Today's Victim Could Be Tomorrow's Predator
by Andrew Vachss
Andrew Vachss has devoted his life to the protection of abused children. His career includes U.S. Public Health Service investigator, social caseworker, overseas war-zone relief and community organizer. He also directed a maximum-security institution for violent juvenile offenders. Now an attorney and a novelist, he has spent the last 15 years in courts throughout the country representing children—some of them juvenile offenders—who have been brutalized, criminally neglected and sexually assaulted.
Tough-minded, fiercely committed and streetwise, Vachss has been a tireless advocate for these children, both in his legal practice and in his books—including his most recent novel, "Blossom," to be published this month by Knopf. In this article, Andrew Vachss takes a hard look at a far-reaching consequence of child abuse and what we can do about it.
Earlier this year, a man and a woman were found guilty of murder. The woman's child was the victim, a little boy named Lattie McGee. Four years old when he died, the baby had been beaten, burned, starved—tortured in ways banned by the Geneva Convention for prisoners of war. Predictably, public outrage flared—citizens hotly debated an appropriate response, and the death penalty was at the forefront of many conversations.
What society should do with such humans is of great concern, but it is not the burning question. There is another question of great significance we must address. Its answer tells us a hard truth about how we fight crime in America:
What if Lattie had lived?
I have known many children who did survive such torture. Adam was one of them—a handsome boy, blond, polite and soft-spoken. Every Saturday, he would dress in an immaculate sailor suit and go to a suburban mall. He would position himself carefully outside the entrance to the rest rooms and patiently wait. Sooner or later, a young woman would approach, holding a little boy by the hand, consternation on her face. Adam knew what she was thinking: Her child was too old to take with her into the ladies' room and too young to venture by himself into the men's room. Adam would approach, smiling gently. "Do you want me to take him inside with me, ma'am?" he would ask. "I always take my baby brother." Relieved and grateful, the young woman would entrust her child to this charming little boy. She would wait outside. And wait. Finally, when too much time had passed, she would either ask a passing man to check on her son or, on some occasions, rush inside herself. Her child would be found on the floor of the rest room, crying. Slap marks on his face, his clothes in disarray. The only sign of Adam: the open window he'd used to escape.
I was Adam's lawyer. He readily acknowledged his crimes, displaying no consciousness of guilt whatsoever. When I asked him why he did such things, he looked at me as if I was out of touch with reality. Why should anyone feel sorry for his victims? Nobody had felt sorry for him.
Later, we learned that Adam had actually served an apprenticeship in sexual assault. His home had been the classroom. The therapists told us that Adam was trying to master his own sense of powerlessness—to overcome oppression by imitating his oppressors.
Adam told me he liked doing what he did. It made him feel strong. Special. In control.
He was 9 years old.
I found Barbara working in a massage parlor in Times square. She had run away from her home in another state. Her nights were endless, ugly sex—dulled by cocaine and pills—with a stream of faceless strangers. Fifteen years old, she turned over her earnings to a brutal pimp.
As we were driving away, I asked her, "Don't kids run away to find a better life than what they left behind?"
"I did find a better life," she told me.
Marcus stabbed a man in the heart on a Midwest street corner. "For the experience," he said to me as we sat together in a holding pen. He didn't remember a time when he hadn't been beaten. His sister recently had given birth. To her father's baby. The baby was born addicted to crack—drugs she had purchased from another of her brothers. Marcus had no expression on his face. The psychiatrist said he was dead inside. "I just wanted to see if I could do it," Marcus told me. He was 14.
The war we're losing.
The '90's may be, as the media proclaim, the "decade of the environment." But nothing so permeates the quality of the human environment in our country on a daily basis as crime, and the fear of crime.
Fear of crime is the common denominator in this country—no longer confined to urban areas, no longer escapable by moving to a better neighborhood. Crime is so pervasive and so terrifies us that a "tough" stand on this issue is a minimum requirement for any politician. Declare war on a foreign country, and dissent will always surface; increase military appropriations, and there will be some discord in Congress. But who would oppose the War on Crime?
"Get-tough" prescriptions regularly appear—especially when cases like Lattie McGee's are reported in the press. Cries go up for the death penalty, harsher criminal laws, more prison cells, boot camp for first offenders. Yet this is a war we are losing on all fronts. The time has come for us to examine clearly the "get-tough" rhetoric, using the one criterion that cuts across political lines: effectiveness.
All "crime fighting" breaks down to one of four basic categories:
All such crime-fighting strategies have value. None should be abandoned. Many should be increased. And, all together, they simply are not enough. Why?
Because our policy has been to fight individual crimes when we should be fighting crime.
Criminals are made, not born.
We make our own monsters. The formula is frighteningly simple: Take child abuse or neglect, especially at the hands of those constituted by the laws of man and nature to protect their own, and let the government either ignore or exacerbate the situation. Time will do the rest.
The maltreated child cries, "I hurt!" If we don't listen, and listen quickly, the same cry for help will turn prophetic: The unanswered plea for help will evolve into a deadly pattern. Only a tiny percentage of abused children actually die from their torture, but the survivors are the recruits for an ever-growing army of predatory criminals. Today's victim is tomorrow's predator.
Does this mean that every abused child will grow into a monster? No. But when the monster does emerge, the fallout is incalculable.
Look deep into the background of the predatory serial criminal, and the odds are overwhelming that you will find a childhood of abuse. This is explanation, not justification. Not all abused children turn to such destructive paths, and those who do must answer for their acts. It's too late for too many. But if we can't "rehabilitate" monsters, it doesn't mean that we have to stand idly by at their creation.
We have learned something over the years: Criminals are made, not born—there is no biogenetic code that produces a violent rapist, a child molester or a serial killer. We also have learned that there are environmental factors that predispose any individual to violent criminality—volatile factors that can tip the scales.
The first environment is the family. And the family is the first line of defense against the production of dangerous criminals. Attributing the current climate of crime to the breakdown of the family may be partly correct, but there is no period in our recorded history during which the kind of evil, predatory crime that frightens us so today has not been present.
There is a larger environment, a larger family: our society. Yet when it comes to fighting crime, we don't act as a society. Some organizations use anti-crime rhetoric as a a means to advance their own agendas ... temperance organizations or gun-control groups, for example. True, alcohol and the availability of firearms both contribute to violent crime, especially when combined. But fighting crime is not the sole reason for the existence of such groups. Similarly, those who advocate castration for sex offenders know nothing of the true motivation of such creatures.
Prevention—true prevention—is what we need. If we act before the deadly flower reaches full bloom, we can forestall the terrible harvest. The hard truth is that most child abuse cannot be prevented. But what we do after we learn that a child has been abused will determine that child's future—and our own.
Let's put first things first.
We must reorder our priorities. Cliches won't save us. Knowledge, by itself, is not power. Knowing where we have to go is not the same as having the resources or the commitment to get there.
First, understand that this is not simply another call for more money. We can significantly attack crime at its taproot without disturbing the specific gravity of the existing budget. If we invested the precious resources we now waste on the futile goal of "rehabilitating" calcified serial offenders, the savings would finance a whole new offense.
The front line of that offensive is Child Protective Services (CPS). This is the agency that responds to the first outcry: A child confides in a teacher that she is the victim of incest; a police officer finds an infant abandoned in an airport bathroom; an emergency-room nurse examines a baby with broken bones and signs of brain damage. All call the same number: the Child Abuse Hotline. Those calls, and thousands like them, dispatch CPS caseworkers to the scene.
The caseworker's job is to interview the individuals involved, investigate the facts and evaluate the results. And in those cases where child abuse or neglect is found, these same caseworkers step up to a new level of responsibility. At this point, they find themselves handicapped, in a bind, their energies divided by the law, which requires them simultaneously to protect the child and rehabilitate the abusers.
Theirs is an awesome responsibility. The decisions they make affect the course of our entire country. Yet they are underfunded, undertrained, overburdened, undersupervised and, most significantly, disrespected.
In a country where value is so often expressed financially, the rationale for the astronomic difference between the salary of a schoolteacher and a pro athlete is the "marketplace." Teachers are paid by the public, athletes paid by private enterprise. Still, we can tell our government how to spend our tax dollars, and it's time we did so.
What must be done.
We need to treat child protective work as our first and best opportunity to prevent crime. Children have short lives as children. We must make intelligent, informed decisions about rehabilitation of abusing parents, and we must make those decisions quickly. To wait is to be too late.
Would a genuine commitment to Child Protective Services stop the production of all criminals? Of course not. The goal is to stop the creation of the predatory, sociopathic monster. Such individuals do not constitute the vast majority of criminals, but they commit crimes radically disproportionate to their numbers. Their "lifestyle" is crime—chronic and relentless. They act without regard for law or morality. And they laugh at us because we try to "understand" them.
It comes down to self-interest—the sociopath pursues only his own, while we persist in ignoring ours. This is worse than giving aid and comfort to the enemy—it is capitulation.
Our self-interest dictates that we professionalize across the board. Protecting our children and our future is not a job for amateurs. Child abuse must become part of the curriculum in police academies and in law and medical schools. We need an increasing cadre of experts, not more "consciousness raising."
We acknowledge that juvenile justice aims both to fight crime and rehabilitate wrongdoers. Child protective professionals work with the same individuals—in an earlier stage of development. It's time to link the two professions, providing a continuum of care that starts as early as possible in an abused child's life.
We must separate investigation from rehabilitation in child-abuse work. Let one team from Child Protective Services find the facts, another provide the services. And we must have significant levels of internal review so that no single individual's perceptions or philosophies will determine the fate of a child.
Service on those front lines is as noble and as vital to our country's security as any military commitment. We must increase recruitment and incentives, even as we acknowledge the honor and dignity inherent in such work. For example, we could provide scholarship assistance to any college senior seeking a master's in social work (MSW), in exchange for a five-year commitment to Child Protective Services upon graduation. We could promote CPS work as a form of national service similar to VISTA or the Peace Corps.
A sufficient number of CPS workers armed with master's degrees would empower the profession of child protection. MSW's can testify as "experts" in court. They can supervise graduate students in the field. They can provide a clinical counterpoint to the on-the-job training caseworkers now receive. They can act as role models and upgrade entire agencies. Finally, they can change the way Child Protective Services workers are perceived by other agencies and by the public.
These improvements go beyond cost-effectiveness. They would not only pay for themselves but also return substantial dividends. The specifics are far less important than the focus. No more isolationist, "one answer" approaches. It's time to work together. And to start at the root.
Improving all child-protective services is valuable in and of itself. Simply put: We need to combine minds to fight crime. The reduction of child abuse is a moral imperative. A reduction in crime is just one of the potential benefits.
But what a potential benefit it is! We get the best of all returns on our investment. Not only will we do the right thing; we'll also get long-term rewards for it. Can it really work? There is only one way we will know if fighting child abuse will actually reduce predatory crime.
Let's try it. Now.
What You Can Do to Fight Crime
How you can help make Child Protective Services our first defense against crime:
© 1990 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
To help change laws to benefit children, visit PROTECT.
Andrew Vachss has been writing for Parade since 1985. In response to endless requests, we have collected all his past Parade articles here.
Kamau Marcharia holds a copy of the Parade magazine this article first appeared in. To learn how Mr. Marcharia went from being wrongfully imprisoned to civil service, read "Parole As Post-Conviction Relief: The Robert Lewis Decision."
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