Sight Unseen

Carole Abbott was an expert witness in child sex-abuse cases. What she witnessed at home was a different matter.

Many of those interviews turned into criminal investigations, and those investigations into prosecutions and convictions. Other cases based on Carole Abbott's interviews with children are still working their way through the criminal-justice system. The issue of how Abbott's private behavior affected her professional judgment now looms in those cases yet to be tried and raises serious doubts about those that have already been settled.

Additionally, the unfolding saga has raised questions about the ethics of the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office. Even taking into account the traditionally tight-knit affiliations between prosecutors and victims' advocacy groups, the ties between Sungate Children's Advocacy and Family Resources and Arapahoe County prosecutors are unusually close.

Although Sungate employees occasionally lend their expertise to law-enforcement and social-service agencies in Denver, Adams and Douglas counties, the vast majority of abuse cases evaluated by Sungate's forensic interviewers end up being prosecuted by Arapahoe County District Attorney Jim Peters and his staff. For its part, the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office has several employees who sit on Sungate's board of directors. A prior district attorney founded the organization, and the current director of the organization is married to a deputy DA.

Paul Abbott, Carole Abbott's husband, has been charged with three counts of third-degree sexual assault, including one charge of incest.
Paul Abbott, Carole Abbott's husband, has been charged with three counts of third-degree sexual assault, including one charge of incest.

The district attorney's office says it is a hand-in-glove arrangement that permits the social workers and prosecutors to work closely together to fight sexual abuse. But it may also explain why Jim Peters did not tell anyone about Carole Abbott -- indeed, continued to let her testify in court -- even though Arapahoe County prosecutors knew of her legal and domestic troubles a full six months before they became public.

On August 12, 1983, the mother of a young boy attending the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, alerted local police that her son had been abused by a part-time school aide. The aide -- the son of one of the school's owners -- was quickly arrested.

Charges against the man were soon dropped for lack of evidence. But rather than let the incident die, the police chief took matters into his own hands. He circulated a "confidential" memo to 200 parents of current and past McMartin students, warning that their children may have been exposed to sexual abuse at the school. The letter urged parents to question their children closely to seek confirmation of the abuse.

The parents took the chief's directive to heart. By the following spring, 360 children had been diagnosed as victims of abuse at McMartin. And not just run-of-the-mill sexual abuse, either: The children reported to social workers that they'd been forced to act in kiddie porn videos and watch the mutilation of animals. They claimed they'd been sexually abused in hot-air balloons and on airplanes, in underground tunnels and public markets and car washes.

The ensuing legal battles were a spectacle, chewing up untold hours and millions of dollars. After nearly six years of trials and appeals, the heads of the McMartin preschool were at last cleared of all charges. But a movement had already been set into motion.

A series of high-profile prosecutions, of increasingly more vast and complicated incidents of sexual abuse, started popping up across the country. An investigation of the Wee Care Nursery Center in New Jersey revealed 235 counts of sexual abuse involving nineteen children and including such bizarre activities as "nude pileups." An inquiry into the Faith Chapel Charismatic Church in San Diego yielded claims from children that a mildly retarded caregiver had brought an elephant and giraffe to school, then killed them to warn of what would happen to kids who told of the supposed sexual activity going on there.

In 1989, in the North Carolina city of Edenton, twenty adults -- including the sheriff and mayor -- were accused of 429 instances of sexual and satanic ritual abuse at the Little Rascals daycare center. The children at first denied that anything "funny" had gone on at the daycare. But when pressed, they began to remember with a vengeance. One child recalled seeing another hung upside down from a tree and set on fire. Others were suddenly reminded of being taken aboard a spaceship, or an ocean-going ship surrounded by sharks, where they were then abused.

The hysteria reached its peak in 1994 and 1995, in the small Washington town of Wenatchee. There an aggressive investigation produced a staggering 30,000 charges of sexual abuse against thirty adults, supposedly involving four dozen children.

In each case, nearly every charge against every adult was subsequently dropped, proved false or deemed inconclusive. Although each instance of supposed abuse had its own set of circumstances, what stood out in the ensuing investigations is how the truth was distorted by the people whose job it was to gain it, among them the forensic interviewers.

In 1989, Dr. Phil Esplin of Phoenix began working for a long-term, government-sponsored research program called the Child Witness Project. Among other goals, the project set out to determine how to get children to tell the truth in alleged cases of sexual abuse. In the meantime, Esplin has also made it his business to study what went wrong in that McCarthy-like decade of mass panic.

"When you look at what happened, you see some common features," he says. "One is that investigators had a pre-conceived idea of what happened; they were not neutral observers. In addition, there was a belief among therapists that there was more going on than what the kids were saying. As a result, under this pressure, the kids would acquiesce to what they thought the adults wanted and end up giving wilder and wilder stories."

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