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The Advocate: Victor Vieth and the fight to end child abuse

WINONA, Minn. Victor Vieth was recently honored for his “courage to challenge political and conventional barriers to improving child welfare services.”

Victor Vieth, the executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center, in his office at Winona State University.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In this series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership,” MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

WINONA, Minn. – In the late 1980s, Victor Vieth worked as an assistant prosecutor in Cottonwood and Watanwon counties in southern Minnesota, handling a standard fare of small-town disputes, including custody battles. He had recently graduated from Hamline University School of Law and intended, down the road, to be a public defender.

In court one day, during Vieth’s first child-protection case, a social worker who had failed to follow proper procedures in removing a neglected child from a home took the witness stand. The man recalled entering a home and finding a baby covered with maggots – so he instinctively took the child. In court, he asked, rather incredulously, “What should I have done?”

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It was a potent question – one that helped to change Vieth’s path, from wanting to be a public defender to becoming one of the nation’s foremost experts on the prevention of child neglect and abuse. It’s not a position he initially sought, but he now embraces it with a convert’s zeal.

Vieth explained that he had initially wanted to represent the poor and people with little power – then realized that one particular group of powerless people was routinely overlooked: maltreated children. “I was moved enough to decide that child protection was what I wanted to do with my life,” he recalled.

“I learned that the problems we were having in rural Minnesota” – such as getting reliable statements from abused children that could be used in court – “were the same everywhere,” he said.

Despite the obstacles, he and his colleagues began to crack some cases. “All we had was the word of the victim, and we found a way to convict on that alone,” he recalled. “We were hitting it out of the park, but we didn’t even know it.”

To the East and back

Vieth left the Minnesota prairie in 1997 and moved to Alexandria, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., where he spent a decade working for the American Prosecutors Research Institute – first as a senior attorney, then as director of its child-abuse programs – working headlong on child-abuse issues.

He was back in his hometown of Winona one night, having dinner with a Winona State University administrator, when the administrator’s wife told him a story. She had helped to deliver a baby whose mother was a survivor of sexual abuse and had had flashbacks during the delivery; no one, the woman told Vieth, had prepared her for that scenario in nursing school. That led to a broader discussion about the dearth of child-abuse-awareness courses in both undergraduate and graduate programs across the country.

Winona State’s president at the time, Darrell Krueger, was brought into the conversation and eventually visited Vieth at his workplace in Virginia. During an office tour, Vieth showed Krueger a photograph of the National Advocacy Center, a training facility for federal prosecutors at the University of South Carolina. Krueger, impressed, made a provocative statement followed by a question. “Young man,” Krueger said to Vieth. “I could build you a building; what would you do with it?”

The idea for an education and training center was hatched. State and federal money was marshaled (the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone helped to secure $1 million in federal funds) and, in 2003, Vieth became the executive director of the National Child Protection Training  Center (NCPTC)  – which is housed at Winona State – and returned to the town where he grew up. (He graduated from both Winona High School and Winona State.)

national child protection training center
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
The National Child Protection Training Center is housed on the second floor of Maxwell Hall at Winona State.

The center’s approach is twofold. It provides curricula for both students and professionals who are already “on the ground” in the fight against child abuse – social workers, police officers, prosecutors, ministers – and also gives them a place to train and apply what they are learning.

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The overarching goal is to heighten and standardize investigations, medical procedures, social work responses and prosecutions in child sexual-abuse cases.

Changing the country

Vieth was recently honored by the North American Resource Center for Child Welfare, which awarded him the 2012 Pro Humanitate Award for Child Advocacy. In its citation, the organization cited Vieth’s “intellectual integrity and moral courage” and his “courage to challenge political and conventional barriers to improving child welfare services.”

Vieth and his wife, Lisa, live in Winona and have two children – one of them a teacher at a Lutheran school in Michigan, the other a college student in South Dakota. His work, however, keeps him on the road, in his estimation, “70 percent of the time.” 

Besides creating curricula and training students and workers, the center organizes roughly 100 conferences each year; Vieth had recently traveled to California, Virginia, Michigan, South Carolina and Texas. He consults with law-enforcement officials and prosecutors on hundreds of cases each year, and also recently helped to found partner training centers in Colombia and Japan.

It’s an intense lifestyle in service of a seemingly impossible goal – one that Vieth has internalized. “If you are going to end child abuse, the army is in place,” he said matter-of-factly. “But all of the professionals should be fully trained to respond competently. If we do this, we can change the country.”

The NCPTC serves as an umbrella organization for several other organizations that share that same goal: the Center for Effective Discipline, the National Association to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children and the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, which was founded after Jacob’s disappearance from St. Joseph in 1989 – a well-chronicled child-abduction case that chilled Minnesotans and remains unsolved.

The NCPTC also has an office in St. Paul and a training center at a community college in Arkansas.

A better way

According to the federal government, just fewer than 3 million children were the subject of maltreatment reports to state protection services in 2010. The NCPTC says that as many as 1,500 children die each year as a result of abuse and neglect.

Yet before the NCPTC opened, colleges and universities were doing little to alter their curriculum to reflect changes in thinking about child abuse and neglect, Vieth said. Moreover, there were no facilities that trained both students and professionals in what to look for and how to respond to child-abuse cases, a deficit that often left workers underprepared when faced with circumstances that suggested a child was being abused.

Patty Wetterling, who has become a nationally known child advocate since her son Jacob’s abduction, became acquainted with Vieth at various conferences and came to respect his work. Eventually, the Jacob Wetterling Foundation merged with the NCPTC and, for a time, Wetterling sat on the center’s board of directors. She is currently the chair of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and also works for the state Health Department,, focusing on sexual-violence prevention.

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Wetterling said one of the most important things about the NCPTC is that it trains police officers, social workers and others before they encounter abuse cases.

“I have been involved with law enforcement that responds to these kinds of cases, but this is doing things ahead of time so that people entering the work force in fields around children will have knowledge of sexual-violence protection,” she said.

She called Vieth’s work “visionary” and said his endearing nature belies tremendous idealism and ambition.

“He will set these goals and then meet them. He will find the resources he needs or a champion for a project or a facility,” Wetterling said. “I have tremendous respect for people who will challenge themselves and then go out and do it.”

She added: “He is very modest about what he is doing, but he is never to be underestimated.”

Wetterling agrees with Vieth that attitudes about the nature of child abuse have slowly changed over the past few decades – a helpful development that augments the work of the training center.

“There has always been a huge amount of denial around this; people talked themselves out of what they had seen. Denial got in the way of reality,” she said. “The other piece of this is that we realize that (the abuser) is not usually a stranger. People will turn in a bad guy they have never seen, but if Uncle Harry or dad or a brother or a coach is doing it, it is harder.

“But we are gaining ground in being able to talk about it.”

JFK and the man in black

On a warm Friday afternoon in September, in an office stuffed with books, pamphlets and stacks of paper, Vieth sits at a laptop, squeezing a squishy ball and waiting for a call from a reporter at The Los Angeles Times. A baseball and a baseball clock sit on his desk, half buried by letters and other printouts. Black-and-white photographs of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., hang on the wall.

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The room is filled with books – from biographies on thinkers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred theologian, to thick law books with titles like “Trial Practice Library: Evidence in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases.”

Also on display is a framed letter from Johnny Cash, along with a photo of the man in black himself and an article that Vieth wrote for a law journal about how Cash’s songs have influenced him. The piece, “He Walks the Line: How a prosecutor learned all he needs to know from Johnny Cash,” draws connections between Cash’s hardscrabble lyrics – of bad guys and redemption – and a prosecutor’s work.

(The letter, a thank-you, is typed, with Cash’s signature. But it’s the faint postscript at the bottom of the page, scrawled in the singer’s longhand, that Vieth most prizes. It says, simply: “I share your concern for our children.”)

The NCPTC is a square of offices and rooms on the second floor of Maxwell Hall. Four of the center’s 15 employees work at the Winona State office, while the others are spread among the partner organizations.

When he is not traveling, Vieth, with help from many other educators from across the country, works on classroom and training curricula. So far, 27 colleges and universities have adopted a standard curriculum developed at the NCPTC; the goal, Vieth said, is to have 500 schools using it by 2018.

The center also has a stable of speakers that it deploys to various events across the country, and publishes a newsletter on contemporary issues related to child abuse. (A recent “special edition” focused on the sexual-abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, former assistant football coach at Penn State University). Titles of recent workshops include “Interviewing Young Children,” “Forensic Interviewer at Trial,” “From Crime Scene to Trial,” and “When Words Matter.”

‘Heart of the reformation’

Students are strolling leisurely across the courtyard as the weekend approaches. Vieth, himself, seems like he could use a break. He walks slowly on a tour of the NCPTC, slightly stooped inside a dark suit, and smiles only mildly for pictures.

MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Several rooms in the National Child Protection Training
Center are made up to resemble an apartment where a
crime is being investigated.

On this particular day, one room of the center is made up to resemble an apartment that has become a crime scene, complete with crumpled newspapers on the floor, empty beer bottles on the end table and dirty dishes in the sink. A substance made to resemble blood is splattered on the counter and the floor, and a Swiss Army knife sits hidden in a washing machine. In the “bedroom,” students training at the center will come upon several pieces of evidence of abuse, including a sex toy, a condom wrapper and a DVD player (which is unplugged and hidden in the closet).

Five courtrooms – complete with benches, tables for the defense and prosecution and rows of seats for spectators – provide space for mock trials, while two rooms recreate the setting for interviews of victims and assailants.

All at a small state university tucked among the bluffs of the Mississippi River valley.

“Harvard couldn’t have a place like this,” Vieth says when asked whether the center will ever be tempted to move to a better-known location. “It would get lost in the shuffle. It needs to be here.” He added, with a hint of indignation: “This is the heart of the reformation. People from around the world come here!”

Vieth has time for a final question, and it’s one he is often asked and also prepared to answer: How can he do this kind of work?

He smiles tightly and, rather than answering immediately, rustles up a copy of a letter he once wrote to a woman who had asked him that very same thing. In the two-and-a-half page letter, he quotes the Christian writer C.S. Lewis at length and discusses the role that friends, faith and love play in his job.

One passage singles out his partners in the field:

“Whenever the burden of caring for children seems particularly heavy, I remember I am not alone. I have been privileged to work with dozens of colleagues at this Center and hundreds of child protection professionals across the nation who labor long hours for little pay on behalf of children who are not theirs – and yet they treat them as if they are. In any particular fight, there is strength in numbers. In the fight against child abuse, I am heartened to know I am only one soldier in a vast army.”

Vieth leans back in his chair and thinks for a moment, then says:

“It’s hard to say that I like this work when we are dealing with, you know, children who have been raped or beaten or burned,” he said. “But to see the veil lifted over the past 25 years?  That is a great reward.”