Elene Humlen, 27, of Whittier, held her head high as she arrived for the Orange-Riverside counties meeting of VOCAL at Santa Ana Main Library. She, for one, didn't care if anyone saw her there. She already had been on television; she'd told her story to every newspaper that would listen.
But, she suggested, the crowd probably was a little sparse that evening because people were scared to come out: They'd heard the media was going to be there. After all, VOCAL stands for Victims of Child Abuse Laws. Its members are those who have been accused of child abuse and who believe that in their cases the accusations were unjust. Some even have been found not guilty in criminal court.
But it's still not considered smart to put your face in front of a camera, or to get your name in the news, said Humlen: The American public still buys the "where there's smoke there's fire" theory; your neighbors and business associates likely will think you're guilty, no matter what the court decrees. She herself had lost her job.
After all, this is child abuse . . . to many minds the most horrendous crime of which anyone could be accused, worse even than murder.
More than that, there is a common belief among those who have been accused that if you complain in public, the juvenile or social service workers will put you on their "list," meaning your children could be kept from you--even put up for adoption, some are convinced.
It's a paranoid world out there for VOCAL members . . . and with good reason, according to Humlen. But as for her? "Somebody has to fight back," she said, even though her own case was scheduled for another hearing just four days later. "Somebody has to holler. If it has to be me, it has to be me."
VOCAL began last October in Minnesota. The original members came from a dozen Minnesota counties, but a number were from Jordan, Minn., where a particularly unsettling case had been playing out.
Within that town of 2,700, 24 adults had been charged with sexually molesting 40 local children, including their own, sometimes as part of ritualistic games. The whole thing had begun with the arrest of a 27-year-old male, part-time baby sitter in September, 1983. He not only admitted abusing children but implicated others. But just one year later, the first couple to go to trial was acquitted. Soon the county attorney dropped charges against all remaining defendants. The town was left in a quandary: Was there really all that abuse? Did children who told of being abused lie? Were all the defendants, in fact, innocent? Did the attorney's office do the necessary investigation before filing charges?
Minneapolis attorney Corey Gordon, who represented some of the accused parents--stunned by the sequence of events that left them without formal charges but without formal declaration of their innocence, as well--was among those encouraging the parents to join together for mutual support. The group that got together was VOCAL.
Today there are 60 chapters in the nation, including 10 in California. The first here was in Sacramento, but others have formed in Concord, Marin County, Penn Valley and San Jose. One is forming in Shasta; two Los Angeles-area groups meet in Altadena and Culver City. One group is active in Bakersfield, where a Times story reported on Friday that the Kern County Sheriff's Department is convinced that a child molestation ring is engaged in ritualistic murders of infants, including cremations, cannibalism and the drinking of human blood. Evidence in the case is "very light," said a department spokesman; no bodies have been found. The president of the county bar association and outgoing foreman of the grand jury both were said to have expressed concern about the handling of the case, according to the story.
Minnesota attorney Gordon was in Santa Ana as the drawing card for the second meeting of Orange County/Riverside chapter of VOCAL, the meeting held last week at the library. For him, there appears little question where the biggest problem lies in the burgeoning area of child abuse: with overeager authorities.
Child abuse, he told his attentive audience of perhaps 50 people, has become "the Red Scare of the '80s . . . a parallel to the 1940s internment of (Japanese-American) citizens . . . and the witch trials in Salem in 1692."
And the reason? "It's a whole growth industry for child abuse experts," he charged: social workers and psychologists are feeding off it; public agencies are pulling in tax dollars to support it.
The news media came in for his wrath, as well: "Incredible public attention is focused on child abuse, partly due to the media," he said. "Media know that sex sells," he added, "and there's a new truism: that if sex sells, child sex sells better." The media know, said Gordon, that a juicy story will titillate the audience and sell more papers or raise the ratings.
Given the current scene, where society looks at the world "through sex-abuse-colored glasses," he said, social work and juvenile authorities have chosen to play it safe: to pick up the child if there is "any scintilla of evidence." That is in spite of legal language requiring "clear and convincing evidence" if a child is to be held, said Gordon.
Those caught in that situation, he recommended, should "treat it as a medical emergency." Faced with a life-or-death tumor, "you would come up with the money," he admonished his audience. A child-abuse charge can bring its own form of "death," he warned. "You could go to prison or lose your children." Gordon encouraged his listeners to get the money somehow, hire good attorneys and fight the charges.
There were those in Gordon's audience with their own horror stories to tell, although most of them would talk only with the use of aliases.
One of them--call him Ron--required that his situation be disguised, as well. He faces an eight-year prison sentence unless he is successful with an appeal scheduled for hearing in January. He wasn't about to taunt the bureaucracy.
In his career, Ron had developed a nationally recognized troupe of youngsters--call them gymnasts. They had appeared in films; they had traveled widely to perform. Ron was a tough leader; he rigorously demanded the best from his group but equally routinely rewarded them with hugs and affection. Along the way, a few of the youngsters rebelled. Were they angry over not getting starring spots in the show? Ron wonders now. In any case, what they did was charge child abuse; parents who filed charges are seeking multimillion-dollar damages.
For Ron, it has meant financial ruin. He didn't even have enough money to hire the investigator he felt was essential to winning his case. "It was like getting hit blind-sided by a Mack truck," he said. "Afterward, you're busy just counting the broken bones." He added quietly, "It would be a challenge to my will to survive if I were to lose on appeal." Another member of the Santa Ana VOCAL audience was blond, eager-to-talk Robin Richardson, who had come in from Apple Valley. Attorney Gordon had agreed to help with her case.
As Richardson tells her story, it began when she took her 4-year-old daughter to the doctor for "a little vaginal discharge." That first doctor determined the discharge was caused by a sexually transmitted organism. Authorities were alerted.
In the turmoil that followed, the 4-year-old was picked up by juvenile officers--"torn out of my arms," said Richardson. The child was subsequently questioned three times with use of an anatomical doll--using words like vagina, penis and anus, said Richardson angrily, "and she's only 4 years old!" She's had five sessions with a psychologist, one with the sheriff, one with the district attorney and one with another doctor.
With her own money, Richardson found other doctors who disagreed with the original findings: The discharge could have been caused by a commonly found vaginal flora. There were other disparities about the probability of abuse. Richardson sent off a flurry of communications to politicians, to various hospitals and centers for disease control, to "60 Minutes," "The Phil Donahue Show" and "20-20," among others.
Richardson, who declines to release the original court report on her case, because "it's all lies," got her daughter back after 10 days but still has not regained legal custody. Just this week she was ordered to take her daughter for more sessions with a psychologist. All that enrages her. "As far as child abuse," she said, "I would have been the first person to go up and knock someone in the head," she said. "I would die for my children." No criminal charges have been filed in the case that has been handled entirely through juvenile court.
Along the way, Richardson has picked up some significant support in addition to Corey Gordon: In her home area, Gordon Browning, administrative assistant to state Sen. H. L. (Bill) Richardson (R-Glendora, no relation) has become interested in the situation. "It appears to be a case of government agencies vastly overstepping" their roles, he said. "Somebody is going to be held accountable for this one." And, he added, perhaps the state government needs to look into just how all its child welfare money is being spent.
"They have a tiger by the tail in me," said Robin Richardson. "I am furious!"
On the other side of the fence, Larry Leaman, director of the Orange County Social Services Agency, sighs and says it is not easy to run or to work for the agency charged with protecting the county's children. Most protective-services administrators he's talked with feel theirs is "a high-pressure, thankless job," he said, one in which "the legal liability--for the agency and on a personal level--appears to be unlimited, with our society becoming more and more litigious."
However, said Leaman, he realizes some parents feel the authorities are too quick to pick up children. "There is a thread of truth in that," he said. "If we do err, we err on the side of the child." The agency is required by law "to protect the child if there is any reason to think the child is at risk," he said. The agency must check into every child abuse tip, even from anonymous sources, and to pick that child up if there is potential danger. "The legal liability if we don't and if something happens to that child is tremendous," said Leaman. "In that one case in 100 where you don't (pick the child up) and something happens to that child, we really have no defense for damages that the family or whoever can bring.
"If you do have an instance where a social worker decides it's not necessary and three days later the child dies, attorneys line up to collect damages. . . . It's an ominous responsibility."
Yet, said Leaman, "the vast majority of reports do not result in (taking the child into) custody." In 1984, he said, Orange County's Child Abuse Registry received 17,208 reports of alleged neglect or abuse. About 2,000 children were actually taken into custody. And state law now demands that agencies "risk" sending children back to their own homes where no danger is obvious, he added.
It is true that parents who cooperate with officials may have a better chance of getting their children back quickly, said Leaman. If parents are willing to work with the agency, there's always the chance they can join the family maintenance program, where the child stays with the family while the problem is worked out, he explained. Those cases usually last 30 days or less, he added.
And yes, it is true the agency takes a dim view of parents pleading their cases through the media, he said, especially where that exposes the children involved to problems within the community. And when media call to check out those stories, Leaman added, the agency cannot give its side of the story: Legally, it cannot reveal any details, or really even acknowledge the cases. But in previous Orange County cases reported by the media, the agency has found that those who talked to the media either told untruths or concealed damaging facts, he said. He described a case several years ago that concerned the child of handicapped parents, where great sympathy was aroused in the media . . . until finally the court opened the file and reporters became aware of other details--such as the fact that the child was sent to school with human feces in his hair. "That got things into perspective," he said, "and the coverage stopped."
Regarding the charge that child abuse is a "growth industry" for social workers, Leaman said that state funding at this time is not based on the number of cases, although he wishes it were. However, as it stands, additional cases do not generate more money, he said. "Our biggest problem from a budget standpoint is that we are legislated to provide a top quality, highly responsive system; we are funded at something less than that. It places an ominous burden on the county."
Orange County's presiding judge of juvenile court, Betty Lou Lamoreaux, also sees officials struggling hard to deal fairly with a complex, highly emotional situation.
For instance, some VOCAL members have complained that they may be found innocent of charges in criminal court, yet find that their children remain under control of the juvenile court. That does happen, Lamoreaux said, since the two court systems have different burdens of proof: Criminal court requires proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" while juvenile court requires "preponderance of evidence." Even when criminal charges are filed, the family may wind up first--and last--in juvenile court, said Lamoreaux.
After a child is picked up, she added, a detention hearing must be held within 48 hours; at that time the child may go home or to a county facility. If the child is kept under county control, whether at home or in custody, a jurisdictional hearing--essentially a trial--is held in three weeks to a month. If charges are found true, the child remains a ward of the court and may go to a county facility or foster care or may go home under county supervision. Parents may be required to attend parenting classes or to participate in therapy, either with the child or alone. All this probably takes place before any criminal trial is even scheduled, said the judge.
And a criminal court "not guilty" verdict may have little relation to a child's need for continued care, added Lamoreaux. In fact, it may be especially difficult for the child if the suddenly "not guilty" defendant is a parent whom the child has accused of abuse.
Whatever happens, Lamoreaux said, the goal must be to reunite the family.
With child abuse, there appear to be two sides--maybe several sides--to almost every part of the issue. That is apparent in a sampling of reaction from county professionals who work in the area:
- Arnold Binder, UC Irvine professor of social ecology with a specialty in criminology and director of the Costa Mesa-based Community Service Programs, which provides shelter for abused children and serves victims and potential victims of crime: "My sympathies are entirely with the victims of crime, in general, and child abuse victims most particularly. Yet I recognize the dangers inherent in bureaucracies overstating a broad array of problems for their own advantage. Agencies frequently embellish specific situations to enhance the importance of their operations."
- Jim Mead, founder/director of For Kids Sake, a child abuse prevention program founded in Orange County in 1974: Orange County works under a dramatic under-funding, under-staffing handicap. He said caseworkers are trying to handle 75 to 95 cases each; the optimum is under 25--probably 15. Yet, he said, when compared to the rest of the United States, the county "does a better job than most."
- Gary Pohlson, Santa Ana attorney who handles child abuse cases filed in criminal court: The real problem with juvenile court proceedings, he said, is that "basically, they take children away, break up the family and then decide if anything really happened."
- Allen McMahon, Santa Ana attorney who specializes in juvenile court cases, including that of Elene Humlen: The current system of dealing with child abuse has turned "a whole class of people into second-class citizens; their rights fly right out the window."
Elene Humlen and Allen McMahon were back in juvenile court on Monday. Elene's goal: to recover legal custody of her son, Christopher, 9. Although he was living at home, he was still a ward of the court. She wasn't sure she would win Monday, but she did feel confident she would in the long run: Hers, she believed, was a "clean" case.
It had begun May 7 when Christopher was playing pitch-back ball with some neighborhood friends, she said. Christopher missed a ball, and it hit him on the nose. He went to school the next day with a "red mark" on his nose, recalled Humlen.
From that point, said the mother, the sequence of events went about as follows: The school nurse checked out the bruise; because the law requires nurses and other professionals to alert authorities to any possible case of abuse, she did. Police and a social worker showed up at school and detained Christopher. When the child failed to return home on time, Humlen's sister volunteered to go to the school to check, taking Christopher's baby sister, 16 months old, with her. Both children were taken into custody, not to return home for eight days.
According to Humlen, her sister was too frantic to realize what was happening. "I didn't find out what happened to my kids until 24 hours later," said Humlen, even though she called the school and area police departments. Finally, Humlen said, her sister remembered a card she had been given, with the number for Children's Protective Services, and Humlen was able to track down her children. With that situation, plus the hearing where her children were retained in custody, and the need to find money and an attorney for her case, Humlen said, "I just collapsed." She had forgotten to eat or drink, and was suffering from severe dehydration and shock, she said; her doctor put her in the hospital for five days.
That series of events, she said, "cost me more than $10,000, five days in the hospital and a good job. It caused just total devastation and severe individual problems to the whole family." The job she lost was with a car dealer, who asked for her resignation and cited "too many personal problems" after the story of her fight against child abuse first hit the media, said Humlen.
And everything happened because of overeager authorities who failed to investigate carefully, Humlen argues. "My only vice--I don't smoke and don't even drink--is that I have no husband. . . . I've never married," she said. Yes, she does believe that is a mark against her with those who have power to rule on her case.
But on Monday, things went Humlen's way. The court wanted to retain custody, said McMahon, but he demanded that they either put up their evidence or give Humlen an unconditional dismissal. And that's what she got.
"We're celebrating now!" she said exuberantly, from her Whittier home that afternoon. "We're having a block party."
But it may not all be over, Humlen added, because she thinks there's one more thing she may do: "Sue the hell out of them!"