THE NEW VICTIMS OF CHILD ABUSE
Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Author: Al Haas, Inquirer Staff Writer
It was a Friday evening in early May 1984. Chris Clauss, a 26-year-old Burlington, N.J., construction contractor, was sitting down to dinner when four policemen arrived with a warrant for his arrest.
Clauss had been accused by his estranged wife, shortly before their divorce, of sexually abusing their 30-month-old daughter during the child's last stay in his home. The state's Division of Youth and Family Services had conducted a preliminary inquiry, found cause for a criminal investigation, and then passed the case along to the police. Clauss was subsequently arrested, indicted and obliged to attend a pretrial hearing.
During the year since his arrest, he has been denied access to his daughter, lost construction work because of his notoriety, spent several thousand dollars defending himself, and lived what he describes as "an extreme nightmare."
'It has caused us great, great pain," adds his fiancee, Margaret Allen. ''It is so emotionally exhausting that the only thing that keeps you going is knowing you are fighting an injustice."
Finally, in April, after the pretrial hearing, the Burlington County prosecutor's office asked him to take a lie detector test, which, with the agreement of the defense, is admissible in New Jersey courts.
"He passed," reports first assistant prosecutor Michael Riley, "so we are going to dismiss the case."
Public awareness of child sexual abuse has soared in recent times. During the last year, wide coverage of child-molesting scandals in Minnesota and California, coupled with a plethora of newspaper features and TV dramas on sexual abuse of juveniles, has focused great attention and concern on the problem. Many states are scurrying to pass stiffer, more comprehensive abuse legislation. Parents are much more conscious of the need to protect their children from molestation, to recognize it when it occurs - and to report it.
As a consequence, the number of reported sexual abuse cases in this country - and this city - has tripled in the last four years. Delores Reynolds, who is in charge of Philadelphia's Child Protective Services Division, says the increase has been so "tremendous" that the agency recently had to hire 24 more case workers to handle it.
The increased awareness and reporting of abuse are obviously beneficial. The precautions engendered by parental concern can prevent sexual molestation. The increased reporting means that more offenders will be dealt with.
But there is also a flip side - the creation of a new kind of victim. The increased reporting brings with it an increase in the number of false or unfounded reports. This means that more people are being unjustly accused of child sexual abuse, that more people are being subjected to hellish, often expensive ordeals.
People across the country who have been unjustly accused now are banding together to protect themselves and others through a new organization called Victims of Child Abuse Laws (VOCAL).
A support and lobbying group, VOCAL was founded a year ago by Bernard and Mary Lou Bauer, a Minnesota farm couple accused of child neglect. Its membership has since grown to 1,000, with 63 chapters across the country (among them the New Jersey unit formed by Clauss and Allen).
ASSUMPTION OF GUILT
VOCAL contends that governmental child-protection agencies frequently savage families through highhanded, insensitive investigations that, as Clauss puts it, "assume you are guilty until proven innocent."
The threat of such unfounded accusations has also left the people and institutions that work with children deeply fearful. Increasingly, teachers and staff members at elementary schools, day-care centers and summer day camps are worrying that they might be on the receiving end of a career- destroying allegation.
Suddenly, these adults in the business of helping children are wondering whether hugging a child, taking him to the bathroom or counseling him in private will lead to an abuse charge - and a ruined reputation and vocation.
Francis C. Cassidy, associate executive director of the Community YMCA of Eastern Delaware County, says he has already lost one of his summer day-camp counselors to this fear, and has had to have "long discussions" with several others to keep them from quitting.
In order to protect themselves from the damaging fallout that can result from the public's heightened awareness of the sexual abuse of juveniles, many schools, day-care centers and day camps in the Philadelphia area have been providing workshops and seminars for their employees aimed at preventing situations from which allegations of abuse can arise. In other cases, this kind of prevention has been the subject of staff meetings.
Stanley Sheckman, principal of the Greenfield Elementary School in Center City, has had several such sessions with his staff, during which he has urged teachers to be careful about "any kind of touching of children," to make sure there are other adults around when conducting a student activity in an isolated part of the building, and to refrain from transporting a student in a car "regardless of the situation."
"We've cautioned the staff to use good judgment, to be aware of what can be misconstrued," Sheckman explains. ". . . It doesn't cost anything to make an accusation that can do great harm to the reputation of a teacher."
"This summer for the first time, we have a specific topic dealing with this," says Cassidy of the Eastern Delaware County Y's training program for day-camp counselors.
"It's a hard thing to bring up," he adds. "We want to provide a program that is caring and meeting the needs of children, and if one of those needs is an emotional need that happens to be a hug or a kiss for a little boy who's 6, well . . .
"Well, I'll tell you this: We're not going to panic. We're going to try to avoid any (potentially misinterpreted) situation . . . but we want the kids to think we are their family here, and for a lot of them we are - for a hell of a lot of them."
VOCAL maintains that agency child-abuse investigators frequently are inadequately trained, that they yank children out their homes without adequate investigation, and that their interviews with the alleged victims often are improperly conducted.
"We think that interviews with children should be taped or videotaped from the outset so they can't be twisted by social workers," says Mary Lou Bauer. She also feels that agency investigators often pursue highly questionable abuse complaints to "pile up statistics to make their jobs look very necessary."
"It's funny; I didn't think I could agree with this group (VOCAL) on anything," says Bebe Kivitz, the Philadelphia assistant district attorney in charge of child-abuse prosecution. "But I don't think that (taping the interviews) is a bad idea. . . . While I don't think there is a big tendency to 'prep' children on the part of social workers, the contention that they do is a big attack strategy used by defense lawyers. So, if anything, I think (the taping) would work in our favor, be advantageous."
As for Mary Lou Bauer's contention that social workers are often in the business of "piling up statistics," the head of the city's Child Protective Services takes sharp exception.
"We don't have to manufacture stories," says Reynolds. "We have enough horror stories."
Reynolds, on the other hand, is quite willing to admit that agencies like hers are not perfect. Because of their strong interest in the safety of the children involved, and the absence of specialized training in child-abuse investigation, they do err. "We've had to learn a lot by doing, and we've made mistakes," she says simply.
Like so many of the people involved in VOCAL, the Bauers say they were victims of such mistakes. They were charged with child neglect after their 15- year-old daughter, one of 14 Third World orphans they had adopted, was impregnated by a teenage adopted son. The pregnant daughter was taken from the Bauers' Minnesota farm by the county child-protection agency and placed in a foster home. By the time the judge threw out the neglect charges, Mary Lou Bauer recalls, the pregnant teenager was "suicidal" and the couple had incurred $28,000 in legal expenses.
The Bauers eventually won an apology from a county commissioner and a $10,000 out-of-court settlement. But the family still suffers from the trauma, according to Mary Lou Bauer. "I don't think you ever really get over something like this," she says. "The kids have scars."
Like the Bauers, the suburban Pittsburgh couple who founded VOCAL's Pennsylvania chapter were at once traumatized and enraged by their run-in with an agency they thought would help them. The couple, who wish to remain anonymous, are in their early 30s. They had taken their 3- and 7-year-old daughters to a Pittsburgh anti-rape center after the children told them that the husband's father had exposed himself in front of them.
"I don't think we would have taken the children if we hadn't been barraged with one TV show after another on child abuse," the mother remembers. "But we had watched one special after another, and when this happened to our children, I was frightened he had done something else to them. . . . That's what led us (to the rape center.)"
At the center, the mother says, a counselor interviewed the 3-year-old and came up with a startling conclusion: that the husband was probably abusing the child, too. She reached this conclusion, according to the mother, primarily on the basis of the way the child ran into her father's arms after the interview, and because experience has shown that the sons of child molesters are frequently abusers, too.
"She also thought she knew too much about her body parts," the mother adds. "We're told to tell our children about their body parts (in order to protect them from abuse), and then we're told they know too much."
Subsequently, she continues, the center counselor's suspicion of sexual abuse by the husband was passed on to the county child-welfare agency for investigation. (The center is required by law to report any such suspicions that it may have.)
The agency eventually found the report without merit, but not before the couple had spent $1,500 on legal counsel, polygraph tests and psychological evaluations that they felt they needed to defend themselves.
"We had gone to these people for help and wound up fighting a false report and spending a lot of money," the mother concludes.
The New Jersey chapter of VOCAL can be reached through Box 1772, Burlington, N.J. 08016. The Pennsylvania chapter does not currently have a mailing address but can be reached by writing the national VOCAL headquarters, Box 8536, Minneapolis, Minn. 55408.