Thursday, November 14, 1996

Nightline: When To Believe A Child's Word

When To Believe A Child's Word
Nightline - November 14, 1996

The following film clips (Part 1 and 2) are from a Nightline episode which aired on November 14, 1996.  

This particular newscast was about the backlash against survivors of child sexual abuse coming forward and speaking out.  

A group of people who claimed their children falsely accused them of incest banned together creating the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF).  What this group basically did was take research out of context to prove that therapist were implanting false memories into their clients that their parents molested them.  The reason for the backlash, was the fact that adult survivors of child sexual abuse started to file civil suits against their offenders -- who often were their parents.

Due to the number of frivolous law suits filed, many therapists quit working with anyone who disclosed child sexual abuse histories.  This all changed in 2002, when the cases of clergy sexual abuse broke in Boston and also cases within Jewish communities, boy scouts and from within every religion.

Below is the historic exposé, in which Nightline, with Ted Koppel, exposed the False Memory people for what they really were and an article that appeared in the New York Times regarding this show.


When To Believe A Child's Word - Part 1
ABC-Nightline - November 14, 1996

When To Believe A Child's Word - Part 2

ABC-Nightline - November 14, 1996


TURNING POINT:  When Children Accuse - Who To Believe
Byline: Ted Koppel and Erin Haynes 

ABC-Nightline - November 14, 1996
Code: U961114 01


WHEN CHILDREN ACCUSE: WHO TO BELIEVE Child sex abuse is a very serious problem. 

In 1994 alone 140,000 new cases were investigated and found to be real. But are innocent people being sentenced for crimes they never committed because of the testimony of the young?
Doubt over the testimony of children in sexual abuse cases has made it harder to try accused child molesters, sometimes with deadly consequences, but authorities say children do tell the truth in most cases.

TED KOPPEL: [voice-over] This week, another tragedy.

1st RESPONDENT: I don't understand this. They- they knew. Why did they let him come into this neighborhood? Or in any other neighborhood?

TED KOPPEL: [voice-over] A convicted child molester avoids prison because there is doubt over the testimony of a child.

STEPHEN CECI, Psychologist, Cornell University: We're never going to have - never going to have - a Pinocchio test. There will never be a test where the child's nose is growing longer when she gets it wrong.

TED KOPPEL: [voice-over] But when the convicted molester is sent home, he kills two children.

2nd RESPONDENT: When they do something like that, don't let them out. Just don't let them out at all.

TED KOPPEL: [voice-over] Tonight, the country faces a growing dilemma, knowing when to believe a child's word.

ANNOUNCER: This is ABC News Nightline. Reporting from Washington, Ted Koppel.

TED KOPPEL: This is a subject that is so controversial, about which people on both sides of the issue feel so passionately, that you should know how, in this particular instance, it was brought to our attention. Cydnea Tamarkin [sp?] has been a journalist for many years. She has devoted a great deal of attention to the subject of the sexual abuse of children by adults. Ms. Tamarkin has come to believe that, in recent years, a great many children who claim to have been sexually abused are not believed, or at least that suspects are not prosecuted because of some high-profile cases in which the testimony of children was found in court to be not credible. At one point, Ms. Tamarkin served on the advisory board of an organization called Believe the Children. She insists, however, that she remains neutral on the subject, and we have found her to be a useful, objective and reliable resource.@PGPH I'm telling you all of this because some people are under the impression, and have communicated this to us, that Ms. Tamarkin produced the reports you are about to see. That is not true. Correspondent Erin Hayes and producer Jim Hill have been especially sensitive to the suggestion that their work might be seen as anything less than objective reporting, and so have we. We are satisfied that their story is important and that Erin's report has been compiled as fairly and cleanly as possible.

ERIN HAYES, ABC News: [voice-over] Robert Jambois, a Kenosha, Wisconsin prosecutor, and his staff are preparing a case against a man accused of sexually molesting a little boy.

ROBERT JAMBOIS, Prosecutor, Kenosha, WI: He's been waking up in the middle of the night, you know, screaming, "Daddy, don't do it again."

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] As in most child sex abuse cases, there is no physical evidence.

ROBERT JAMBOIS: Basically, it's the child's word against the word of the adult.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] The case will hinge on the testimony of the boy. It will not be easy.

ROBERT JAMBOIS: He's going to be called a liar, and he's going to be told that, you know, going to say that he just- he made this whole thing up, or that somebody else made it all up.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] Jambois says it will be doubly difficult because many potential jurors walk into court already dubious about the testimony of children.

ROBERT JAMBOIS: One of the questions that we often ask jurors, I mean, "Are you prepared to convict this defendant just based on the testimony- or based exclusively on the testimony of an eyewitness?" And many of them will say, "Yeah, yeah." And, "Well, what about- what if this eyewitness is five years old, and you believe this five-year-old, and you don't believe the defendant, are you still prepared to convict, based exclusively on the testimony of this five-year-old eyewitness?" "Oh, no," they're not really inclined to do that.

ERIN HAYES: And prosecutors from more than a dozen major cities told Nightline it is a disturbing trend. In the past five years, they say, it has become much more difficult to prosecute child sex abuse because the credibility of children's testimony has come under attack.

J. TOM MORGAN, Prosecutor, Dekalb County, Georgia: The courtroom has gotten very mean. It's gotten mean for children, and it's gotten mean for the people who advocate for children.

ROBERT JAMBOIS: If I have a credible child who's able to give a credible account of what occurred, why shouldn't that be enough? Why- why shouldn't the jury believe that a child will- is telling the truth about these matters?

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] Because, a group of critics argues, in many cases, by the time children get to the witness stand, there has been too much opportunity for investigators to pressure children into describing abuse where there may be none. Attorney Steven Komen [sp?] has defended dozens of people charged with child sex abuse.

STEVEN KOMEN: My experience is, is that a qualified lawyer, or a psychiatrist, social worker, or psychologist, can get a child to say just about anything they want while they're talking to them.

RICHARD GARDNER, Psychiatrist: It has all the- all the criteria of a witchhunt, and the- the similarities between Salem and what we have now are uncanny.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] There is a history behind those charges, a spate of high-profile sex-abuse cases gone awry.

1st TV CORRESPONDENT: The community of Jordan, Minnesota has been jolted by allegations of a ring of child sexual abusers.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] Cases in the 1980s, charges that defied belief.

2nd TV CORRESPONDENT: Coerced into staying silent by the brandishing of guns and the mutilating of animals.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] But police and prosecutors had little, if any, experience with these unusual cases. Some took children's stories at face value or, worse, relentlessly interviewed some children until they finally came forward with stories of abuse.

ATTORNEY [?]: The children were never allowed to say, in their own words, what happened to them.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] In the years since, many of those cases have unraveled. Many of those accused had charges against them dropped, were acquitted, or had their convictions overturned.

PAUL STERN, Deputy Prosecutor, Kenosha, WI: Clearly, in the last two years there have been mistakes made in prosecution. There has been overcharging, there has been overreaching, there's been overzealous statements made by- by prosecutors, by investigators, by therapists.

ERIN HAYES: Those mistakes, prosecutors say, prompted them to change the system. Safeguards are being put in place, and interviewers are being trained not to lead children on in questioning.

PAUL STERN: This system works. This system works more effectively and more efficiently, with better results and better decisionmaking now than it did 10 years ago.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] But prosecutors say convincing juries of that has been extraordinarily difficult in the face of a counterattack they say is planting widespread doubt about the believability of children's testimony.@PGPH [on camera] And prosecutors say that counterattack is succeeding on the basis of unproven theories and misapplied science that they say should have no place in the courtroom.

IP[Commercial break]

TED KOPPEL: At the heart of many cases involving the sexual abuse of children is a debate over science in the courtroom. Erin Hayes continues her report.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] This is what is at the center of the debate, the statements of children, like this one, who told prosecutor Jambois that her father sexually molested her.

1st CHILD: He took a pen and stuck it in her- in my body.


1st CHILD: Yeah.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] If you are a juror, listening to this child, should you have strong doubts? Is there reason to believe a child would make up something like that, or could be led to make it up? Many who defend the accused point to a body of research they say shows children can and do make up stories of sexual abuse. Some of they research they cite most frequently is that of Cornell University psychologist Stephen Ceci. Professor Ceci's staff has found they can elicit elaborate stories from young children, stories that are absolutely untrue, like this one.

2nd CHILD: The monkey escaped from the zoo. A man [unintelligible] he asked if- if I could help him find it, and I- and I found it.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] The studies have been widely cited in the media as evidence for questioning children's accounts of sex abuse. USA Today suggested questions can induce kids to falsely claim abuse. The Boston Herald said interviewers' techniques can often convince non-abused children they were truly molested, and more of Ceci's work has been cited in the courtroom as evidence of "...a high degree of suggestibility among young children...," that it's "...quite easy to distort a child's memory..." and "A child who was not abused may come to believe they were...@PGPH But Ceci says in many cases his work has been misused and misunderstood.

STEPHEN CECI, Psychologist, Cornell University: Not only do I believe children can be reliable in sexual abuse cases, I believe the vast majority of them are reliable in those cases.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] But Ceci says what is missing from many accounts of his work is that it is fairly difficult to convince children to make up even the most harmless stories.

STEPHEN CECI: Because in our studies we work at it very hard.

INTERVIEWER: And guess what, they found the monkey and gave it back to the lady. Did anything like that ever happen to you?

3rd CHILD: No.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever help a stranger in a park to find a monkey that ran away from a zoo? You didn't?

STEPHEN CECI: We pursued kids repeatedly over long periods of time.

INTERVIEWER: Did anything like that ever happen to you?

4th CHILD: No.

STEPHEN CECI: I'm not talking about a single interview, where you sit down and you use a single leading question, and all of a sudden the child's giving you some highly elaborate narrative about something that never happened. That isn't how we grow a narrative. We do it over long periods of time, with repeated false suggestions by an interviewer.

ERIN HAYES: That doesn't seem to- to bear most child sexual abuse cases.

STEPHEN CECI: No. I would- I would agree.

ERIN HAYES: In fact, in his studies, most of the children ultimately do not give in to interviewers' suggestions, and while many of the interviews are about more serious subjects, medical exams, for example, they are not about sex abuse, and many in the child protection field are troubled that Ceci's research is being applied to sex abuse cases.

CHARLES WILSON, National Children's Advocacy Center: Because a child can be convinced of some event within their- within their realm of experience, such as seeing a clumsy clown at a- at a party, doesn't translate into that they can be made to believe that their grandfather had sex with them every Friday night for the last three years. It doesn't tell them about what the taste of semen is like. It doesn't tell them about the pain.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] Professor Ceci says he sees his research as a first step toward understanding cases where children have made false allegations of abuse.

STEPHEN CECI: It in no way denies the true instance of child sexual abuse, to say that some percentage of those claims may be falsehoods because of the way the adults have pursued the kids' memories.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] But those cases, he says, are not the norm.

STEPHEN CECI: Maybe 1 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent. I suspect it's nowhere near the majority. My hunch is the majority of interviews done with kids by front-line workers, child protective service, law enforcement, therapists, pediatricians, are well-done.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] But prosecutors say that is not the message being heard. Many jurors walk into court, they say, already doubting children, especially young children. [on camera] In fact, prosecutors in several states told Nightline that in many cases of sex abuse involving children under the age of six, they are not prosecuting, even when they are sure the child would be a credible witness. [voice-over] Rob Parrish, an assistant attorney general in Utah, is concerned that the cases are proving too tough for many prosecutors.

ROB PARRISH, Utah Assistant Attorney General: What I often say to prosecutors is that when we go in to a case like this, we have an extra burden. It's not just proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt. We've got to prove it pretty much beyond any doubt.

TED KOPPEL: In a moment, two of the men who have raised doubts about the reliability of children's testimony, when Erin Hayes's report continues.

[Commercial break]

RALPH UNDERWAGER, Psychologist: [videotape] The best thing to do, the thing that would, in fact, protect the largest number of children from being harmed is to do away with all this bullshit of child protection.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] Ralph Underwager, a Minnesota psychologist-

Dr. RICHARD GARDNER: [videotape] And we are witnessing the greatest wave of hysteria in the history of the country.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] -and Dr. Richard Gardner, a New Jersey psychiatrist, are two of the most outspoken critics of child sex abuse investigators in this country. On a past Nightline, Dr. Gardner criticized what he called "the child abuse establishment."

Dr. RICHARD GARDNER: ["Nightline," March 4, 1994] It is a fact that- a- a- a lot of incompetent zealots- zealous people, overzealous, who see sex abuse everywhere.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] Gardner's and Underwager's research and theories raising doubts about the validity of many children's accusations of sex abuse have been widely cited in the media, and both have been highly sought, highly paid witnesses for people defending themselves against child sex abuse charges.

RALPH UNDERWAGER: I believe the great majority of the questioning of children that is done in this country is highly coercive, highly suggestive, leading, and produces inaccurate information.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] Underwager has done research that he says backs him up. He evaluated taped interviews of children, children who claimed they were sexually abused. Too many of the interviewers, Underwager concluded, used leading or repeated questions, which he says cast serious doubts on the children's accusations.

RALPH UNDERWAGER: It is the case that repeated questioning is the most powerful and the- the most effective way to produce a false accusation.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] But his critics point out Underwager uses his own standards for determining what is repeated and leading. For instance, he has said that interviewers' questions like this one, "Okay ... I don't want you to say anything you can't remember for sure," could be considered leading. And most of the tapes he reviews come to him from defense attorneys, for whom he consults. When he testifies for them, he says, he is paid $2,500 a day. Underwager admits he has no way to known if the children's accounts of abuse in the cases he reviews are actually false.@PGPH [interviewing] How do you know, in each of these cases, that the abuse did not happen?

RALPH UNDERWAGER: I don't. That's not my function. That's the function of the justice system.

ROB PARRISH: If that's the case, then there's no reason for him to be expressing an opinion in the justice system, any more than any of the rest of us. I mean, you could call anybody in that circumstance to say, "I've viewed the tape and I think it's a bad interview, so therefore I think this child's probably not telling the truth."

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] At least 10 courts have disallowed Underwager's testimony. One ruled he "...did not have bone fide qualifications..." as a researcher. Another said his work "...was not scientifically reliable..."@PGPH Underwager does continue to testify, which concerns many of his critics, who say is expertise is colored by what they see as a sympathetic view toward pedophiles. In a Dutch publication [Paidika] three years ago, Underwager said, "Paedophiles need to become more positive and make the claim that paedophilia is an acceptable expression of God's will for love and will among human beings."@PGPH Underwager says he has always believed sex between adults and children is harmful, but says to help treat pedophiles, they must first be encouraged to openly proclaim their sexuality.

RALPH UNDERWAGER: That's what they need to do for themselves, and that's what we need to have them do, so that we can deal with it.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] In the same controversial article, he said "Male sex may make women jealous," and that can "...hold true for pedophile sex too."@PGPH [interviewing] To say that a woman would be jealous of pedophile sex, what do you mean by that? Why would you say something like that?"

RALPH UNDERWAGER: What's so difficult to understand about that?

ERIN HAYES: It's almost impossible for me to understand.


ERIN HAYES: Why would a woman, in your estimation, be jealous of sex between a pedophile and a child?

RALPH UNDERWAGER: If it interfered with whatever the woman had as her purposes, or her intents, or whatever her relationships were, that's what could occur.

MARK ELLIS, National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse: His methods and theories are not accepted by others in his field, and have been subject to a great deal of criticism by others in his field.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] Prosecutors are also critical of Dr. Gardner, who not only testifies, but publishes and markets his own books on child sex abuse, books often quoted in court cases.

ATTORNEY: [law firm videotape] Now, I want to talk to you about the most common cause of false accusations.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] In this videotape produced by a law firm, an attorney cites from Dr. Gardner's research Gardner's conclusion that false allegations of child sex abuse are commonplace in custody disputes.

ATTORNEY: [law firm videotape] This phenomena [sic] has been examined in research and it's now been given the name "parental alienation syndrome."

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] That disorder, however, cannot be found in the standard manual of psychiatric diagnoses. It is a term Dr. Gardner coined himself, based mainly on his own experience as a psychiatrist.@PGPH But the largest study done on the subject to date found that false allegations of child sexual abuse rarely surface in custody disputes ["...less than 2% of cases involved an allegation of sexual abuse." Dr. Gardner declined a videotaped interview for this report, but he sells tapes of his own, as well, in which he describes his criteria to help determine whether a child's allegation of sexual abuse is true or false. Among his criteria?

Dr. RICHARD GARDNER: [videotape] If it sounds incredible, it's probably not true.@PGPH In extreme cases, children who are sexually abused become like little street-smart sluts. I believe that children who are false accusers are going to have a higher incidence of reading mystery stories.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] Dr. Gardner concedes no one has scientifically tested his criteria, not even he.

ROB PARRISH: Those tests are not based on scientific reality. They're not verified, they're not validated in any way.

ERIN HAYES: [voice-over] But, prosecutors say, such work is having a real effect in the courtroom.

ROBERT JAMBOIS: It has promoted a level of cynicism among a significant percentage of the population, and when you're dealing in an area where you have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt unanimously among the jury, a little bit of cynicism can do a great deal of damage.

IPTED KOPPEL: Balancing the rights of the accused and the abused- some final thoughts from correspondent Erin Hayes, in a moment.

[Commercial break]

TED KOPPEL: Joining us now from our Chicago bureau, ABC's Erin Hayes.@PGPH Erin, I get the sense that- that there really has been no conclusion to this story. I mean, your report ends, but it doesn't end with a conclusion. I take it that's because there isn't any.

ERIN HAYES: There really is no conclusion. There's a consensus among those I've spoken to, and that is that the pendulum just needs to swing back to the middle, that there was in the 1980s a tendency to immediately believe children's accounts of sex abuse, now there's a tendency to doubt children right away, and neither, they say, is reasonable.

TED KOPPEL: And what do the experts say can be done to bring about that happy medium?

ERIN HAYES: Well, they're trying now to remove reasons for doubt, to build more credible cases. There's a great deal of training going on now of police and prosecutors, therapists, even judges, about the best way to interview children to get the most accurate information from them. But having said that, they also say there will never be a crystal ball, an easy test, a simple way to know if an account of abuse is true or false. Each case, they say, has to be determined the old-fashioned way, on its merits, examining all the facts.

TED KOPPEL: Unfortunately, we're talking about fear on both sides, fear, on the one hand, of not believing children who deserve to be believed, fear, on the other hand, of convicting innocent people because of an easily suggestible child.

ERIN HAYES: Well, those I've spoken to say there are two things to remember. The first is that you have to remember that the accused is innocent and has to be presumed innocent until they're proven guilty. But they also say it's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, not, prosecutors say, beyond an irrational doubt. And what they're asking jurors to do is to walk into court with an open mind and a willingness to listen.

TED KOPPEL: And on that note, Erin Hayes, let me thank you. I appreciate it very much.@PGPH That's our report for tonight. Tomorrow, on Good Morning America, Sarah Ferguson, and Evander Holyfield. Then, on the Nightline Friday Night Special, an unprecedented town meeting in the Watts section of Los Angeles with the director of Central Intelligence. He'll be answering questions about the lingering controversy over the CIA's alleged role in the crack cocaine epidemic during the 1980s.@PGPH I'm Ted Koppel in Washington. For all of us here at ABC News, good night.

The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it may not have been proofread against tape.

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