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DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?

KEMPE CENTER "EVALUATOR" CLARE HAYNES-SEMAN FINDS EVIDENCE OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE IN THE STRANGEST PLACES.

Apparently, she found them.
On page four of her evaluation, Haynes-Seman unequivocally concludes that David's father--Mason's son--was the abuser and that Mason's wife had been covering for him for years. These startling conclusions were not based on any declaration made by David or by his father or grandparents. Instead, Haynes-Seman focused on behavior exhibited by David and the adults while they were being interviewed--together and separately--in the playroom. Among her conclusions:

When David heads straight for the toys without stopping to greet the grandparents with whom he lives, it's behavior that's "not consistent with healthy attachment."

When David's father hands David "child" stuffed animals along with "adult" stuffed animals, the act is "concerning in light of his sexual abuse of David."

When David plays with a big monkey and an alligator puppet at the same time, he is exhibiting a need for protection.

When David draws a picture of a pair of sunglasses, he is saying that things "inside the family are not as they appear to outsiders."

When David says during a play session that the big dinosaur says it's going to eat the baby, the boy is indicating his need for his abuse to be recognized by others.

When David says "I love to draw" and then observes, "They're making a videotape," he is trying to make sure his message is recorded and understood.

A Denver clinical psychologist who reviewed the videotapes at the request of Mason's attorney says he believes David was sexually assaulted at a very early age, probably while in the custody of his mother "and all those heroin addicts she was hanging with." The psychologist, who asks that his name not be used and whose critique of Haynes-Seman's evaluation is part of a sealed court record, says he "thought the grandparents were solid" and that Haynes-Seman's conclusions were "out of step and out of tune with the rest of what the psychiatric community considers standard practice."

That comes as no surprise to Kathleen Faller. A nationally recognized expert on child sexual abuse, Faller is the director of the Family Assessment Clinic at the University of Michigan and the co-director of that university's Interdisciplinary Project on Child Abuse and Neglect. Her advice about the Kempe Center: "Don't go there for family evaluations."

Faller says there are serious flaws in Haynes-Seman's technique, including her insistence on interviewing the child in the same room with the alleged perpetrator. And, Faller continues, Haynes-Seman's reliance on interpreting peoples' apparently innocent behavior is fraught with the potential for error. "Most people don't sexually abuse their kids in front of their therapist," she says. "To get anything, she has to interpret fairly subtle kinds of things as indicative of sexual abuse, and there's no data to support that."

Faller, who also sits on the board of the American Professional Society on Abuse of Children, says that using play to interpret meaning "may be helpful in a therapeutic setting--say, if you were trying to figure out how to reach a child." But she says the technique is totally inappropriate as an investigative tool. "To form conclusions based on [symbolic interpretations] and then use them in a forensic context just has no empirical support," Faller says.

For instance, she says, Haynes-Seman seems partial to identifying any parental interest in a child's toilet habits as indicative of sexual abuse--a connection "which has never been validated." Faller calls the technique "worrisome" and says it can be "potentially harmful because it has such a considerable impact on families."

James Plunkett would call that an understatement.

Plunkett first met Haynes-Seman in February 1994--almost a full year after his ex-wife alleged that, during a weekend visit with his two children, he watched porn movies with them and made them act out the various sex acts. The Denver Police Department investigated the claim and found no credible evidence to support it. But continued concerns over the children's performance at school--and their safety and well-being while living with their mother, Ronda Wardlow, and her boyfriend, Bruce LaBute--led Jefferson County Social Services to suggest that the entire family be evaluated by Haynes-Seman. Plunkett says he was eager for a chance to clear his name and regain visitation rights. He welcomed the evaluation.

Between the time the case was referred to Haynes-Seman and the time she and her staff began their interviews, Bruce LaBute failed a polygraph test about his suspected sexual involvement with eight-year-old Ciera. Haynes-Seman, though, continued to focus much of her attention on James Plunkett. Her assessment accused him of "grooming [the children] to meet his needs, emotional and sexual" and of involving Ciera in "sexual activities in his search for the intimacy and closeness of which he was deprived as a young child."

Then there's the diapering stuff.
Apparently Plunkett, during his first interview, described how, when his children were babies, he used to change their diapers "first thing in the morning." Later, during his joint interview with Ciera, Plunkett asked his daughter if the baby living with her at the foster home was in diapers. Haynes-Seman wrote in her evaluation that she found Plunkett's alleged "interest" in diaper-changing "odd." She also concluded that when Ciera momentarily choked on an apple she was eating during the evaluation, she was "metaphorically communicating" that Plunkett had hurt her.

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