Andrew Vachss wages war on child abuse inside courtrooms and in a new novel

MAN WITH A MISSION

October 16, 1990|By Alice Steinbach

If you passed him on the street -- this rakish-looking man who turns heads wherever he goes -- you would never think Andrew Vachss is a man with a social mission.

Dressed in a silky green shirt, pale jacket, black boots and pegged cream-colored pants, he looks like a Hollywood producer. But then again, with that black eye patch and the small heart tattooed on his right hand -- not to mention the three-day, Don-Johnson-type beard -- he could be an international soldier of fortune. Or a jet-set wheeler-dealer.

What Andrew Vachss (rhymes with fax) doesn't look like is a New York attorney and novelist with only one purpose in life: to wage a relentless war, both inside and outside the courtroom, against child abuse.

BThat image arrives in full force when Mr. Vachss, 47, sits down to talk about the plight of children, a subject that has all but consumed him for the last 25 years or so. In Baltimore yesterday to speak to a United Way gathering, Mr. Vachss is known nationally as an attorney who represents children, mostly in child molestation and abuse cases.

He won a case against the Fresh Air Fund -- which sends poor, urban kids on vacations to the countryside -- charging they had unwittingly sent some of these children to homes where they were abused. And in 1989, Mr. Vachss argued successfully in a New York courtroom that an unborn child should be taken at birth from the mother, who had abused several other children.

Andrew Vachss has also taken his cause to the printed page. He is a successful novelist whose fifth and most recent book, "Blossom," was published in August. Through the eyes of his central character, an ex-con turned private investigator known only as Burke, Mr. Vachss gives his readers a tour of the nightmarish world inhabited by exploited children. His raw prose and tough style have been compared to that of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and Paramount Pictures recently bought film rights to the novels.

The books, as well as his practice, have made him a celebrity. But he seems unaffected by the public attention.

VTC Still, he is an angry man. And when he opens fire on a society that, in his view, "does not take child abuse seriously," he takes no prisoners. He faults politicians, judicial officers and the social services system for the "bankrupt" state of child protection.

"We don't even come close to taking child abuse seriously. We don't even pretend to take it seriously," he says, lighting up the first of many cigarettes. "Why? Because kids don't vote. Kids don't have access to the media. Kids don't represent any kind of power. And the sad thing is that the family may be the most dangerous place in America for many kids."

Mr. Vachss says there is nothing he could make up that he hasn't seen in the everyday world of child abuse where kids are exploited, bought and sold, used up and thrown out. He says the anger gathered momentum over the years, even before he became a lawyer in 1975 at the age of 32:

"I didn't start out angry. I started out a young man wanting adventure. So the first job I had was as an investigator for the U.S. Health Services tracking down sexually transmitted diseases. I thought I was a pretty tough kid, but it never occurred to me that people would have sex with babies . . . I saw a lot of that. And in each job after that -- being a caseworker in the New York City social services department, being a juvenile probation officer, being in Biafra in 1969 during the war, running a maximum security prison for juveniles -- in job after job I kept getting the same message."

His voice, intense and rapid, filled with the mean streets of New York's lower West Side where he grew up gathers momentum. "And the message I kept getting was that it's less safe to be a child than any other single risk category . . . that people do damn near anything to children -- and they do it for fun, they do it for pleasure and they do it for profit. And we end up paying. Because the kid who doesn't die from that kind of treatment ends up being toxic to the rest of us. Today's abused child is tomorrow's criminal."

It is this "evil" underside of the world, he says, that he wants to show us in his unsettling novels. Mr. Vachss started writing in 1984 to supplement his income and help finance his practice. And he says the books, published by Knopf and edited by Robert Gottlieb are simply another way to focus public attention on the problems of child abuse. "I don't consider myself a writer. I see these books as a way of spreading information and as a way to pollute the jury pool. You read one of my books and then sit on a jury someplace and you're going to judge things differently."

There is nothing in his own childhood, he says, that accounts fohis consuming interest in protecting children. Asked to describe his own childhood, he answers in one word: "Sweet." It seems odd, coming as it does from a man given to rapid-fire, unsentimental judgments.

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