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Questions prompt reexamination of Fells Acres sexual abuse case

It was Labor Day 1984 when the allegations at the Fells Acres Day Care Center in Malden began to unfold. It started with one 5-year-old boy saying that his "pants were pulled down." But within months the case would spiral into a story of perversion and cruelty that seemed too horrible to believe.

Ultimately, Violet Amirault, the 61-year-old woman who ran the center, as well as her son, Gerald, and daughter, Cheryl LeFave, both of whom worked there, were accused of sexually abusing some 40 children between the ages of 3 and 6. After questioning by social workers and police, the children described how they had been fondled and violated; photographed at "nude swimming parties," and taken to a "magic room" by a "bad clown." In the end, the Amiraults were convicted in two separate trials. Gerald is now serving up to 40 years and Cheryl and Violet up to 20. All three still proclaim their innocence.

Now, more than a decade later, amid a concerted attack nationwide by some child abuse experts and civil libertarians on the suggestive questioning of children and the "pseudo science" which prosecutors used in building these charges, the Fells Acres case is being reexamined. A crusading attorney has taken on the Amiraults' cause and is moving for a new trial on grounds that the defendants were deprived of their right to confront their accusers. In addition, two mental health counselors appointed by the state to work with the Amirault women have taken the unusual step of publicly proclaiming their innocence.

For the Amiraults' supporters, Fells Acres represents the bitter legacy of a brief period in modern American history akin to the 17th-century Salem witch trials. But for prosecutors in the case, parents of the children involved, and many advocates of children generally, the attacks on the Amirault case flout the judicial process that convicted the defendants, and represent a disturbing return to a time when children's accusations against adults were not believed.

The Fells Acres story broke at a time when the national media seemed transfixed by the dark secrets of child abuse, prompted in large part by the shocking allegations just months earlier at the McMartin Preschool in California. In the McMartin case, Virginia McMartin, a 76-year-old owner of the school, her daughter, her grandson and her granddaughter were charged in early 1984 with some 200 counts of molestation. Many of the counts seemed to bear a striking resemblance to the bizarre charges made at Fells Acres.

Throughout the mid- to late-1980s, there would be about 20 such cases of alleged child abuse at day care centers across the country. Many of the cases, including McMartin, have resulted in acquittals or been overturned on appeal.

AMIRAULTS' ATTORNEY LOOKS TO NEW MASS. RULING

'The case is bogus and we will prove that," says Daniel Williams, a New York defense attorney who won an appeal for Kelly Michaels, the New Jersey day care teacher who was convicted in 1988 on 115 counts of abusing 19 children. Michaels served five years of her sentence before the case was overturned by the New Jersey court of appeals last year. The judges who overturned it issued a scathing ruling against the prosecutors for even bringing her case to trial. Williams, who intends to seek a new trial for the Amiraults, sees strong similarities between Michaels' case and the Amiraults'.

Although the Amiraults have lost on all appellate issues before, a new ruling in Massachusetts law mandates that children who testify at trial must confront the defendant in the conventional "face to face" manner. Williams believes the new case law applies to the Amiraults. At the two trials in the Fells Acres case, eight of the nine children who testified were placed at a small table in front of the jury and shielded from the defendants by the childrens' parents and court officers, Williams said. The other child's testimony was shown to the jury on closed-circuit television.

There are other voices of support, such as Miriam Holmes, a certified therapist for the state Department of Corrections for the past 13 years who was assigned to counsel Violet Amirault and Cheryl LeFave. In a highly unusual development, Holmes wrote a letter March 9 to Gov. Weld's secretary of public safety, Kathleen O'Toole, whose office oversees the prison system, expressing ''deep concerns about a possible miscarriage of justice" in the Fells Acres case.

Holmes wrote that in her years of experience poring through hundreds of ''official versions" of child abuse cases, she found most are stark recountings of abuse in the home and "devoid of elaborate tales of flights of imagination."

"This was not so with the Fells Acres case," she wrote. "Here the stories elicited from the children are remarkably similar to those in the McMartin case from Los Angeles and the Little Rascals case from North Carolina, among others. Tales of magic wands, magic rooms, torture and killing of animals, secret trips, etc. I believe when the issue of child sexual abuse emerged from secrecy some years back, and thank goodness it did, it was like a dam bursting and some innocent people got swept along in a flood with the guilty ones."

Joel Skolnick, who runs a therapy program that contracts with the state and who counseled LeFave, said he is convinced of Violet's and Cheryl's innocence

because both would most likely have been released by now if they had confessed to the crimes. Both have refused to do so, vowing to serve the maximum 20 years, if necessary.

"There are an awful lot of sex offenders who deny the offense, but when they are faced with parole and possible freedom, virtually all of the ones I have worked with have confessed to get out. I've never seen a situation like this -- it is extremely rare," said Skolnick.

State Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, who was elected to his current job in part for his pioneering work in the area of child abuse as the head of the Middlesex District Attorney's office, which prosecuted the Amiraults, dismisses the revisionist theories on the case.

"I am fully confident that the Amiraults are right where serious child abusers ought to be," he said. "The folks who think this is a conspiracy running amok around the country, that this is just like McMartin and Kelly Michaels, are not seeing major differences in these cases. Certainly not the least of which is that in the Amirault case, not one, but two juries convicted these people. And the best judges in this state upheld the court's decision on all appeals," added Harshbarger.

For families of the children, many of whom are still struggling with the aftermath of Fells Acres, the recent stirrings in the Amirault case have rekindled horrible memories.

The mother of one boy who testified of abuse at both trials, said, "We

went through these stages already. You are furious at first, you want to kill the bastards. Then you wonder if it really happened. Then you look at everything the kids say, and you have to face it, and it makes you sick. But we have been through it all, so why 10 years later should we have to put up with someone else going through these stages? These people the Amiraults are

scum of the earth; they ruined children's lives, they ruined our families."

Those who believe that justice was done in this case hold to a simple, but profound belief that, as the prosecution insisted, "We must believe the children."

If that proclamation of faith is taken seriously, critics argue, it raises some troubling questions in the Fells Acres case. Does believing the claims of the children also include believing the most fantastic allegations they made?

Here are examples from the court file:

- A "robot like R2D2" from "Star Wars" would bite the children "on the arm" if they did not comply with sex.

- The "bad clown" named in this case would "throw fire around the room" when he was abusing the children.

- That a squirrel was captured by Cheryl LeFave and that she pulled its legs off. That she also "threw a bird into a tree until its leg broke."

- That a 4-year-old girl had a 12-inch butcher knife inserted in her, although there was no sign of a wound or blood at the time, and no visible signs of scarring in the aftermath, according to medical records introduced at trial.

There was a "pseudo science" surrounding these cases, criticis claim, in which only the allegations of abuse were to be believed. In the rules of this practice by child psychologists and social workers, a child's fantasy about such things as robots or fire-throwing clowns, is not a sign of a child lying, but an "escape" from the trauma. When the children deny the allegations, as did many of the Fells Acres children, the notes of social workers on the case say they are simply "not ready to disclose," or the result of "unsuccesful questioning." This kind of investigation carries a presumption of guilt, critics say, against adults accused by children and can lead to false accusations.

In this methodology, if children exhibit behavior such as bed wetting, trouble sleeping, sexually suggestive play, and fear of adults, these are considered symptoms of child abuse. Ignored is the possibility that the symptoms can also be caused by other factors, such as tension in the home or, in the case of sexualized play, a mimicking of images seen on television.

"It is the new McCarthyism," said Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz, who has written searing pieces against this process and who has taken on the Amiraults' cause.

"It's junk science," says Jonathan Harris, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the Amirault case and created an electronic bulletin board on the Internet entitled "Witchhunt" to communicate with researchers on the subject.

At the core of the prosecution's technique in Fells Acres and other similar cases from that era was the use of videotaped interviews with children, and a reliance upon anatomically correct dolls to determine if the children had been

sexually abused. The leading nature of the interviews and the suggestive nature of the dolls, complete with genitalia, are what ultimately led to the unravelling of the McMartin, Michaels, and other similar multiple-victim abuse cases at day care centers. Williams, Rabinowitz, Harris and other critics claim the same overly suggestive questioning contaminated the Fells Acres case.

In a review of videotapes and transcripts of interviews conducted with the children, the Globe found many instances of the children denying abuse only to have the interviewer plead and cajole, at times offering gifts, such as toy police badges and other toys, for the "correct" answer.

Dr. Maggie Bruck, a McGill University psychologist who wrote a key brief on behalf of Kelly Michaels in her successful appeal, has done extensive research on how persistent questioning can lead young children to fabricate stories.

"It is beyond me to tell you whether these children in the Amirault case were telling the truth or not. But I can tell you the questioning was a highly suggestive interrogation process and in that context, our research shows, children fabricate stories," said Bruck, who has reviewed some of the Fells Acres documents in her research. "The process becomes so tainted that we will never really know the truth."

A 1993 study co-authored by Bruck of nearly 800 children ages 4 to 6 showed that repeated questioning over time increases the likelihood of false reports. In the study, it was common for children to elaborate on things that had never happened to them. A more compelling finding was that children were convincing about false memories, fooling 1,000 child-abuse professionals more than 60 percent of the time.

The use of anatomically correct dolls has also been questioned by recent studies, Bruck said. Controlled studies have shown a margin of error as high as 70 percent, rendering the dolls useless, she said.

CALL TO A HOTLINE SETS PROCESS IN MOTION

Amid the frenzy of news reports on child abuse in the summer of 1984, the Fells Acres story began with a mother of a child concerned that her son's bad behavior might have been caused by sexual abuse. The woman asked her brother -- himself the victim of child abuse -- to talk to her 5-year-old son. In that context, the boy told his uncle that "Tooky," Gerald Amirault's nickname, ''pulled my pants down."

The mother called a child abuse hotline. Suddenly and inextricably, the bureaucratic machinery that drives the social service system was started. The state Department of Social Services and the Malden police were soon questioning the boy. The child was not able to say where the abuse took place, or anything more than that his pants were taken down and that Amirault had allegedly touched his genitals.

Based on that information, Amirault was arrested on Sept. 6. Amirault -- who worked as an administrator, driver and cook at the school -- said in an interview that he did in fact pull the child's pants down, but that the explanation is innocent. He said the child had wet his pants during a nap period. Amirault said he changed the boy into an extra set of clothes and sent the child home with his wet clothes in a plastic bag, a task he performed routinely at school. But Amirault said he was never questioned by police, never given an opportunity to provide that explanation until trial.

"These were routine steps that were never taken," said Frank Mondano, the defense attorney who represented Amirault. "Nobody even tried to talk to these people, to see if there were rational explanations for these crazy claims. There was just a presumption of guilt from the start that snowballed as things went on."

In the first week of the investigation, several children were interviewed by police. According to court files, it appears that most said nothing happened. The father of one boy remembered when police came to his door and told him that his son's name had been mentioned by another boy as a possible abuse victim. The father, a psychiatrist with a private practice in Malden, had two sons attending the school. He said both he and the police questioned the boys. Both said nothing happened and showed no behavioral signs that would suggest abuse.

"I never saw anything there at Fells Acres myself that made me suspicious, and I was there quite frequently. . . . Children are very smart, they know when something troubling is going on. I believe this was an hysteria that convicted these people," said the father, who asked not to be identified.

As the first reports appeared in the media, panic spread. On Sept. 12, a meeting for parents was held at the police station. The air was charged and parents were extremely emotional, according to those who attended.

Critics say police and social workers present made irreversible errors that contaminated the case at this meeting when they suggested that parents ask their children about a "clown" and a "magic room," and whether they "had been touched in certain places." Michael Spencer, a parent who was there, said police told parents to look for "signs of abuse," such as bed wetting or irrational fear on the part of the children. Spencer also said police and social workers warned parents that, "God forbid, any of you should show support for the accused. Your children may never forgive you."

"Naturally people came out of the meeting and there was complete hysteria. It was like a frenzy, and I think that had a lot to do with how this all got out of control," said Spencer, who has joined scores of people from Malden who hold monthly meetings in support of the Amiraults' fight to prove their innocence. The group raises money for legal costs, and offers other support for the Amiraults and their families.

Even some members of the prosecution team concede that today it would not hold a meeting like the one held on Sept. 12 in the same fashion. They said they were trying to contain mounting parental hysteria, not promote it, and help children come forward if they'd been abused. Yet, similar gatherings and suggestive correspondences with parents have been at the center of other cases which were overturned, such as Michaels.

In the wake of that meeting, the case mushroomed as more and more children began telling -- first their parents, then Department of Social Service investigators and finally police -- disjointed tales of clowns, secret rooms and touching of genitalia. The children were not just naming the Amiraults, they were also saying that several other teachers were involved in this process. Soon, police were aggressively questioning the teachers at the school, implying that they too could be indicted if they were not careful. But none of the teachers were ever charged, and none testified to witnessing any abuse at the day care center.

"They scared the hell out of me," said one former teacher who was questioned. "The whole thing was geared toward convicting them, no one was asking, 'Do you think this really happened?' No one wanted to hear anything that was common sense."

Searching for motive, police believed that Gerald Amirault, who admits to heavy drug use before undergoing rehabilitation nearly one year before he was arrested, was operating a pornography ring to pay drug debts. This theory was leaked to the media at the time, and one newspaper even reported that ''pictures were seized from the home."

But the prosecution was never able to turn up any pictures, or any evidence of child pornography, despite a worldwide search. The only photos found were an Amirault relative's family snapshots of their children at Violet's pool. Despite this, the prosecution called a postal inspector at trial to offer graphic descriptions of child pornography.

Laurence Hardoon, the former lead prosecutor of the Amirault case, is now in private practice specializing in civil suits by sexual abuse victims. He concedes many of the investigative techniques used against the Amiraults were in their infancy, and that prosecutors have become, as he put it, "a bit more sophisticated today."

"Not everyone is willing to accept the things children say at face value as much as they did 10 years ago," he said. "But the things we might have done differently in no way impact my belief that the Amiraults were guilty."

Hardoon today maintains that the "consistency of the case as a whole" is what confirms his belief that justice was served. He also notes that the case began with some 40 children who made allegations, and that a dual process of ''sifting" through their claims -- as well as having to determine whether the child and the parents could "handle the pressure" of testifying -- prompted him to narrow the case down to only nine children.

When asked about many of the apparent inconsistencies -- such as the children's inability to ever agree on where the "magic room" or "secret room" actually was, the allegations about robots and being forced to drink urine, and the fact that many teachers were also named by the children but never charged -- Hardoon said:

''All of these issues were open to the defense at appeal, and no judge was convinced by them."

Hardoon also pointed to the physical evidence in the case. He said, as best he could remember, "the majority" of the children in the case showed physical findings of abuse. In fact, only four of the nine children who testified at trial had findings of physical abuse, and those findings were questionable. Two of them had vaginitis, a skin irritation which even prosecution experts conceded could have been caused by a lack of cleanliness. The two others had microscopic irregularities of the vaginal tissue, which experts say could have been scarring from abuse or simply slight imperfections of the tissue present since birth.

The Globe interviewed six jurors from the Fells Acres trials, and all stood by their guilty verdicts. The panel in the first trial deliberated for 64 1/2 hours, breaking the record for the longest deliberation in state Superior Court by more than 20 hours. All of the jurors interviewed said that weighing the evidence, listening to the emotional testimony of the children and then issuing a verdict in the case was one of the hardest things they had ever done in their lives.

"You had to believe the children. If you didn't, there really was no case," said one juror, a secretary who has become a grandmother in the 10 years since the trial. "It was very traumatic to be responsible for someone's life. And it was very painful to hear the children's testimony. But once you make that hard of a decision, you don't look back."

Hardoon, who established Middlesex County's child abuse prosecution unit and oversaw 1,400 cases, has gone further than those who don't wish to second guess a verdict. In a 1992 interview with the Globe, he suggested that even a wrongful prosecution might be the price paid to ensure that children are protected from sexual abuse.

"The laws in Massachusetts are designed to aggressively protect children," Hardoon said then. "In the course of that aggressive prosecution, people are sometimes subject to a prosecution that is traumatic to them. The question for society is: Are you willing to trade off a couple of situations that are really unfair, in exchange for being sure that hundreds of children are protected?" 

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