The politics of child abuse.

The politics of child abuse. – book reviews

Christopher Fortune

The Politics of Child Abuse

Child molesters: A witch


Spring 1985: A Los Angeles courtroom holds preliminary hearings on the most notorious child sexual-abuse case in United States history. Jammed into the spectators’ gallery, angry parents of children who were alleged to have been molested by their daytime caretakers wear bumper stickers and buttons on their shirts that read: “I BELIEVE THE CHILDREN” and “KIDS DON’T LIE.” The McMartin Preschool case ignited a collective hysteria about child sexual abuse. Fueled by sensational media accounts, a moral panic swept across the nation. Once termed “the best-kept secret,” child sexual abuse had become front-page news.

The Politics of Child Abuse (Lyle Stuart, $17.95) by journalists Paul and Shirley Eberle examines the McMartin Preschool trial and other controversial sexual-abuse cases. It documents the stories of the adult victims of what the authors call a “child abuse witch hunt.” (“Abuse” in the book refers to sexual abuse.) The Eberles present detailed evidence of false charges, biased investigations by “child-abuse finders” and circus trials in which guilt is presumed–and innocence almost impossible to prove. They also interview members of Victims of Child Abuse Laws (V.O.C.A.L.), an international organization with more than 150 chapters that offers support for those falsely accused of sexual abuse.

This well-researched account challenges the validity of child-interview techniques in sexual-abuse investigations. The authors dispute the idea that “kids don’t lie” about sexual abuse, and blame that presumption for a massive explosion of phony disclosures and false allegations. Outraged adult victims, their lawyers and supportive experts complain of pressure tactics by child interviewers who won’t take no for an answer when they ask children: Were you abused? Implicit in their arguments is the suggestion that prolonged “interrogation” often pushes children to fantasize elaborate and bizarre disclosures.

In their scrutiny of these cases, the Eberles found “…very little evidence of child molestation and a great deal of extremely corrupt behavior.” They charge a number of prosecutors and judges with political opportunism in child-abuse cases. They point the finger at overzealous social workers, police and doctors armed with simplistic theories of out-of-touch mental-health professionals. Moreover, they slam the federal child-abuse prevention program, which they claim institutionalized public hysteria by defining child abuse too broadly, by implementing mandatory reporting of suspicions and by requiring (in effect) a state quota of convictions to justify grants.

The Eberles’ faith in the judicial system is shaken; they demand that every molestation case in which there has been a conviction be reopened and reviewed. “What has America become,” they ask, “if police and social workers can forcibly enter your home and take your children away without due process, without even probable cause, supported by nothing more than an anonymous telephone call?” They conclude that the central issue is the violation of the family by the state.

It is beyond dispute that we are in the midst of a moral panic over sexual abuse. But recent studies confirm that real sexual abuse is endemic; there are indications that at least a quarter and perhaps as many as a third of adult women have been sexually abused as children. Unaccountably, the Eberles make no real concession to the reality of sexual abuse and its politics. In fact, aspects of the book blur the reality even further. By focusing only on sensational cases, the book makes the same mistake that our society has made in ignoring the less dramatic, yet far more pervasive, incidence of domestic abuse. this narrowness weakens the book’s conclusions. Furthermore, the Eberles use the term “child abuse” when they really mean sexual abuse. This obscures the complex reality of child abuse, which, in fact, includes not only sexual abuse but physical abuse, neglect and (most recently recognized) emotional abuse.

While the Eberles’ concerns over state interference with the family are legitimate, their arguments implicitly support the conservative call for a return to traditional family privacy and authority over children. But such an approach effectively ignores the abused child’s dilemna, since statistics are clear on this point: Parents perpetrate, or indirectly contribute to, the majority of all child abuse. How to protect children is an exceedingly complex social problem, and it raises deeper social-political issues that are beyond the scope of this book. What are the underlying dynamics of child abuse, of sexual abuse specifically and of the moral panic? What are the roots of the tug-of-war between the family and the state concerning the proper care of children? What are the issues in the real protection of children? Why are children in danger–particularly from their own parents? How do anxieties about the changing nuclear family–specifically, about the changing roles of women–feed the moral panic? Is it possible, finally, that sensational cases of sexual abuse, such as those ably chronicled by the Eberles, unconsciously divert our attention from the threatening specter of widespread abuse within the family?

COPYRIGHT 1987 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group