Sight Unseen

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

Wrong and wrong, responds Portman. Not only was he -- or anyone else in his office, which handles many, if not most, sex-assault cases in Arapahoe County -- not informed that Abbott had been canned, but he insists that Peters and Chambers had an obligation to reveal what they knew about Abbott back in August.

"They made the decision to fire the lady on that same information, but it wasn't important enough to tell us?" he asks. "Apparently the importance of it escaped them."

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.

Portman and the public defender's office have not been the only attorneys caught off guard by the inconsistencies between Abbott's personal and professional lives.

Early last year, a grandmother of four Adams County boys saw two of them simulating sex. She informed the mother, who called the police. The children were taken immediately to Sungate, where, in March 1999, Carole Abbott interviewed one of them. Out of that interview and a subsequent police investigation, a family friend was accused of molesting two of the boys; a third allegedly witnessed the assaults.

Rick Kornfeld, a private attorney in Adams County, was hired to defend the man. He says as late as early January, he knew nothing about Carole Abbott's firing or the criminal charges filed against her. Later, after hearing rumors, he checked into her background and discovered Abbott's problems at home. He, too, says prosecutors either were hiding damaging information about a star witness or simply fell down on the job.

"Carole Abbott's report was crucial in my case," he says. "Basically, you have a bunch of kids making accusations. There are no witnesses, no physical evidence, nothing. Her interview was everything. So they needed to tell us; credibility of a witness is always germane."

In mid-January, Peter Albanie, a private attorney in Denver, was called in to work on an Arapahoe County sex-assault case in which Abbott had conducted the forensic interview. He knew nothing of her background, either, until January 20, when Portman approached him outside the courtroom and told him. Albanie, too, immediately requested that the Arapahoe County DA's office be taken off the case.

"What I heard was enough to give me concern that the DA's office had now placed themselves in a position to be a witness in the case," he explains. "We believed that Carol Chambers had information regarding Carole Abbott and why she was fired. So rather than being a prosecutor, Ms. Chambers was now a witness. Also, we believed her being on Sungate's board, and their holding Carole Abbott out as a witness, was a conflict of interest. It seemed to be that they were protecting a witness."

The judge agreed with Albanie and ordered Chambers off the case. But in a deal in which the prosecutor's office agreed not to use Abbott as a witness in court -- although her interview was allowed to appear -- the judge decided to permit Arapahoe County to prosecute the case after all. (A similar deal was reached in Portman's case.)

Yet such resolutions are only patchwork solutions. Portman says the public defender's office has another half-dozen sexual-abuse cases on which Abbott has worked that have yet to go to trial. What, he wonders, will happen with those?

And there is the matter of the sex cases already tried and shelved. Defense attorneys say that, given what is now known about Carole Abbott's home life, it would be possible to challenge and potentially overturn a sexual-abuse case in which a person had been convicted based on her work for Sungate.

That, of course, would depend on whether anyone could show that Abbott's problems dealing with alleged sexual abuse in her own home affected her work at Sungate. Although no lawyers have tackled that project yet, there is at least some evidence that Abbott did not do her job particularly well late last year as her difficulties mounted at home.

Three weeks ago, for instance, Portman's client was cleared of all charges against him. In informal interviews with jurors after the case, he says several admitted they found Abbott's interview of the children troublesome. In some places, they observed, she appeared to be leading the children with statements such as "People come here to talk about touching troubles" and "Today you're going to teach me about what happened to you" -- sentences that signaled strongly that Abbott already was convinced an incident definitely had occurred.

Kornfeld's client was also recently cleared. In that case, the Adams County prosecutor, Jim Colgan, hired a private psychologist named James Baroffio to evaluate Abbott's forensic interviewing work in preparation for using her as a witness. Baroffio, however, was unimpressed.

"The interview seemed to blur the distinction between an investigative interview, and what is best considered a therapeutic interview," he wrote. "Ms. Abbott spent quite a bit of time establishing rapport with [the boy]. While rapport is necessary, her overly friendly style could have somehow influenced the child's reporting." Colgan decided to prosecute the case without using Abbott's interview.

Yet the issue of Carole Abbott's personal troubles and professional competence is far from over. Arapahoe County's Michael Knight says both Carol Chambers and Jim Peters intend to use Carole Abbott and her Sungate forensic interviews in any prosecution already in progress. Although it's difficult to determine exactly how many pending sex cases involve Abbott's work, what is known is that the potential number is high. Throughout 1998, Abbott conducted an average of twenty forensic interviews a month -- more than 200 in all that year. The following year she was even busier, interviewing an average of 25 children per month before she was fired in late August. Many of those interviews will no doubt emerge in court in coming months.

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