A Day Care Witchhunt Tests Justice in Massachusetts
By Carol Tavris
Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1997
In Massachusetts last week, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled to reinstate the convictions of Gerald Amirault, age 42, his sister Cheryl Amirault LaFave, age 38, and their mother Violet Amirault, age 73, all found guilty and sent to prison in 1986-87 for molesting children at their day-care center.
Except for the names and the outcome, the Amirault story is identical to that of the McMartins, whose trial devastated Los Angeles more than a decade ago, and the Little Rascals day-care case in North Carolina, the Kelly Michaels case in New Jersey and Dale Akiki’s in San Diego, and to the alleged molestation rings in Jordan, Minn.; Wenatchee, Wash.; Niles, Mich.; Miami, Florida; and dozens of other communities across America.
These cases made headlines, made careers, and destroyed lives. One by one, they crumbled in court or were overturned on appeal; but not in the state of Salem. The Massachusetts high court rejected the Amiraults’ contention that their trial was constitutionally flawed by a special courtroom seating arrangement that had denied them the ability to look the child witnesses in the eye. In a 6-1 ruling, the justices allowed that some of the charges made against the Amiraults by the children were “quite improbable” and may have resulted from “communicated hysteria,” but the public deserves a sense of “finality” in criminal cases. “The mere fact that, if the process were redone, there might be a different outcome, or that some lingering doubt about the first outcome may remain, cannot be a sufficient reason to reopen what society has a right to consider closed,” the court said. In other words, justice is less important than closure.
I have a personal interest in the fate of the Amiraults, because I am still trying to atone for an opinion piece I wrote about the McMartin case years ago for a national newspaper. When the trial ended in a hung jury, several jurors said they had been dismayed (and, thank God, unpersuaded) by the coercive interviewing tactics of prosecution witness Kee MacFarlane, a social worker who had been called on to determine whether the children had been molested. I hadn’t then read MacFarlane’s testimony, but I thought I understood her approach. At the time, research suggested that children often will not tell about an uncomfortable or shameful experience unless the interviewer asks leading questions (such as, “The doctor touched your private parts, didn’t he?”). So that’s what I wrote in my essay, which was titled by the editors: “Do Children Lie? Not About This.”
Since then, of course, it has become abundantly clear not only that children do lie, on occasion, but also that they can be influenced to make false allegations, just as adults can. Today, behavioral scientists who study children’s testimony recognize that framing the issue in terms of “children never lie” versus “children always lie” is wrong. Instead, they ask: under what conditions is a child more likely to be suggestible and claim that something happened that did not? Here are some answers:
• When the child is very young.
• When the situation is emotionally intense.
• When interviewers encourage the blurring of fantasy and reality, for instance by asking the child to “pretend” that an adult did something to them.
• When the child has a desire to please an interviewer.
• When an adult repeatedly asks the same question; many children (especially preschoolers) will then change their answers, thinking the first one was wrong or unacceptable.
• When the child is pressured by threats, offered bribes, or angrily accused of lying if they don’t give the “right” answers.
• When the child is asked to play with anatomically detailed dolls. The assumption has been that doll play will reveal abuse that the child is ashamed to admit. However, when researchers have compared how abused and nonabused children play with the dolls, they find no differences. Even nonabused children play with the dolls in a sexual manner–those parts are pretty interesting! With preschoolers, the use of dolls may even increase memory errors and erroneous reports of sexual touch.
All of these mistakes were present in the interrogations of children in every one of the sensational cases of the 1980s. (See sidebar.) In addition, there was no way the children or defendants could convince the prosecutors that molestation had not occurred. If the children admitted it after hours of questioning, that was evidence; but if they denied it, that too was evidence–evidence that they were too scared, or in denial, or had repressed the memory.
A study just completed by Sena Garven, at the University of Texas at El Paso, shows how alarmingly easy it is to get young children to agree to false allegations against an adult. A young man visited 3? to 6-year-old children in their preschool, read a story and handed out treats. A week later Garven questioned them about his visit. She asked children in one group leading questions, to see how many false allegations the children would agree with (“Did he shove the teacher? Did he steal a pencil from the teacher’s desk? Did he throw a crayon at a kid who was talking?”).
Then Garven asked children in another group the same questions, but she added techniques used in the McMartin, Kelly Michaels, and Amirault trials: telling the children what “other kids” had supposedly said; asking the children to “help”; expressing disappointment if answers were negative; and praising the children for making allegations the questioner wanted to hear.
In the first group, children affirmed about 15% of the false allegations of wrongdoing–bad enough for those who think that children never lie, misremember, or make things up. But in the second group, the 3-year-olds said “yes” to about 75% of false allegations offered to them, and about 50% of the children ages 4 to 6 did the same. And this was with a short interview, lasting only five to 10 minutes. In the major day-care abuse trials, the interviewers kept up their questioning over the course of many weeks.
Research like this has helped psychologists understand how children can best be interviewed to increase the accuracy of what they tell. It has helped to free falsely accused people from prison. It has demonstrated the necessity of videotaping all interviews with children, so that impartial observers can assess potential interviewer bias or coercion.
And yet many children’s advocates still discount this research, remaining committed to the belief that “children never lie,” and that anyone who suggests that children can be induced to tell falsehoods is abetting molesters. I was once sympathetic to their worry that the country will return to the bad old days when no one believed a word a child said, but now that worry feels more like an excuse to avoid saying the three hardest words in the English language: “I was wrong.”
If we are to learn anything from the McMartin trial and its many clones, it is that we must be prepared to change our minds when the evidence dictates. Contrary to the ruling of Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court, “closure” never takes precedence over justice. And there will be no closure on the sorry decade of day-care hysteria in America as long as the Amiraults are in prison.
Carol Tavris is a social psychologist who writes frequently on the contributions of behavioral research and the harms of pseudoscience.
Sidebar: How the children were interviewed
In New Jersey, Kelly Michaels was convicted of 115 counts of sexual abuse against 20 preschoolers. Michaels was accused, among other things, of licking peanut butter off children’s genitals, making the children drink her urine and eat her feces, and raping the children with knives, forks, and toys. These shocking acts were said to have occurred during school hours over a period of seven months, although no adult had ever noticed them, no child had complained, and none of the parents had noticed any symptoms or problems in their children.
Michaels was sentenced to 47 years in prison. After serving five years, she was released when an appeals court ruled that she had not received a fair trial because of the way the children were interrogated; the district attorney declined to retry her. Here are some excerpts from a typical interview of one of the preschool-age children (reported in Stephen Ceci and Maggie Bruck, Jeopardy in the Courtroom, published by the American Psychological Association, 1995).
Social worker: Don’t be so unfriendly. I thought we were buddies last time.
Child: Nope, not any more.
Social worker: We have gotten a lot of other kids to help us since I last saw you. . . . Did we tell you that Kelly is in jail?
Child: Yes, my mother already told me.
Social worker: Did I tell you that this [the detective] is the guy that arrested her? . . . Well, we can get out of here quick if you just tell me what you told me the last time, when we met.
Child: I forgot.
Social worker: No, you didn’t. I know you didn’t.
Child: I did! I did! . . .
Social worker: Oh, come on. We talked to a few more of your buddies. And everyone told me about the nap room, and the bathroom stuff, and the music room stuff, and the choir stuff, and the peanut butter stuff, and everything. . . . All your buddies [talked]. . . . Come on, do you want to help us out? Do you want to keep her in jail? I’ll let you hear your voice and play with the tape recorder. . . . Real quick, will you just tell me what happened with the wooden spoon? Let’s go.
Child: I forgot.
Detective: Now listen, you have to behave.
Social worker: Do you want me to tell him to behave? Are you going to be a good boy, huh? While you were here, did [the detective] show you his badge and his handcuffs? . . . Back to what happened to you with the spoon. If you don’t remember words, maybe you can show me [with some anatomically realistic dolls].
In Masschusetts, the Amirault family has not been as lucky as Kelly Michaels. At their trial in 1986, some children said they had been attacked by a robot, been forced to eat a frog, or were molested by clowns and lobsters. One boy said he had been tied naked to a tree in the school yard in front of all the teachers and children, although all the teachers denied it and no other child verified it. The Amiraults were convicted and sent to prison. In 1995, mother and daughter were released pending their appeal. The state court rejected their appeal two weeks ago and ordered them back to prison.
Here is an excerpt from interviews of the children in the Amirault case by a pediatric nurse, Susan Kelley, who sometimes used Bert and Ernie puppets to “aid” the children’s recall (from Mark Pendergrast, Victims of Memory, Upper Access Press, 1996):
Kelley: Would you tell Ernie?
Kelley: Ah, come on [pleading tone]. Please tell Ernie. Please tell me. Please tell me. So we could help you. Please …. you whisper it to Ernie…Did anybody ever touch you right there [pointing to the vagina of a girl doll]?
Kelley: [pointing to the doll's posterior] Did anybody touch your bum?
Kelley: Would you tell Bert?
Child: They didn’t touch me!
Kelley: Who didn’t touch you?
Child: Not my teacher. Nobody.
Kelley: Did any big people, any adult, touch your bum there?