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Tough Love, or Abuse?

Sheriff's sergeant and a school principal are on trial for stern discipline of their teenage son that allegedly escalated into psychological abuse.

November 21, 2002|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Grady and Deborah Machnick were distressed about their teenage son's behavior. His chores went unfinished. His grades were slipping. He stole money from them and shoplifted at the local supermarket.

So the parents took drastic steps.

Grady Machnick, a Los Angeles County sheriff's sergeant, and his wife, an elementary school principal, locked the boy out of the house until he finished his algebra homework. Some nights, they forced him to sleep outside on a dog mat.

When the boy didn't pick up after the family dogs, his stepmother scooped up droppings from the backyard and put them in his backpack before he went to school.

Often, he was excluded from the dinner table, forced to eat leftovers in the kitchen while the rest of the family dined on fresh-cooked meals.

The Machnicks say they did this to discipline a wayward son before he got into even worse trouble. Prosecutors say their actions were not only misguided but also criminal.

The parents went on trial this week in a child-endangerment case the likes of which prosecutors say they've never seen before. Most child abuse involves sudden, violent acts. This case focuses on what Orange County authorities describe as premeditated psychological cruelty.

Essentially, the Machnicks are accused of going overboard in their efforts to curb their son's behavior -- efforts that, by their account, began with "positive reinforcement" and other steps right out of a parenting self-help book. Implicitly, the case asks the justice system to define when parental tough love veers into criminality.

The Machnicks are charged with misdemeanor child endangerment and felony conspiracy. If convicted of both offenses, they could each be sentenced to up to three years in prison. Jury selection began Wednesday in Superior Court in Newport Beach.

The couple, who have pleaded not guilty, do not dispute many of the allegations, though they deny ever physically harming the boy, now a 16-year-old high school junior. When authorities confronted them last year, the parents insisted that there was a constructive purpose behind the punishments they devised.

"One of my biggest regrets is I was unable to find a form of behavior modification that would work," Grady Machnick said in a written statement released by his attorney, John Barnett. The boy "has great potential but simply would not obey school or home rules."

The Machnicks declined to be interviewed for this story. Barnett says they should be applauded for caring deeply about their child's welfare and going to great lengths to deal with his problems.

"This building is filled with people whose parents didn't care," Barnett said in court recently. "These parents cared, and now they're being prosecuted.... They were trying to do something to get his attention, without causing physical harm."

But in the process, authorities say, they inflicted psychological harm. That the Machnicks were professionals trained to deal with troublesome behavior makes their conduct all the more disturbing, investigators say.

"Grady is a sergeant with the Los Angeles [County] Sheriff's Department. He should know as well as Deborah that the actions they are taking against [the boy] are unreasonable and constitute child abuse," said a report written by Dean Fleig, the police detective who investigated the case.

"Both of these people are obligated to report child abuse when it is brought to their attention," Fleig wrote, "and they are engaging in it themselves."

An Ideal Setting

The Machnicks live in a tidy, two-story home on Sunwest Circle, a Yorba Linda cul-de-sac. The street is lined with palm trees and manicured lawns, the kind of place where front doors are decorated with signs that say "Welcome Friends."

When the Machnicks moved in about five years ago, they told neighbors they were thrilled to be living in the community. Their two oldest children, Grady's son and daughter from a previous marriage, became active in athletics. Their younger daughter rode horses and took piano lessons.

Neighbors described Deborah Machnick, 46, as a friendly person who strolled through the neighborhood at Christmastime, passing out holiday gifts. One year it was a bottle of wine with a decorative label. Another year it was cookie dough with baking instructions.

She was an elementary school principal in Walnut, most recently at the C.J. Morris school. Deborah Machnick, who had recently earned her doctorate in education, was known for her efforts to boost the self-esteem of students. At back-to-school nights, she gave parents pep talks about motivating children. She spoke about children as future leaders and invited parents to ceremonies honoring the school's students of the month.

Grady Machnick, also 46, was a supervisor at the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

The couple earned nearly $200,000 between them, drove a new Toyota 4Runner and owned a vacation cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains.

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