Man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe. ~Euripides
by Kristine Erickson
I am astounded that so many people think children never make false statements about sexual abuse. I recently started emailing authors of media articles that contain inaccurate information about Luke Heimlich’s case. Almost without exception, they see no glimmer of possibility that Luke may be innocent. I keep wanting to say, “Where have you been for the past 40 years?” Then I look at the author’s bio and realize he was barely born the last time child sex-abuse hysteria swept the country. For those who missed it, here’s a historical record.
All the pundits who confidently insist they would never plead guilty to avoid a harsher sentence should note how many of these defendants asserted their innocence and were ground into dust by the American injustice system. Gerald Amirault spent 18 years in prison, was finally released in 2004, and is required to wear an ankle bracelet until 2024. His mother and sister spent nearly a decade in prison, alternately winning and losing successive appeals for a new trial. When his mother was dying from stomach cancer in 1997, Gerald was taken in his prison jumpsuit and shackles to visit her at her deathbed for 15 minutes. His sister finally secured her release by agreeing to a deal with the prosecutors in 1999. They granted her freedom in exchange for a vow of silence.
“So you can say, ‘What is one man’s life?’ He’s been locked up. Everybody else is out. He has been locked up in the state of Massachusetts because the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, one of the most venerable institutions in the United States—it was formed immediately after the Salem witch trials—it is that old. Nonetheless, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that there have been so many appeals in Gerald’s case that time is more important than justice. We have to put an end to this process.”
In June 2015, a 68-year-old woman in rural Oregon had her life wrecked when an 11-year-old girl accused her of sexual molestation in a grocery store restroom. The woman lives alone in a century-old house on a 235-acre farm. When local police pounded on her door at 11 pm, she thought it was a home invasion. Because she didn’t immediately open the door, the police added a charge of resisting arrest. The Oregonian and other local papers printed the woman’s mugshot with a list of the charges and a police department statement thanking the public “for all the assistance and help.”
Six weeks later, the Oregonian published a sympathetic story that revealed how unbelievable the charges were. By examining the store’s surveillance video, police had identified this elderly woman and determined she was in the restroom with the alleged victim, her mother, and two younger siblings, for a total of two minutes and one second. The woman had entered the restroom 24 seconds before the girl and her family arrived.
That evening, the girl told her parents that an elderly woman in the store restroom had exposed herself, grabbed her arm, and tried to get her to perform oral sex. All of this supposedly happened during the approximately 30 seconds when the woman was washing her hands and the girl was standing by the sink waiting for her mother, who was in the adjacent toilet stall with the two younger children.
The second Oregonian article included the following information based on the police report: “When a Molalla police officer asked the girl why she didn’t scream or call for her mother, she shrugged her shoulders and said she didn’t know. ‘Why did she wait hours to tell her parents about what happened?,’ the officer asked. Again, the girl said she didn’t know. ‘Was she scared the woman would hurt her if she said anything?’ Yes, said the girl. The girl’s father told police that she has ‘a slight learning disability and she doesn’t always put things together right away, maybe explaining why she didn’t call for her mom.’ The girl’s 9-year-old brother, who was at the store with his mother and siblings that day, told police that a man tried to pull him into the men’s bathroom. The boy [later] admitted that he made up the story in part because ‘he was a little jealous of how much attention his sister was getting.”
The Molalla police chief justified the late-night raid on the elderly woman’s farmhouse as follows: “Investigators believed … that a crime had been committed against a young child and therefore the public safety risk to other children had to be considered of paramount importance.”
The Clackamas County district attorney sought to prosecute the charges, which required a grand jury’s stamp of approval. The Oregonian reported there were about 2000 felony cases presented to grand juries in Clackamas County the previous year, and only eight times did the prosecutor fail to get an indictment. Clearly the district attorney was planning to send this grandmother with an unblemished record to spend the rest of her days in prison.
By the grace of God and a sensible grand jury, this was one of the exceedingly rare times when the prosecution was thwarted. Why on earth did these law enforcement officers proceed with such outrageous charges? Because it is our current religion that the child must always be believed.
John Canzano is the lead sports columnist for the Oregonian newspaper, hosts a radio show, and appears regularly on local TV. He has continually used his platform to condemn Luke Heimlich. In June 2017, the Clackamas County district attorney, who has held his powerful position for two decades, called in to Canzano’s talk show and made the following comments about Luke: “We’d take into consideration this young person’s age — this pitcher’s age, he was 15 when it started — but he would go to prison in Oregon. He’d go to the juvenile correctional facility. It’s a Measure 11 crime. It carries a mandatory minimum sentence. If he had been sentenced when he was 15 in Oregon, he would still be in prison finishing his sentence.”
The title of the Dorothy Rabinowitz book featured in the above C-SPAN interview was inspired by the writings of the 18th Century French philosopher Montesquieu: “There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.”
The child interview atrocities and prosecutorial abuses of the 1980s and 1990s led psychologists to conduct extensive research into the suggestibility of children and the reliability of their memories. Interview techniques have improved as a result, but studies show that trained personnel conducting forensic interviews of children still fail to follow best practices in many cases.
We will never know whether the interview of Luke’s niece included leading questions that were based on her mother’s claims. Luke lost his chance to have that investigated when his lawyer immediately threw in the towel. For understandable reasons, the interview records are kept in a confidential file, and Luke’s parents were subsequently unable to obtain a copy of a transcript or video.
Even if I knew nothing else about Luke’s case, this recent statement by the girl’s mother would make me wonder about the truth of the allegation against him: “What about that little girl? According to her mother, she’s doing well these days. She has little memory of what happened when she was four to six years old, and seemingly no lingering effect has surfaced – ‘she just knows that [Luke] was inappropriate,’ the mother says.” (Sports Illustrated 5/16/18)
I was molested at the age of five, and 60 years later, I remember it vividly. “She just knows [Luke] was inappropriate” sounds more like something the girl has been told. I also recognize that Luke’s family situation was fraught with potential for a miscarriage of justice. His older brother used his “integrated family” to help him win a custody dispute with his ex-wife, who subsequently made the allegation against Luke after the daughter’s first holiday visit.
The bottom line for me is the upright character Luke has demonstrated throughout his life. By comparison, his brother’s ex-wife encouraged the Oregonian to publish the story that has subjected her own daughter to horrendous exposure and potential long-lasting harm. Since then, the ex-wife has repeatedly made false statements to reporters about Luke and about the Heimlich family. The historical record and extensive research show how frighteningly easy it is to plant false short-term memories in the minds of very young children. All these factors lead me to the conclusion that Luke should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Academic Press 2002 article by Dr. Maggie Bruck, McGill University, and Dr. Stephen Ceci, Cornell University
“Under these circumstances, children may later come to report and believe these imagined activities actually occurred. This is because they sometimes do not distinguish memories of actual events from memories of imagined events.”
“Although all investigative and therapeutic interviews are not highly biased, some are. Interviewers defend their use of these techniques by claiming that victimized children are often afraid or ashamed to tell of their abuse and therefore interviewers must use a variety of tools to extract reports to protect the child from further harm.”
“One might wonder whether young children’s proneness to suggestibility is restricted to nonsexual matters that are largely peripheral and nonsalient. However, research amply demonstrates that children are not merely suggestible about peripheral details but also about central details that may involve their bodies. At times, children’s false reports can be tinged with sexual connotations.”
“A fourth issue in the suggestibility literature is whether children’s false reports (i.e., those elicited through suggestive techniques) appear credible to adults and, specifically, to trained professionals. In some studies, trained professionals (e.g., judges, mental health workers, and lawyers) viewed videotaped or transcribed segments of interviews with children, some of whom had succumbed to interviewers’ erroneous suggestions and some of whom had not. When asked to rate the credibility of the children’s reports, professionals who were provided with no details of the studies (e.g., that the children had been subjected to repeated erroneous suggestions) were unable to reliably differentiate between children whose reports were false versus accurate. In related research, Guyer and his colleagues found that professionals did not agree about the credibility of children’s claims of abuse even when they were provided with extensive case material.”
This documentary, narrated by Dr. Stephen Ceci, shows how hard it is to figure out whether young children are describing things that actually happened. Nine minutes into the video, Dr. Ceci recounts a situation in which he would advise his own son to plead guilty even if he was innocent.
Roger Williams University Law Review 2014 article by Poole, Dickinson, and Brubacher
“Throughout our research, our focus is on factors other than lying that produce inaccurate or seemingly inconsistent autobiographical reports.”
“With this procedure, Mikey falsely accused Mr. Science of twenty-nine distinct touches before the interviewer terminated questioning. He then accused the researcher of ten touches when she asked if she had touched him, and he added three more false reports when she asked about touching to specific parts on the diagram. As in other studies, the children who made false reports often described realistic context when asked to explain what happened. For example, one child told the researcher that she ‘touched me here so you could feel me am I burning up or not.’ Of course, the researcher had just met Mikey, after which they walked into a room and sat on opposite sides of the table. Mikey was one of the ‘exuberant false reporters’ in this study—children who made more than three false accusations of touching against Mr. Science. These children ranged in age from four to seven years old, with the majority being five years or older.”
University of Michigan School of Social Work 2014 article by Kathleen Coulborn Faller
“Professional and public belief and disbelief about allegations of child sexual abuse have varied over the course of history. The source of the ebb and flow in belief is complex. In part, it derives from the inability of adults to accept that sexual abuse of children occurs and a counter reaction of rage when sexual victimization is believed. In the domain of forensic interviewing these complex reactions have resulted in a tension between using interview practices that enable disclosure and interview practices that avoid false allegations.”
“Mandated reporting resulted in an exponential increase in reports of suspected child maltreatment to local child protection agencies. In 1978, the first year of data collection under CAPTA, fewer than 700,000 cases, or 10.1 per 1000 children, were reported. In 2012, the most recent year for which there are aggregated data, there were 3.4 million cases reported involving approximately 6.3 million children, 46.1 per 1000 children.”
“Unlike physical abuse, which is usually determined by the pattern of a child’s injuries, and physical neglect, which is usually determined by a child’s physical condition or living conditions, as a rule, child sexual abuse rarely leaves physical signs. Physical indicators are found in about 10% of girls and rarely in boys. Sexual abuse is generally determined by the child’s statements and sometimes by the child’s behavior.”
“The [1989 Kempe Center pamphlet] advised review of background information before the interview, a practice that has led to debate because of concerns that prior knowledge could bias the interviewer, but now is considered best practice and is incorporated into most interview protocols.”
“Despite training, research on the NICHD and other protocols indicates that it is difficult for forensic interviewers to follow the advice of forensic interview trainers and to adhere to interview structures. Professionals may think they are actually following the interview guidelines, but analysis of their interviews indicates that they are not.”
“Developing a balance between interview strategies that correctly identify sexually abused children (sensitivity) and correctly exclude children who have not been sexually abused (specificity) is enormously challenging, and the stakes are high.”
Duke University Law Journal 2002 article by Nancy E. Walker
Excerpt from Part II.D.3. – Faulty Questioning Techniques
“Faulty techniques included instances in which the interviewer modified the child’s statement, used forced choice questions that limited the responses the child could give, or used multipart questions. These faulty techniques increased the likelihood that children became inappropriately compliant, that the children chose one of the options offered by the interviewer whether or not it was correct, or that the children became confused.”
Excerpts from Part IV – Training:
“Although a great deal is known today about best practices in the conduct of forensic interviews of children, a challenge that continues to perplex researchers and practitioners alike is the question of how to train interviewers to consistently use empirically-based forensic techniques for obtaining the most complete and accurate reports possible.”
“Approaches for training forensic interviewers have met with mixed results. Contrary to intuition, research on the value of training workshops generally has produced discouraging results. Initial findings suggested that workshops taught attendees to answer factual questions on tests, but that new knowledge rarely translated into improved practice.”
I searched for the Washington State Child Interview Guide that would
have been current in 2012 and found this 2009-2010 version.
Parts I through V cover the steps from interview prep through rapport-building with the child. Part VI provides guidelines for transitioning to
substantive questions about the alleged abuse:
- The interviewer is advised to gather background information before interviewing the child. As highlighted in the University of Michigan article above, this has the potential to bias the interviewer toward confirmation of any allegations reported by a parent or anyone else interviewed before the child.
- The guide recommends a “funnel approach,” in which the interviewer starts with open-ended questions and proceeds to more focused questions. Note how the funnel works. “If the child does not answer, move down the list… If these invitations are not successful, ask the more focused questions you formulated based on the background information you have.”
- And this is where confirmation bias can be deadly: “Ask the child if someone (possibly the person who reported) is worried about something that happened, and ask the child to tell you what that person is worried about. Indicate that you heard that ‘someone might have bothered’ the child and ask her to tell you about that. Indicate that you heard that ‘someone may have done something that wasn’t right,’ and ask the child to tell you about that.” [emphasis in the original]
- And if the previous steps have failed to produce the desired outcome, which is to get the child to talk about the abuse the authorities believe occurred, the interview guide recommends a targeted question like this: “I heard something might have happened in Luke’s bedroom. Tell me about that.
I have no idea how many of these steps may have led to the charge against Luke, but this “funnel approach” has the potential to lead a very young child to confirm anything the interviewer suspects.