Unspeakable Acts by Jan Hollingsworth (Congdon & Weed: $17.95; 581 pp.)
Jan Hollingsworth’s new book brings a ray of hope to the thousands of families whose preschool-age children have been abused in child-care settings and who have never seen justice done. In “Unspeakable Acts,” she tells the story of how convicted child molester Frank Fuster was allowed to operate a baby-sitting service in Dade County, Fla., with his child bride, Iliana. Together, they perpetrated horrors on more than 50 children that included not only every imaginable form of sexual abuse, but pornography, administration of drugs, animal killings, blood and excrement rituals, prayers to the devil, and systematic terrorization and intimidation of their young victims.
Amazingly, out of hundreds of cases like it all over the country, the Dade County case is the first and only one to have been successfully prosecuted.
None of the children disclosed the abuse they were suffering at the Fusters’ except to give hints and show symptoms that for months their parents did not understand. Some children seemed virtually asymptomatic, even in retrospect, but others had nightmares and were afraid of monsters in their rooms. Some children became uncooperative, sullen or angry, breaking toys and throwing tantrums. Others grew fearful--of separation, of toilets, of taking their clothes off. It was not until one child was returned from the Fusters in such a stupor that her mother recognized she had been drugged that a child-abuse report was made. When other parents were questioned by the investigating officer, it came to light that another child had told his mother that Iliana kissed all the babies’ private parts.
It was Florida state attorney Janet Reno to whom the case was referred for prosecution. Reno emerges as one of the story’s central figures, without whose heroic efforts the Dade County case, like so many of its predecessors, would never have gone to trial. Reno set out to make it a “model case,” and so successful were her efforts that it will certainly serve as the blueprint on which future cases of this kind will be modeled.
The first and most crucial aspect of her blueprint consisted of thoroughly investigating the case. Reno refused to settle for the police department’s inevitable wish to close the case after the investigating officer failed to obtain significant disclosures from the first several children she interviewed. Instead, Reno had the wisdom to recruit two highly credentialed child-development specialists to conduct a series of videotaped interviews with three dozen children who had at some time been left in the Fusters’ care.
Hollingsworth gives us a verbatim account of an interview that Drs. Joe and Laurie Braga conducted with the child who was to become the state’s star witness, Jason Harrison. The Bragas’ ability to gain his trust and cooperation, and to speak to him in terms he could understand are movingly evident in the transcript. We watch in anxious anticipation as he discloses first the least shocking of his baby sitters’ activities, looking worriedly to see whether the Bragas will become angry or upset. When they reflect calm supportiveness, he is able to take another halting step toward disclosure.
Ultimately, Frank’s conviction was gained from the combination of the children’s testimony, and Iliana’s own corroborating testimony which brought her a reduced sentence. However, the case was not easily won. Dr. Ralph Underwager testified for the defense, as he had done most damagingly in the Jordan, Minn., case, that the methods used in the interviews with the children were those employed by “tyrants” around the world. Also testifying for the defense was a Dr. Lee Coleman, who, for an exorbitant fee, toured the country testifying to the “leading” quality of interviews with young sexual abuse victims.
But depressing as the spectacle is of poorly qualified “experts” collecting huge sums of the taxpayers’ money to help set child molesters free, the reader is thoroughly cheered when the distinguished Los Angeles child psychiatrist Dr. Roland Summit provides expert testimony. Summit clarifies for the court not only the difficulties children encounter in disclosing sexual abuse, but the many ways adults defend against believing that it has occurred. Perhaps most insidious of these, he suggests, is the tendency to want to “kill the messenger” who brings us the news of sexual and occult crimes committed against our children. We would be far wiser to buy and read Hollingsworth’s book, and to heed her message closely.