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TV REVIEW : A Tragedy of Abuse in PBS’ ‘Adam Mann’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Frontline’s” shocking report, “Who Killed Adam Mann?” is that rare disturbance on TV’s relatively placid airwaves that actually may help change laws. It airs at 9 tonight on KCET Channel 28, at 8 on KVCR Channel 24 and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on KOCE Channel 50.

While investigative filmmaker Carole Langer’s expose of heinous child abuse wrenches the emotions, its condemnation of bureaucratic neglect should trigger a call to political arms. Like documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s best work, “Who Killed Adam Mann?” possesses an unflinching courage to lift the veil on dark recesses and injustices: Once they’re brought to light, nothing is quite the same again.

The light that’s being shined isn’t so much on the issue of child abuse as on the mechanisms surrounding the abuse: The parents and the extended family, the legacy of the abused becoming abusers themselves, the child welfare system, the court system and its fixation on plea bargaining. In this case, the mechanisms meshed to produce a dead child named Adam Mann.

Incredibly, six years before Adam’s fatal beating at the hands of both of his parents, Michelle Mann and Rufus Chisolm, a “Frontline” report that Langer had made on New York City’s emergency children’s services included footage (inserted into the new film) of the Manns visited by caseworkers, alerted by claims of child abuse. In a grim precursor of worse to come, Langer’s camera shows one of Adam’s older brothers, 18-month-old Keith Mann, with visible bruises, despite the caseworkers’ report that no bruises or scars were to be seen.

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The first abuse report filed on Michelle Mann, though, had been a year before that. Over the ensuing seven years, a blatant pattern of gross beatings--an autopsy of Adam revealed that every bone in his body had been broken at one time or another--was handled by New York’s child welfare administration with disturbing blitheness, at least as Langer shows it. A rehabilitation program for abusing mothers seems to have had no effect on Michelle, whose problems, psychologists claim, stem from abusive parents and no model for raising children. Her toilet-training sessions with Adam, Keith, Peter and Larry apparently resulted in habitual beatings.

Yet even after abuse reports were filed after Michelle finished rehabilitation, child welfare officers failed to visit the Mann family for months, even years, at a time. Like a horrific domestic Greek tragedy (including hidden-camera footage too traumatic for children), Adam’s fate inevitably results from a cycle of violence and neglect.

Because New York state law mandates that child abuse case files are kept confidential, journalists supposedly can’t get at them. And because the parents chose the option of plea bargaining and thus avoiding a trial that would have forcibly opened child welfare records, the Mann file remained closed. Langer somehow pried it open, bases her report upon it, and maybe, just maybe, will help change the course of child protection in America.


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