Sight Unseen

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

At some point during this same period of time -- although when, exactly, is unknown -- the young woman confronted her mother. According to Wickersham's investigation, it was in that conversation or conversations that Carole Abbott, a trained investigator of sexual abuse, reportedly told her daughter to destroy the tapes and not tell anyone what had happened -- that if word got out, it would wreck her career and devastate the Abbott family.

Advocacy centers like Sungate present clear advantages to their clients. Offering medical, social and psychological support under a single roof, they are user-friendly to families and children ensnared in the pain and humiliation of sexual abuse. "Before Sungate, when we had a child victim, he or she was taken to police departments, back to an interview room -- and it wasn't a very pleasant place," says Michael Knight, a deputy district attorney for Arapahoe County. "Sungate is a godsend."

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.

Sungate's primary clients are victims and their families. But local prosecutors have had a hand in the organization from its beginning. The center was started eight years ago at the instigation of then-Arapahoe County district attorney Robert Gallagher. "We took a look at a child that'd been victimized, and the kid was running all around the system," recalls Gallagher, who is now in private practice. The idea, he says, was to provide a comforting place where victims of sexual abuse could go to receive the attention they needed. Gallagher sat on Sungate's first board of directors.

The close relationship has continued -- and, if anything, strengthened. Will Hood, an assistant district attorney, is the husband of Diana Goldberg, Sungate's director. Although the vast majority of the organization's $400,000 annual budget is raised through private contributions ($114,000 in 1998), government grants ($128,000) and fundraisers ($134,000), Arapahoe County has regularly paid Sungate several thousand dollars a year for training and other purposes.

Sungate also receives public money when its forensic interviewers are called to testify in court as expert witnesses and they bill the state for their services. According to state court records, Carole Abbott was paid $2,430 between October and December 1999 for such appearances.

Two members of the DA's office sit on the organization's board of directors: District Attorney Jim Peters and Carol Chambers, Arapahoe County's chief child-sex-crimes prosecutor. In fact, both Peters and Chambers also sit on Sungate's smaller executive committee. From that vantage point, they are kept abreast of policy and financial matters crucial to the advocacy center, as well as important personnel decisions.

In short, both a legal and a business relationship exist between Sungate and local prosecutors. Sungate conducts forensic interviews for the district attorney's office (nobody interviewed for this story knew of a single instance in which a Sungate employee had been hired by a defense lawyer as an interviewer or expert witness). In exchange for this service, the organization receives regular income from its employees' court appearances. At the same time, prosecutors exercise some level of supervision over Sungate by virtue of their position on the board of directors.

Knight says having the district attorney's office work side by side with Sungate makes perfect sense. "We want to advocate for the children and get at the truth -- that's the goal for both of us," he says. "If we're being accused of trying to protect children, so be it."

Still, Peters's and Chambers's conflicting duties -- as county prosecutors and as boardmembers of a nonprofit advocacy organization for abused children -- appear to have clashed when it came time to decide what to do about Carole Abbott.

Immediately following the two Sungate workers' revelation that Carole Abbott reportedly had been complicit in the secret videotaping of her own daughter, Diana Goldberg called a meeting of Sungate's executive committee. The meeting was set for August 12. All but one of the six-member committee was able to attend. Both Jim Peters and Carol Chambers were there. Carole Abbott was on vacation.

As the meeting opened, Goldberg explained the problem, relating what she was told by Abbott's daughter herself back in May and what she now knew after talking with the two colleagues. She then opened the floor for discussion. She recalled the exchange in a court hearing early last month:

"The consensus of the group was that I had pretty sketchy information; that the information I had received, particularly the information concerning Carole Abbott, was thirdhand at best -- that it had traveled through her daughter, my employees and then to me. So we really couldn't be sure of what it meant and that it would have been unfair and wrong to take any employment action without any substantive ground for doing so...My task, it was then decided, was to gather information."

It was also agreed, however, that if Carole Abbott's daughter would not or could not bring herself to press charges against her parents, Goldberg was prepared to bring the matter to police herself. (Indeed, soon after that, Goldberg helped the young woman move out of Carole and Paul Abbott's house, finding her an apartment and eventually co-signing on the lease.)

Although the executive committee took no formal action that day, events moved swiftly following the meeting. On August 15, Carole Abbott returned from her vacation. She worked that entire week, apparently conducting several interviews with children. By August 18, however, Goldberg had prepared a written statement for Denver police, describing what she knew of the Abbotts' situation. The following day, Goldberg confronted Carole Abbott and informed her that she was placing her on administrative leave with pay.

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