Memories questioned, but victim still certain of evil - Studies say kids can be easily led

Boston Herald/July 8, 2001

Are all our memories real? That question seems especially thorny in the wake of Friday's Pardon Board ruling that Gerald "Tooky" Amirault deserves his freedom.

No one - the Amiraults included - assert that the accusers in the Fells Acres Day Care case lied in 1984, when they were 4- and 5- year-old children, or that they are lying today, as young adults. In an interview with the Herald last November, Amirault himself said: "These kids are victims, too."

What Amirault supporters say, and what a decade of formal research by psychologists implies, is that children can be very easily led to believe they were molested when in fact they were not, and that, over time, false memories of abuse become fixed - more convincing even than real memories. "It has nothing to do with lying and everything to do with the implanting of false memories," said Debra Poole, a professor of psychology at Central Michigan University and author of the forensic interviewing protocol for children now mandated by Michigan law.

"Studies have shown that children will vehemently defend the veracity of implanted memories," she said. "They recall reporting them, and those reports produce mental images of the events that these individuals cannot distinguish from their real experiences. But the kids are not responsible for that. The interviews are."

Today, few contend that the interview techniques used at the outset of the Fells Acres child abuse investigation, in 1984, were proper and reliable. Middlesex County prosecutors admitted to appellate judges in the 1990s that those techniques - characterized by repeated suggestive questioning about molestation despite initial avowals by the children that nothing of that kind occurred - would not be employed today.

In 1998, Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein ruled that under current Massachusetts law, the manner in which the Fells Acres children were first interrogated would have constituted grounds to have the case dismissed.

That questioning included hundreds of taped episodes such as this:

Pediatric interviewer: "Did the clown touch you?"

Child witness: "No. . . ."

Interviewer: "You said the clown took your clothes off . . . "

Child: "Yeah. . . ."

Interviewer: "What happened?"

Child: "Well, nothing really."

Interviewer: "Did the clown touch . . . Will you show me if the clown touched any part of you?"

Child: "No, he didn't touch me."

The child interviewed in the above example testified against Gerald Amirault at his 1986 trial, and believes to this day that she was molested by an "evil clown." In the view of specialists on child psychology and testimony, squaring that contradiction means accepting the idea that belief and reality are not always the same.

"Our review of typical interviews from the 1980s shows many investigators blindly pursued a single hypothesis: Sexual abuse occurred," said Stephen J. Ceci, a professor of human development at Cornell University and author of "Jeopardy in the Courtroom," a leading work on children's testimony. "They would reinforce that hypothesis to the children, who would be led to believe in it.

"It is essential to keep in mind now that most children with such implanted memories will have believed in their allegations of abuse for far longer than they were alive before those allegations first surfaced," added Ceci. "Those 'implanted' memories are no less visceral than real-life memories." Many supporters of the Amiraults' accusers assert that the leading questioning of the children is irrelevant. They assert the children all revealed the abuse to their parents, without prompting, before the state first intervened.

But the case record does not bear this out. According to grand jury minutes of the Amirault case, many parents admitted to aggressively questioning their children about abuse at Fells Acres after hearing on the news that the Malden center had been shut down.

For example, the minutes quote one mother of a child witness testifying that she asked her daughter, "Did you see Tooky's wee- wee?" and "What did you have to do with Tooky's wee-wee?" Poole says new research has found that "parents are not accurate informants of what their kids said" because of an understandable emotional involvement in the matter.

Under guidelines embraced by prosecutors today, parents, caregivers and others who might typically be the first to hear a child speak of possible abuse are urged to pose no questions to the child. Instead, they are told to bring the child directly to a professional "forensic interviewer" who will use careful, practiced procedures.

"When the whole scenario of day-care abuse erupted, I suspect there were cases that were not handled properly by prosecutors," said John R. Scheuerle, an assistant prosecuting attorney for Ottowa County, Mich., specializing in child-abuse allegations.

"We've been working hard for 15 years on developing techniques to ensure that mistakes are not made, that there are no more casualties along the way," added Scheuerle, whose office dismisses 80 percent of the allegations it receives as unfounded. "So I would hope those prosecutors who operated in that troubled climate of the past would be willing to go back and rectify their mistakes."

At this stage, it seems unlikely those convinced of the Amiraults' guilt will alter their views, followers of the case say. Nor do the Amiraults expect them to do so.

For now, Gerald Amirault is declining to comment on Friday's Pardon Board ruling, his lawyer said yesterday, although he takes heart that five state officials, all former prosecutors or state troopers, recommended his release. "We are in the middle of a very sensitive process and Gerald feels it would be appropriate to wait until that process takes its course before he addresses the public," his lawyer, James L. Sultan, said.

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