Richard knows best

The naked schemer of "Survivor" answers to child abuse charges -- with a confession.

By Beth Broeker
Published August 24, 2000 7:32PM (EDT)

Richard Hatch, the duplicitous schemer who created the alliance on "Survivor" and went home Wednesday with a $1 million prize, was on "Dateline NBC" the other night, talking about the child abuse charges against him -- how upsetting it's been, how his community has demonized him, how he is viewed as a "psycho dad."

It's all so unfair, says Richard, so easy to explain. Folks just need all the facts, the gory details.

You see, Richard's son is not his biological child. In fact, explains our hero, this boy was a very troubled 7-year-old foster child when, a few years ago, Richard took him in and eventually adopted him. Before his "Survivor" adventure, Richard had his son on a strict diet and exercise regimen, because he (like his adoptive dad) tends to be overweight.

When Richard returned from "Survivor" he found his previously healthy, happy son to be sullen and fat. "Eureka!" he thought. "This kid needs exercise!" And off they went, to resume their 4:30 a.m. six-mile runs. Only junior wasn't very happy about it, and told his teachers that his father roughed him up when he refused to run any farther. Richard was arrested, and his son was put into a state-supervised shelter (though he has since returned to live with Richard).

Richard tells us, on "Dateline," that he was only trying to help his son, because he knows the pain of being overweight. This child caused loads of problems for his previous caretakers (biting, kicking and hitting, Richard tells us), but because of Richard's great love and devotion, gradually, the child began to heal and his behavior improved. Saint Richard, we learn, went so far as to adopt him.

What he doesn't explain is why he feels compelled to let the world know that his son is a former troubled foster child. Why do we need to know this? How does this help his son?

The answer is, it doesn't. It's a fundamental tenet of foster parenting, adoption and, well, parenting, that to the extent you can, you protect your kid from public embarrassment over the events of his childhood. It doesn't serve children to be forever stigmatized for childhood transgressions -- that's why juvenile court proceedings are confidential and why the criminal records of minors are sealed.

Foster parents have to go one step further than biological parents to protect their kids. They're legally required to keep all of the personal information they learn about their children absolutely private. Richard knows this; he was a foster parent to his son before he adopted him.

But Richard is throwing his kid under the bus to save himself and his public image. (Leaving aside the question, of course, of whether we could stomach the scheming, back-stabbing Richard even without this nasty child abuse allegation.) His tattling merely confirms what we already knew about him from "Survivor" -- Richard looks out for Richard.

His strangely narcissistic message echoes the rationale used by the parents of Jeremy Strohmeyer, the adopted child who murdered a 7-year-old girl in a casino bathroom. Richard conveys the same pathetic backpedaling and failure of loyalty as the Strohmeyers, as if to say: "Don't look at me! He was adopted!"

True, his child was adopted, and it's probably been difficult these past few years. And maybe Richard didn't abuse him. But regardless of that, why do the American people need to know what should be the very private details of his son's childhood? Assuming the abuse didn't happen, Richard had every opportunity to simply deny the allegations, without letting the world know that his son had a troubled past.

We know this kid. We saw him on TV in a sweet videotaped message to his dad. "That's my boy," Richard said at the time. Now he wants to be sure we know that his kid was a foster child.

Now the kid's friends, his teachers, his neighbors, the parking lot attendant and the grocery store clerk know that he was a troubled foster child. Wasn't the stigma of being the son of the most reviled man on television enough? Apparently not.

I'm not suggesting that Richard should hide the fact that his son was adopted, though I don't think adoption is something you need to point to in order to explain away domestic turmoil. I simply don't believe that any child deserves to have the sordid details of their past trotted out to explain away why they might have accused their parent of child abuse.

The most diabolical bit in all of this is that Richard's message seems crafted to lead us to the conclusion that he couldn't possibly have abused his son, because (and watch this fancy leap of logic) his child was already troubled. And we all know that when you're trying to straighten out a messed-up kid, it's impossible to abuse them.

This confessional TV genre has seeped right into Richard's soul, if it wasn't already there to begin with. Admittedly, he had to be pretty narcissistic to even sign up for "Survivor." He showed no shame in his devious plotting, bold-faced lying or the phony friendships he constructed and confessed about on camera. And then there was the unrepentant nudism.

But now we're talking about something horrible enough to trip even Richard's self-consciousness wire: child abuse. He had to do something to let us all know that even he's not that bad. So it must have seemed perfectly rational to him to go all the way -- with more confession.

Only this time, the confession wasn't about his life, but about his son's. And though his son didn't sign up to have his secrets told, Richard, who believes that he is this child's "last best shot," tells us that he, as the boy's father, knows better than anyone, including state authorities, what his boy needs. (Ironically, Richard may soon be treating more children to his special brand of guidance: He told Bryant Gumbel on last night's post-Survivor reunion special that he plans to use his prize money to set up a camp for troubled teens.)

It's alarming how much Richard's story resembles the excuses I've heard from parents who have nearly killed their child in a failed attempt at "discipline." And it reminds me that the most horrifying child abuse I see is too often perpetrated by people who justify their actions with nothing more than their self-perceived "superior" knowledge about their child's needs and the authority of a title -- father.

Beth Broeker

Beth Broeker is an attorney and volunteer for neglected and abused children in Phoenix. She also is an adopted child.

MORE FROM Beth Broeker

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adoption Survivor