part 1 of 2
The little girl on the videotape pulls on her ponytail and tries to remember all the things she misses about her Daddy's house.
After all, it's been a year since she's been there. "My friends, and going around the neighborhood, and saying `Hi!' to the old people, and Cassie [the dog], and my bike," she says, ticking off the memories. She pauses for a minute and then blurts out, "It sucks being in foster care."

Later the girl tells the child-abuse "evaluator" conducting the interview, "My dad didn't rape me." She even goes so far as to name the man who did.

But Clare Haynes-Seman doesn't believe her.

For years professionals in the legal and mental health fields have been looking for a way to ascertain whether a child has been sexually abused and, if so, who perpetrated the crime. Clare Haynes-Seman, the 56-year-old director of the Family Evaluation Team at Denver's C. Henry Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect, has developed what she claims is a "pioneering new method" for doing just that. She calls it the "Kempe Interactional Assessment."

But some of her colleagues in both the legal and child-abuse treatment communities have other names for it--names like "hocus-pocus," "dangerous" and "unadulterated balderdash." And some families who have undergone the "assessment" have even stronger feelings about Haynes-Seman and her methods. They say she has torn their lives apart by making outlandish accusations based on nothing more than child's play.

The method is based on Haynes-Seman's claim that she can uncover hidden truths by interpreting seemingly innocuous behavior by both children and adults. By repeatedly viewing a series of videotaped interviews held in a sort of playroom--first with the children alone, then with the children and various family members--Haynes-Seman contends that she can assess "accurately and effectively" whether abuse has occurred. She's even written a book about her technique, Children Speak for Themselves, in which she describes how she reviews the tapes for "recurrent patterns of behavior" and "undercurrents or hints" from the participants.

The Kempe Center's lead evaluator holds a Ph.D. in developmental psychology, but she's not a licensed psychologist. She received her bachelor's degree from Harding College, a small Christian school in Searcy, Arkansas, and went on to earn her doctorate at Wayne State University in Detroit. Prior to receiving her higher degree, Haynes-Seman served for eight years as "head teacher" at the House of the Carpenter Day Care Center in Detroit. In 1980 she came to the Kempe Center as a research assistant. She's been there ever since.

Haynes-Seman declines to comment on her method or the controversy it has engendered. "Everything I have to say, I've said in my book," she says. And the book says plenty--including Haynes-Seman's assertion that "the synergism of information obtained from parents, siblings and the alleged child-victim" allows her team to draw "definitive" conclusions not only about whether abuse has taken place, but also about who did it.

Bert Mason (not his real name) would beg to differ. At 52, Mason is an ex-farmer, a grandfather and a self-described "victim of Clare Haynes-Seman." He talks of his experience in a low voice, so his grandson, finally returned to his home, can't hear him.

In 1993 Mason was farming a stretch of land in Bayfield, Colorado, battling a rare form of cancer and trying to figure out just what was wrong with his six-year-old grandson, David. The boy had been acting strangely, demonstrating a sexual interest in breasts and--Mason says it stiltingly--"showing that he knew what cunnilingus was."

Mason had always worried about the boy, who came to live with his grandparents when he was eighteen months old. Both of David's parents had drug and alcohol problems when he was an infant, and according to Mason, the mother's had persisted. David still had regular visits with his mother, and Mason was worried that the sexual behavior David was exhibiting might have been picked up from her current associates. After consulting with La Plata County social services, the family was referred to the Kempe Center to try to clarify just what had happened to David.

Mason agreed to pay the Kempe Center $3,000 to assess David and the family. He hoped the evaluation would shed new light on the time David had spent with his mother. But Haynes-Seman had other ideas. On the basis of her evaluation, Mason says, "The Department of Social Services showed up with two police cars, dogs and billy clubs. Three days later David was shipped out to the Cleo Wallace Center."

David spent four months at the private, nonprofit psychiatric hospital in Colorado Springs. It was only after countless court hearings, a clinical psychologist's review of Haynes-Seman's assessment, and legal fees that caused Mason to sell his farm that the La Plata County District Court allowed David to be returned to his grandparents.

Now Bert Mason says he's preparing to sue Haynes-Seman for "willful and wanton" conduct in developing an evaluation he says ruined his life and damaged his grandson forever.

The report that had such a profound effect on Mason and his family is 24 pages long and single-spaced. It's based on nine hours and 45 minutes of interviews with David and his family. All the interviews were videotaped. Then, true to her method, Haynes-Seman reviewed the tapes to look for key behaviors that would tell all.

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.

Plunkett hasn't been allowed to see his children alone for more than two years now--despite the fact that Bruce LaBute has since pleaded guilty to sexually abusing Ciera. The girl herself has insisted that her father has done nothing wrong and named LaBute as her "rapist" during the videotaped evaluation. But Haynes-Seman, according to her report, remains unconvinced of Plunkett's innocence.

In her 26-page evaluation, Haynes-Seman wrote that Plunkett's hesitation to make allegations against LaBute makes one "wonder if he was afraid others might also look at him and his relationships with his children, both with respect to sexual abuse and physical discipline." She also concluded that Ciera's play with triangular blocks--pretending they were pizza and then fish, but refusing to tell the evaluator how the fish tasted--was "metaphorically end[ing] the first session with a message to the evaluator that she is angry and may be withholding about what she will share with the evaluator." Haynes-Seman continued, "Pizza and other favorite foods have been consistently associated with biological father," and that when Ciera "refuses to tell the evaluator how the [fish] lungs taste" she is showing that "to obtain the nurturance she needs, she must do things that are repugnant to her."

Plunkett still has some of the videotapes that Haynes-Seman took of the evaluations. And he's not afraid to let others see them. He'll even narrate what's up next, having memorized the tapes from so many viewings.

The scene on the tapes is always the same: a dingy room with a spongy white couch. Sometimes the adults and children appear together, sometimes just one of the children. In one segment, eight-year-old Ciera is seen waving her arms around while one of Haynes-Seman's staffers sits on a chair too small for her bulk and watches. Ciera flips her tight ponytail in the air and repeats, as though she's exhausted with the situation, "My dad never did anything to me. Bruce did it."

The little girl's pinkish sweatshirt is blurred in the bad light. "Bruce did it," she repeats. And then, as if to make sure the evaluator is listening: "My Dad's not that kind of guy."

end of part 1


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