Dependency Court: Law and Order SVU Without The Pretty

My wife and I do not have a traditional basic cable package. We have a Roku box and stream whatever is on Netflix onto our TV. Recently my wife has more or less taken over the box and has instituted a campaign to watch everyone of the 270 episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I act like this is some sort of imposition on what I would rather be watching, but in truth I have always liked the show and continue to watch it. However since I have started working in Dependency Law in earnest, I have to admit that my feelings about the show have become more complicated.

Law and Order SVU focuses mainly on sex crimes, domestic violence, and child abuse. The detectives featured on the show are tireless advocates for the victims of the uniquely awful crimes of rape, pedophilia, and incest. Watching the show gives you both the drama of witnessing an individual or family come to grips with an awful crime, but then the relief of knowing that at the end of the 45 minutes there will be at least some resolution for the better. Obviously this is a TV show and not real life, so the events will be dramatized for their effect and provided with an unrealistically happy ending. But until now I have not realized both how exploitative the show can be, as well as how inaccurate it is in terms of the way that the legal community truly deals with the awfulness of the featured crimes.

The crimes of rape, incest, and pedophilia provide such an interesting- and yet continually depressing, lens into how a society views sex, criminality, and the role of government. In the not to distant past those crimes were thought to be so uniquely awful that their victims were encouraged to stay quiet and not to come forward at all. The very idea that these actions would serve as the focus of a prime time television show seemed ludicrous, yet since 1999 Law and Order SVU has continued to shine the light on some of the worst things that people do to each other.

However even though the show has brought extra attention for the stories real-life suffering, it has done so in a way that too often beatifies those investigating the alleged crimes, stereotypes the victims, and dehumanizes the alleged perpetrators to an almost comical level. The show never feels quite comfortable in its niche as a guilty pleasure for police procedurals, especially given its primary subject matter. The writing, plot structure, and character development has never been as brave or as intelligent as the Wire, and yet its obvious trash appeal never truly devolves into Jerry Springer territory. In other words the show exists as a haunted house tour for urbane professionals; a safe place for tax lawyers or podiatrists to enter a world that they know exists, yet leave whenever they want to without any long term consequences.

This experience, where the suffering of sexual abuse is provided in an extremely staged or (dare I say it) pornographic light, stands in stark contrast to the (admittedly limited) direct experience I have had so far as a clerk in the Public Defender’s Dependency Unit. Dependency for those of you who are unfamiliar with the law, is a quasi-criminal action whereby the state (via its child protection or social service agency) files a petition against the legal guardians of a child on the basis that they are not providing the minor with proper care as defined by statute. In English, Dependency is when the state officially tries to declare you as a shitty parent for abusing and or neglecting your kid. The job of the PD in this case is to defend you, the alleged shitty parent, before the state tries to permanently sever your legal right to parent and then ship your kid off to be adopted by someone else.

Acts of sexual violence against children are common in the dependency system. Many times a parent or legal guardian is the perpetrator, sometimes it is another adult in the house who acted with the assent or passive acceptance of the guardian, and sometimes the actor is an older child. The circumstances behind such suffering are always different and terrible, with the only continuing theme being that the situations seem intransigently horrible. There is almost never a definative “end” to these cases. Families that enter the dependency system and escape through rehabilitation find there way back in for something even more awful. Many of the children in these cases languish in foster care as they are so messed up by their parents that the state declares them to be “unadoptable”. The officially damaged children of these families then go onto their own dependency cases, or enter the criminal system.

Unlike on TV there are no “heroes” in dependency (there are also no heroes in the criminal side of prosecuting child abuse or sex cases, no matter what our local DA claims). The social workers are frequently sloppy with their investigation, leading to irrelevant and damaging information being used against the parents. The parents themselves are beset with a host of mental health problems, never ending-substance abuse issues, poverty, or just plain sociopathy. The children themselves are understandably torn about what to think after they are ripped from whatever family unit they have known and thrown into the always underfunded foster care system. Eliot Stabler might have successfully proven the criminal case against the parents, but improving welfare of the child is not fought for with even a tiny degree of the same gusto.

By mentioning the fact that there are no “heroes” in dependency I am not trying to say that people are failing at their job or that their work lacks meaning. In fact the truth for those who work in this complicated area of the law are balancing intricate legal issues while dealing very real human tendencies and deficiencies. All sides of within these conflicts understand the basic frailty of human relationships and are trying their best to make life better for people who have been damaged by neglect or abuse.

Unlike the reality as portrayed by Law and Order SVU, fixing the lives of victimized children is a resource intensive and extremely delicate. Judges with foresight, like Maria D. Hernandez Hernandez, create institutions like “Boys Court”. This program takes  dependent children who are at risk of entering the delinquency or adult criminal systems are monitored in a cooperative effort involving Public Defenders, District Attorneys, Social Workers, and a host of other experts. All of these groups work to help the children slowly overcome the mistakes of their parents in order to become higher functioning adults. Sometimes it works, and other times the effort fails- but the struggle to “fix” these damaged lives highlights is always careful and lengthy process rather than the triumphalism described on television.

So there it is, I still watch the show and enjoy it. However I now recognize my part in belaboring a culture that both celebrates archaic ideas of sexual violence, and refuses to properly treat its underlying causes. Perhaps in my legal career I will have the opportunity to correct some of these misconceptions, but in the meantime at least identifying this issue is a step in the right direction.

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About stefanbc

I am an attorney who works mainly in criminal defense, child welfare, and medical marijuana advocacy. I live in Long Beach with my wife and four pets. View all posts by stefanbc

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