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Undoing a Damaging Trend in Sexual Abuse Cases

Courts: The overturning of many convictions has prompted prosecutors and investigators to rethink how they interview children, whose testimony often can be manipulated by adults.

July 29, 1998|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — On opposite sides of the country last month, two major cases of child sexual abuse grabbed headlines, raising questions yet again about what happens when children are enlisted as witnesses in a legal system designed for adults.

On the surface, the outcomes in Malden, Mass., and in Wenatchee, Wash., seemed contradictory: While a Superior Court judge here strongly condemned criminal authorities for the way they interviewed child witnesses 14 years ago in the notorious Fells Acres Day School matter, a civil jury in Wenatchee upheld the right of law enforcement officials to make arrests based on children's allegations that they had been molested. Both cases, however, spoke volumes about how the landscape of legal and social thought has shifted since the infamous McMartin Preschool case of Manhattan Beach launched a torrent of about 40 large-scale child sexual abuse trials in 1984.

Nearly all those convictions have been reversed or significantly revised, leaving mountains of unanswered questions as well as staggering human costs for those involved. But experts say, nonetheless, that important lessons were learned. The way they handle such cases, they agree, has changed dramatically.

Social scientists say their expanded understanding about the suggestibility of young minds is directly attributable to research spurred by these high-profile prosecutions. Often using this research, judges have been educated about assessing children as witnesses. District attorneys have established new training methods for prosecutors and investigators who work with large-scale child sexual abuse cases.

In the past, interviewers often shared information that could influence questioning. Now, to avoid contamination of evidence gained from interviews, a "hierarchical" investigative scope is the model, with separate examiners reporting to a central figure. Prosecutors also strongly urge interviewers to videotape their sessions. Even prepositions have come under scrutiny as investigators have learned that words such as "on" or "in" have different meanings for children than for adults.

Because of the glut of cases that may or may not have been mishandled, "I think we've learned a lot," said Daniel S. Armagh, an attorney who directs the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse in Alexandria, Va. "We've learned how to talk to children in a way which probably facilitates their ability to tell us what happened in their own way and to understand that they don't always speak the same language that adults do."

One result of this new understanding, Armagh and other legal specialists say, is that multi-victim, multi-defendant child sexual abuse cases are probably becoming things of the past. Efficient prosecutions are more likely, they have determined, when a single, credible victim offers consistent, unshakable testimony.

The fallout from these cases has touched the arena of mental health as well. Just last year, the leading professional organization of child and adolescent psychiatrists adopted new interview guidelines that stress that the symptoms of a sexually abused child can also describe a myriad of other conditions. Experts have also learned that the interview setting may affect what a child says. As a result, about 300 communities across the country have set up child advocacy centers--such as Stuart House in Santa Monica--where trained professionals work only with suspected cases of child sexual abuse.

"For me the most important legacy of these cases is, first of all, a negative one, and that is the rekindling of skepticism about children's credibility," said John E.B. Myers, a professor of law at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. "But then there is the good news," said Myers, who studies child abuse and child suggestibility, "and that is that we really have learned a lot about interviewing [children] since the early and mid-1980s, when these cases really were debacles."

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In his scathing decision last month in the Fells Acres case, Judge Isaac Borenstein offered a plethora of examples of the heavy-handed interviewing that caused him to void the conviction of Cheryl Amirault LeFave, a former teacher at Fells Acres, and to posthumously reverse the conviction of her late mother, Violet Amirault, who founded and directed the day-care school in Malden, a blue-collar Boston suburb.

Borenstein wrote that repeatedly and explicitly a little girl known as JB denied that her day-care teacher had ever taken her clothes off at school. But the interviewer pressed on. "So what did you say to AJ when she had her clothes off at Fells Acres?" she asked.

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