Regulating the abuse industry
April 26, 2012 Leave a comment
It is rare thing indeed that I will advocate for legislative action on just about any matter, as I generally prefer that legislatures do as little work as possible. However, in cases where there are real problems that exist – often as a result of the legal structure itself – then I will join with other voices calling for needed reforms. One area, I believe, where there is such needed reform is in dealing with the abuse industry in this country.
What is the “abuse industry”? What I am referring to is the complex, interlocking structure of social workers and the “child welfare departments” which they staff, child psychologists, counselors, non-profit organizations, and others who generally deal with identifying and confronting allegations of child abuse against individuals and institutions, but which also often resort to inventing and embellishing unsubstantiated accusations as part of the process of rooting out the evil of child abuse. Now, in and of itself, there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking to stop the abuse of children, of whatever kind it may take. It is a hallmark of civilized society to protect and support its weaker members from mistreatment and exploitation. The principle itself of protecting children from abuse is a noble one. So with this principle, I don’t have any arguments.
However, there’s a reason I refer to the subject of this article as the abuse “industry.” That’s because along with the good that might often be done, there is nevertheless a lot of manufacturing that goes on – false allegations, the abuse of the system itself as a means of revenge-seeking or harassment, and in many cases, just plain old cupidity on the part of those involved in this work. For all involved – from not-for-profit groups receiving donations to governmental child services departments receiving budgeted chunks of taxpayers’ monies – the abuse industry is a multi-million dollar a year operation. This flow of money is directly tied to the prevalence of child abuse – if more abuse is discovered, then there obviously is more need for the services of these groups, with a concomitant need for more funding. This, obviously, provides an incentive to find more child abuse, whether there is a substantial basis for the accusations being made or not. After all, when you’re a saintly do-gooder of a hammer, everybody else looks like a low-down rotten evil-doer of a nail.
This money and the sense of power that goes with it can be a sore temptation. In Ireland, where there has been an ongoing scandal related to widespread child abuse in both the Catholic church as well as many “industrial schools” (schools for poor and often orphaned children that, in Ireland at least, are often ran by members of the Catholic clergy), a lot of good has been done in unearthing these abuses. Nevertheless, some of the non-profit organizations involved in bringing this to light, including groups like Right of Place, the Aislinn Center, and SOCA (Survivors of Child Abuse) have themselves faced accusations related to the mismanagement of funds (often government-provided) and increasingly incredible accusations seemingly designed to gin up more support. As with any other area of life, large amounts of money mean larger opportunities for corruption.
Unfortunately, the problems one can encounter with many of these self-proclaimed “survivor support” groups are not limited merely to fiscal irregularity. As an example of what I mean, in several previous articles I have discussed the case of Hephzibah House, a fundamental Christian ministry dedicated to salvaging and educating girls have reached the point where their own families cannot handle them anymore – often because of drugs, violence, and so forth. Hephzibah House has been the target of a five-year ongoing campaign of slander across the internet waged by a group of former students from the school’s forty years of existence who allege horrible abuses to have occurred. While the campaign has mostly been confined to various internet forums and blogs, they have made enough noise to attract the attention of some of the baser elements of the mainstream media, such as Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN. Typical of the attacks are that they rely on emotion and innuendo, rather than substantiated (or even substantiable) facts. While many terrible-sounding accusations are made, the accusers ignore, and even try to suppress, the testimonies of other former students who flatly contradict and deny that any of the alleged abuses ever took place. Further, outside authorities have investigated Hephzibah House on a number of occasions, and found no evidence to corroborate the claims against that ministry. The “Survivors,” as they label themselves, find a great deal of support from individuals and organizations involved in the abuse industry.
On their face, the accusations of abuse against Hephzibah House simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. The accusers rabidly try to prevent deep investigation of their claims. As mentioned above, state and local agencies have investigated and not found anything. Other former students – often hounded and vilified by the “Survivors” – contradict the narrative build by the accusers. Yet, the accusers continue to slander innocent people, and find plenty of supporters who will affirm them in this. This is, itself, a form of abuse – abuse of free speech, abuse of the legal system (the authorities have to investigate when yet another spurious accusation is lodged), abuse of simple decency. It is simply very, very easy for a determined group of people who have a chip on their shoulder and who wish to do this ministry harm to be able to pursue with persistent harassment – and they do so with the full support of many elements of the abuse industry.
Hephzibah House isn’t the only falsely-accused victim of abuse-related slander. Take, for example, the case of Heritage Boys Academy, located in Bayou George, Florida. Like Hephzibah House, Heritage is another fundamental ministry dedicated to dealing with “hard case” young people, in this case boys. In 2010, it was shut down, and several of its staff arrested, on the basis of accusations of child abuse lodged by former and then-current residents. Some of the claims indeed sounded harrowing. Staffers at Heritage were accused of holding boys down and punching them repeatedly. It was also claimed that staffers forced several of the boys to chase down and savagely beat (in the middle of a public street) another boy who was trying to run away. One boy presented a pair of bloody underwear as evidence of the abuse he alleged to have suffered. As with Hephzibah House, Heritage has also been roundly vilified across the internet and among “survivor support groups,” one example being this rather drawn-out Youtube video that lays out some very serious charges against the school.
The problem with all of this, however, is that the accusations weren’t true. When the case actually came before the court, the court ruled that there wasn’t evidence to substantiate the accusation, and all charges were dropped. As it turned out, the boys making the accusations had made them up. Investigators found nothing to support the stories of abuse. Yet, because of these spurious accusations, three men had to deal with lost time and money in jail and in court, lost reputation in their communities, and several people were out of work when the school was shut down. Vindictive accusations designed to harass by boys who were angry about their situations ended up ruining, or nearly so, the lives of several innocent people.
Or take, for example, the case of Paul Burritt, who drove a van for handicapped children in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin. Mr. Burritt was accused by an 11-year old girl who was one of his riders of taking her to his home and sexually molesting her. Without any investigation, the police immediately arrested him, and his name was dragged through the media, likely facing the same sort of vilification that Hephzibah House and Heritage Academy have suffered. Ultimately, however, the girl confessed to making the entire story up, when she was confronted with the evidence from the GPS in Burritt’s van that confirmed his account and contradicted hers. Sadly, the only thing that saved an innocent man from spending years of his life in jail and having his reputation forever ruined in his community was the fact of GPS technology. If this had happened twenty years ago, Burritt would have been on the losing end of a “he said/she said” argument. As it stands, his reputation will still likely be forever marred – and all because a girl lied about him and investigators were too willing to believe her without any evidence that her accusations were true. This example ought to make us wary about simply accepting even the “eyewitness testimony” of an accuser prima facie without demanding substantiating corroborative evidence to go along with it.
These, perhaps, also help to explain why Hephzibah House’s accusers have been so reluctant to put their accusations to an impartial test where evidence, rather than emotion, would decide the day.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that these are not isolated incidents. False accusations leading to destroyed lives are more common than we’d like to think – and the reasons range from overzealous “child services” investigators to non-profit anti-abuse organizations trying to justify the expansion of their donor base to simple vindictiveness on the part of the ones making the accusations.
What’s more, accusations of abuse – especially against religious institutions – and the choice to believe and support them without evidence, often serve more as an excuse to attack religious groups and religion in general than they are truly about righting wrongs and protecting children. Indeed, if you peruse the various forums and other places where organizations like Hephzibah House and Heritage Boys Academy are discussed regularly, it quickly becomes apparent that one of the major factors motivating the animus against them is a hatred of religion, or at least conservative Christianity, and a desire to use the accusations as a bully pulpit against it. This type of sentiment is openly stated in many of these internet locations.
Of course, while Hephzibah House and Heritage Boys Academy may be innocent, this isn’t to say that religious institutions could never be involved in child abuse. Obviously, they can, as the Irish industrial school cases demonstrate. However, those trying to use accusations of child abuse as a soapbox against “religion” or “Christianity” are hypocritical because they fail to address the very real problem of child abuse, often of a sexual nature, in public schools and other secular institutions. Indeed, the problem of sexual abuse in America’s public schools is said to be worse even than what the Catholic church has been accused of. Some have even estimated it to be one hundred times worse. If you are the parent of an 18-year old girl, a public school might not be the wisest place to have her receiving an education. In the Chicago public school system, beating students has been a rampant problem, despite corporal punishment being illegal in Illinois public schools.
So why don’t the self-appointed crusaders against abuse, real or imagined, in institutions like Hephzibah House speak up about the much more pervasive problem in public schools while they’re bad-mouthing Hephzibah House on these forums?
It’s because of the religious bigotry and animus. Many of the people repeating and expanding on the slurs against Hephzibah House are the types of folks who think that simple biblical spanking of children is “abuse.” They think teaching your own child the Bible and raising them in a Christian home is “abuse.” They think that religious “indoctrination” at church is “abuse.” To many folks who comment in these venues, simply raising a child in a Christian environment is reason enough to take that child away from his parents. These are all sentiments I’ve seen expressed at places where Hephzibah House is discussed. It’s quite obvious that a lot of the “anti-abuse” folks out there have some pretty warped perceptions about what constitutes “abuse,” and that they are simply using the accusations against Hephzibah House and other institutions as a horse to ride in their attacks on conservative Christianity. They’re more than happy to pick up on and repeat the wildest of accusations.
In a similar vein, the abuse industry is a vehicle used by the Left to undermine the family and parental authority. Because Child Protective Services are granted such wide-ranging authority due to the seriousness of child abuse, bureaucrats and their allies in the non-profits and child psychology fields can use them to try to prevent legitimate and non-abusive discipline in the home. Further, the problem of anonymous “tips” about child abuse that result in the removal of children from a home or other types of disruption of the family unit but which turn out to be spurious, is larger than many people realize. The system as it exists is a perfect vehicle for vengeful people to harass and injure somebody they don’t like or who they feel has crossed them. Your neighbor didn’t return your lawnmower? Call CPS on him and anonymously report that he molests his kids!
So, all of this being said, let me now return to my call for legislative action. Seeing that false accusations of abuse are a serious problem, and that they are often aided and abetted for a number of reasons by various interested parties, what can be done about this? What can be done to protect innocent people and institutions from spurious accusations, while yet keeping the door wide open for cases of actual abuse to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of civil and criminal law?
The abuse industry needs to be brought under regulation by the several states. Controls need to be put into place that will prevent vindictive, cupiditous, or overzealous groups and individuals from being able to use either the power of the state or the corrosive acid of unaccountable slander to damage others. I would suggest the following legislative actions:
Require that allegations of abuse lodged with a government agency – the police, social services, child protective services, or what have you – cannot be made anonymously. To file the complain, the accuser must fill out appropriate paperwork, with their name and other information clearly attached to it, openly stating the nature of their complaint. Relevant supporting evidence should be documented as well.
If an accusation is found to be false upon investigation by either the police or the courts, the accuser should be legally unprotected from recourse by civil lawsuit on the part of the person or group they accused, in addition to any standing civil liability under relevant libel/slander statutes.
Laws should be put into place that require organizations that serve as abuse support networks and the like, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, to adopt complete transparency in both their funding and their expenditures.
Legislatures should act to bring state CPS or analogous agencies under greater legislative oversight, passing laws as necessary to ensure that these agencies are strictly bound to respect the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 14th amendment rights of the people.
What is the rationale for these suggestions? Simply to correct the abuses of the abuse industry. You shouldn’t be able to make anonymous accusations and get somebody else in trouble. Accusees ought to be able to exercise their 6th amendment right to face their accusers. If you do falsely accuse someone, you ought to be liable for damages that you have done or intended to do to them. Organizations and other groups that have a perceived vested financial interest in dealing with abuse cases ought to be open and transparent so that it can be seen how they are spending their funds and where they’re getting them from – are they doing legitimate work against abuse, or are they trying to gin up more business illegitimately? Lastly, the government and its agencies at every level should be required to respect our constitutional rights – and even accusations of child abuse are not a sufficient justification to violate these rights and to not follow constitutionally-allowed procedure.
With these, a balance can be struck. If there is a legitimate case of abuse, then it can be reported, investigated, and punished, with a child being rescued from an abusive and destructive environment. If someone wants to use the system to slander, harass, or damage someone else, then this shouldn’t be allowed to happen. If we really want fairness for all involved, then states really would get serious about making these types of reforms, so as to bring abusers of the abuse industry to heel, while yet having the system in place to deal with bona fide cases where abuse is taking place.
Tim Dunkin is a Guardian columnist.