TV reports turns family's lives upside down

August 02, 1998|By JULIE E. GREENE and TERRY TALBERTs

When Chris McAfee watched himself chastising his Little Leaguer son Jeremy on national TV Thursday, he wasn't proud of what he saw. "It made me open my eyes, sitting back and watching me," McAfee said Friday. "It showed me that maybe I'm a little too hard on him."

McAfee, his wife Lisa, and Jeremy were among several Hagerstown-area residents featured on the 90-minute Peter Jennings Reporting special on ABC called "The American Game," which follows the National Little League here through the 1997 season.

In the aftermath of the show, the McAfee family has had to deal with accusations of abuse and threats from anonymous callers.

The segment of the telecast that turned the McAfees' world upside down showed Chris McAfee scolding Jeremy for laziness.

"Jeremy, listen to me, I'm gonna kick you," McAfee says. "I don't care, you didn't even wanna bend down (to catch a grounder). Jeremy, Jeremy, I'm on camera with a microphone, but I'm gonna get you tonight because you're letting me down, brother."


Later in the program Jennings asks McAfee whether he beats his son. McAfee says he does. Jennings asks again if there are circumstances under which he beats Jeremy. McAfee says there are. When asked again if he beats his son, McAfee answers: "I do, I spank him one time."

It was those segments that prompted McAfee's introspection, and turned his family's world to chaos. When the couple and Jeremy got home Thursday night, Lisa McAfee said their Caller ID showed they'd gotten 11 calls from strangers.

On Friday, the Washington County Department of Social Services got a total of 12 calls from irate TV viewers - five from states as far away as California, and the rest from area residents. They sent someone to the McAfee home to investigate whether Jeremy was abused by his father.

When Chris McAfee came home from work Friday, he started fielding threatening calls. He said one man asked him if he was Superman - bulletproof. He said the man told him he was sitting in front of the McAfee house, and was going to kill him. Another threatened to burn down their house.

Lisa McAfee was in tears. Jeremy was afraid to go outside.

"It's a nightmare," said Lisa McAfee. Her voice was shaking. "Chris is not a monster like he was portrayed to be. Chris talks harsh. He gets very emotional. He is very emotional. That's Chris. But by no means does he abuse Jeremy. No."

"I guess they're more or less trying to take care of Jeremy," Chris McAfee said of the threatening callers. "That's what I figure. But they have my whole family upset."

Chris McAfee and his wife said the whole thing was a horrible misunderstanding. Asked if he abuses Jeremy, McAfee said, "God as my witness, no."

"I'm emotional. Sometimes I'll say things to Jeremy, and then five minutes later me and him are back together again...My Dad used to tell me he was going to get me before bed," McAfee said. "I tell Jeremy that. But it's just to make him think about what he's done."

McAfee said when he was growing up, the word "beating" was synonymous with spanking. "That's what it meant," he said.

McAfee said he's never kicked or beaten his son - only spanked him when he did something wrong.

"It's a smack on the ass, and 'go to bed'," McAfee said. "I love this boy...I live by the Bible the best I can. A smack? Yes. But I've never kicked or beaten Jeremy. The words (on TV) didn't fit what I do," he said.

Lisa McAfee said she was at work Friday when Jeremy called and told her a man from Social Services was standing on the family's front porch. "I told Jeremy to talk to him," she said. "He talked to the man for about an hour. The man said he didn't see any problem here."

Jeremy's grandfather Silas Wolfensberger said, "There were no beatings. They were spankings. People got the wrong impression," he said. "As far as I know he's never had a mark on him."

Washington County Department of Social Services Director David Engle said his agency must by law respond to abuse complaints.

He said in addition to the calls from outside, Engle said some of his staffers saw the program and contacted the child protection unit.

"Disciplining a child is not child abuse and I think it was the choice of the gentleman's words that evoked a reaction ... the law does recognize that a parent has a right to discipline a child," Engle said. "I think it's when the discipline goes beyond correction and actually results in an injury to a child is what we're looking for," Engle said.

"We have to treat every report as a serious report," Engle said. "Again, a person might use the wrong words, but I can't assume anything. We can't just write it off. We need to get the facts."

Confidentiality laws prevented Engle from discussing the results of Friday's investigation.

Lisa McAfee at the investigator's request, she and her husband will call him to talk about the case.

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