Sight Unseen

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

Most experts agree that rapid advances have since been made in the practice of forensic interviewing. "I like to believe we've come a long way in the past few years," says Esplin.

Gone, for instance, are most uses of anatomically correct dolls to encourage children's recollection of abuse. Once widely employed by interviewers as a technique to help a child describe unfamiliar actions by adults, the dolls have since been shown to confuse children more than they clarify. Long -- and frequently ambiguous and contradictory -- lists of symptoms that purport to be indicators of sexual abuse have also proved virtually useless. Videotaping of interviews, meanwhile, once shunned as too intrusive, is now considered standard practice.

Perhaps the biggest changes in the profession of forensic interviewing, however, have been made in the actual interview techniques. Today a good interviewer strives to pose open-ended questions and erase any biases in his wording or voice -- indeed, to avoid using phrases like "inappropriate touching" or give any indication that a crime may have occurred. "Children, left to their own devices, can be reliable," explains Esplin. "It's when the adults get too involved that we run into trouble."

All in the family: Arapahoe County District Attorney Jim Peters's office has a particularly close relationship with Sungate Children's Advocacy and Family Resources Inc.
All in the family: Arapahoe County District Attorney Jim Peters's office has a particularly close relationship with Sungate Children's Advocacy and Family Resources Inc.

Despite the advances, Esplin's research has uncovered continuing problems in the field. For example, studies show that interviewers educated in the proper technique often ignore what they've learned. Particularly when they are in stressful situations, forensic questioners rely on old, interrogation-style techniques. In addition, while instances of an interviewer influencing a child's recollections through the use of biased questions are fewers these days (and the methods more subtle), they can still crop up. (To get around this persistent problem, Esplin recently developed a written script for frazzled interviewers to fall back on.)

Still another problem, he says, is the continued use of social-service workers at self-described advocacy centers as forensic interviewers. Is it possible, Esplin wonders, to advocate for and provide support to victims of sexual abuse for five hours a day, and then on the sixth go into a small room, sit across from a frightened four-year-old and be a dispassionate listener?

"You're not there to be a therapist," Esplin notes, "or to make judgments. The potential problem is, Does the interviewer see himself as a member of the prosecution team? Is he using techniques that are scientifically based? Or are they instead based on gathering evidence?"

For now, there is no way of telling how long Paul Abbott had been videotaping his stepdaughter's bedroom before he was caught. According to court documents, however, Carole Abbott was aware of the hidden video camera at least as far back as September 1998, a fact established when the daughter gave police a photograph of the video camera hidden in the heating vent. The picture, reportedly taken by Carole Abbott, had been developed with the date printed on it.

Carole and Paul Abbott alone know what was said between them following her discovery of the camera in the fall of 1998. But Wickersham's investigation concluded that the videotaping continued even after Carole Abbott discovered her husband's secret camera. This was deduced when the daughter later viewed the tapes and was able to date them according to her hairstyle at the time.

And because the case has yet to be litigated, it is also unknown when, exactly, the young woman first learned that her stepfather was secretly taping her while she was in her bedroom. The earliest indication came in May 1999 -- eight months after her mother first discovered the hidden camera. It was then that the woman, who also worked at Sungate in an administrative position, asked Diana Goldberg, the advocacy center's executive director, to take a drive with her. During that trip, she revealed that she knew of the taping -- or, at least, of the existence of some tapes.

Goldberg, who, through her lawyers, declined to comment for this story, must have been torn. As the director of an organization dedicated to fighting sexual abuse, her professional obligation was clear. But as she later explained in court, the young woman had asked her not to tell anyone of the tapes. Anyway, the young woman said she believed that Paul Abbott had destroyed all the tapes, and so Goldberg honored the woman's request.

Such secrets are hard to keep, though, and three months later, on August 9, Goldberg received a phone call from two Sungate employees, one of whom was the center's other forensic interviewer. They informed Goldberg of what they, too, now knew after the daughter had confided in them: Not only had Paul Abbott been videotaping his stepdaughter, but there also was a strong suggestion that he'd been touching her in a decidedly unfatherly way. The co-workers also told Goldberg that they'd learned that Carole Abbott had been aware of the videotaping and touching for months, yet still had done nothing to protect her daughter. Finally, the women said, the videotapes still existed.

At that point, Goldberg knew she had to act. "When I was told this information in May, I was told that the videotape had been destroyed and that it was an accident," she explained in a recent court hearing. "And based on the information that I received in August, it seemed to me that it had not been accidental but intentional. I also learned about this inappropriate touching. And it was very concerning to me to learn that Carole has been involved in this, and it was also concerning to me because it was having a detrimental effect on my staff..."

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