Child Abuse

In the name of protecting kids from harm, social workers subject them to cruel and unusual punishment.


The first time I heard of Billy Stefan's plight, he had just celebrated his 15th birthday at a Bradford, Pennsylvania, children's home. Family members had visited him, bringing lots of birthday presents. But for Billy, it all ended in tears. "Daddy, why can't I go along home?" he had pleaded.

It was Billy's determination and that of his older brothers—Tom, 17, Kevin, 19, and Ron, 20—that convinced me to include their case in my research on abuses by child-protection agencies. Their father, Donald, who owns a welding business in Yorkshire, a small town in Cattaraugus County, New York, had sought help from several of the numerous advocacy groups that fight arbitrary official intervention in families. My sister, Barbara Lyn Lapp, runs a chapter of one such group, Victims of Child Abuse Laws (VOCAL), in nearby Chautauqua County. Her efforts to help the Stefans would ultimately land her in jail.

Donald Stefan's grievances were not much different from the hundreds of others heard each year by organizations like VOCAL: The state had cried child abuse; the parent had cried foul. Then I saw copies of letters the boys had written their family-court judge during the time they were separated from their father and institutionalized. The case cried out for answers. Why, in this era of emphasis on children's rights, did the desperate pleas of two teenaged boys go unheeded?

The bureaucracy in which the Stefan family finds itself mired is a formidable system, supported by billions of dollars in federal and state funding each year. Federal law requires every state to have an agency within its Department of Social Services that fights child abuse. Usually called Child Protective Services, this agency has offices in every county. Among other things, CPS caseworkers are supposed to identify children who are suffering abuse, remove them from their homes if necessary, and seek a family-court order to place them in a safer environment.

Within this system, children have less protection than an accused murderer, a civil defendant, or even a target of asset forfeiture. A child can be removed from his home at a caseworker's discretion; the government need not show probable cause. To keep him locked away from his family indefinitely, the Department of Social Services attorney need only convince a judge by "a fair preponderance of the evidence"—a much weaker standard than "beyond a reasonable doubt"—that the child is neglected or in danger at home. Parents are generally represented by an attorney who rebuts the state's case. Although the judge appoints a "law guardian" to serve as the child's advocate, the child is usually not present, and his wishes count for little or nothing. All this is done under a legal cloak of secrecy, ostensibly to protect the child.

Author Mary Pride calls the CPS system "The Child Abuse Industry" in a 1986 book by that title. Others who have investigated its performance describe it as chaotic and inept. (See "Kindergarten Commissars," July 1992.) But the CPS system usually avoids scrutiny by hiding behind secrecy laws. To examine the flesh-and-blood consequences of child-protection policies, we have to ask those who have been inside the system: the social worker who gives up her job to break the silence, the parents who protest, and the children whose interests the system is supposed to promote. Their testimony contradicts the government's claim that it is helping families and protecting children from abuse.

Billy was 14 and his brother Tom was 16 on May 28, 1992, when two Cattaraugus County CPS employees, flanked by police, descended on their country home and took them away. Their case became one of the 136,000 reports recorded by the New York State Central Register for Child Abuse and Neglect that year. The person who placed the call to the CPS hotline remains anonymous.

Donald Stefan and his wife, Linda, had been having marital problems for several years; they were separated on and off. But Donald didn't expect Linda's sudden accusation that he had beaten and molested his son. Much less did he expect that CPS would accept such a claim without talking to the rest of the family.

The Stefans recall an altercation between Donald and his youngest son the day Billy was alleged to have been beaten, but no one other than Linda felt it constituted abuse. Billy and his father, interviewed separately, call it a "spanking" in response to foul language the child had used, and both admit it developed into a father-son scuffle. According to Billy and numerous people who saw him on the day of the incident and the day afterward at school, the confrontation left him with one visible mark, a small scratch on his cheek.

But Linda, who was not a witness, gave a very different account of the incident, portraying it as a serious assault. And Billy, who says his mother paid him to lie, initially confirmed that his father had sexually abused him. (He later recanted and, together with his brothers, rose to his father's defense.) The authorities moved immediately to pick Billy up.

Billy was placed in a "safe house" with his mother, and his older brother Tom volunteered to go along because he felt Billy needed him. "We were both crying," Tom remembers. "Billy didn't want to go, but Chuck Talbot [their caseworker] said they'd put him in a foster home if he didn't get in the car." Standing by in disbelief were the boys' older brothers and cousins, an aunt, and their grandmother, Effie Stefan, all of whom were more than willing to take care of them. In the weeks that followed, the Cattaraugus County Department of Social Services, which oversees CPS, would cut Tom and Billy off from contact with all relatives except their mother; shuttle them from one institution to another, including a mental hospital; "treat" them with psychotropic drugs; send the police after them when they tried to escape; and subject them to physical abuse—all without hearing the boys or their family (other than Donald and Linda) in court.

Advocates of the family-court system believe the task of determining "the best interests of the child" should be left to caseworkers, court-appointed psychologists, court-appointed law guardians, and the court itself. When the Stefan boys and others like them appeal to public officials, they are told, in essence, that children don't know what's good for them and can't handle open court, so they'd better leave such matters to those who know better. Chautauqua County Social Services Commissioner Edwin Minor dismisses complaints about arbitrary removals of children from their homes with this assertion: "All children want to return home; the more abused they are, the stronger is their desire to go back."

Added to the profound stupidity of children as envisioned by Minor et al. is the mindset propagated by our modern child-saving movement, which suspects every parent of child abuse and portrays the family as "the most dangerous institution that exists" (the view of a psychologist who appeared on a recent PBS documentary). The thrust is clear: We can't trust anyone—except the government and those it empowers to determine "the best interests of the child." Furthermore, the issue of child abuse is supposed to be so sensitive that it can be dealt with only in secret by family court and social-service departments. Unfortunately, these agencies have often demonstrated that they can be trusted more to enhance their own images and paychecks than to serve the needs of children.

Ten years ago, when I first started researching child abuse, I never considered that cases such as the Stefans' could exist. I read Dr. Vincent Fontana's book Somewhere a Child Is Crying and raged within at the callousness of officials who refuse to remove children from homes where they are being abused. I joined in "the fight against child abuse" by donating money to organizations such as I Care. It was a continuation of a family tradition in a sense—the same urge to reach out to society's less fortunate members that had led my parents to inquire into the plight of Korean War orphans even while they struggled to raise 12 children of their own.

It wasn't long, though, before I began to question the philosophy I encountered at child-abuse agencies. Government social workers, for example, commonly argue that all physical discipline is abuse and should be outlawed. Where does that put my parents, who employed an occasional spanking in raising their children? Today, those honestly concerned about the mistreatment of children are forced to scrutinize the child-protection agencies as well. For the bureaucratic monster that has emerged from the save-the-children movement cannot be defended even by its creators, much less by ordinary citizens with humane sensibilities.

In many cases, foster parents who start out with noble aspirations of improving children's lives later drop out of the system, appalled at the senselessness they witness. Beverly McCoy, a New York foster parent, says she and her husband took a young child as a way of emulating Beverly's great aunt, known for her motherly kindness. But the McCoys soon realized that their own efforts could accomplish little in the face of the callousness of the social-service officials who control foster children's destinies. "They destroyed all the good I tried to do," she says.

Child-protection agencies themselves complain about the high burnout rate among their staff and yearn for the day when their employees can feel happy about coming to work. And meanwhile, private efforts to relieve the suffering of children either become hopelessly enmeshed in existing bureaucracies or are chastised for their independence from established procedure.

My sister Barbara Lyn is a children's advocate who feels so betrayed by the system that she finds herself at odds with the very agencies she previously respected as guardians of children. Last year her involvement with VOCAL led her into the Stefan case—and ultimately into jail, for harboring Billy Stefan after his escape from the Bradford Children's Home.

Billy remembers vividly the day last April when his father came to visit him at Bradford and, instead of offering the usual pained good-bye, took him home. (Billy's older brother Tom had been released by then into his grandmother's custody; he had ultimately returned home to his father, contrary to the family court's order, but the authorities had not pursued him.) "Billy, I'm not going to let you get hurt no more," Donald Stefan vowed.

Fifteen days later, on May 5, Stefan backed up his vow by accepting jail rather than reveal to Family Court Judge Michael Nenno where he had hidden his son. "Judge, I cannot tell you," he explained when hauled into court. "I promised those boys that I will protect them under all circumstances. I'm not going to break my promise to those boys. They trust me." The angry judge assured Stefan that he would stay in jail until he decided to disclose where Billy was hiding.

Several weeks later, my sister was also behind bars after informing officials that Billy was safe and sound at her home. For harboring Billy and refusing to surrender him, she was convicted of obstructing governmental administration and sentenced to six months in Chautauqua County Jail. She would have been released in December, but on November 19 she was convicted of obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest, charges stemming from an August 16 rally on her behalf outside the Chautauqua County Courthouse. Four other people, including my father, Jacob; my sister Rachel; my brother-in-law Joe Torres; and a family friend, Lynn Carroll, were also convicted on charges related to the non-violent protest. They were scheduled to be sentenced in December.

The dire circumstances that prompted Donald Stefan and my sister to face jail in order to bring Billy relief are not unique. It is rare for a family to challenge the authorities so directly. But from time to time, usually in cases involving middle-class families with community support and impeccable characters, the victims make themselves heard.

Unlike the Stefans, David and Tobi Miller did not defy a court order, but the Phoenix couple's insistence on maintaining their innocence and their use of the news media were enough to incense their caseworkers, who branded them "hostile." Thanks to the risk the Millers took in publicizing their 1989 case, involving a sexual-abuse allegation by a troubled neighborhood child, we now have access to inside information on CPS practices.

The Millers were promised that if they brought their three children, ages 7, 10, and 12, to county offices to be interviewed, they would not be taken away. The promise was broken as soon as the family arrived at the office. Pelvic examinations, which turned up no evidence of sexual abuse, were immediately performed on the children without the consent or presence of anyone they knew. The three children were separated from each other and from their parents for six months, the amount of time it took the family court to recognize that their home was not abusive after all. During this period, the children endured "therapy" sessions that turned into grueling, high-pressure interrogations. Videotapes of the sessions give a sense of the CPS modus operandi.

In a session with 7-year-old Randy, the interviewer, Tascha Boychuck, says: "I heard something happened to your butt or your dick."

Randy: "Pff" (hyperventilating, says he is thirsty).

Boychuck: "OK, and I need to understand what that was."

Randy: "Pff. I don't know."

Boychuck: "Why don't you tell me who it was that did something to one or those two parts?"

Randy: "Michael gave me a bloody nose." (Describes fight with a friend.)

Boychuck: "OK, Sweetie, look here (forces close-range eye contact with child). That's not what we're talking about, OK? The part we need to understand is what happened to you, OK?"

Randy: "Nothing happened to me. We only got yelled at."

A dozen or more times Boychuck refers to Randy's private parts, displays anatomically correct dolls, and asks what happened. She continues until Randy starts crying, then continues until he throws his head back and howls, "I don't want to talk to you anymore!"

Still she persists, forcing eye contact: "I can see you sit there and you're going—like you're so upset. And I can tell that you're trying to keep things inside." She withholds Kleenex and a drink through dozens more questions, until at one point she gets a barely perceptible nod from the child.

Boychuck: "OK, and did he put his mouth on your dick?"

Randy: "No."

Boychuck: "Or both?"

Randy: "Nope."

Boychuck continues to refer to the little nod, accusing Randy of changing his mind. Finally Randy gets so uncooperative that the interview is discontinued. Despite consistent denial of abuse from all three children, CPS remained unwilling to admit its mistake.

Billy and Tom Stefan recall similar pressure to implicate their father in child molestation. Billy says that when he tried to recant the sexual-abuse charge his mother paid him to make, social workers would have none of it. Tom remembers a caseworker insisting to Billy's face that it had to be true, because "children don't just make things up."

Tobi Miller, at the time of her family's ordeal, put it this way: "They kidnapped my children and are holding them hostage. Their spirits are being destroyed and their bodies have been violated by doctors….All their rights have been taken away from them."

I ask Jason Miller, who was 12 years old at the time of the crisis and is now 16, whether anyone in the system took his own wishes seriously. "No," he says, "they just took it upon themselves to say what's best for us." He remembers repeatedly telling his caseworker, his law guardian, and even his judge (by letter) that he wanted to go home. "Most people think we have a problem," Jason wrote. "The problem started when the state took my sister, my brother, and myself from our parents for no reason at all."

Jason says he was told that he would be returned after one night. Instead, he was cooped up month after month in what was called a shelter: "It wasn't very nice….I was lonesome every day….The sanitation wasn't good, and there were roaches." No phone calls were allowed, and Jason's parents never received the letters he tried to mail to them. A lock system prevented escape. "It was very unfair," he says. "I wouldn't want any other child to have to go through that."

Speaking to Jason, as to the Stefans, reminds me of an observation by author Luise Armstrong that kids in state custody "have had a fundamental sense of control wrested from them." Armstrong, who has written a book about incest and another about foster care, is not talking only about kids who were never abused at home. In Solomon Says: A Speakout on Foster Care, she interviews dozens of people involved with the system, including foster children, and discovers that, even when a home situation is bad, life in foster care is usually worse.

Armstrong interviews former caseworkers, who confess being caught up "in the power I had over children." They admit the uselessness of their paperwork, their accusing labels, and their "services." A family-court judge bemoans a system that has more to do with "power-base issues" than with children, who are merely pawns. "We jump over them, we kick them over," she says. Armstrong views the whole system as a "ghastly game with eternally arbitrary and chaotic dictates, and entirely random results."

Richard Wexler, another journalist who criticizes CPS practices, writes in his 1990 book, Wounded Innocents: "The war against child abuse has become a war against children." He cites the precipitous nabbing and strip-searching of children by poorly trained caseworkers, hostility toward low-income families, and the trauma suffered by children separated from good parents. He documents the abuse and murder of children in foster care, contending that untold numbers of children are dying from careless social-work practices.

Like Luise Armstrong, Wexler exposes the stunning incompetence and chaos within what he calls "a system out of control." And like Armstrong, he allows us to hear the child victims themselves. A former foster child who'd been through 10 different placements tells him: "You learn not to reach out, not to care, not to feel. The kids that emerge [from foster care] are dead….It's been killed…whatever it is that makes people human."

The General Accounting Office reports that the number of children in foster care rose 55 percent between 1985 and 1991. The number will continue to rise, the GAO says, as long as the federal government pays for removing children from their homes but not for services that might keep a troubled family together.

Vincent Fontana—who boasts that his 30 years of work against child abuse have brought children to the point where they can say to their elders, "Don't hit me, or I'll call Dr. Fontana"—is himself troubled at the system he helped to create. He admits that we have all the same problems we did decades ago, before an intense child-abuse awareness campaign, and he's frustrated: "It's a system that doesn't work." Some experts are calling for a total rebuilding of the nation's child-protection system. Says the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect: "The CPS system is like a 911 number that cannot distinguish a murder in progress from littering."

In Arizona, the state Civil Liberties Union issued a report in 1992 condemning the violation of children's rights by CPS. Among the problems cited are the incommunicado isolation of children, CPS workers who are cynical and offer no hope to families, and court records contaminated by a host of facts that do not prove child abuse (such as the bathing of a 4-year-old child by his parents, or kissing and hugging "too much" during visits). "Once the child is removed," the report states, "the system will go to any lengths to sustain their charges, even in the face of copious evidence they have made a mistake." The report also cited experimentation on children with treatments given sex offenders, including the use of penile devices, nude photographs, and noxious odors.

In 1992 New York state's Commission on Quality Control released a report that criticizes the liberal use of psychotropic drugs on children in state mental-health facilities. In 51 percent of the cases examined by the commission, children were drugged without the consent of a parent or guardian. Only 33 percent of children receiving anti-psychotic medications had a diagnosed psychotic disorder. Both Tom and Billy Stefan were treated for acting up with potent psychoactive substances that have numerous possible side effects, including fainting, heart failure, confusion, agitation, seizures, and psychomotor and mental retardation. Both boys experienced some of these symptoms after being drugged. Neither of them had needed psychiatric medication before they were removed from their home.

The Commission on Quality Control also criticized the frequent use of punishments that deprive children of essential family and social contact. Although the commission found that children in state institutions were well cared for physically, the report concludes that "in a real sense these children are often deprived of their childhood, first by the desperate conditions in their family lives, and then by the very design of the service systems."

New York Commissioner of Social Services Mary Jo Bane complained that "the report's caustic criticism and the condemnation of the whole system is not justified." She objected to the suggestion of local oversight panels, saying that "decisions regarding child placement should be left to the party with the legal authority to act." Bane's defensiveness reflects the main problem in the child-welfare system: power without accountability. Officials are always promising reform, but nothing ever changes that fundamental reality.

One former CPS worker describes the system as "a world all its own…like being in the high school gang: either you play their game, or you're out." The weak ethics and ignorance of family realities among members of her CPS unit didn't matter, she says. What mattered was maintaining the gang and the " 'let's go get 'em' mentality." This social worker put conscience over career and dropped out.

In fairness, her description of apathy and incompetence does not apply to all caseworkers; the problem with the CPS system is not personnel. The problem lies in assuming that we can safely hand over broad powers to government without public oversight and constitutional constraints. The kind of reforms being proposed by social-service agencies do not address this issue at all. Rather, they involve expanded government powers and increased funding. Without radical reform, kids like Billy Stefan will continue to wait for relief.

"It's taking too long," Billy says. He lives in fear—not of his father but of the people who tore him from the security of home and family. He's suspicious of police and anything even remotely connected to Social Services. He's wary of all medication, even aspirin. He finds it difficult to trust anyone outside his family. At night he's tormented by dreams about "things Social Services did to me" and "them coming for me."

During his imprisonment by the county, Billy says, he would try to run back home, only to be tackled and pinned down. He says hospital staff gave him "shots in the rear" when he acted up, and they would sometimes bend his leg backwards to subdue him. "It hurt like hell," he recalls. His eyes, usually glazed over with dread when he brings back those memories, pierce into mine for an instant as he tries to explain. "Why?" he asks over and over again. "What do they want, keep me for a pet or something?" Billy has trouble making sense out of how so many men and women who don't know him can be so intent on getting their hands on him. And his family, even his father, has trouble giving him answers.

Donald Stefan was released from jail September 1 after serving four months for contempt of court. Billy Stefan remains free, but Judge Nenno has warned his father that he will go back to jail if he goes near the boy. Billy writes to his law guardian, his judge, to Social Services, and to "anyone who cares," asking to be left alone so that he can enjoy the simple pleasure of being home with his father. So far, no one seems to be listening.

Hannah B. Lapp is a dairy farmer and free-lance writer in Cassadaga, New York.