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Interviewer's Methods Seen as Key Issue in Preschool Case

September 19, 1988|LOIS TIMNICK | Times Staff Writer

A social worker whose interview techniques have become a crucial issue in the McMartin Pre-School molestation trial took the witness stand for five weeks to defend her questioning of alleged child victims.

Now the jury is watching videotapes of those interviews, seeing for itself the interaction between the children and the people who questioned them.

Kathleen (Kee) MacFarlane Elias, 41, director of the child sexual abuse center at Children's Institute International in Los Angeles, testified during her long stay on the witness stand that she began to piece together what allegedly happened at the Manhattan Beach nursery school "like a jigsaw puzzle" as she interviewed 80 McMartin children, five of whom remain in the case.

Another four children who have testified at the trial were questioned by two other interviewers at the same center. In all, about 400 children from the preschool were interviewed at the center; 350 were judged to have been sexually abused.

MacFarlane said she took "a funnel approach," starting with open-ended questions that gradually got more specific, and encouraged the children to express themselves using puppets and dolls with sex organs.

She characterized her interview techniques as "focused and specific," rather than "leading and suggestive," as the defense contends.

The tapes show that she told each child what other children had already said happened, applied labels like "naked" and "yukky" to otherwise innocent childhood games and encouraged the youngsters to demonstrate, using naked dolls designated as teachers and pupils, what "might" have happened to them or others at the school.

To defense suggestions that there are better and less suggestive ways to interview a child in whom molestation is suspected, MacFarlane replied:

"For a trial, it is best if a child comes into your office and you say, 'What, if anything, unpleasant ever happened to you between the ages of 1 and 6' and they say, 'Boy, am I glad you asked that question because I have just wanted to tell you the whole thing. . . .'

Frightened Children

"But with children who may be frightened, who may have been threatened, who may be embarrassed or ashamed, or afraid of your reaction and the reaction of others or that something will happen to them or people they love, I (do not) think that's the best way."

Defendants Raymond Buckey, 30, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 61, are charged with 100 counts of molestation and conspiracy involving 14 children who attended their family-run preschool from 1978-1984. However, at least 30 counts are likely to be dropped because they involve four children who have refused to testify at the trial. The nine youngsters who have testified during the trial, now in its second year, told of being raped, sodomized, fondled and forced to perform oral copulation. They described naked games during which they were photographed, sometimes at houses away from the school.

Allege Threats

They said Raymond Buckey threatened to kill their parents if they told of the secret activities, and underlined his threats by mutilating and killing animals.

Lawyer Danny Davis, who represents Raymond Buckey, asked MacFarlane on cross-examination if, "Looking at the videotapes that you employed with the children in this case, do you feel some of (your) techniques may have tended to induce the children to construct or fabricate a memory that was not reality?"

Replied MacFarlane:

"No, I do not. That's not to say that I think or felt that the children I interviewed at the time had crystal-clear memories that they were able to spit out of what happened to them. I saw children struggle to both remember things and express things as I struggled to frame questions in ways that might help them do that."

She added: "If a child says, 'No, I never remember that,' it could be that they have blocked it out and it's not available to them. It could be that they remember it precisely but they're telling you they don't, or it could be that they need something to trigger that memory."

She said molested children often disclose information in bits and pieces, a gradual unfolding she has come to call the "No-maybe-sometimes-yes syndrome," a process whereby a child may at first deny that anything happened, then admit it might have happened, later that it sometimes happened but not to him, and finally that, yes, he was one of the victims."

She said they tend to be consistent in their recall of central events, but inconsistent in remembering peripheral details.

Under cross-examination, MacFarlane said she does not believe she could "place" a permanent erroneous image of having been molested in the minds of children or their parents.

She said that half a dozen studies published since she conducted her interviews in late 1983 and early 1984 support her view--that 99% of children cannot be misled into thinking that they have been molested by suggestive or even misleading questions.

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