One day in May, 1985, Elaine Humlen, a divorced single mother of two who works as a saleswoman in Whittier, experienced what she now calls "D-day." Her children disappeared--and she was accused of child abuse.
The day before, according to Humlen, her son, age 9, had been playing baseball in the front yard when he was hit on the nose with the ball. "He didn't come in crying and it didn't leave much of a mark, so I didn't think much of it," she said.
At school the next afternoon, a teacher noticed a spot on the boy's nose and sent him to the school nurse. Because of California's "mandatory reporting law," which states that professionals must report even the smallest suspicion of child abuse, the nurse called the police.
The Ordeal Began
Law enforcement officials picked up the boy and Humlen's infant daughter, who was in the care of her sister at the time. They did not notify Humlen that they had taken her children; they were to keep the youngsters for eight days. It took the mother 2 1/2 months to regain custody of her children, and it cost her her job.
Until several years ago, stories of child abuse were rare. Today, however, nearly every major U. S. city has a sensational case in progress. Child abuse, the most heinous of crimes, has gone public.
The result: Most people now believe that neglect and molestation of children are on the rise. At first glance, the statistics support this contention. According to the California Department of Social Services, about 25,000 cases of abuse are reported each month, indicating a 10% increase each year.
However, beneath the surface of statistics, there is sometimes a more complicated story. Elaine Humlen's tale is not unusual. The percentage of child abuse cases reported, but remaining unsubstantiated, runs high. Some experts, for example, claim that as many as 60% to 70% of the reported cases are unfounded.
As a result, signs of a backlash are now appearing. Thousands of adults nationwide have banded together to form an information network and support group for people claiming to be falsely accused of child abuse. Some even claim a witch hunt for molesters is under way, clogging the system with unsubstantiated cases and draining its resources away from the real cases.
These parents claim that, in a strange way, they and their children are abused by the child abuse laws designed to protect them. They have formed VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws), which started in Minneapolis in 1984 and now has 120 chapters nationwide, including 20 established California chapters and 21 more in various stages of application in the state.
VOCAL members say that false allegations of child abuse are being used by one parent against another to win custody of children during bitter divorce wars.
According to Daniel C. Schuman, director of psychiatry at the Norfolk County Probate and Family Court in Massachusetts, "A generation ago, all you had to do was allege adultery and that was the end of a custody case. Ten years ago, all you had to do was allege homosexuality and that was the end. Now, all you have to do is allege child abuse and that's it."
The groundswell of concern for abused children is overdue, Schuman said. "But now, in some cases, it's also overdone. (Excess reporting) does terrible damage to the relationships children need with parents accused of being abusive. Reporting itself becomes a new form of subtle child deprivation and abuse.
"We don't want to pretend that no child abuse occurs," Schuman said. "But some meaningful proportion of allegations are exaggerated, erroneous or just plain contrived."
False allegations of abuse also may be used by medical professionals to protect themselves from malpractice suits, VOCAL members claim. In the new book "The Politics of Child Abuse" (Lyle Stuart, $17.95), authors Paul and Shirley Eberle tell the story of a woman whose daughter, age 5, developed a vaginal infection and began scratching it.
She took the child to a hospital, where she was examined five times during two weeks. The doctors' instruments reportedly left marks on her vagina and legs.
The mother took the child to another hospital, where the doctor gravely announced, "Your daughter had been molested. There's the proof," pointing to the instruments' marks. This child was taken away from her parents and placed in a foster home. According to the Eberles, she has not yet been returned.
False allegations also may be made by neighbors or family members to incite disputes, by adoptive children and teens to get revenge at parents or teachers for disciplinary acts. Some of the most notorious cases involve childcare professionals.
The net result of all this is what some people are calling a growing "child abuse industry."