Ramifications in a Case of Alleged Child Abuse

Times Staff Writer

Mother and daughter--it's a venerated relationship, held to be free from corruption.

That privileged state ended for a 40-year-old Riverside County woman and her 5-year-old daughter last June 20 when a police officer and two social workers came to the door and informed Helen (the names of mother and daughter have been changed) that she was under investigation for alleged sexual abuse of her child, Kathy.

An interviewer led Kathy into her room and talked to her amid her family of toy animals. Based on the child's remarks, the social worker determined that the girl had been molested. The officer drove Kathy to the police station, where arrangements were made to place her in temporary foster care. She lived in a residence with other suspected abuse victims for six days before being returned home.

Dismissed by Court

Child Protective Services, the branch of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services that investigates child-abuse cases, then recommended that Kathy be declared a dependent child of the Riverside County Juvenile Court and be placed in foster care.

The case was dismissed by the judge during the recent trial, on the basis that Child Protective Services failed to meet the burden of proof, which in juvenile court means that the prosecution must show that it is "more likely than not" that an offense occurred.

But in the six months during which they were awaiting the trial, mother and daughter came to fear that they would be separated permanently. Helen said Kathy still sometimes wakes up trembling with memories of being taken away to "the yellow house," which is how she remembers the foster residence.

"We lived with it for so long, there are still times when I have to remind myself that it's all over," Helen said. "I need to do what I can now to see that this doesn't happen to others."

Surge in Such Cases

As the number of reported child-molestation cases balloons, more families are learning that a "not guilty" verdict doesn't erase the shame and worry that accompanies an investigation. State Justice Department official Brian Taugher, for instance, said in a news conference that the child-abuse authorities in his case (he was found innocent Tuesday of accusations that he molested a 9-year-old girl at his daughter's slumber party) made victims of everyone involved, including the girl who reported his alleged advances.

Helen said she is researching the possibility of taking legal action against the department on the basis that the case was conducted with prejudice. "They (Child Protective Services) were not looking for the truth," she said.

Although he was not free to comment on Kathy and Helen's case, Frank Guzevich, district director of social services for the Metro-Riverside area Child Protective Services, said: "So cial workers have a creed, just like doctors do, to report the truth. It would border on the unethical to present only facts that support one point of view.

"It is my belief our people do not rush to judgment the moment a kid says, 'So and so touched me here.' Our approach is not to go out and make every piece of evidence line up to prove the molestation."

Fact-Finding Agency

Child Protective Services is the primary fact-finding agency in child-abuse cases; the evidence that it presents figures prominently in the fate of all parties involved. But because the function of Child Protective Services is to protect children, Helen's attorney, Mary Dodson, argues that evidence is sometimes collected and presented in such a way as to support the assertion that a molestation has taken place, without adequate examination of the possibility that nothing happened.

Dodson, who has handled as many dependency cases (so-called because at issue is whether the child will be declared a dependent of the court) as any attorney currently practicing in Riverside County, said that although Child Protective Services is supposed to be a fact-gathering agency, it took on the role of prosecutor in this case.

A UCLA professor who served as an expert witness in the case said Helen's and Kathy's story should serve as a warning that greater care must be taken in the investigation of all molestation cases. That observation came from psychology professor Paul Abramson, who has provided testimony in a number of child-molestation cases and is writing a book about the case of Helen and Kathy. His recent book, "Sarah: A Sexual Biography," is the true story of how one woman overcame her past of incest and sexual victimization.

Abramson pointed out that this is the first time in his career that he's appeared on the side of the accused in a child-molestation case. Abramson's forthcoming book is not intended to serve as an acquittal of Helen, he said--no one, except for the parties involved, can know with certainty what happened in private between two people.

"Independent of her (Helen's) innocence or guilt, the manner in which the investigation was carried out was unprofessional,"Abramson said. "We must take every single incident and suggestion of molestation seriously, but when investigating it, we have to consider alternative possibilities as to what went on.

"Put yourself in Helen's place. She was accused of having sex with her daughter. We owe people accused of such behavior a very thorough investigation."

Although shy initially, it took Kathy about five minutes to warm to a stranger visiting her at home. She and her mother live in a simple two-bedroom bungalow on the campus of a college where Helen is completing work on her master's degree in education.

The girl's teachers, as well as case investigators, consistently described Kathy as an exceptionally intelligent and attractive child with a knack for manipulating adults.

When Kathy was 4, Helen explained, reports began coming home from the campus child-care center that the girl was engaging in sexual play with other children at school and generally showing an unusual interest in sex for a child of her age. Helen, a single mother, said that she was concerned, and arranged for her daughter to see a counselor.

Abramson interprets this move as evidence of Helen's innocence: "If I had a child and I did something to that child I didn't want anyone to know about, I would not put her in therapy."

When Kathy's sexual acting-out continued, staff at the children's center felt legally obliged to notify Child Protective Services. Kathy's teacher told a Child Protective Services investigator that she had asked Kathy why she fondled herself at school. "Kathy said that her Mom does it to her and that they do it at home," the teacher said.

Helen was informed that her daughter's behavior had been reported to child-abuse investigators. "I was naive. I thought this was standard procedure," Helen said. "I think I looked on it as a hassle, but I wasn't afraid."

Child Protective Services workers contacted UC Riverside Police and together they proceeded to the home. A social worker took one of Kathy's dolls off the upper berth of her bunk bed and asked her to play a game. The interviewer began by asking Kathy to name the doll's body parts, which the girl did, using the correct anatomical terms. The girl's language was noted in the report as an indication of sexual abuse.

According to the police report: "(The social worker) then had her (Kathy) role-play, using the doll to be Kathy and Kathy to be the mommy. Kathy took the doll and said, 'Mommy does like this.' And Kathy took her thumb and rubbed it against the doll's vaginal area."

Kathy described for the Child Protective Services interviewer a white object, between 2 and 5 inches long, which she called an aspirin. She said the object felt soft and cold. She said her mother sometimes touched her with this object. Then she went on to demonstrate how her mother applied a medicine, also white, directly from the tube onto her vagina.

Helen said that the action Child Protective Services workers interpreted as sexual assault was nothing more than a mother treating her child's chronically irritated vagina with a over-the-counter anti-bacterial ointment.

In later interrogations, Kathy identified a tube of the ointment as the object she had called "aspirin," apparently her all-purpose word for medication.

After she was placed in foster care, Kathy was examined in the child abuse clinic at Riverside General Hospital by Dr. Steve Trenkle, a board-certified pediatrician who said that he has reviewed about 20 alleged molestation cases a month since July of 1983.

"Previous Experience"

Trenkle's assessment: "labial hyperpigmentation and inner labial erythema . . . consistent with molestation." The report continued: "She (Kathy) had quite an abnormal response to this exam (a response described elsewhere in the report as giggling and 'excessive compliance') that would indicate previous sexual experience."

Contacted by The Times, Trenkle would not elaborate on what, in his opinion, constituted excessive compliance in a 5-year-old. "I guess I would say it (the molestation finding) wasn't that definite of a conclusion (in this case)," he said. "There are very few physical findings that are absolute incontrovertible evidence of molestation." (Definite evidence in an otherwise sexually inactive victim would be pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted disease, he said.)

"We're seeing a lot more (suspected molestation) cases, and in some there is really no question about what's going on. Others are open to interpretation," he said. "We're expected to make certain statements (confirmation that molestation has occurred) that we can't make. What we do is just one piece of evidence. It's up to the courts and the jury to decide."

Second in Importance

Guzevich, of Riverside County Child Protective Services, said that physical evidence, such as that supplied by Trenkle, is ranked second in order of importance by investigators after a child's testimony.

Kathy was also interviewed by a court-appointed psychologist, Edward Ryan. In his report, Ryan said that although Kathy denied having sexual contact with her mother, she was nervous and agitated throughout the interview, which indicated to him that she was covering up information.

"There is no doubt in my mind that (Kathy) has been subjected to sexual play, explicit sexual verbalizations and has probably witnessed sexual activity," Ryan's report concluded. "There is a significant amount of fear at the present time that the security in her world is falling apart and that drastic things will happen to her."

Ryan said he has evaluated about 200 molestation victims in the last four years. He told The Times that as a psychologist, he can be absolutely certain that a client has been molested. When asked how he could be sure of such an evaluation, he said: "Clinical expertise."

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Abramson believes that the findings of psychologists and physicians represent "a self-fulfilling prophecy." Kathy was branded as a molestation victim the moment she was taken from her home, he said. Influenced by this knowledge, her examiners came to the expected conclusions.

Abramson enlisted a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist, Dr. Eldridge Pearsall, to review Trenkle's medical findings. The doctor, who was not told beforehand that the girl was a possible molestation victim, concluded only that Kathy had an irritated labia. "This could indicate a yeast infection, contact dermatitis or an allergy to dyes, soaps or medication," the doctor reported.

Susan Forward, an Encino therapist and nationally recognized authority on incest said, "For a woman to break not only the incest taboo, but also the mother-daughter connection--at least in my experience, those women have been psychotic or pretty close to it."

In his own research, Abramson said he could not find a single case of mother-daughter incest in which the perpetrator was not psychotic; yet, Helen is not mentally ill.

Abramson, after investigating the case, concluded in his report to the court:

"I believe that there has been no sexual contact between mother and daughter. While there is the possibility that Kathy has been sexually molested by someone in her environment (a neighbor with whom Kathy spent time had previously been investigated for child molestation--a fact Child Protective Services did not include in its report to the judge), it is equally probable that her sexual interest and behavior represent the extreme end of normal variation in sexual play."

Helen said Child Protective Services may have had sufficient reason to investigate her initially.

"However, if I were conducting the investigation," she said, "I would have entertained the notion at some point that the person might be innocent."

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