VICTIMS OF CHILD ABUSE LAWS ARE VOCAL
Author: Associated Press
The absurdity of being accused of child neglect almost made Barbara H. Bryan want to laugh at first, but after spending close to a year and more than $25,000 getting the charges dismissed, she wants to make sure no one else goes through the same ordeal.
Ms. Bryan is the state coordinator of a Virginia group called Victims of Child Abuse Laws, or VOCAL, one of 130 organization chapters nationwide. Being falsely accused can break up a family, bring financial ruin and leave parents and children with emotional trauma that doesn't go away, she said.
" `Devastating' doesn't even begin to describe it," the divorced mother of three boys said. "Family relationships are destroyed; the children are frightened. How do we protect the children from the protectors?"
Statistics show that last year 75 percent of the child abuse and neglect reports received by the Virginia Department of Social Services were determined to be unfounded, meaning the evidence against the accused person was not clear and convincing.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services and a Richmond prosecutor said cases are screened carefully to avoid trauma for families and people accused of child abuse or neglect. The state has encouraged people to call with suspicions so abuse cases won't be overlooked.
"Just because a case shows up in the statistics as unfounded doesn't mean the family didn't get help or that neglect or abuse wasn't going on," said DeAnn Lineberry, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services.
Ms. Bryan said she was charged with neglect in the spring of 1984 because her twins and their older brother were suffering from chronic exhaustion. It turned out that the boys had a blood condition and a virus, she said.
Nationwide, VOCAL sends newsletters to 1,500 people, many of whom have been falsely accused of neglecting or abusing a child, said Mary Lou Bauer of Hampton, Minn., founder of the organization. The Virginia chapter has about 20 members, Ms. Bryan said.
Mrs. Bauer said neglect charges against her and her husband ultimately were dropped. They were accused after their 15-year-old adopted daughter from India seduced their 13-year-old adopted son from Vietnam. The parents eventually found out that the girl had been sexually active in India before they adopted her at age 11, she said.
"To this day, I don't know what I would have done differently to know that," she said by telephone.
Virginia law requires certain professionals, particularly doctors and educators, to contact the state if they suspect child abuse or neglect. Ms. Bryan said those people fear the consequences of not reporting every bump and bruise, and investigators often assume the accused person is guilty.
Patrick B. Bell, assistant commonwealth's attorney for Richmond, disagreed that people required to report their suspicions do so too readily.
"We get very few reports from doctors. They don't want to fool with it," Mrs. Bell said. "We have a program in public schools to teach people how to report. These cases are screened more carefully than any other kind of case." Ms. Lineberry said investigators in the Department of Social Services don't approach a case assuming the accused person is guilty, but the official has to make the child's welfare the first priority.
Agency figures show that since the 1977-78 fiscal year, the number of reports of child abuse and neglect in Virginia has more than doubled, rising from 22,710 that year to 49,763 in the 1984-85 fiscal year. The number of cases in which abuse was proved has risen from 7,960 to 8,303 in the same period.
The fact that the number of such cases has risen only slightly shows that investigators do not jump to put a black mark on someone's record, Ms. Lineberry said.
Ms. Bryan said there is much the Virginia General Assembly could do to decrease the number of people falsely accused without jeopardizing children's health and safety.
A parent advocate could visit the family with the investigator, she said. Criminal penalties could be established for people who knowingly make false reports to the state, she said. Those names now are kept confidential.
Mrs. Bauer said VOCAL chapters want every interview involving a child abuse or neglect investigation to be videotaped. Children should be interviewed no more than twice, she said.
The Arizona chapter is seeking legislation to require officials to look for a close relative or friend to take children when they're removed from the home, she said.
Cutting down on the number of superfluous cases would help abused children and their parents, Mrs. Bauer said.
"It would increase the chance that children really being abused would have some attention paid to them," she said. "Some experts are saying that up to 80 percent of the reports are false. But officials have to respond to them all. They don't have time to go out and help the children that really need their services."
Ms. Bryan said people interested in joining Virginia's VOCAL chapter should write her at P.O. Box 8323, Roanoke, Va. 24014.