By Rick Thoma

It threatens the very future of the human species. It is "a failure so fundamental, so critical, that our long-term survival is at stake," writes author and lawyer Andrew Vachss in the March 29, 1998, edition of Parade Magazine.

Is it global warming? The deterioration of the ozone layer? Geopolitical instability leading to a possible nuclear confrontation?

Guess again.

It is the family unit which threatens humankind's survival as a species. It is that society has "devolved" such that it now tacitly tolerates--and even condones--the brutal and predatory abuse of children by their parents, argues Vachss.

Thankfully, the reality of family life for the vast majority of children is far better than that which Vachss portrays. Child abuse related fatalities--while tragic--are actually relatively infrequent, according to the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse.

Upon his conducting one of the most comprehensive reviews of child abuse related fatalities, Cyril Greenland concluded: "With the passing of the rhetoric about the virtual epidemic of child-abuse deaths, it is reassuring to discover that abuse and neglect severe enough to maim or destroy young children is comparatively rare. However, due to the moral panic associated with child abuse, this conclusion may not be welcomed by the professional community."

Apparently, this is a conclusion not entirely welcomed by Andrew Vachss, one who adds considerable rhetoric of his own to the debate surrounding the prevalence of fatal child abuse and neglect.

While few would question that some individuals are capable of inflicting unspeakable acts of cruelty against children, any societal effort at devising a meaningful response must begin with an honest assessment of the actual scope and breadth of the problem.

The Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families of the Committee on Ways and Means found that in 1975, approximately 720 children died as a result of either homicide or "injury undetermined whether accidentally or purposefully inflicted." By 1986, this figure had increased slightly to 770.

While advocates argue that 1,200 children, perhaps more, annually suffer fatal child abuse today, critics are quick to point out that expanding definitions and questionable accounting methods account for increases. In California, gang-related shootings in areas designated as "bad neighborhoods" are counted as among the child abuse and neglect related fatalities. A recent audit in the state of Minnesota indicates that over a two year period, the state reported twice as many child abuse related fatalities as actually occurred.

Society continues to invest considerable resources on child protection programs, even as it fails to invest comparable resources in attacking those problems which impact a far greater number of children--the very problems which Vachss implores his readers to ignore.

Indeed, Vachss would have his reader believe that fatal child abuse poses "a greater threat than war, poverty, hunger, crime, racism and tribalism--even of the genocidal variety--combined." Nothing could be further from the truth.

While the Federal Bureau of Investigation found no discernible decline in the number of children murdered over the period of 1962 - 1991 in any age category, it identified a marked increase among juveniles aged fifteen to nineteen.

The reality is that street crime plays a significantly greater role in the destruction of children than does child abuse. While an estimated 3 children per day are said to die of child abuse or neglect, five times the number--15 children per day--currently die of gunshot inflicted wounds.

In New York City, where Vachss points out that Justina Morales was killed, the annual budget of the child welfare agency is $1.2 billion. The agency nevertheless managed to fail her, just as it failed Elisa Izquierdo, Jeffrey Harden and Henry Mann in previous years.

Far from lacking in resources, New York devotes extraordinary sums of money on child protection--more per capita that any other city in the nation. It should have one of the best child welfare systems in the nation, instead it has one of the worst.

Even as staggering resources are dedicated to combating child abuse, an estimated 8,500,000 children live in poverty, and another 5,500,000 in extreme poverty. Nearly 35 million Americans live in hungry or "food-insecure" households. Requests for emergency food assistance rose 16 percent in 1997, with 26 million Americans receiving food from food banks.

"Should child abuse be confined to the 1,200 children killed each year by their parents or should it include the more than 14,000,000 children living in homes of poverty and despair?" asks professor of social work Duncan Lindsey. At present, society's commitment to the former comes at the expense of the later.

Andrew Vachss fails to specify his proposed alternative to the "self-destructing" family unit he so derides. One can only surmise that he would propose the only system of alternative care that we have available today--that Dickensian nightmare called foster care. It is a shadowy world in which children drift for years lacking in permanence or stability. It is a world from which all-too-many children graduate to the streets or the prisons.

Vachss finds himself preoccupied not only with the survival of the species, but with the alleged sexual abuse of children by predatory parents as well. The reality is that one need look no further to find the sexual abuse of children on a grand scale than to alternative care.

A recent lawsuit in the state of Arizona charges that over 12 percent of the children in state care have been sexually molested by their state-appointed caretakers. A Baltimore study revealed that over 28 percent of the children in state care were the subjects of physical abuse. In one instance, a young child contracted gonorrhea of the throat as result of sexual abuse at the hands of her appointed foster guardian. Benjamin Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union has likened the Illinois foster care system to that of a laboratory experiment seemingly designed to produce the sexual abuse of children.

Would Andrew Vachss have his readers believe that the family unit and society have so "devolved" as to function as such an experiment?

The Children's Defense Fund has testified as to the anti-family bias that permeates the child protection system. This anti-family bias did not come about by fiat. It filters down to the front lines of child protection by virtue of the writings of self-styled "child advocates" such as Andrew Vachss.

Vachss cites as representative of family decay the case of Justina Morales, whose mother held her hand even as her boyfriend killed her. While such cases are exceedingly rare, the impact of the sensationalizing of such cases on public sentiment may well prove to be disastrous for children.

Consider the series of events which ensued in Illinois following the tragic and avoidable death of Joey Wallace in 1993. Subsequent to his death at the hands of his mother, state legislators raced the Governor to see who could cram more instances of the term "the best interests of the child" into their rewriting of legislation. As a result, removals of children into state care skyrocketed. Deaths in foster care went from none during some previous years, to five deaths in state care following the legislative changes--an all time high.

Nor has social work provided a remedy for the relatively infrequent occurrence of fatal child abuse. Professors of social work Leroy Pelton and Duncan Lindsey point out that there is not a shred of evidence that the crusade against child abuse--itself largely driven by the rhetoric surrounding sensationalized cases--has served to reduce the number of child fatalities.

There is, however, ample evidence that inappropriate and often-unnecessary foster care placements have resulted in the deaths of many children.

In New York City, Caprice Reid died during the summer of 1997 at the hand of her appointed guardian. By February of 1998, Carlos Winbush would become the city's first reported foster care fatality of the year. In the state of Georgia, 433 children have suffered the same fate over a period of some several years.

Among the casualties of the war on child abuse are Michelle Walton of Massachusetts, Clayton Miracle of Georgia, Krystal Scurry of South Carolina, Kykeeda Hampton of the District of Columbia, and Donald James Jr Rymer of Illinois.

Every one of these children--and there are many others--would likely be alive today had the state allowed them to remain in the homes of their natural parents. Perhaps Mr. Vachss would consider telling one of their stories in his next contribution to Parade?

"All the pious rhetoric on the planet will not save one child," writes Vachss. On this point, his analysis is correct.

The war against child abuse, as all wars, has resulted in many casualties. It is a war in which we shall see no end to the casualties so long as self-styled "child advocates" continue to fan the flames of public hysteria with pious rhetoric of their own.

Copyright 1998, Rick Thoma. All Rights Reserved.

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