BELIEVE THE CHILDREN?

MONA CHAREN

Bobby Fijnje was a 13-year-old boy who liked to play with little kids. He volunteered to baby-sit for the younger children at his South Miami church, Old Cutler Presbyterian. According to the PBS series “Frontline,” Bobby sometimes played too rough with the children — and that fact nearly cost him his freedom.

One of the children, a 3-year-old, expressed fear of Bobby. The child’s parents took her to see a psychologist who was also a congregant at Old Cutler. The psychologist questioned the little girl repeatedly about whether Bobby had molested her. At length, the child said he had. And so began one of those hysterias that have swept through so many American communities in the last two decades.

Bobby Fijnje’s case was typical. After the first accusation was leveled, worried parents rushed their own children into the office of the therapist who had elicited the original allegation. Through leading questions, the therapist was able to get other children to “confess” that they too had been victimized.

As in other child sex-abuse cases, notably the Little Rascals Day Care case in North Carolina, the children accused adults of sexual abuse, Satanic rituals and beatings. They also told tales of baby murders, flying away in spaceships and, in Bobby Fijnje’s case, jumping on a rooftop trampoline, in the nude, with Bobby and his parents. (Unlike so many others, Fijnje was acquitted.)

Common sense alone would dictate caution in the face of such stories told by children as young as 2 and 3. Instead, “Believe the Children” became the watchword. Children would never say such things if they weren’t true, claimed child-abuse specialists, police and prosecutors. A parent of a “victim” in the North Carolina case told “Frontline” that her child “was not capable of lying.”

But of course, children do lie. Sometimes, they lie intentionally, but more often, they do so inadvertently, as when a suggestion has been planted. Sena Garven, a University of El Paso researcher, conducted a study in which a young man was sent to a preschool to read a story to the children. Later, using methods like those employed in the McMartin preschool case and others, the children were interviewed. They were praised whenever they said that the young man had done “bad things” during his visit and mildly criticized when they reported that he hadn’t. Within just a few minutes, most of the children changed their stories to include bad acts by the young man. When the children were re-questioned in a neutral manner several weeks later, they doggedly repeated the false accusations.

In other words, there is nothing easier than leading a very young witness. They are eager to please and have vivid imaginations. In the videotaped interviews of children in one sex-abuse case, the therapist repeatedly asked questions like: “Did he put his penis in your vagina or your mouth?” A child believes one of those must be the “right” answer.

Some of the therapists who committed these sins had treated true victims of sexual abuse in the past. But that may have only clouded their judgment. Zeal to do good, unmodulated by caution, can lead to terrible evil. There are countless numbers of innocent men and women who have lost years from their lives, been separated from their young children and had their reputations utterly destroyed because therapists asked little children leading questions.

Judges, juries, police and parents bear guilt as well, for failing to consider exculpatory evidence like lack of opportunity, lack of physical evidence and contradictory stories by confused kids.

What can have spurred so many communities to such hysteria? The answer may be day care itself. The mothers who report that children never lie are simply unfamiliar with the ways of children. They may also feel guilty about putting their children in day care. A righteous rage against the day-care provider can certainly distract a parent from wondering whether she is doing an adequate job as a mother.

We know that sexual abuse of children does happen. But videotaping the interviews of children, training therapists to question young children properly and permitting the defendant to confront his accusers would restore some sanity to this deranged area of American law and life.

COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

COPYRIGHT SUAnews 2003