All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 1991

Book Review: Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse by Richard Wexler

Prometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherst, NY 14228-2197 • 1990 • 369 pages • $21.95 cloth

The growing incidence of domestic violence and child abuse in America has provided politicians with an irresistible opportunity for expanding the dominion of government into the most private reaches of its citizens’ lives—family relationships. Our modern child welfare system is just another example of the nation’s clumsy social welfare programs in that it:

•       neglects to deliver the promised services and protections

•       hurts the purported beneficiaries

•       infringes upon individual liberties

•       impedes private solutions

•       and, naturally, flaunts the disastrous results of its performance as evidence of the need for more funding and control.

Here we may leave off comparisons to other government bungling and examine the horrors unique to our child welfare system, as portrayed by Richard Wexler, a reporter for the Times Union in Albany, New York. His book delivers a bold, up-to-date analysis of child protective performance that strikes the unsuspecting reader particularly hard with its vivid documentation of child-stealing, incompetence, and chaos inconceivable for official ranks.

Throughout his writing, Wexler uses the broad label “child savers” in referring to the psychologists, social workers, politicians, lobbyists, and the like, who comprise the movement for mass intervention in families and state custody of children. The label becomes less flattering with each page that tells of the deeds done under its guise.

In the name of “erring on the side of the child,” little Jennifer Humlen and her brother Chris were plunged into a nightmare from which they have never fully recovered. They were abruptly taken into Los Angeles County custody after a school nurse reported Chris’s bruised eye to the Department of Children’s Services (DCS). The accident had happened when Chris was playing ball. Their distraught mother, aided by neighborhood support and an attorney from the VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws) organization, got the children back, through sheer will and luck, in one week’s time. But one week in DCS custody was long enough to leave Jennifer bruised, feverish, and dehydrated from the crowded conditions in a children’s home, and both children suffered deep and lasting emotional trauma. Wouldn’t the DCS offer an apology? “Of course not,” says the children’s mother. “They’re in the right, don’t you know? They’re the child savers.”

Parents, says Wexler, have been deemed child abusers for being late to pick up children after school, for not allowing children to watch television after 7:30 P.M., or simply because a child-protective worker botched the arithmetic on a risk-assessment form. “But most of all,” he says, “child savers report parents to authorities, substantiate cases against them, and take away their children, solely because the families are poor.”

Chicago resident James Norman was a hardworking father with the pride and love for his family that enabled him to support his ailing wife and their four bright children. The bills caught up to him, however, after his wife passed away and he developed a heart condition. In the summer of 1988, the electricity to Norman’s apartment was cut off, and a caseworker came to visit. The apartment was messy, she wrote in her report, but the children “appeared to be very healthy.” However, Norman was charged with “financial neglect,” and the children were placed in foster care. After a year of desperate efforts to live up to child welfare demands, which included a psychiatric evaluation, a job, and a better apartment, he still didn’t have his children back. James Norman finally died of a heart attack—at age 38.

These and uncounted similar cases are included in the child-abuse statistics that often are thrown at us as justification for mass intervention in families. Wexler explains how to decipher intelligently such shocking reports as “over two million children are abused each year across the U.S.” What this figure actually represents is the number of reported cases, which include anonymous calls received at state hot-lines. More complete data shows that upon investigation by a caseworker, 60 percent of these reports are dismissed as “unfounded.” Broken into categories, figures for 1986 bear out that over half of the reports involved “deprivation of necessities,” which may just mean poverty, 15 percent involved sexual allegations, and 2.6 percent involved serious bodily injury. The National Incidence Studies counts 161,000 cases of serious maltreatment across the country in 1986—only a small fraction of the same year’s figure of over two million children reported to be maltreated.

The widely publicized cases of Lisa Steinberg and Eli Creekmore, which involved child torture and murder, are also misused by child savers for proof of the dilemma they face in achieving the balance between what they claim are two objectives at odds with each other—family preservation versus child preservation. Neither of these cases, says Wexler, involved delicate decision-making, since the children were repeatedly violently harmed long before their deaths. What these tragedies actually best demonstrate is the system’s incompetence, which is partly attributable to its waste of resources in trivial cases.

If child savers would recognize the intense emotional bearing that family ties have on a child, Wexler contends, they would find that family preservation and child preservation are often not at odds with each other. Whether a child is shuttled between foster homes, torn from his parents upon somebody’s “gut feelings,” or forced to return to parents after years of attachments elsewhere, his need for a secure relationship is being denied. If the dangers inherent to this denial were taken into account, the child protective system would need to be fixed from almost every angle, and fast. Gone would be the argument that “no child ever died of a social-work evaluation”—a premise that Wexler disproves with accounts where children did indeed die from unwarranted removal.

By focusing largely on the system’s injustice to children, Wexler proves that he is not in favor of parents’ rights versus children’s rights. He does, however, address the frequent violation of Constitutional rights when homes are entered, children strip-searched, or parents denied due process during prosecution—largely because of child protective agencies’ arrogant attitude that “we’re only here to help, so you have no rights.”

Veteran Child Protective supervisor Philip Leduc is quoted admitting: “If the level of intrusiveness perpetrated allegedly to protect children were attempted in any other field, we would be in jail, we would have the Supreme Court coming down with innumerable decisions against us.”

A good case could be made here for limiting government involvement in the child-abuse problem to its legitimate function of crime control, and cutting out the social programs involved. This would serve to guard against the abuse of Constitutional liberties as well as to protect children more effectively, particularly if violent crime in general were better controlled. Wexler, however, advocates non-coercive government intervention in most child-neglect cases, and dreams of a network of “Homebuilders” who would help out families with money, support, and practical services instead of grabbing their children. While he shows that the cost of these programs would easily be covered by the savings in foster and institutional care of children, he fails to explain how we can insure that paid strangers such as Homebuilders will truly care about the families they deal with. Our government in general has failed to prove itself capable of doing the work of charities, much less the work of preserving families.

In conclusion, Wexler is an expert at uncovering the abuses in our child protective system, although flawed in some of his arguments on causes and cures. The child-abuse issue is one that deserves examination by everyone concerned with preserving individual rights, and Wounded Innocents is among the most thorough and readable works on the subject—the kind of book that leaves a lasting impression on its reader.

Hannah Lapp is a dairy farmer and writer in Cassadaga, New York.

  • Hannah Lapp is a dairy farmer and writer in Cassadaga, New York.