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Of all the crimes that afflict society, none is more reviled than child abuse. With 2,7 million allegations of abuse reported in 1991, no one can deny the seriousness of the problem. Yet the war against these heinous crimes should not lead to witch hunts that violate basic legal and civil rights — and tear apart innocent families. In too many cases, parents are being falsely accused of child abuse on the basis of totally unsubstantiated claims by overzealous child-protective agencies. Consider these cases.

In the Seattle suburb of Bothell, people were flabbergasted to hear that Bill and Kathy Swan had been charged with sexually abusing their three-year-old daughter. Bill, an electrical engineer, was a devout churchgoer who reveled in his role as a dad. Kathy, equally religious, was an accomplished musician and spoke 12 languages. But the Swans' backgrounds didn't matter, prosecutors insisted. This case was proof that anyone could commit child abuse. And when the trial began before Superior Court Judge Anne Ellington, it seemed the prosecutors were right.

Lisa Conradi, the day-care-center worker who triggered the investigation, testified that the Swan child and her best friend had come forward with horrifying tales of sexual molestation by the Swans. Cindi Bratvold, Conradi’s boss, said much the same thing. Although the Swan girl and her friend were considered incompetent to testify at the trial, Judge Ellington allowed the statements the girls allegedly volunteered to Conradi and Bratvold — statements corroborated neither by tape recordings nor contemporaneous notes — into the record as evidence to convict the parents. Thus, the jury never heard the two girls tell their story: they heard only Conradi's and Bratvold's version of it.

However, the jury needed less than three hours to convict Bill and Kathy on two counts of statutory rape each. They were sentenced to serve 50 months in prison, while their daughter remained in the custody of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

During the trial the defense attorneys had been prevented from inquiring about Conradi's background. The prosecution had argued successfully that such information was irrelevant. One month after the verdict, however, Conradi confided in an interview with a free-lance writer that she had been abused for more than 20 years. "Damn near everybody that came near" abused her, Conradi claimed. "I was used regularly, daily, by three or four hundred guys," she said. "There are more perverts out there than normal people." She also asserted that she "did drugs every day," that she hated men and that on at least 20 other occasions she had attempted to turn in sex offenders to authorities. "I went through our neighborhood, and every other house had abuse in it."

To Bill's father, Episcopal minister William O. Swan, and stepmother, Marian, this punishment seemed incredibly unjust. They volunteered to take custody of their granddaughter, only to be told, according to Swan, that he was guilty of child sexual assault himself, because "the acorn falls near the root of the tree." Swan says the caseworkers cited this "known certainty" as the reason his visits with his granddaughter had to be supervised. But what infuriated the family most was that in the five years after the alleged assault on the little girl, no medical authority who was an expert on child sexual abuse had examined her.

Eventually, the child moved to the home of her great-aunt, Jane Swan. To gain custody, Jane had promised the DSHS she would never tell the girl her parents might be innocent. That would violate the "case plan" and work against everything the child had learned in therapy. One month later, Jane decided her niece needed a complete physical, including a gynecological exam. The result: no evidence of rape or any other damage.

As soon as they found out about the exam, caseworkers removed the child from Jane's custody and warned her that if she attempted to contact her niece, she would be subject to arrest.

After watching a TV account of the Swans' ordeal, Charles Nesson, professor of evidence at Harvard Law School, decided it couldn't be true. Then Nesson looked into the proceedings and changed his mind. The Swan case, he stated was "the most extreme example of erosion of the confrontation clause of which I am aware." In an interview, Nesson explained: "The Constitution says you have a right to confront your accusers, and that means the right to cross-examine them. When a hearsay accusation is introduced, you don't get that right. Here two people were sent to prison, and their little girl taken away, on the basis of pure hearsay that was not only uncorroborated but contradicted by the evidence."

David and Renee Riegel of Brookville, Ohio, were concerned in October 1990 when their three-month-old daughter, Chelsea, woke with a rash on her face, neck and shoulders. Pediatrician Richard D. Smith determined that it was petechiae, a disease that can be caused by shaking a child repeatedly. "But you've known me for years," Renee protested. "You've treated my other children. How could you even think I'd do such a thing?"

At Children's Medical Center in Dayton, doctors subjected Chelsea to a skeletal examination. The test produced a shock: Chelsea had fractured three ribs and maybe a leg. The Riegels were bewildered. Chelsea had never had any accidents or evinced any pain. Then ophthalmologist William Wending noticed a bluish tint to the whites of her eyes. That, together with her injuries, he told them, was symptomatic of a rare "brittle bone" disease called osteogenesis imperfecta.

To Tommie Sampson, a caseworker for the Montgomery County Children Services Bureau (CSB), which was contacted by Dr. Smith's office, the evidence was clear. "You spanked your daughter," she told the Riegels. "She won't be going home with you." At the CSB's request, Brookville police launched a probe of the family. It turned up nothing. Still, the Riegels remained under suspicion.

Three independent physicians examined Chelsea and submitted to CSB their reports diagnosing the child’s condition as OI or a similar disorder. Still, the agency continued to seek evidence of abuse. The Riegels were submitted to a psychological evaluation to see if they possessed the tendencies of child abusers. Psychologist Phyllis Kuehnl's evaluation showed nothing of the kind. "Neither parent appears capable of intentionally inflicting injury on a child," Kuehnl concluded.

Finally, more than 19 months after its "investigations" began, CSB dropped the case. Since then, Chelsea has suffered additional fractures to her arms and legs. Now almost three years old, she weighs just 25 pounds. "Financially, this has devastated us," Renee says. "The time lost with our kids, the stress, the financial burden – none of this should happen to innocent parents. Where are the laws to protect us from social workers who are out to prove guilt no matter what?”

In virtually all cases in which allegations of criminal conduct are made, the police investigate and make arrests. Yet, when the charge is child abuse, social workers call the shots, and the system doesn't hold them accountable. What's worse, once parents are accused, the burden is on them to prove their innocence, unlike in a criminal trial, where the burden of proof is on the accusers. Children are often taken away without the parents even having a chance to state their case.

In Harvey, Ill., James Norman, a steelworker, earned enough to provide for his wife and two children, Lynetta and Jamie, then 12 and 10. When his wife’s kidney condition got worse, Norman gave up full-time work to take care of her. However, the woman died, and he was told he had a serious heart disease.

Norman enrolled in an auto-mechanics class and found part-time jobs which enabled him to pay his bills. One day, when he was out at work, someone phoned a hot line to report that he was failing to supervise his kids. The same day the caseworker Sylvia Walker knocked on Norman’s door. Before having to justify her decision to anyone, she placed Norman’s daughters in foster care. The next morning the father was charged with neglect. His part-time jobs and vocational classes, he was told, had kept him away from home too much. Once he found a steady income and adequate housing, they would consider returning his children.

This struck Norman as a classic Catch-22. He needed housing to get his children back. But he didn’t qualify for welfare without custody of his kids, so he couldn’t get housing. Norman asked the attorneys at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago to help him. After hearing his story, Diane Redleaf filed a suit against the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, claiming that poverty was insufficient ground to take the children away from their families.

Redleaf also helped Norman get disability benefits he was entitled to because of his heart condition. With that money he found a new apartment. Then he filed a petition to get his children back. It was scheduled to be heard on November 28. But on November 16 he died of a heart attack. He was only 38. Today, Lynetta and Jamie are wards of the state.

Under federal law everyone who regularly works with children – teachers, doctors, counselors, nurses – is required to report suspicion of child abuse to local authorities. Suspicion, however, is not fact, and when social workers make mistakes (and Sylvia Walker admitted she had made a mistake), the people the system is designed to protect — innocent children — often wind up its victims. "Hundreds of children each week are needlessly removed from families," says New York University law professor Martin Guggenheim. "Some will be far more seriously harmed — whether physically or psychologically — than if state officials had never heard of them."

Everyone agrees the safety and welfare of our children must be paramount. Still, experts say we can help kids who need protection and prevent families from being torn apart. Why is this crucial? "When you place a child in foster care," New York Assemblywoman Cecile D. Singer says, "you have sentenced him to a dysfunctional life."

As a first step, Congress should prohibit caseworkers from removing children from their homes unless there is a clear, compelling threat to their well-being. In far too many instances, caseworkers are using therapists to hammer statements out of bewildered kids, while the police — who are trained to conduct investigations— just go along. That's the tail wagging the dog.

Next, Congress should examine the broad category of "neglect," which accounts for 48 percent of all child-abuse reports. Because there is no uniform definition, caseworkers and judges are free to interpret it as they wish. This invites abuse.

Child-protective agencies and their employees should also be held accountable. Confidentiality laws are supposed to protect kids; instead they shield bureaucrats. The immunity from lawsuits that caseworkers enjoy invites systemic abuse. The police can be charged with crimes and hauled into court. Child-protective agencies should not be treated differently.

Finally, the burden of proof should always rest on the state. As Singer points out, "The law should give at least as much protection to a parent as it does to a criminal."

(by Trevor Armbrister, http://www.rd.com)

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