Are You Going To Hurt Me Too?
An expert suggests 10 steps to curb child abuse.
by Andrew Vachss
Originally published in Parade Magazine, October 13, 1985
As a lawyer whose clients are mostly children—and in his former positions as investigator for the U.S. Public Service, caseworker for the Department of Social Services and director of a maximum-security juvenile institution—Andrew H. Vachss has handled hundreds of child-abuse and sexual-abuse cases. His experience has left him with an unsparing view of the system and little patience for platitudes. His first novel, "Flood" (Donald I. Fine, Inc.), covering similar terrain, is the story of a man and woman's search for a child-molester in New York City. Vachss believes we can protect our children. Here he offers 10 suggestions he says can work.
A 4-year-old boy, one side of his face swathed in bandages and his arms covered with cigarette burns, asks the lawyer who has been introduced to him by social workers, "Are you going to hurt me too?"
I was that lawyer. This young boy, and hundreds of thousands of children like him, has learned to fear the world of adults. The child who asks, "Are you going to hurt me too?" is really speaking to all of us—to society at large. And if we face the hard realities, the truthful answer may well be "yes."
Today, most Americans know that child abuse has become a virtual epidemic. Still, the rhetoric of outrage has run far ahead of the reality of change. We have laws that mandate the reporting of suspected child abuse; we have 24-hour "hot lines" that promise immediate investigation; we have courts specially designed to deal with this issue; and we have more programs and caseworkers than ever before. Yet children continue to be physically maltreated, sexually abused and even murdered in record numbers. Obviously, we're not doing enough.
Child abuse isn't a new phenomenon—it didn't start when the newspapers started reporting the horror stories to the public. But those who believe that the "discovery" of child abuse means all our efforts must now go into "understanding" and rehabilitating the abusers are condemning future generations to attack. Discovering the existence of a killer shark may be important—but studying why the shark kills isn't as important as staying out of the water.
The victim, not the abuser, must be our priority.
The truth is that, for many of our children, the family continues to be the most dangerous place in America. Many of these abusive families are nothing more than physical and emotional free-fire zones. But, for the most part, children can expect little genuine protection from the system. The protection of children is still regarded as the province of "do-gooders," and many people still oppose government intervention into what they believe is a "family affair." In fact, child abuse is the most rarely discovered of crimes and among the least likely to be prosecuted.
Our society eventually pays the price for its passivity. The survivors of child abuse grow up to haunt us with juvenile crime, drug and alcohol abuse, juvenile prostitution and suicide.
It can't get better until we take a hard look at the situation:
- Child abuse cuts across all social, economic, cultural and ethnic lines. Investigative and protective efforts confined to the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum are doomed to failure.
- Child-abusers are not all "sick" people who require treatment. In fact, they fall into three basic categories: (1) Parents who are inadequate—that is, those who have never learned how to be parents. Such individuals benefit greatly from both rehabilitative and preventive services. (2) Parents who are mentally ill—that is, those whose mental disorders prevent them from reaching minimal standards of parenting. Of this group, some are treatable. And (3) parents who are evil—who physically or sexually exploit their children for profit or pleasure (or both).
- Child abuse is a crime. It may be a social problem: it may be the product of a disordered mind; it may indicate an overall family dysfunction . . . but it is always a crime. The public, however, generally does not view it that way. If someone viciously attacks a child on the street, we want him prosecuted for assault. But if he commits the exact same act upon his own child in his own home, we call it "child abuse" and summon the social workers. A child killed by his parents is just as dead as a child killed by a stranger.
We must stop tolerating these crimes. There are changes that could be implemented immediately and would not cost a penny. Yet such changes would have a cosmic effect not only upon children currently being abused but also upon the course of this nation for years to come. All that is required is that we look at the problem clearly and approach the issues with a unified sense of purpose. Here are 10 suggestions that could be implemented tomorrow:
All reported cases of child abuse should be investigated by professionally trained fact-finders. Social workers must first learn the truth of what occurred and only then begin any "rehabilitative" process. We should not shy from referral to the courts or the prospect of a prison sentence for the offender. Currently, child-abuse "investigations" are often performed by individuals who either lack training or whose social philosophy places the rehabilitation of offenders over the safety of the victims. Just as police use social-work skills in particular situations, it is time that social workers learn some of the skills of the criminal investigator. Similarly, attorneys representing child-protective agencies must be trained in basic prosecutor's skills, and lawyers who represent the children must be specially trained.
The current system of using the same social workers to simultaneously protect the child and rehabilitate the parent must be replaced by separate teams. If a lawyer tried to represent both abuser and the abused, the cries of "conflict of interest" would echo throughout the courthouse. Yet when a social worker routinely does the same thing, we call it "family therapy" and accept it. Current laws require child-protective workers to "work with the total family unit" and too many caseworkers find the dual role impossible to perform. In a choice between an adult who can express (and excuse) himself and a child who may not be able to speak at all, some deadly mistakes are inevitable. It is up to society to bring about the needed legislative changes. Children cannot vote.
A child in danger must be protected. Once his or her safety is assured, and only then, we can begin the process of working with the abuser. This could (and often should) mean removal of the offender from the home. Currently, most incest offenders are left in the home on the ground that they are the family bread-winner, while the victim is placed in another setting. Violent abusers are allowed to retain custody of their children when they agree to accept counseling—and too many children "known to social services" die during the rehabilitative process. Unless the victim is shielded from danger, he will perceive that the "helping agencies" approve of (and support) those who abuse him.
Children have a short life as children. We can no longer permit the endless cycle of removal, so-called "rehabilitation," return to the family, continued abuse, removal, more rehabilitation, and so on. This process now goes on until the child reaches maturity or the parent commits such an atrocious act that he or she is incarcerated.
We must impose standards for parenting. A "family" is not biologically defined. You need a license to drive a car. Why? Because if you can't drive to a minimum standard, you endanger everyone on the road. An abusive parent is a far greater danger to society than any drunk driver. A moral society will not set standards for becoming a parent, but it will establish irreducible minimums for maintaining that sacred status.
The "confidentiality" of the family court must not be a shield to protect the abuser. The press, which has always been this country's single greatest force for social change, should no longer be excluded from courtrooms where child-abuse cases are tried. Of course, restrictions on the use of the victim's name should remain in effect, and ground rules between the press and judiciary should be established in advance.
The government must be as accountable for child abuse as the individual parent. Inadequate, corrupt or criminal day-care centers, institutions, agencies and foster parents must be held to strict standards, with penalties for maltreatment of the children in their charge.
Each family adjudicated as abusive must be given every chance to reform—every chance, but not an endless period of time. Such families must demonstrate sufficient progress so that the child's safety is assured or be subject to termination of their parental right. Too many times, a child is removed from an abusive home and placed in foster care while the abusers are "counseled." Years may pass while this process works itself through. When the child finally is returned, another outbreak of abuse simply results in another foster-care placement. In the meantime, the child's life is bleeding away.
Social workers must be psychiatrically screened before being allowed to work in the system. If a social worker believes, for example, that "all children lie" or that children fantasize sexual abuse, he cannot do his job properly. Similarly, employers must be allowed to learn if a prospective applicant for a job involving the custody of children has any prior record as a child-abuser. Currently, only criminal records are available for examination.
Finally, we must adopt a "triage mentality" when it comes to child abuse. That is, we first must invest our time and money in protecting children and only then in rehabilitating those who demonstrate their ability to benefit from such services. A determination should be made as soon as possible as to where we can help and where our efforts are doomed. Rehabilitation of unrepentant criminals is a waste of our financial resources. Society has a finite amount of resources, and it should also have a finite amount of tolerance.
We cannot change some people, but we can change the ways in which we respond to their acts. We cannot achieve perfection, but we can do our best to protect our most precious natural resource—our children. Whenever the juvenile crime rate rises, the press screams for a "get tough" attitude. Isn't it time that we got tough for our children too?
The child who asks. "Are you going to hurt me too?" is morally entitled to a better answer than we have given him so far. It is our human responsibility to make that answer a truthful one.
© 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
Andrew Vachss has been writing for Parade since 1985. In response to endless requests, we have collected all his past Parade articles here.