Kids' lawyer flaunts toughness Blunt style is found offensive, effective

October 12, 1990|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

Certain details about Andrew Vachss have been cataloged to the point of triteness: the eye patch, the biker garb, the tattoo, the tough New York voice, the hard-boiled style of the fiction he writes when he isn't practicing law.

But what he has to say, and what he has been saying for the past decade, still seems fresh.

A New York attorney who represents only children, Vachss tells stories about children psychologically destroyed by adults, and the threat some of these young victims will pose as the next generation's Ted Bundys and Charles Mansons.

He also has his own straight-forward prescription: Get better child protective workers through higher pay and aggressive training. Save every child you can, but don't waste time on adult criminals who were abused as children. Jail incestuous parents, like any other sexual offenders.

"No more mixed messages, you see," Vachss said.

His blunt statements sometimes offend even those aligned with him as children's advocates, he says. Consider some samples of the Vachss style, from a telephone interview prompted by his appearance at a United Way gathering in Baltimore next week.

* On why a survivor of child abuse is of greater concern than the ones who die at the hands of their abusers: "Obviously, if [mass murderer] John Wayne Gacy had been killed as a child, there would be 40 more people alive today. That wouldn't be a bad thing."

* On the current vogue for family-preservation services: "First of all, the people who are making these decisions are amateurs. It ends up being a political decision, not a pragmatic one. Keeping the family together has often been a euphemism for allowing the incest victim to continue to be abused."

* On child-abuse statistics, some of which United Way is using to promote his appearance here: "People who quote statistics are generally proposal writers. How can you have a statistic? . . . From my mail, I can honestly say that if you could harness the formerly abused children in this country you could win a presidential election."

One wonders if the United Way knows what it is getting with Vachss, whose Monday morning appearance at the University of Baltimore is simply billed as a "candid discussion about child abuse and crime."

"We felt the time had come to look at the hard facts. . . . There's nothing pretty about child abuse," said Mel Tansill, United Way spokesman, adding he expects Vachss' speech to be controversial.

"That may be their fantasy," Vachss said. As for being controversial, he added, "I have the unique experience of not being particularly well-liked by any camp. That's fine."

If others project their fantasies onto Vachss, it may be because they have so little information to work with. He talks at length about his professional life, yet offers almost nothing about his personal life.

His specialized law practice -- his card reads "Limited to Matters Concerning Children and Youth" -- brought him recognition through cases that included suing for state custody of a fetus whose mother had abused her other children.

He also sued the Fresh Air Fund, New York City's poor-kids-in-the-country-campaign, after children in its care were sexually abused. "Three cases. And three victories, by the way," he said.

His novels, five in all, have added a new dimension to his celebrity since the first one, "Flood," appeared in 1985. He recently sold the film rights to the series of mystery thrillers about Burke, the ex-convict/investigator whose cases always seem to lead to an underworld of child exploitation.

Personal details about Vachss are harder to come by, but the attorney has let a few bits of biography slip over the years.

First, there's his name, pronounced "vax," despite others' inclination to broaden the "a." "It's an Ellis Island name," he said. "It doesn't mean anything." He is 47 and married to a Queens County prosecutor who prosecutes sex offenders. They have no children.

Vachss grew up in New York City, in a working-class neighborhood. He wears his patch because of childhood injury. He thought of himself as street-wise.

But in Steubenville, Ohio, he saw a new side of childhood. As a public health investigator, Vachss tracked venereal disease cases. Often, the trail led to children.

Other jobs and crusades followed. He went to Biafra to check on relief provided starving children. He worked in New York's child-welfare system and ran a juvenile-detention facility in Massachusetts. That last job led directly to law school and his practice, which began in 1976.

It has not been a particularly lucrative practice, although Vachss said a staff of 100 attorneys could not keep up with the calls that come into his one-man office. "Because we do a lot of civil lawsuits, it's feast or famine." An average year brings in $20,000.

At first, he took an occasional murder case to keep his practice going. With the success of his novels, he has the luxury of representing children exclusively.

But it's wrong to say the books underwrite his practice, Vachss said. "I had a practice a long time before I started writing," he said. The tone is testy. But then, with Vachss, the tone always seems testy.

"I want to say one more thing about that," he said. "If you want to fight child abuse, don't buy one of my books. I get maybe a buck and a half in royalties. Give the $18 to some agency."

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