There are cases in which the accused admits, in sickening detail, exactly what was done to children: a self-anointed pastor walks into a small-town Louisiana sheriff’s office and announces he and others have forced children into sexual acts for years, dabbling in witchcraft as well.
Those are the easy ones.
Then there are those in which the facts may never be known. The ones that show some authorities still stumble when talking to children about abuse – despite the awful legacy left by hysteria-driven trials that began in the 1980s and lasted two decades.
The accusations continue, though in smaller numbers and with considerably less media attention. And investigators still use discredited interviewing techniques blamed for prompting children to describe crimes that never happened.
Such questioning elicited bizarre stories of underground tunnels and satanic sacrifices during the McMartin Preschool case in Southern California, which lasted seven years and involved hundreds of children – only to end in 1990 with no convictions and dropped charges. It was the most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history.
“I don’t think we’ve learned any lessons since those cases,’’ said New York attorney Robert Rosenthal, who has appealed several convictions of accused molesters.
Among them were Margaret Kelly Michaels, indicted in 1985 for 299 offences involving 33 children at the Wee Care Nursery School in Maplewood, N.J. After she spent five years in prison, her 47-year sentence was overturned. The state Supreme Court said interviews conducted with the children were coercive, suggestive and highly improper.
“This stuff is still happening,’’Rosenthal said.
There is no standardized protocol for interviewing young victims of alleged sexual abuse. Neither are there uniform policies for recording their questioning, whether on video or in writing.
Anatomically correct dolls are still given to toddlers, child experts said, though their use in the McMartin trial and others produced embarrassingly unreliable testimony. Young children appeared unable to see the doll as a symbol of themselves, and were more interested in playing with the dolls and taking off their clothes and finding extra features not found on typical dolls.
Some jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County, home of the McMartin trial, have markedly improved the way they question children and now work with psychiatric experts at a university hospital. States including Washington and Michigan have guidelines for such cases.
Still, there is no central repository for information on sexual abuse cases, nor an accounting of what interviewing tactics are used by individual law enforcement agencies.
“They’re really hard cases to prosecute, I understand that,’’ Rosenthal said. “The kid is the evidence. The kid is the crime scene. There’s rarely any physical evidence. That doesn’t mean abuse doesn’t happen. It happens every day.’’
But there remains ample room for improving the way authorities talk to children, say those who work such cases – ways that don’t taint the investigation and do no added harm to a frightened child suddenly thrown into the very adult world of police and prosecutors.
Take the case of Pennsylvania child psychologist Jerry Lazaroff, acquitted in May of sexually assaulting and endangering the welfare of four children, ages five through ten, who once were clients. The therapist, who treats emotionally disturbed youngsters and conducts court-ordered custody evaluations for divorce proceedings, had practised for 30 years in suburban Delaware County and used “play therapy,’’ including basketball and a foos ball table, to encourage children to interact with him.
He was arrested in 2008, after a 10-yearold girl told her mother Lazaroff had touched a place she called her “Virginia.’’ His attorney, Mark Much, said the psychologist acknowledged touching the girl accidentally. She had been running across a couch in his office, while Lazaroff sat on the floor in front of a board game they’d been playing, the therapist testified. When he reached back to stop her, he didn’t realize the girl had sat down, and his hand bumped her private parts.
He apologized, Lazaroff said, telling the child, “That part of your body is off limits. That was a mistake and it won’t recur.’’
Jurors apparently believed him, acquitting him of abusing the girl and three other children whose parents went to police after the psychologist’s photograph appeared on the local paper’s front page, accompanied by a story asking other potential victims to come forward.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Galantino stood by his case. “We’re disappointed,’’ he said. “We believed we presented more than enough evidence, but they chose to acquit and we have to accept that verdict.’’
Much had argued the children’s testimony was contradictory – one boy said he’d been touched on his penis nine different times but later testimony showed his parents had been in the room during each of those sessions. Another boy told investigators the therapist Scotch-taped his hands to the floor and then tickled the boy’s privates.
Interviews with the children were handled by law enforcement officers. “I was shocked that the interview process didn’t have any child psychologists or social workers,’’ Much said. “These children were abused – by the process that put them on the witness stand.’’
Police took one mother’s report in front of her daughter. Then officers questioned the girl while her mother looked on. “A child doesn’t want to call their parents a liar,’’ Much said. “Children have a tendency to regurgitate what the parent has said.’’
Social and mental health workers now generally agree children should be interviewed separately, in an atmosphere that makes them feel safe and is built to their scale – small tables and chairs, for example, in colours and styles they’re used to seeing in everyday life.
Children should be asked open-ended questions that allow them to tell their stories in their own words. Details should be repeated, to make sure both child and questioner understand what was said.
The techniques are designed to strengthen cases that go to trial and weed out cases that shouldn’t.
Those tactics might have saved everyone involved from being dragged through a muddy case that fed a local media frenzy, Much said, but fell apart in front of jurors.
“If only someone had challenged what the kids said,’’ he said. “I don’t blame the kids, I blame the interviewers. How can Scotch tape hold an arm to the floor?’’
Carl Lewis, a former police officer in northern California, taught himself to work sexual abuse cases by researching interview protocols published by the National Institute of Child and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health. After watching publicized abuse cases spectacularly implode, Lewis taught fellow officers to alter their approaches to children.
It wasn’t easy. “I thought we could change it overnight,’’ he said. “I ran into a lot of resistance. I constantly heard, ‘What’s wrong with the way we’re doing it now? We’re putting people in jail.’ And while there certainly has been an attempt to improve the way children are questioned, moving a mountain is a hard and slow process.’’
Lewis said he has interviewed hundreds of abused children. The trick, he said, is to never ask yes-or-no questions, and to never prompt, suggest or lead a child.
“I would start by saying, ‘I want to talk to you about why you’re here today,’’’ Lewis said. “And the kid may say, ‘I’m here to tell you what my uncle did to me.’’’
And Lewis would respond, “Tell me everything about that.’’
The questioner may get details that bolster a case – the colour of the walls where the abuse occurred, a painting in the room, something that can be shown to exist in reality.
Earlier interviewing methods tried to reassure children, but instead twisted their answers.
For example, in the Little Rascals Day Care Center trial, North Carolina authorities charged seven defendants with abuse including rape and sodomy against dozens of children. Most convictions were later overturned when hindsight showed mistakes were made in handling the children.
Don’t worry, they were told: your schoolmates have already told us about the bad things that happened and here’s what they said.
“That intimidates kids,’’ Lewis said. “A kid thinks, ‘If I don’t say what the others said, they’re going to think I’m stupid.’ So the child answers the way he thinks the questioner wants.’’
In the Little Rascals scandal, children as young as three told of kids being taken on boat rides and then thrown overboard, of babies being killed, of children taken to outer space in a hot air balloon.
Maggie Bruck, a psychiatric expert at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore who’s written extensively on the way children describe molestation, says some authorities – but far from all – have gotten better.
“I deal with cases all the time where the investigations were just horrible,’’ Bruck said. “The interviewers were just horrible. Do you know how many people interview children? A gazillion. Some of them are very, very poorly trained.’’
Bruck testifies in abuse trials, sometimes as a witness for the accused, on how questioning methods can produce false accusations. Changing those practices would not be difficult, she said. But it would require a national movement.
“A mandated standard would make a huge difference,’’ she said. “Mandatory taping of all interviews would make a huge difference.’’