One Sole Practitioner's Crusade
Best-Selling Novelist Has Declared War On Child Abusers
By Sean Corcoran
Andrew Vachss takes single-mindedness to a new level.
His entire law career, his best-selling novels, even his previous jobs running prisons and youth detention centers, have been dedicated to a single purpose—protecting children from abuse.
He went to law school, he says, because he wanted to become a hunter, tracking down pedophiles and child molesters.
"I knew there was only one thing I wanted to do," Vachss said. "As far as I was concerned, I wanted to hunt, and this was the license. Law school was how to get it."
Vachss (it rhymes with "ax") is a New York City-based attorney who represents victims of child abuse to give them a chance at justice. As a lawyer, that is all he does. He takes no other cases.
"I don't fit very well into the general definition of what a lawyer is or how they act, at least from [the profession's] perspective," he said. "From the public's perspective, I'm fine."
Confronting 'The Beast'
The public knows Andrew Vachss as a best-selling novelist who writes legal thrillers about child abuse. The author photo on his books shows a man with a chiseled face and an eye patch, gazing sternly at his readers. In 1993, Oprah spent a full hour with him on her show, referring to him as a "warrior for children." He also is a contributing editor for Parade Magazine, and once a year he gets to write a cover story about pretty much anything he wants.
In all his books, in all the magazine and newspaper stories (The New York Times, The ABA Journal and The Journal of Psychohistory, among others), and on all the shows, Vachss always writes and speaks about the same thing: children and sick people that hurt them.
Vachss's war against child abuse began in 1965 when he was 23 years old and fresh out of Case-Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He was hired as an investigator/interviewer for the U.S. Public Health Service's Task Force on Eradication of Syphilis.
In that job, Vachss saw himself as a chain breaker. He tracked down people with syphilis, interviewing them in bars and on street comers to learn their sexual history. And then he went to the next person, trying to get as close as he could to the start of the chain.
"I wasn't raised in a prep school," said Vachss, who grew up in lower Manhattan, on the edge of the West Village. "I kind of thought I knew how the world worked. But I never really envisioned people doing things to their children that I saw in that job."
On one occasion, the trail led Vachss to a raped baby, a child, he says, "that was literally dripping with gonorrhea."
"The stuff I saw just seared itself into my conscience. But I think what was more of a factor, was the attitude of the perpetrators. They thought the children were their property."
This was Vachss's first encounter with what he refers to as "The Beast"—the reoccurring cycle of child abuse in which predators beget predators. "There's no such thing as evil DNA," Vachss is fond of saying. "Monsters aren't born, they're made."
His horror at what he saw in that first job, launched Vachss on his lifelong mission. By the time he entered law school at age 30, Vachss had already worked as a caseworker for the Department of Social Services in New York City, and as the director of a maximum-security treatment center for violent juvenile offenders in Roslindale, Mass. He also spent a year on the ground in Biafra, now Nigeria, working to get food to families when the country was torn apart by genocide, malaria and famine in 1969. During that time, he wasted away from 160 pounds to 89 pounds from malaria and malnutrition.
All of those jobs were an attempt to help children before they became the next generation of abusers. But in the end, he decided that law school was the best way to pursue his quest because it would allow him to go after the abusers himself.
'"I don't claim to do what I do because I love children," he said. '"I do what I do because I hate people that prey on them." I don't want to slam anyone, but holding oneself up as a child advocate is something NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) does. It is a self-awarded medal."
Hunting 'The Beast'
Vachss attended the New England School of Law, in Boston, Mass., where he graduated magna cum laude in 1975. During his final two years he was on a full trustees' scholarship, and he served as editor in chief of the New England Law Review his final year.
When given a choice, he selected classes that he thought would help him defend children. His career as a lawyer, who represents only children, was unheard of at the time.
"When I told people why I attended, my classmates laughed at me like I was an idiot," he said. "You're going to represent children? How can you make money at that?" they said.
The truth was, he couldn't.
"You have to figure out a way to make a living, bottom line. There are corporations that exclusively defend children," he said. "But if you are talking about a privateer like I am, you have to find a way to have a private practice pay. I suppose if you are rich you could do it, or subsidized, you could do it."
Vachss was neither. His first job out of law school was driving a cab, and his first law office was a Chinese food restaurant. He worked out an arrangement with the restaurant owners, and they took phone messages for him, he said. When it came to meeting with clients, he would tell them that he couldn't make it back to his office, and then offered to meet them in the restaurant. He always paid.
Vachss managed to have himself appointed to a New York City panel of attorneys that do youth neglect cases. He earned $10 an hour, he says, and $15 if the case went to court. He told The Associated Press that in 1988, he handled 28 child abuse cases for an average fee of $218 each.
To subsidize those cases,Vachss also did criminal defense work. His experience working in jails and criminal reentry centers before he entered law school made criminal clients easy to find.
"I used the income from criminal defense work to do the work I really wanted to do."
For 10 years, Vachss's law practice combined criminal defense work with child protection. But his work protecting children did not go unnoticed. In 1984, Vachss took on one of the oldest, most respected children's charities in the country; the Fresh Air Fund, and journalists began to notice him.
The Fresh Air Fund provides free summer vacations for underprivileged New York City children. It is also the favorite charity of The New York Times, whose former publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, served as chairman of the Fund's board of directors. During the spring and summer months each year, The Times runs free ads, articles and editorials encouraging people to support the charity.
On three occasions, Vachss sued the Fund on behalf of children who were sexually abused—two in homes and one at a camp. Each of those suits was based on negligent screening and supervision. Not only did the Fund settle all three suits, it publicly admitted its negligence and credited Vachss with opening its eyes.
Vachss continued to gain notoriety with a series of highly publicized courtroom victories. In 1986 he became the first lawyer in New York, to successfully sue an abuser for civil damages based on the emotional impact on the child. In that case, which involved a father who repeatedly raped his daughter, Vachss won a jury verdict of $362,000.
Two years later, Vachss argued another case based on the theory that abuse can begin before birth. He convinced a court to order the mother to give up the baby immediately after it was born.
And in the mid-1990s, Vachss was instrumental in drafting and lobbying for legislation to create a national registry of sex offenders.
A Broader Audience
But attacking child abusers one by one wasn't enough for Vachss. He was determined to reach a larger audience, and so, at age 42, he turned to fiction.
That was the year he published his first novel, Flood (Donald Fine Inc., 341 pages), and has not been rejected since. He had written a book called A Bomb Built in Hell in 1973, but he could not get it published. Things have changed.
The books, he noted, were simply a means to an end. Not only have they subsidized his legal work, they have also allowed him to expand his "war."
"I wanted a lot bigger jury than I could get in a courthouse, and a novel was the only way to do that. I never anticipated what followed," he said. "The books (which have been translated into several languages) have given me a chance to address audiences in Berlin and Milan."
Flood is a novel about a female karate expert who hires a private detective to hunt down the rapist/killer of her friend's child. It is gritty, to say the least, but Vachss said the content is nothing compared to what he saw on a daily basis as an attorney. And it's the same with all 17 of his novels (his most recent, Only Child, was released in October), as well as the half-dozen graphic novels he has written. The stories are toned-down versions of the real life accounts he has in his office files.
'"I have to tone down the books because people would throw them away in revulsion" he said. "It would be like saying to the general public that they can come read my files. They wouldn't want to do that."
'"I write about this stuff, and I try to see myself as a journalist. The only criticism I will not abide by in the reviews is this stuff is not true."
Although he is a best-selling author, Vachss still carries 15 to 20 cases on a rotating basis, he said, and he can't actually recall a case that he has ever lost. In fact, Vachss wished more of his cases were appealed.
'"I have won a lot of cases that were never appealed, to my dissatisfaction, because I wanted to spread the ruling of a trial to the appellate level so it became precedent. I was the first person to establish the whole standard of collaboration in certain sex abuse cases, but none of them were ever appealed.
'"I am going to win the appeal, but they don't appeal them."
Where To From Here?
Vachss, who is now 59, is still astounded by his success.
'"I never expected anything like the success of the books. I never expected to spend my whole career representing children. That was a dream. My goal for the future is to train the next wave. I work on it all the time."
What he doesn't want to do, is entrust the battle entirely to volunteers. He strongly believes these children need lawyers in addition to caseworkers.
"When people tell me a warm, caring volunteer can represent a kid, I tell them that the next time they need a root canal, go to a volunteer. No one is willing to do that."
Vachss now does most of his legal work pro bono and refuses to represent anyone but the children themselves. He won't even let their parents hire him for fear that it will compromise his independence. On his website (www.vachss.com), which he said gets 1.3 million hits a year, Vachss emphatically states that he is "not for hire by any adult to 'represent' a child in an interfamilial matter, period."
"When adults offer to retain me to represent their child, they are, in truth, trying to retain me to represent their view of the facts" the website says. '"If they hire me, they can fire me."
When asked about the posted statement, Vachss said it is just another indication of how different he is from other attorneys.
"Show me another lawyer's website that says I am not taking your business, so don't pester me," he said.
© Copyright 2002 Lawyers Weekly, Inc. All rights reserved.
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