On behalf of VOCAL, (Victims Of Child Abuse Laws) I wish to respond to Dr. Rolland Summit's article (Editorial Pages, Feb. 20), "Society vs. the Child Molesters," and the paragraph in which he termed VOCAL as being "a new horror" comprised of "outraged citizens and lawyers (who) have organized to offer strategies for discrediting child witnesses and humiliating anyone who elicits or endorses disclosures of sexual assault." Dr. Summit's statements were completely incorrect, misleading and most damaging to our organization nationally.
VOCAL has never discredited any child's testimony or statements. We have always stressed the fact that child abuse exists and needs to be addressed. We are very concerned, however, about the lack of thorough investigations in these cases and how, even with the best of intentions, children are often led, coerced and even threatened into making statements alleging abuse. The attorney general of California pointed this out in the Kern County investigations. Just as child accommodates an abuser, he also may accommodate any authority figure who repetitiously asks leading and coercive questions. The younger the child the more the child begins to perceive the alleged incident as truth. VOCAL has always maintained that any time children disclose abuse, it is imperative that they be listened to. Then the investigators must determine as to where the child received their information; was it from experience, from viewing pornography, or being continually misled by another hypersensitive adult (in divorce/custody disputes this often happens)?
At no time has VOCAL humiliated those who elicit or endorses disclosure. We have continually met and presented our issues with various child-abuse councils and agencies to give input that, separate from actual cases, there is a danger of systematically abusing a child and family by becoming too zealous in our attempts to protect children. We have never discredited the need to adequately protect children and have always supported community efforts in the establishment of community awareness; however, since 60% of the cases are classified as unfounded, we must refine our procedures to fully utilize our community efforts to protect the children who are abused rather than waste our resources on cases that are false or unfounded. The impact to our child-abuse agencies is overwhelming. It would be beneficial to the community and to children to advocate and establish thorough investigations, better definitions of child abuse, and state-mandated and state-funded training of those who are on the forefront of the war against abuse.
Our organization is comprised not only of attorneys and citizens, but also includes those in the mental health profession who are deeply concerned as to how this national hysteria has adversely affected the American family and is now sweeping into our public school system--worse yet, it is affecting our children in child care, for now there is hesitation to hold, hug or touch a child for fear of being inadvertently accused of abuse. Without that closeness and nurturing, what type of future generation will we have? We must protect our children from abuse and guarantee them a happy childhood, but let's be very careful not to abuse them by placing them in a state-run system that threatens the loss of their identity, their family, and their innocence through overzealousness, no matter how well intentioned. Let's work to achieve a middle ground in which we can put an end to child abuse without abusing the family and child in the process.
Wimberly is president of VOCAL, Inc. of California.
Dr. Summit replies:
It was not my intention to label VOCAL as a "horror" nor to imply that it was comprised of malicious people.
The horror I mentioned was not VOCAL, the organization, but the specter of innocent people imprisoned by overzealous prosecution, as represented by its name, Victims of Child Abuse Laws. The strategies for discrediting witnesses mentioned in the next sentence are not the invention of VOCAL, nor do I claim that VOCAL organized for the purpose of discrediting legitimate victims of abuse. It is the lawful right of any individual to defend against incrimination by challenging the validity of adverse complaints.
I regret any choice of phrasing that allowed for ambiguous interpretation possibly demeaning VOCAL or its members.