System encourages false accusations

by Carol Hopkins

The Contra Costa Valley Times, Knight-Ridder Publishing, Sunday, March 22, 1998

Physical, sexual, and emotional child abuse is a serious societal problem which should not be minimized. But, across this country an epidemic of false accusations of child abuse has resulted in a lack of confidence in those to whom we entrust the important task of assuring the safety of our children and the integrity of our families.

Teachers are afraid to hug children. Parents struggling to raise responsible children know that discipline may be interpreted as child abuse.

Early advocates for reform were told that any criticism would have a chilling effect on the ability to protect children and children would die. Only a few years later everyone knows someone falsely accused.
Some 3 million names are on the California Child Abuse registry and many on the registry don t even know it. Placement on the registry has been nearly random, even including the names of alleged victims and their siblings under the theory that the abused would become the abusers.

But before we can remedy this flawed system, we must look at history where problems in child protection have resulted in both false accusations and failure to intervene before a child dies and the predictable swings of the pendulum.

Responsibility does not lie solely at the door of social workers and prosecutors; we must look to ourselves, the media, the legislatures, and the judiciary.

Generations have enjoyed the cautionary tale of The Emperor's New Clothes. From an itinerant troupe of charlatan tailors, a pompous, vain, and silly king gullibly purchases a marvelous suit of clothing that only the cognoscenti can see, proudly struts down the street in his birthday suit, while a groveling, junctuous court -afraid to be labeled unwise - praises his fine raiment.

The people who know better say nothing. Finally, a child, seeing the king in the street, exclaims in righteous horror, But the king is naked!

Modern day social studies affirm the continued value of this child s story. In one study, an unwitting subject enters a room filled with students. The teacher asks students to raise their hands and vote if the blinds are open or closed. All of the students in the room, except the subject, are part of the experiment. If the blinds are closed, they vote open, when the blinds are open they vote closed. Only a rare subject will oppose the group consensus.

ACCUSATION ORGY

For fifteen years America has indulged in an orgy of false accusation and prosecution for crimes which never happened. It has been unfashionable, even dangerous, to challenge prosecutors, therapists, social workers, and physicians who proselytized for an epidemic of bizarre sexual abuse occurring in churches, day cares, and homes across America.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men and women - men and women with no previous criminal record or history of psychological problems - have been charged, many convicted, of the heinous crimes of torture, mutilation, horrific sexual abuse, and even human sacrifice.

Common sense was suspended, science perverted, and investigative protocols subverted.

Professionals we entrusted to investigate apparently believed that these nursery crimes occurred but left no physical evidence, no bodies, and no blood. They told us that little children would not tell their parents or guardians but only specially trained therapists and investigators.
Only a few spoke out and warned that false prosecutions would eventually result in a backlash and society s discrediting of valid child abuse cases.

They were pilloried, often accused of supporting child molesters, even of being child molesters. The media, in a zeal for sensationalism, fanned the flames and failed to challenge even the most outrageous claims.

Silenced by political correctness, watchdog groups stood silently by.
ALARMISTS PREVAILED

In the 1970 s and 80 s the Congress of the United States listened to alarming testimony from child saving professionals who, instead of a suit of clothes, sold the Congress belief in a class of cases - visible only to the cognoscenti- multi-victim/multi-perpetrator child sexual abuse, primarily in child care environments.

The lack of evidence for what was characterized as satanic ritual abuse and multi-generational vast sex rings, was explained away by bizarre theories that photography labs, morticians, doctors, even the FBI. were in on the crime.

Failure of the children to reveal the crimes to their parents was explained by equally bizarre, untested, unconfirmed, but all inclusive theories such as Child Abuse Accommodation Syndrome and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Investigators did not believe children when they said they had not been abused, but we were told we must believe the children after the coercive questioning led to accusations.

Responding to the hysteria, Congress wrote legislation and helped fund training conferences to promulgate these fantasy crime scenarios, and detection theories.

They also designated emergency moneys to help fund the prosecutions of what would end up being the most costly cases in American history.
Convictions are now being overturned at a steady - though from the perspective of those in prison, glacial pace. And, even as these convictions are overturned, as psychologists air research into child suggestibility, and the medical profession acknowledges that the supposed medical evidence was non-existent, prosecutors refuse to acknowledge the innocence of those still in prison.

In some cases they insist on retrying these men and women, claiming the overturned convictions were mere technicalities.

UGLIEST CASE

Kern County, CA was the first of the major cases in this country. Dozens of innocent men and women from that community were accused and convicted of heinous crimes. Homes, reputations, and even children were forever lost.

It was not only the adults who were hurt. The accusing children, now young adults, tell terrible stories of the interview tactics of law enforcement and child protective service workers who browbeat them into accusing their parents.

These stories would be unbelievable but surviving videotapes of the child interrogations from this case and others confirm the sad tales of these children.

Not only were they forced to accuse their parents, but at three, four, and five years of age, they received a sex education which would bring a blush to all but the most experienced sailor.

It didn t stop there. Many of these children grew up knowing that their coerced and untrue testimony was the reason their parents were in prison. They became suicides and runaways, ignored by prosecutors when they asked for help.

Finally, when convictions were overturned, the Kern County men and women emerged from their prison cells, one by one, to find devastation in what remained of their families.

Lest one think that these people received millions in civil judgments, it didn't happen. After fighting for years for their freedom, many are totally destitute. Only months ago, in Pitts v. Kern County, the California Supreme Court found that the prosecutors in these cases had absolute immunity.

While this may be good news for the tax payer it is bad news for the citizens. Absolute immunity is a prescription for the corruption that comes with absolute power.

As Kern County developed, hundreds of similar cases erupted across the country. In Manhattan Beach, CA, the McMartin Preschool case lasted seven years and was the most expensive trial in American history. Fortunately, despite years in jail awaiting trial, there were no convictions.

NOT SO LUCKY

Not so lucky were the Amiraults. Fells Acres Day Care in Massachusetts was nearly identical; the children s tales could be interchangeable, but Violet Amirault and her two children, Cheryl and Gerald were convicted and sentenced to 47 years in prison. After twelve years in prison, Violet and Cheryl's convictions were overturned; shortly thereafter Violet succumbed to cancer. Gerald Amirault, who has watched his children grow up from behind prison glass, still awaits the results of an appeal.

That the children from one end of this country to the other told such similar stories was used as evidence that the events happened. With the benefit of history, we now know that all these cases had in common was the belief system of the investigators, a lack of any evidence, and relentless questioning of young children until they finally disclosed what the inquisitors wanted to hear.

Finally, by the late 1980 s, academics reacted to what was widely perceived as an epidemic of false accusations. Serious research on child suggestibility began and we now have many of the answers to how children could tell these stories.

In answer, the National Institute of Health in Washington, D.C.. began work on a structured, scripted interview protocol which would minimize the likelihood of false accusations from children.

At the same time, pediatricians realized that no one knew what normal children s genitals looked like. A study of non-abused children began; by 1989, researchers knew that many previously considered indicators of sexual abuse fell within normal parameters.

Behind closed doors professional speculation began that inexpert medical opinion might have resulted in the convictions of innocent men and women.

So, by 1993, we certainly knew better, but oblivious to outsiders cautions, Wenatchee, Washington, began what would ultimately become the biggest of the cases and became home to the final chapter (hopefully) of this insanity.

A poorly trained child abuse detective, drunk on the absolute power wielded by his office, and cohorts within child protective services terrorized this small town.

Citizens who had the courage to speak out found themselves accused. Watchdog groups like the A.C.L.U., stood by and by their silence ratified the injustices done against developmentally delayed adults bullied into false confessions, children taken in restraints across state lines to a therapeutic facility which guaranteed recovered memories of abuse, citizens charged with obstruction of justice for merely speaking out in defense of the weak and the innocent.
Eighty-nine people were ultimately accused. Dozens were convicted. Convictions are now being overturned, but it is too late for many families. Their children are scattered to the winds, many of them already adopted.

If we are to assure the public s continued willingness to protect children we must reform the system to conform with what we now know.
We must also remember that the high profile day care/sex ring cases are only the most obvious of the false prosecutions. Every day in every court in the land problematic garden variety child abuse prosecutions occur. It doesn't matter until the accused is someone you know, someone you love; then you become interested, then you begin to question.
REFORMS

Suggested reforms should include the following.

Investigation and Detention Recommendations

The state should adopt a safety-based, written, risk assessment protocol. This protocol should be used in every investigation in order to minimize the risk of rogue social workers or investigators who err on either side.

Detention of children must take into consideration Federal requirements that reasonable efforts to preserve the family have been exhausted prior to the removal of a child.

State-wide adoption of the NIH scripted interview protocol developed to minimize the effects of interviewer bias, and suggestive or coercive questioning.

Video-tape or, at the very least, audio-tape all interviews.
State guidelines recommending the photograph recording of all medical evidence so that it can be examined by more than one expert. (Without photographic evidence it is impossible to provide a defense to prosecution claims that medical evidence exists.)

Prohibition against questioning of developmentally challenged adults without the presence of an advocate.
JUDICIAL RECOMMENDATIONS

Appointed child Guardian ad Litems must adhere to the American Bar Association s guidelines for minor s counsel.

Provide judicial training on child suggestibility.
LEGISLATIVE RECOMMENDATIONS

In 1996, California took a first step and changed the absolute immunity of social workers to a qualified immunity standard. Strengthen this statute. Accountability will come with the award of civil damages for perjury, intentional abuse of authority, or failure to reveal exculpatory evidence. With current immunities there is still absolute power, ensuing corruption, and little to no accountability.
Legislate a qualified immunity standard for prosecutors.
Detention and Jurisdiction findings in dependency hearings based on clear and convincing evidence showing danger to a child. Preponderance standard allows children to be removed with no corroborating evidence, often resulting in trauma to a child and irreparable damage to the family.

END ANONYMOUS REPORTING OF CHILD ABUSE

Establish a joint Legislative-Governor s Commission to examine problem convictions. Give this Commission the power to recommend new trials in those cases where it is determined that an injustice may have taken place.

Provide equal funding for the Public Defender and the District Attorney.

Modify the confidentiality of juvenile court proceedings. Without citizen and press oversight there is no accountability. Confidentiality in juvenile proceedings is used by authorities as a sword against families and a shield against public oversight.

In 1995 The National Justice Committee, in testimony before the Senate, recommended hearings before the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to determine causes of and remedies for false convictions of child abuse.
In 1996, U.S. House Judiciary Committee member, the late Congressman Sonny Bono, met with one of the children from Wenatchee and me. Sarah Doggett's parents were in prison on a false conviction, her siblings slated for adoption. Two months ago those convictions were overturned but her parents remain incarcerated and until this week, when the media brought massive attention to Wenatchee, authorities had the adoption of the children on a fast track.

Bono was deeply moved by the plight of the Doggetts and other Wenatchee families. Along with other Congressmen, he campaigned relentlessly for hearings. These hearings are essential if justice is to be done.
But. they won t happen until the American people demand them, demand justice, demand accountability, and demand a system of child protection which assures both child safety and the integrity of the family.
---------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------- Hopkins is executive director of the non-profit National Justice Committee in San Diego, which documents cases of false child abuse accusations and works for reform.


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