Child Abuse Prevention Month may not be the best time to talk about the problems faced by people who are falsely accused of the crime. But as the saying goes, there are two sides to every coin, and this one doesn't get turned over very often.
I hate child abuse. I think most people do. I can't imagine any circumstance under which it could be considered acceptable or appropriate and I join advocates who want tough laws, stiff penalties and comprehensive education programs. I want a world where a child can report abuse and know that he or she will receive help.But I also want a world where someone who is accused will know that there's going to be an impartial investigation and a fair trial. A world where the promise "innocent until proven guilty" is more than a slogan.
I periodically receive callers or visitors, usually from divorced fathers, who want me to know what it's like to have a child aimed at you like a weapon, ready to discharge a deadly volley of accusations. Often, the child is the gun in a custody battle. (And if you were at the Legislature this year, listening to public testimony, you probably got the impression that divorced fathers and child molesters are one and the same thing, which is patently false.)
The tragedy of child abuse has spawned a frenzy of activity: anti-child abuse legislation, advocacy groups, research, police training programs and more. I think all of that's good. At the same time, I see an opposite and very negative trend. In our mass anxiety to make things easy on an abuse victim, we've lost sight of the person who is accused, sometimes falsely.
That's a crucuial word: accused.
A caller told me he was accused of molesting a child who lives next door. The charge stems from the fact that he hugged her goodbye and kissed her on the cheek - something he's done hundreds of times in full view of the world, including her parents. No one ever objected before. He said he grew up in a time when close friends and neighbors could hug each other and know they were safe. I grew up in that kind of world, too, and I'm not willing to give it up by reading something sexual or evil into every gesture.
Did he molest her or not? What constitutes molestation? Are there degrees of it? Whether his version of what happens is accurate, the issue, for me, revolves around what happened to him, and to others I've talked to, when they tried to defend themselves.
Everyone, including his attorney, told him to plead guilty to save money. That costs as little in attorney's fees as $1,500. To plead not guilty, the attorneys I talked to quoted $5,000 to $20,000.
His attorney told him he'd have to have counseling, regardless, because "you old people need to learn that you can't touch people and get away with it." The same attorney told him he could plead guilty to a reduced charge of "attempted sexual abuse." He refused because, he said, he attempted nothing. With the reduced charge, he could still go to prison.
The legal advice that really got me was this: Anyone who pleads not guilty has to go to prison for a 90-day evaluation period. I called the attorney general's office and that is just plain untrue; an attorney who says that is either not qualified to handle the case or is guilty of taking the money and lying to her client. Either is unacceptable.
I also found that people aren't lined up to defend someone accused of child abuse. There's a stigma attached to child molestation that's much worse than thatattached to murder. Unfortunately, it can stick to a person whether he's guilty or not. A defendant who offered to take a polygraph test was told it would cost him $300 and it isn't admissable, even if he passes.
So what do you do? I know that some people reach a monetary agreement with the family of the accuser. I know that some people go to court and are acquitted - but they still have to pay the price of a defense. Some may go to prison or jail or into treatment programs they may not need. I like to believe that happens very seldom.
The wisdom on the subject used to be that children don't lie about sexual abuse; that they don't know enough about it and it wouldn't occur to them. Even the experts agree that television, movies, lectures and other, more worldly children have changed that. Some children have discovered that it can give them a great deal of power. The "Crucible" of the 1980s - remember how those darling girls tore lives apart with their cries of "witchcraft"?
While we teach our children to report abuse and we assure them we will back them all the way, we should also teach them something about responsibility. I don't think there's a child alive who realizes the effect such an accusation can have and how thoroughly it can destroy lives. That realization only comes with experience and maturity; and when they get there, we don't want them to have regrets.
The "system" needs to remember that the accused is not automatically guilty. He has a right to an impartial investigation and fair trial. When we learn to balance both those things, we may finally have a handle on child abuse. And justice for all.