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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.

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Michelle Johnston