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Ramifications in a Case of Alleged Child Abuse

February 01, 1985|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

Mother and daughter--it's a venerated relationship, held to be free from corruption.

That privileged state ended for a 40-year-old Riverside County woman and her 5-year-old daughter last June 20 when a police officer and two social workers came to the door and informed Helen (the names of mother and daughter have been changed) that she was under investigation for alleged sexual abuse of her child, Kathy.

An interviewer led Kathy into her room and talked to her amid her family of toy animals. Based on the child's remarks, the social worker determined that the girl had been molested. The officer drove Kathy to the police station, where arrangements were made to place her in temporary foster care. She lived in a residence with other suspected abuse victims for six days before being returned home.

Dismissed by Court

Child Protective Services, the branch of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services that investigates child-abuse cases, then recommended that Kathy be declared a dependent child of the Riverside County Juvenile Court and be placed in foster care.

The case was dismissed by the judge during the recent trial, on the basis that Child Protective Services failed to meet the burden of proof, which in juvenile court means that the prosecution must show that it is "more likely than not" that an offense occurred.

But in the six months during which they were awaiting the trial, mother and daughter came to fear that they would be separated permanently. Helen said Kathy still sometimes wakes up trembling with memories of being taken away to "the yellow house," which is how she remembers the foster residence.

"We lived with it for so long, there are still times when I have to remind myself that it's all over," Helen said. "I need to do what I can now to see that this doesn't happen to others."

Surge in Such Cases

As the number of reported child-molestation cases balloons, more families are learning that a "not guilty" verdict doesn't erase the shame and worry that accompanies an investigation. State Justice Department official Brian Taugher, for instance, said in a news conference that the child-abuse authorities in his case (he was found innocent Tuesday of accusations that he molested a 9-year-old girl at his daughter's slumber party) made victims of everyone involved, including the girl who reported his alleged advances.

Helen said she is researching the possibility of taking legal action against the department on the basis that the case was conducted with prejudice. "They (Child Protective Services) were not looking for the truth," she said.

Although he was not free to comment on Kathy and Helen's case, Frank Guzevich, district director of social services for the Metro-Riverside area Child Protective Services, said: "So cial workers have a creed, just like doctors do, to report the truth. It would border on the unethical to present only facts that support one point of view.

"It is my belief our people do not rush to judgment the moment a kid says, 'So and so touched me here.' Our approach is not to go out and make every piece of evidence line up to prove the molestation."

Fact-Finding Agency

Child Protective Services is the primary fact-finding agency in child-abuse cases; the evidence that it presents figures prominently in the fate of all parties involved. But because the function of Child Protective Services is to protect children, Helen's attorney, Mary Dodson, argues that evidence is sometimes collected and presented in such a way as to support the assertion that a molestation has taken place, without adequate examination of the possibility that nothing happened.

Dodson, who has handled as many dependency cases (so-called because at issue is whether the child will be declared a dependent of the court) as any attorney currently practicing in Riverside County, said that although Child Protective Services is supposed to be a fact-gathering agency, it took on the role of prosecutor in this case.

A UCLA professor who served as an expert witness in the case said Helen's and Kathy's story should serve as a warning that greater care must be taken in the investigation of all molestation cases. That observation came from psychology professor Paul Abramson, who has provided testimony in a number of child-molestation cases and is writing a book about the case of Helen and Kathy. His recent book, "Sarah: A Sexual Biography," is the true story of how one woman overcame her past of incest and sexual victimization.

Abramson pointed out that this is the first time in his career that he's appeared on the side of the accused in a child-molestation case. Abramson's forthcoming book is not intended to serve as an acquittal of Helen, he said--no one, except for the parties involved, can know with certainty what happened in private between two people.

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