Hal on whether children lie about abuse

Feminist Justice--September 28, 1993

Dear People,

Last night Mary reported word she is getting from children's rights groups
in Washington that this seminar is the only college course in the country
on abuse as a matter of children's rights. At least that's how she
pinpointed the uniqueness of the seminar to me after class. There are
enough correspondents especially on one of the places I post this letter--
on the UN Criminal Justice Info. Network on e-mail--to let me know about
other such courses not only in the United States, but worldwide. I think
it would be a remarkable reflection of the status of children's evidence
of abuse if this were true. In criminal justice as in everyday life, we
pay much more attention to what adults say about children than to what
children themselves say they want and need. Insofar as child abuse is a
matter for adult experts or state authorities to define for children, we
make our subject matter a part of the children's problem.

Last night we saw about an hour from the first of two two-hour "Frontline"
(PBS) segments on prosecution of daycare owners/workers in a small
Virginia coastal town. It became clear to the producers as it did to us
that while in all likelihood the male co-owner of the daycare center had
spanked one child hard to begin with, the remaining one hundred counts of
child abuse from some thirty children were dreams their therapists help
them fabricate. Our readings raise issues of child-fabrication, aided
among other things by anger of one parent directed at another. I think we
all paused to accept the idea that it is too simple to say, simply,
"Children never lie." On the other hand, next week we will see a half-
hour video of a case in which believable children were not believed, and
read pleas to believe children where now we do not. In real life as
perhaps in texts, we cannot make blanket presumptions one way or the
other. We have to look for signs of whether children's accounts of abuse
are to be interpreted more like dreams or like literal reality.

In the brief space of half an hour I think we came up with a number of
signs to look for: the timing of when the child (or adult survivor)
becomes disturbed (whether the child/adult stops being happy before or
after the account unfolds); the literal credibility of all the child says
(alleging satanic rituals involving several daycare workers at once in an
open center where parents regularly came and went); whether the child
begins verbalizing abuse before of after being asked about it; whether
accounts become seemingly ritualized across groups of children; whether
evaluation sessions have been taped against which to check experts'
written reports; whether evaluators are indifferent to pain caused by
asking children for instance to report abuse to their parents alone as a
matter of "homework." All these, I suggest, are useful guides to sorting
out evidence anyone offers, child or adult. So in the name of
"protecting" the child, I'd look for SOME mechanism to offer children both
the freedom to disclose as they feel safe doing so, and to go where they
let us know they feel safe as well as where concerned parents feel they
are safe. This to me presupposes that all parents at all times grant the
right of children to draw upon outsiders to help them negotiate with
parents not WHETHER they will stay somewhere else for the time being, but
WHERE. I am afraid to substitute protective arrangements for parental
care unless I can see children's rights of these kinds protected in the
process. Legislation of the kind sponsored by Shari Karney in California
in last night's NBC movie on behalf of incest survivors, and that Mary
tells us about now before Congress to give children a right to be removed
from parental care, is a step toward raising our consciousness that
children have a right to leave home safely. I'd just hate to see us
presume that the state automatically cares better than abusive parents.

Andre, I'm sure you're not alone in confronting the reality of compromise
verdicts for the first time. In the video, the jury out against the male
co-owner in the first trial spent three weeks deliberating before
convicting the owner on 99 of 100 counts. Several jurors told us they
caved in, although they still believed the owner innocent. There was a
manifest impropriety in the jury room (the foreman brought in an issue of
Redbook magazine arguing that children never make up abuse). All this
goes back to the judge. The judge decides how long to keep a jury in
deliberation before letting them return without a verdict. Holding jurors
in deliberation amounts to coercion just like that of isolating a suspect
in prolonged police interrogation. Confessions and verdicts can be false
as a result. Many of the criminologists on the UN network live in places
where confessions do not constitute evidence precisely because they are
unreliable. So are coerced verdicts. Once again, we are confronted with
the reality that NO ONE can be trusted to decide children's fate based
simply on whether a parent is guilty of sexual or physical abuse. Relying
on jurors to make the right decision, once again, is a poor substitute for
planning out the process by which children are heard and attended, don't
you think?

Next week Angie Heckman is bringing Columbus, Indiana's part-time juvenile
referee, Jim Hollins, to class. We'll watch the video and weave into the
ensuing discussion all the things we've been dying to ask a judge who
handles child protection matters. Thanks Angie!

                                                Love and peace, Hal