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Tough Love, or Abuse?

Times Staff Writer

Grady and Deborah Machnick were distressed about their teenage son’s behavior. His chores went unfinished. His grades were slipping. He stole money from them and shoplifted at the local supermarket.

So the parents took drastic steps.

Grady Machnick, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeant, and his wife, an elementary school principal, locked the boy out of the house until he finished his algebra homework. Some nights, they forced him to sleep outside on a dog mat.

When the boy didn’t pick up after the family dogs, his stepmother scooped up droppings from the backyard and put them in his backpack before he went to school.

Often, he was excluded from the dinner table, forced to eat leftovers in the kitchen while the rest of the family dined on fresh-cooked meals.

The Machnicks say they did this to discipline a wayward son before he got into even worse trouble. Prosecutors say their actions were not only misguided but also criminal.

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The parents went on trial this week in a child-endangerment case the likes of which prosecutors say they’ve never seen before. Most child abuse involves sudden, violent acts. This case focuses on what Orange County authorities describe as premeditated psychological cruelty.

Essentially, the Machnicks are accused of going overboard in their efforts to curb their son’s behavior -- efforts that, by their account, began with “positive reinforcement” and other steps right out of a parenting self-help book. Implicitly, the case asks the justice system to define when parental tough love veers into criminality.

The Machnicks are charged with misdemeanor child endangerment and felony conspiracy. If convicted of both offenses, they could each be sentenced to up to three years in prison. Jury selection began Wednesday in Superior Court in Newport Beach.

The couple, who have pleaded not guilty, do not dispute many of the allegations, though they deny ever physically harming the boy, now a 16-year-old high school junior. When authorities confronted them last year, the parents insisted that there was a constructive purpose behind the punishments they devised.

“One of my biggest regrets is I was unable to find a form of behavior modification that would work,” Grady Machnick said in a written statement released by his attorney, John Barnett. The boy “has great potential but simply would not obey school or home rules.”

The Machnicks declined to be interviewed for this story. Barnett says they should be applauded for caring deeply about their child’s welfare and going to great lengths to deal with his problems.

“This building is filled with people whose parents didn’t care,” Barnett said in court recently. “These parents cared, and now they’re being prosecuted.... They were trying to do something to get his attention, without causing physical harm.”

But in the process, authorities say, they inflicted psychological harm. That the Machnicks were professionals trained to deal with troublesome behavior makes their conduct all the more disturbing, investigators say.

“Grady is a sergeant with the Los Angeles [County] Sheriff’s Department. He should know as well as Deborah that the actions they are taking against [the boy] are unreasonable and constitute child abuse,” said a report written by Dean Fleig, the police detective who investigated the case.

“Both of these people are obligated to report child abuse when it is brought to their attention,” Fleig wrote, “and they are engaging in it themselves.”

An Ideal Setting

The Machnicks live in a tidy, two-story home on Sunwest Circle, a Yorba Linda cul-de-sac. The street is lined with palm trees and manicured lawns, the kind of place where front doors are decorated with signs that say “Welcome Friends.”

When the Machnicks moved in about five years ago, they told neighbors they were thrilled to be living in the community. Their two oldest children, Grady’s son and daughter from a previous marriage, became active in athletics. Their younger daughter rode horses and took piano lessons.

Neighbors described Deborah Machnick, 46, as a friendly person who strolled through the neighborhood at Christmastime, passing out holiday gifts. One year it was a bottle of wine with a decorative label. Another year it was cookie dough with baking instructions.

She was an elementary school principal in Walnut, most recently at the C.J. Morris school. Deborah Machnick, who had recently earned her doctorate in education, was known for her efforts to boost the self-esteem of students. At back-to-school nights, she gave parents pep talks about motivating children. She spoke about children as future leaders and invited parents to ceremonies honoring the school’s students of the month.

Grady Machnick, also 46, was a supervisor at the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

The couple earned nearly $200,000 between them, drove a new Toyota 4Runner and owned a vacation cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains.

But behind closed doors, they struggled with Grady Machnick’s son, according to interviews, court records and social-services reports. (The Times is withholding the boy’s name because he is a minor.) The son missed family curfews, failed to complete homework assignments, got Ds in school, neglected chores and stole.

Nothing they did seemed to change his behavior, the parents said.

Grady Machnick said he tried at first to use positive reinforcement, giving his son movie tickets and cash as rewards for good behavior.

When that failed, the couple tried gradually stiffening their discipline, hoping something would click. They asked their son to sign a contract promising to improve his behavior. When he strayed, they grounded him.

Eventually, Grady Machnick concluded that more serious measures were needed to get through to his son, whom he described to a social worker as “one kid who pushes the limit.”

In court papers, Orange County prosecutors detailed 19 acts that they contend amount to felony conspiracy by the Machnicks.

Sixteen of those incidents involve allegations of emotional or psychological abuse. The parents acknowledge many of these episodes, though they dispute certain details recounted by their son.

The remaining three incidents involve alleged physical violence. Grady Machnick is accused of punching his son in the stomach and pushing him against a wall. The stepmother allegedly struck the boy in the leg, causing a bruise. Both parents deny hitting the child.

‘We Have to Push’

Last year, when the boy failed to clean up dog droppings in the backyard, his stepmother confronted him and demanded that he propose a punishment. He suggested that if it happened again, his parents should place the droppings in his bedroom.

Deborah Machnick later told investigators she thought the idea was reasonable and asked that he put it in writing.

Within a few weeks, he was again failing to clean up after the dogs. So she placed dog droppings in the boy’s backpack before he went to school. She later told a police detective that her actions “sent the message” and the boy began cleaning up after the dogs.

“We have to push,” the stepmother said, according to a police report.

When the Machnicks suspected their son of stealing cash from them, they imposed a new punishment. When Grady Machnick left for work at 4 a.m., he would roust his son from bed and escort him from the house. The boy was not allowed back inside until his father returned from work in the afternoon. Authorities said this policy remained in effect for nearly 18 months.

A detective later asked Grady Machnick how he expected the boy to go to the bathroom if he was locked out of the house. The father replied: “There’s the park down the way. That’s open 24 hours.”

The teenager told authorities that his stepmother took photos of him nude and threatened to plaster them around school if his behavior didn’t improve. Deborah Machnick told investigators she took the photographs to make a point about his behavior but said her recollection was that he was wearing underwear at the time.

The parents also removed all the belongings from the boy’s room, including his clothing, and forced him to earn them back with good behavior, according to social services documents.

Last year, Deborah Machnick decided to tutor the boy in algebra. She gave him about five pages of additional algebra each night beyond his school-assigned homework. She told him to finish the work in the backyard. He was allowed to come inside only after he had done so.

“He was failing algebra, and we were trying to build him up,” she told a social worker.

Sometimes the boy spent the night in the backyard, sleeping on a dog mat while the dogs slept in the house. The parents told investigators their son was to blame for failing to finish his homework. “Five pages isn’t too much to ask of him in 14 to 16 hours,” the father said, according to investigators’ reports.

Living With Friends

In May 2001, the boy ran away. He arrived at his best friend’s house after 1 a.m., his hair soaking wet. He told his friend that his father had awakened him by dousing him with several gallons of water to punish him for returning home late from school the day before.

A week later, the friend’s family told police that the Machnicks’ son was living with them. When a detective interviewed Grady Machnick about his treatment of the boy, the father’s first words were: “He didn’t commit any crimes, did he?”

A few weeks later, when a social worker told him his son wanted to come home, Machnick said he would take him back only if he could continue with his disciplinary regimen, a county social worker reported. Authorities placed the boy in the custody of the best friend’s family.

Social worker Curtis Vaughn, who spent weeks investigating the case, concluded that “father and stepmother have totally failed in their parental duties to inform and instruct the child.”

“Certainly, somebody in charge of young impressionable students could have thought of a more efficacious way to [deal with] the child’s laxity in scooping dog feces at home,” Vaughn said in a report.

Most cases of alleged child abuse involve neglect or a pattern of violence by parents who lose control, experts said. “This is not at all typical,” said Duncan Lindsey, a professor of child welfare at UCLA. “In most child abuse that’s reported, parents [are] not adequately caring for their children.”

After charges were filed, , the Sheriff’s Department placed Grady Machnick on unpaid leave. The Walnut Unified School District relieved Deborah Machnick of her principal’s duties, shifting her to an administrative post in which she has no contact with children.

Concerned parents at C.J. Morris had called the district to find out what was happening with Deborah Machnick.

“It was upsetting to a lot of the moms,” said Julie Holguin, parent of a second-grader at the school. “If she could do that with her own child, what gives her the right to be there with anybody else’s child?”

At the Los Angeles County Jail, deputies said they had a hard time believing the allegations against Grady Machnick, whom they described as a fair and caring supervisor.

“People were very shocked. I was very shocked. Having worked for him five years and knowing the type of person he is, I couldn’t believe these allegations,” said Deputy Jennifer Haller.

But teens in the Machnicks’ neighborhood said they knew something was wrong. The Machnicks’ son used to wander to friends’ homes at 10:30 p.m. on school nights, saying he had no place to go. On rainy days, they’d watch Deborah Machnick drive off to work, leaving her son behind to make the 15-minute walk to school. “My mom would stop and give him a ride,” said Mike Preston, the boy’s friend and former neighbor.

Pride and Frustration

In a photocopied letter they sent out with their Christmas cards last year, the Machnicks gushed about their two daughters, their new mountain home, even the family dogs, which “still provide us love and laughter.”

The tone changed when the subject turned to their teenage son. He had moved out of the house because “our household expectations were too much for him,” the couple told their family and friends.

“There are times,” they wrote, “when parenthood seems like nothing but feeding the mouth that bites you.”


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