«Return to LEAR'S FEBRUARY 1992 By Heidi Vanderbilt A Chilling Report Do you want to know what incest is? What it really is? No ...»
"Nobody can look for quality of disposition, only quantity of caseload." Judges are worried, even scared. Their decisions, based only on the testimony and evidence brought before the bench during the presentation of each case, can wrongly convict someone or can free an offender to abuse again.
I asked Judge Gallet about false allegations of sexual abuse. He said that while he sees some cases where the charges are trumped up, "a horrifyingly large majority are not."
Page 30 of 56 This opinion is echoed by Cynthia Ferris of the state's attorney's office in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. "There are very few false claims made," she says, "and those are usually weeded out at the precinct level. By the time they get to us, most of them are true."
While in Manhattan's family court building, I attended a lecture on "The Child Sexual Abuse Backlash," delivered by Howard A. Davidson, director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. Regarding the truth of children's reports, he said, "Generally, what the child says happened is the best indication of what did happen. If the child spontaneously tells a trusted adult, then gives details, you can be almost certain" that the child is speaking the truth.
But he pointed out to his audience of judges and defense and prosecution attorneys that although the system is "flooded with reports" of child sexual abuse, its primary preoccupation is with investigation, not with providing services and treatment for the child and the family. Referring to a report from the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, Davidson said: "Just because a kid reports abuse... and the offender is brought to court and it is proven that the kid is at risk, there is no guarantee the kid and family will get any services. Most get no treatment at all."
Family-rights activists This situation has led to complaints from family-rights activists on the political right and left that child-protection services are essentially antifamily. And these complaints, in turn, have fueled the backlash that is responsible for the formation of certain reactionary groups.
Take VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws), a national organization dedicated to making it more difficult to prove or even to lodge child-abuse charges. VOCAL's executive director, Graham Jeambey, Ph.D., maintains that only between 1 and 2 percent of child-sexual-abuse allegations are true. The remainder, he told me, are largely the result of claims made by child-protection workers in an effort to get large sums of money—$40,000 per family, he said—from the federal government. Child-welfare agencies work on a quota system, he said by way of elaboration, and must bring in a certain number of child-abuse cases annually or lose federal funding. (I phoned childwelfare agencies in Massachusetts, where I live, and in Colorado, where Jeambey lives, and asked if this were true. I was met with laughter. As one official put it, "Don't I wish!") When I asked Jeambey how many members VOCAL has nationwide, he told me that the size of the membership was "a closely guarded secret." When I asked why, he said, "To protect members from harassment. We are one of two groups you absolutely must not belong to." I asked what the other was. He said it was the John Birch Society.
" We're more American than they are," he said, referring to social services. He read to me from what he claimed was an "FBI law-enforcement paper" that warned against "voyeuristic investigators" in the child-abuse field.
VOCAL maintains that children are routinely coached to make false allegations, that they are sent to clinics ("the handmaidens of the system," in Jeambey's words) and brain-washed. Jeambey told me that he has a videotape— "I can't tell you where I got it Page 31 of 56 or who gave it to me, but it was a senator," he said—of a child being badgered for more than three hours by an "inquisitor" into accusing his father of molesting him. "They always coach the kids," Jeambey told me, "before they make the final tape" that gets used as evidence. Describing the tape to me, he played the part of the child, whining and pleading.
Jeambey acted out several other roles as we talked, including that of a German woman who, he said, had called him with the news that "Hitler broke up family ties, put girls in breeding camps and boys into youth camps. The same thing is happening in the United States under the guise of child-abuse protection." Jeambey also spoke of a hysterical female investigator "on a rampage, a wild woman." He blames females for most false claims: "Females are down on males," he lamented. "We have a female judge here and thank goodness she's retiring, and a female prosecuting attorney, and female caseworkers." He said that children are taught in school that "if your parents do anything you don't like, we can get them for you" on child-abuse charges.
McMartin Preschool sex-abuse case Jeambey then brought up the McMartin Preschool sex-abuse case in Manhattan Beach, California, as an instance of children lying about abuse. The case first came to light in 1983 with charges of child molestation against Virginia McMartin, her daughter Peggy McMartin Buckey, Buckey's son Raymond and daughter Peggy Ann, and three school employees. In 1986, charges were abruptly dropped against all but Peggy McMartin Buckey and Raymond Buckey. Eventually the case involved abuse allegations by more than 300 children who had attended the school from the ages of three to five. After the longest trial in the history of U.S. jurisprudence, Peggy Buckey was acquitted in 1990 and a mistrial was declared in the case of her son Raymond. Tried again the same year on eight counts of child molestation, Raymond was released in August 1990 (after five years in jail with no conviction), when the jury announced it was hopelessly deadlocked.
Overall cost to the taxpayers for two prosecutions and Raymond Buckey's incarceration:
about $15 million.
After the second trial more than half of the panelists on the hung jury said they believed some of the children had been abused, but they'd been unable to determine from the evidence who had done it. The evidence of physical and sexual abuse introduced during both proceedings included vaginal and anal tears, bleeding, infections, and enlargements.
The children claimed they were taken through underground tunnels that ran beneath the school building. One tunnel, they contended, led to a chamber where they were molested by people in robes and videotaped; the other went to the front yard of the building next door, which was obscured from street view by a three-car garage. From the yard, children said, they were transported to other locations where they were also abused. They claimed, too, to have been forced to watch the slaughter of animals.
Early in the case, investigations by the district attorney's office failed to locate these tunnels. Seven years later—a month before the preschool building was to be torn down by its new owners and while the first trial was still under way—some McMartin parents asked former FBI agent Ted Gunderson to coordinate a professional dig. On the recommendation of the chairman of the archaeology department at UCLA, Gunderson Page 32 of 56 hired Gary Stickel, Ph.D., an internationally known archaeologist.
Stickel says he began the dig skeptical of the charges against the Buckeys. But three days before the building was demolished, he and his crew found the tunnels and the chamber exactly where the children had said they were. The spaces had been filled in with dirt. Objects found inside included a plate from a child's tea set, inscribed and painted with three pentagrams arranged in a pattern known as the witch's foot—a cult symbol—and four large containers, including a breakable ceramic crock and a large iron cauldron. The diggers also found a plastic Walt Disney bag with a copyright date of 1982, which indicates that the tunnels had not been filled in by then. Significantly, that was the year before the first charges were lodged.
In my conversation with Stickel, he expressed regret and frustration that even though the trial was still going on when his dig was completed, the district attorney refused to enter into testimony evidence about the tunnels' existence.
Jeambey dismissed the published details of the McMartin case and insisted that the whole thing had been masterminded by a madwoman for reasons he didn't venture to explain. Then he changed the subject: "You know where Jim Jones got those children he killed in Jamestown, don't you? From social services. He killed over two hundred of his foster children from social services to satisfy his sadistic and satanic practices."
VOCAL’s Goals VOCAL seeks to narrow the definition of child abuse ("There are states where you can't even spank 'em," says Jeambey), to eliminate mandatory reporting except when the person making the report actually saw the abuse occur, and to eliminate immunity for those who report suspected cases of abuse. "Children do lie," Jeambey told me.
Prosecutions The most difficult cases for judges to verify are those involving extremely young children. There are usually no witnesses to incest except the adult and the child. Most abusers don't leave physical marks. And most toddlers can't explain what happened in language that an adult can accept as reliable enough for a conviction.
I am talking to a Manhattan family court judge of whom it has been said that "she runs her courtroom as if her car were double-parked outside." If she didn't, she'd never get through her caseload. In moments grabbed between sessions, she talks to me about what every judge I met talked about: the problem with expert witnesses, or "validators."
"We have no fixed criteria for proving allegations of child sexual abuse," she says, "especially of a very young child. If a three-year-old is the victim, how do we get evidence?" "Gonorrhea?" I offer. "Syphilis? Vaginal and rectal tearing? Fractured pelvis?" " Sometimes," she says. "But take a sexually transmitted disease like chlamydia. Five years ago I had chlamydia cases every day. Children were taken away from their parents if they tested positive. But I haven't had a good chlamydia expert in over a year, and I almost never see any chlamydia cases now. The test used five, six years ago Page 33 of 56 gave false positives. What do you do about a child who was removed in 1985 when you find out in 1991 that the test was flawed? Say sorry?" Validators testify to whether a child's physical and behavioral systems are consistent with a finding of sexual abuse. Opinions vary. There are no guarantees. In fact few doctors, it turns out, know how—or are willing—to perform the necessary examinations to determine whether a child has sustained physical injury from sexual abuse. It sounds simple enough—just look and swab. But even highly trained doctors can miss the tiny tears and scars on a child's genitals. And even gross sexual abuse may leave no physical marks. Just one of many horror stories I heard was of a four-year-old girl who was subjected to yet a third pelvic exam because the first two hadn't found anything.
Validators may or may not be competent. Some are improperly trained—or even untrained. Others may operate from a highly personal agenda—or misuse the authority invested in them. All are paid to testify. One validator offered testimony that a little girl had not been molested, but on cross-examination he proved ignorant of the symptoms of child sexual abuse. Another—serving in this instance not as paid validator but party to a custody case—manufactured incest evidence against her husband in an attempt to gain sole custody of their child.
In Manhattan, judges' salaries have remained the same for four and a half years.
Caseloads have more than doubled since 1982 and would be even heavier now if additional judges had not been appointed. Judges complain that they don't get feedback on their decisions, that there are no follow-up studies of their cases to let them know the long-range effects of their rulings. "I'm not getting good data," says Judge Gallet. "If I place x number of kids in foster care, I want to know if y number did badly. In New York City we are spending more than one billion dollars on foster care. No one's auditing to see what works best. In New York City the state comptroller can't audit case files. Confidentiality has become a shield for incompetence." Meanwhile the child suffers.
Stuart House In Santa Monica, California, I saw a better way of doing things. I saw Stuart House.
Seven years ago, when the McMartin Preschool case was constantly in the news, a movie called Something About Amelia—about a teenage girl molested by her clean-cut father (played by Ted Danson of Cheers)—aired on TV, resulting in a flood of reports of incest. The number of children referred to Santa Monica Hospital's Rape Treatment Center by law-enforcement officials increased enormously. Gail Abarbanel, director of the center, became deeply concerned for the mushrooming population of children being caught up in the process. "There are three agencies involved with each case," she says.
"Police, child welfare, and the district attorney's office. And often they don't talk to one another. In each agency there are two or three workers handling each case. So you can't find out and they can't find out who's responsible for what, or who knows what."
Abarbanel decided to look at the system through a child's eyes and to create a new vision from that point of view. "We needed to focus on making a structure where the defendant has rights but where adjustments are made for the developmental, language, and cognitive levels of kids," she says. "There is a difference between a five-year-old and a ten-year-old. We needed to enhance the skills of interviewers and to maximize Page 34 of 56 the ability of the children to tell and participate."
Abarbanel went to hospital administrators and to top officials of the city and county and told them she wanted something entirely new for the children—a building to house everything and everyone needed to investigate and prosecute a child-sex-abuse case.
She wanted full-time social workers, prosecutors, and detectives on site. She wanted sensitive doctors skilled in performing the exams necessary to gather physical evidence without further traumatizing the child. She got it all.