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.