Barbara Huttner pulls a thick wedding album from a shelf in her family room and flips through it, looking for a picture of her daughter. The volume contains dozens of photos that have been ripped into pieces and defaced with a black marking pen, the faces circled and crossed out with thick, angry strokes. By mutilating the pictures, Huttner says, she was trying to purge her daughter and son-in-law from her life and from her heart.
Huttner, however, couldn't bring herself to discard the ruined pictures. "I guess I hoped that someday I'd be able to put them back together," she says.
It's the same with her daughter's family; Huttner's emotions alternate between fury and an aching sense of loss. On good days, she says, she has not given up on the hope that, somehow, her family can be made whole. On bad days, she says, she's unsure if she wants her daughter and son-in-law in her life.
The schism began in late 1992 with a few guileless words uttered by Huttner's then-three-year-old grandson, her daughter's only child. His grandmother, the boy told his parents, had touched his "tushie" and kissed his penis. Virtually overnight, Huttner, a respected businesswoman and former Miss Missouri, became a suspected child molester.
By the time Huttner was brought to trial, two years after the accusations were made, her family had split into factions. The trial only worsened the rift as it became clear that, in order to win, the prosecution would attempt to assassinate Huttner's character and the defense would attack
the credibility and morals of Huttner's daughter. At times the alleged assault on the three-year-old boy became a sidelight to the emotionally wrought testimonies of mother and daughter.
The family's dysfunction further complicated the case. A therapist who interviewed both Barbara and her daughter noted, "Each family member levels accusations at the other, and it is difficult to discern what the exact nature of the relationships are, and what has actually occurred in these families."
Indeed, though the jury would never hear it, allegations of sexual abuse involving satanic activity and a ring of teenage prostitutes were leveled against Huttner by a female relative more than a decade ago. Those accusations were never proven, and Huttner was never charged.
The case involving Huttner's grandson fell into the estimated 95 percent of child sex-abuse accusations in which there is no physical evidence. Huttner was never interviewed by police, social workers or district attorney's investigators, despite her repeated demands to be heard. In addition, Huttner and others testified at trial that her daughter has repeatedly accused others of molesting her son.
It took an Arapahoe County jury only two hours to acquit Huttner on all charges. But the stigma of having been accused may never end for her. Even though she was found not guilty, the state office of Child Welfare Services has thus far declined to remove Huttner's name from a list of suspected child molesters. And though she says she has tried to bridge the huge gap between her and her daughter, the two remain estranged. Huttner says she hasn't seen her grandson since early 1993.
"I can't tell you the pain that goes through you when you're accused of something you did...not...do," Huttner says, her voice rising to emphasize the last three words. "It's a very helpless feeling. You find yourself struggling to stay alive and do the most simple things every day. It goes way beyond ordinary loss."
Huttner says she once reached the brink of suicide. But now she has joined the growing grandparents' rights movement and is speaking out for people who have been falsely accused of molesting children. "I want to have an impact on the system," she says. "No one should ever have to go through this."
And Huttner's course is destined to bring her tiara-to-tiara with her friend and former Miss America, Marilyn Van Derbur. Van Derbur has said she is a victim of incest and has dedicated herself to speaking up for other victims. She espouses the necessity to "believe the children" and has become a much-sought-after speaker for the cause.
"We must go a step farther," Huttner says. "We must go from `believe the children' to `listen to them, hear them, protect them.' Because I don't think that's being done."
Before, during and after Huttner's trial, media reports frequently referred to her as a socialite and former Cherry Hills matron, words that conjure up images of lavish living and party-hopping.
"I really resented that socialite business," Huttner says as she sips a cup of coffee in the kitchen of her Denver townhome. "I think it has a connotation that isn't always nice. It just isn't me. But it gave me some power. People listen to that. And if it allows me to get my message out, they can call me whatever they want."