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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Best Solution to Worst-Possible Custody Dispute : THE HOSTAGE CHILD: Sex Abuse Allegations in Custody Disputes by Leora N. Rosen and Michelle Etlin; Indiana University Press $19.95, 225 pages

August 09, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Hostage Child" is an effort to combat the increasingly suffocating premise in the courts that mothers use sexual abuse allegations to manipulate the courts in custody cases.

Suffocating, that is, to the judicial process. Too often, the testimonies of children and their mothers are dismissed and these children are condemned by the courts to live with a parent who has and often continues to sexually abuse them.

How did this come about?

When the issue of childhood sexual abuse exploded in the last decade the fallout included various theories about blame. Today, the authors claim, mothers "trying to protect their children are vilified," a trend that has been "facilitated by the feminist movement's lack of support for women who opt for the role of mother."

Feminists have concentrated more on getting women out of the home and into the workplace than they have on parental rights, the authors claim, contrasting the "false allegation mother" with old stereotypes of the "incest mother, who is collusive and pretends not to know what is going on." The authors claim that the "new fatherhood ideology" (the image of the nurturing father) was a myth that not only "misrepresents the reality that mothers are still the primary caregivers of children," but was, in fact, an effort to help fathers regain control over their families, an effort to protect another myth . . . the great American family.

Since its formation in 1992, the Alliance for the Rights of Children has identified 2000 cases of children "awarded" by the courts to abusive family members. And it is not only the credibility of the mothers that is being questioned. It is also the credibility of the children. Yet in several studies, including one cited here conducted at the Department of Social Services in North Carolina over a 12-month period, workers found that only 5% of the sexual abuse allegations proved false, while 56% were substantiated.

Leora Rosen is an anthropologist (hence the five horrifying case studies that take up the beginning third of this book) and one of the founders of the Alliance for the Rights of Children. Michelle Etlin is an activist and a "founding mother" of Operation Z, another children's advocacy group. Their combined talents--analytical and organizational--have gone into a book that makes a clear, persuasive case for taking the responsibility for the protection of children from sexual abuse and incest out of the judicial arena and putting it into the public health arena.

Who will remove a child at risk from danger? The solution offered by Rosen and Etlin may not address this question satisfactorily, but it is creative and constructive nonetheless. They suggest removing criminal prosecutions altogether, giving the same right to children for emergency care as they would receive in a medical emergency (considering, as the authors do, that the "psychological sequelae of incest are lifelong and can be completely debilitating").

They propose the creation of Child at Risk Classification Offices (CARCOs), with offices in schools and hospitals. Employees would use a scale of risk to evaluate the situation, encouraging confessions leading to psychological treatment rather than accusations leading to denial and criminal proceedings.

I would certainly rather contribute to the process Rosen and Etlin describe than the inquisitions and false logic exposed in these case studies. But the general reader (and the book deserves a general readership) will, I suspect, still want to see the perpetrators safely behind bars.

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