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A Question of Abuse

An influential group of therapists is promoting a new scare: children who molest other children. Those who question the murky evidence are said to be in denial. But it is the kids, taken from home and given intense therapy, who might be sufferering the most.

Tony Diamond is a troubled boy. Charming and tractable one minute, he may be flailing in rage or brooding in despair the next. Tony's classwork is outstanding; he reads widely and writes winningly. In a report on Napoleon, he quotes the "battleous" (and apparently bilingual) "military genius" as uttering the famous palindrome, "Able was I ere I saw Elba." Yet he fights and disobeys at school -- and in his short life he's attended several.

Like other boys his age, 12, Tony likes Star Wars and baseball. He takes care of a small menagerie at home -- a hamster, a rabbit, and a garrulous cockatiel. But he can be mean to his sister, Jessica, one year his junior, dark and soft where he is blond and slender, slow in class where he excels. Their relationship, it seems, is fierce -- fiercely affectionate and fiercely antagonistic. One evening, they sit next to each other, playing quietly. Another time, she climbs into the car and he slaps her.

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Three years ago, in November 1993, San Diego County Child Protective Services pronounced Tony a grave danger to his sister. Jessie had told someone at school that her brother had "touched her private parts, front and back." Mandated by the 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act to report any suspicion of child abuse, even by a child and even without substantiation, Jessica's elementary school called the Child Abuse Hotline. A social worker elicited a record of Tony's earlier offenses: In elementary school, he used sexual language and looked under girls' skirts; at 4, he lay on top of Jessie in the bath.

San Diego Juvenile Court charged Tony with "sexual abuse" of Jessica "including, but not limited to, touching her vaginal and anal areas...placing a pencil in her buttocks," and threatening to hurt her if she "disclosed the molest."

"It would appear from a review of the case," the social worker wrote, "that Tony is a budding sex offender." Tony was 9 years old.

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