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A man who has dedicated his life to protecting children warns we are betraying them—and ourselves.

Our Endangered Species
A Hard Look At How We Treat Children

by Andrew Vachss
Originally published in Parade Magazine, March 29, 1998

Also available in Russian (

Also available in Spanish (

A Hard Look At How We Treat Children by Andrew Vachss, Parade Magazine cover photo

Years ago, I was in the middle of a hotly contested trial, representing an infant who had been so tortured that the testifying pediatric expert said the baby actually appeared "suicidal" even at such a young age. One of the opposing attorneys argued for the return of the child, saying his client was the "natural mother" and had certain rights. There was nothing "natural" about the "mothering" this baby boy had received. He would have been better off in a P.O.W. camp. And I began to reflect on how even biology has failed some children, how our human species no longer practiced the lessons of our predecessors. I wondered, even then, if it was too late for us. I do not believe it is—but I do believe we are running out of time.

Andrew Vachss
photo © Leo Sorel

Our notion of the human family as the safeguard of our species has not evolved, says the author (above). Instead, it has devolved—putting our very survival at risk.

Although we all believe our human species to be the highest point on the evolutionary scale, there is one critical area in which we have failed to evolve, one area in which we do not represent an improvement upon our predecessors. And this is a failure so fundamental, so critical, that our long-term survival is at stake. Ultimately, it poses a greater threat than war, poverty, hunger, crime, racism and tribalism—even of the genocidal variety—combined.

That fundamental failure is this: We are not protecting and preserving our own. Our notion of the human "family" as the safeguard of our species has not evolved. Instead, it has gone in the opposite direction—it has devolved.

It has devolved to the extent that we tolerate unprotective, even violently abusive parents. It has devolved to the extent that we tolerate predators within a child's circle of trust—in schools, in clubs, within religious organizations. It has devolved to extent that abusers, even when they have been identified, are permitted further opportunities to prey. It has devolved to the extent that we insist on the "rehabilitative potential" of those who viciously injure and/or sexually assault their own children. And it has devolved to the extent that we permit convicted predators of children to be released and walk among us.

One distinguishing characteristic of highly evolved species is a long period of postnatal helplessness, when offspring are not able to fend for themselves. Another characteristic is pack behavior, a collectiveness which requires that all activity be geared to the ultimate survival of the group.

Among other mammals, nonprotective parents are considered defective by other pack members. Not only will they decrease the pack's numbers through direct attacks on their own young, but they also cannot be relied upon to guard the offspring of others while pack members forage, hunt or gather. And so they are expelled. Likewise, predators within a species are not tolerated. They are banished, avoided or killed. These are not moral judgements; they are biologically driven and, among all species but our own, compelling.

photo from Cummins/FPG

Wolves may be predators, but they are biologically driven to protect the young within their pack. To survive, our human pack, the family, must make protecting our own a priority.


Human animals, by contrast, have tolerated—even tacitly condoned—the nonprotector and the predator, leading to an escalation of the rape, murder and torture of our children. Rather than making their survival, and the survival of our species, an unquestioned priority, we watch indifferently while the evolution of cruelty continues. Much of it comes from the individual family itself; all of it from the human family as a whole.

Instead of blaming the "destruction of the family" for every social ill and evil, we need to face the fact that this is a self-inflicted wound. The "family" is self-destructing—destroying itself from within by its failure to nurture and value its offspring. What are "family values" anyway? Unless and until the ultimate "family value" is protection of our children, such a term deserves no respect.

We cannot continue to tolerate those who prey upon our children—the future of our species. Evolution is a race, a relay race, with the baton passed from generation to generation. The competition is between those who value children as the seedlings of our species and those who value them as vassals and victims.

We are not winning this race. And we cannot, unless and until we change our priorities and our conduct. All the pious rhetoric on the planet will not save one child. And while we endlessly debate the "right" of pedophiles to post kiddie porn on the Internet, our species moves farther away from its biological roots.

We must take the abuse of a child as an offense against (and threat to) our survival. And we must replicate the conduct of our animal ancestors and respond as they did—or fail to do so and vanish as some of them did. Forever.

Our Search For Love

Also available in Russian (

Also available in Spanish (

Unconditional love is a popular talk-show topic, but it is little understood. All infants are biologically entitled to unconditional love and protection. It is their birthright, and it is their parents' birth obligation. There is no such thing as a "good baby" or a "bad baby," which is why love and protectiveness must be unconditional for them all.

Those not given such love as children seek it throughout their adult lives—some in ways very dangerous to themselves and to others. But unconditional love can never be received by adults. It can only be given. All love between adults is conditional. It requires behavior; it must be earned and maintained.

Justina Morales
photo from AP/Wide World

Justina Morales was killed by her mother's boyfriend while her mother held the little girl's hand on December 31, 1995, in New York City. The two then dumped the 8-year-old's body in a vacant lot.

I once represented a child who had been horribly tortured by her "mother." On the witness stand, the abuser explained why she had burned the child by holding her little hand against a hot stove grid: "She wouldn't leave me alone!" The child's crime was to follow her mother around the house, attempting to wring from her the love she so desperately needed. Slaps and kicks did not stop the child's search for love, so the "mother" decided more extreme measures were needed to "teach her a lesson." Too many of our children are being taught that same lesson, in a variety of hideous ways. And yet our tolerance continues.

Here's what I tell so many formerly abused children who are now adults: Look how desperately you wanted to bond with "parents" who would not love you. That is not a defect; indeed, it can be a strength. It proves that the ability to love has not been eradicated in you. But you must choose carefully. Test, establish criteria, search—and resolve to be alone if you cannot find what you deserve. Bonding, in and of itself, is of no value unless the current flows in both directions.

When our biological families no longer function, the only option is to create a family of choice—a family defined by shared purpose and mutual respect, not ties of blood. When, as an adult, you can adopt a child-protective pack mentality, you can bond with others and have the family you need.

But that means to contribute, not to demand. You are no longer an infant, no longer entitled to demand. You are no longer an infant, no longer entitled to the "unconditional love" of which you were robbed as a child. Yes, you were cheated. But if you devote your life to the celebration of that theft, you are doomed.

Why It Takes A Whole Village To Rape A Child

Also available in Russian (

Also available in Spanish (

A classic illustration of devolution is our laws against incest. What is the difference between sex with a child of another and a child of one's own? We all know—and the data prove—the truth. When a male (note: I do not say a "man") has sex with a neighbor's child, prison is a likely possibility. But should such a creature have sex with his own child, we euphemistically deem it "family dysfunction" and call in the therapists.

Incest laws were enacted to prevent the birth of biogenetic defectives. But why do such laws apply to children? Children do not have the biological capacity to reproduce. Laws prohibiting sex or marriage between closely related adults protect the species. But incest prohibition as to children has no such value.

Simply put, we as a nation consider children to be the property of their parents. And we provide a special immunity to sex offenders who grow their own victims. Which is more destructive to our species: the random sexual assault of a child or the sexual assault of a child by the very individual whom all laws command to protect that child? What is the moral, social or ethical justification from distinguishing sexual assault by blood relationship of the victim to the perpetrator? We can come to but one conclusion: The laws against incest exist not to protect children but to protect predators.

Yes, our human race remains the only one that tolerates nonprotective parents and same-species predators. The incest laws make that point, written in the blood of innocents. This is the question about incest laws for every legislator in the land: Explain it or change it. And unless we, as a society, start asking that question, we will continue our "evolution" until we have lost our humanity.

© 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

PARADE Contributing Editor Andrew Vachss is the author of Safe House, a new novel published by Knopf. For more information concerning Vachss and his work, visit his Web site:


This punch had an immediate concrete, quantifiable result—it helped put a predator down for hard time. Click here to read about that.

But the punch carried much more impact beyond that one TKO—it also eliminated the incest-exception laws in seven states, including California and New York. To read about that long, rewarding journey, click here!

Andrew Vachss has been writing for Parade since 1985. In response to endless requests, we have collected all his past Parade articles here.


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