Reform - Allegations
Abuse in the Name of Protecting Children
Words such as these come from victims of current child abuse laws in the US. Parents, foster parents, teachers, physicians, members of the clergy, and others have been falsely accused of mistreating children.
Many Americans applauded when laws were enacted to protect children from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. I was one of them, having worked with emotionally disturbed children, many of whom had been victims of such abuse. Clearly, the intent of these laws was good.
Just as clearly, however, the consequences have been disastrous. The laws and the enforcement procedures related to child abuse too often deny human and constitutional rights to both the accused and the alleged victim. Indeed, observers have likened the climate created by these laws to that of Salem, during the witch hunt, to that of Nazi Germany in 1939, or to that of the McCarthy era in the 1950s.
In the U.S. in 1985, reported cases of suspected child abuse totaled 1.7 million. Of the reports involving sexual abuse, 80% were later determined to have been unfounded --up from 40% just five years earlier. Half of the substantiated cases of child abuse involved neglect, not other types of abuse; only 7% of the substantiated cases involved sexual abuse. Accusations of child abuse bring suffering and distress to everyone involved. It has been estimated, for example, that as many as 80% of those who are falsely accused of child abuse lose their jobs or suffer other employment problems. Hundreds of people have had to undergo traumatic investigations to establish their innocence; others have had to take part in corrective activities for things they did not do. Individuals falsely accused of child abuse have been psychologically scarred, and their reputations have been severely tarnished. Whole families have been destroyed.
Even when cleared of such charges, parents may lose custody of their offspring, and individuals who work with children may be permanently listed in police records as possible child abusers. Meanwhile, the alleged victims themselves may be stripped, searched or otherwise subjected to intensive physical and psychological examinations. During an interview on the television news program "Nightline," for example, a pediatrician employed by a county protection service said, "I actually put my hand on a little girl's vagina, and asked her if that was what they did to you, and do you think it went in that far, and did it bleed?"
The problem is that laws governing due process are too often misunderstood or ignored. Accusers enjoy complete anonymity and full legal protection. Standard rules of evidence are frequently disregarded. Often, individuals accused are presumed to be guilty until they can establish their innocence. Many officials would argue, however, that saving just one child from abuse justifies the wholesale denial of human and civil rights to those accused.
Anyone--even someone who is emotionally disturbed--can accuse another individual of child abuse at any time. Indeed, it can be a crime not to report a suspected case of child abuse, and social workers and law enforcement officers can be sued for failing to investigate such reports.
Consequently, people have been accused of child abuse as a result of reporting a missing child; hugging or kissing a child; having a child who is reluctant to participate in sports, speaking out in defense of a neighbor or a relative falsely accused of child abuse; complaining about a social worker, declining to submit to counseling; changing a diaper; or having a child who knows the names of bodily parts. Similarly, a drama director who failed to cast a certain child in a particular play, a teacher who gave low grades, a father who photographed his child in the shower, and physicians and dentists who provided normal examinations and treatment have faced such accusations.
The officials who investigate cases of suspected child abuse often have limited knowledge of children. Moreover, the procedures these officials use frequently lack reliability or validity.
The use of anatomically correct dolls to investigate cases involving the sexual abuse of children is a case in point No study has ever demonstrated that such dolls produced reliable and valid evidence. Indeed, conducting such a study would be virtually impossible since the subjects would have to include children who had never been sexually abused and subjecting children to such research may itself constitute sexual abuse. Moreover, the use of anatomically correct dolls as investigatory tools has never been shown to meet the basic procedural requirements established by psychological science. Dr. Ronald Gabriel, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan and practicing child psychiatrist, has noted: "Many persons working in the child protection field ... do not know about the projection-evoking properties of toys. The result has been that material produced ... can appear to confirm suspicions of sexual abuse when it may actually be no more than a normal reaction of a child to the dolls and the situation. ... the suspect will almost always be found "guilty."
Do children lie?
For generations, children were thought to be incapable of reporting what really happened to them. But the current view is that, since normal children are sexually inexperienced, every sexual experience they report must actually have taken place. This argument ignores the realities of child growth and development, however.
The work of Jean Piaget suggests that children do not discriminate between thoughts and the things thought of, between episodes of play and real world events. They do not remember the origins of their knowledge, and they often mistake memories of dreams for memories of actual events. Children are not able to fully differentiate between internal thoughts and external happenings until about age 11.
People who maintain that children never fabricate with regard to sexual experiences are deluding themselves. Vengeful or disturbed adults can manipulate children into believing that they have been sexually abused when that has not been the case. Questioning by adults whom they fear and wish to please can induce children to "lie." Having done so, the children come to believe what they have said. After prolonged questioning by investigators, children often confuse fact and fantasy. When adults already (and often too willingly) believe that sexual abuse has occurred, they often deal with the alleged victims in ways that heighten the suggestibility of these children.
The situation has been further confused by what has come to be known as the "child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome." Derived from cases of incest in intact families, the syndrome includes such behaviors on the part of the victim as secretiveness and helplessness. But children who have not been sexually abused often display these same behaviors, and the syndrome has never been scientifically validated Yet, investigators continue to use the syndrome to corroborate children's statements about having been sexually abused.
Even the polygraph (or lie detector) is biased against innocent suspects who tell the truth. An innocent suspect who distrusts the polygraph test is likely to fail it. Studies have shown that failed polygraph tests are less accurate than polygraph tests that are passed. Yet juries are more likely to accept the results of a polygraph test if the suspect fails it than if the suspect passes it. After 30 years of studying the polygraph. David Lykken, a scientist with no vested interest in the instrument, has concluded that "the assumptions of the polygraph test are implausible and the evidence for its validity is weak."
The child abuse industry
Accusations involving child abuse used to be handled responsibly by established legal and family support agencies. Today the government has established a quasi-independent investigatory system for such cases that functions at taxpayers' expense. Not uncommonly today, child protection workers are women who consider themselves to be or have been of abuse. LeRoy Schulz studied protection workers recently and concluded that they tend to be self-righteous unwilling to admit mistakes, lacking in ethics, naive about children, willing to use hearsay evidence, likely to conduct one-sided investigations, and blind to contradictory evidence. Eileen Anderson found therapists to be addicted to power and often involved in a conflict of interests between their pocket books and their professional responsibilities. Writing for the Boston Globe in 1985, Eli Newberger also had some disturbing views on child protection workers. He said that "many of these individuals seem to take pleasure in inflicting pain on children, to derive personal excitement and titillation from stories of their suffering, and to relish the lively interest of opposing counsel, jurors, and their peers.”
Large national organizations, though they mean well, sometimes contribute to the injustices. For example, in a 1985 statistical report on child abuse and neglect, the American Humane Association stated, "While some unsubstantiated reports are in fact false, most reports are true.”
We are VOCAL, a group of parents and others who are FAMILY advocates. Our goal is to see children and their families protected from all forms of abuse. Many families lack knowledge about the complex laws policies, and procedures governing child protection. In most states, the child protection agencies take an adversarial stand against the families they service: information to help them understand the system is often withheld Our education-oriented services provide a balance within the community, as well as a vehicle for implementing positive changes within the system.
Although our child abuse laws were written with good intentions, disregard for the ultimate goal of these laws may cause system-inflicted abuse. Children are sometimes abruptly removed from their families and familiar surroundings without adequate investigation, creating traumatic experiences and endangering parent-child relationships. Child protection workers may pursue weak cases and refuse to return children to their homes, not realizing the harm caused to children and families as a result of their intervention. Quite often, children now need protection from child protective services.
We have prepared this information for you as an introduction to Victims of Child Abuse Laws--VOCAL--and the child abuse system. Because the child abuse laws and policies and their Interpretations vary from state to state and even from one caseworker to another, we would encourage you to learn as much as possible about the system in general, and the laws in your own locality.
If you are currently involved in a case with a child protective agency, all the information you can obtain to bring your case to an acceptable resolution and to understand what is happening. If you don't know your rights and understand your alternatives, you will not be able to effectively make the best decisions. We have detailed information packets available to aid your attorneys, mental health professionals, and yourself. A number of the studies and articles in these packets can be submitted into courts as evidence against inaccurate statements and unacceptable procedures often used by the prosecution and child protective services.
The Professional Manual includes approximately 500 pages of information written. by experts in the field of child abuse and neglect, such as Douglas Besharov, J.D., L.L.M., and psychologist Ralph Underwager, Ph.D. It can provide you, your attorney and mental health professional with pertinent information for your own case.
The Personal Manual contains articles and personal accounts which can help make sense out of a difficult experience and aid in case resolution.
Other Publication by Robert L. Emans: