book reveals what interactions between children and animals tell us about ourselves. Its premise is brilliantly direct: we have a window of opportunity—childhood—within which to redirect the production of sociopaths. The antidote is the development of empathy. And observation and analysis of children's interaction with animals is the key to that door.

Ascione persuasively argues that a society which carefully records acts of vandalism by youth—and considers such to have both symptomatic probity and predictive value—should do no less with acts of cruelty to animals. The correlations between animal abuse in the household and domestic violence are inescapable. And the link between animal abuse by children and the concurrent abuse of those same children by their "caretakers" is indisputable. Ascione's evidence is so overwhelming that I believe this book conclusively makes the case for sharing of reports between child protective and animal protective agencies.

As a lawyer, I am confident I now have the evidence to argue successfully that any report of animal abuse is sufficient probable cause to trigger a child protective investigation of the home in which it occurred. As a citizen, I intend to lobby for such changes in the law to be enacted.

But while those changes would enable detection of ongoing cases of child abuse, they would not prevent any child from initially being abused. Ascione's work is unique in that it does offer the opportunity to engage in true "primary prevention."

He points out that empathy isn't administered as an injection; it is learned over time. The young child who throws a rock at a flock of pigeons isn't so much endangering a bird as he is giving us the chance to intervene at the crossroads: We can teach empathy, or we can encourage cruelty. The classic "triad" known to all criminal investigators—enuresis, fire-setting, and animal abuse—has never been especially convincing to me. My own experience is that it is the caregiver's reaction to the bed-wetting that determines the outcome. A loving, supportive environment takes the child right out of the "triad." But a punitive, humiliating response impels him toward the other path.

The abuse of animals, especially chronic, escalating abuse, is a "gateway" indicator. Whether committed in the home environment of a child, or committed directly by the child, it never occurs in a vacuum. It never fails to tell us it is time to act. But, first, we must to learn to listen.

The sociopath may lack empathy, but he (or she) is an expert at exploiting it in others. Any domestic violence professional knows of women who remained with abusers because of threats to harm a beloved pet. Any CPS caseworker can tell you about cases in which a child abuser also hurt—or killed—the victim's pet. Any sex crimes detective can tell you that child molesters know a puppy or a kitten is a far more effective lure than candy.

I've had protection dogs all my adult life. This doesn't mean vicious dogs, it means trained dogs. Professional trainers have a disparaging term for so-called "guard dogs" that mindlessly attack anything that approaches: "fear-biters." Typically, such animals have been "trained" by repeated beatings and other forms of maltreatment. It's time that we reached that same understanding about children.

Animal abuse is now one of the diagnostic criteria for Conduct Disorder in children. That's a beginning, but it barely scratches the surface. Pets reside in the households of the overwhelming majority of Americans. As Ascione so clearly illustrates, they offer not only the opportunity to teach empathy, they serve as early warning systems for the child protective profession, if only we learn to recognize the signposts.

The abuse of animals should be a mandatory portion of all interviewing and data-collection concerning "at-risk" children, because, as this book demonstrates with such striking clarity, it has the potential to tell us so much.

Animal abuse and children—as perpetrators or as witnesses—may be the Rosetta stone to predatory psychopathology. All of us concerned with public safety have been sailors on a vast, uncharted sea. Now, Frank Ascione has given us a new, and extraordinarily promising, navigational instrument.

Children and Animals: Exploring the Roots of Kindness and Cruelty should be required reading for everyone involved in child protection and law enforcement. It should be part of the training curriculum in schools of social work and in police academies. And it will be appreciated by every citizen who is willing to invest the time and trouble it takes to make our policymakers do the right thing.

I don't write well enough to adequately express the importance of this book. Fortunately, I don't have to: it speaks for itself. And it will inform and empower everyone who gives it the chance to do so.

© 2004 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

To purchase Children and Animals: Exploring the Roots of Kindness and Cruelty by Frank R. Ascione, Ph.D., click here.

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