Interviewer’s Methods Seen as Key Issue in Preschool Case
A social worker whose interview techniques have become a crucial issue in the McMartin Pre-School molestation trial took the witness stand for five weeks to defend her questioning of alleged child victims.
Now the jury is watching videotapes of those interviews, seeing for itself the interaction between the children and the people who questioned them.
Kathleen (Kee) MacFarlane Elias, 41, director of the child sexual abuse center at Children’s Institute International in Los Angeles, testified during her long stay on the witness stand that she began to piece together what allegedly happened at the Manhattan Beach nursery school “like a jigsaw puzzle” as she interviewed 80 McMartin children, five of whom remain in the case.
Another four children who have testified at the trial were questioned by two other interviewers at the same center. In all, about 400 children from the preschool were interviewed at the center; 350 were judged to have been sexually abused.
MacFarlane said she took “a funnel approach,” starting with open-ended questions that gradually got more specific, and encouraged the children to express themselves using puppets and dolls with sex organs.
She characterized her interview techniques as “focused and specific,” rather than “leading and suggestive,” as the defense contends.
The tapes show that she told each child what other children had already said happened, applied labels like “naked” and “yukky” to otherwise innocent childhood games and encouraged the youngsters to demonstrate, using naked dolls designated as teachers and pupils, what “might” have happened to them or others at the school.
To defense suggestions that there are better and less suggestive ways to interview a child in whom molestation is suspected, MacFarlane replied:
“For a trial, it is best if a child comes into your office and you say, ‘What, if anything, unpleasant ever happened to you between the ages of 1 and 6' and they say, ‘Boy, am I glad you asked that question because I have just wanted to tell you the whole thing. . . .’
“But with children who may be frightened, who may have been threatened, who may be embarrassed or ashamed, or afraid of your reaction and the reaction of others or that something will happen to them or people they love, I (do not) think that’s the best way.”
Defendants Raymond Buckey, 30, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 61, are charged with 100 counts of molestation and conspiracy involving 14 children who attended their family-run preschool from 1978-1984. However, at least 30 counts are likely to be dropped because they involve four children who have refused to testify at the trial. The nine youngsters who have testified during the trial, now in its second year, told of being raped, sodomized, fondled and forced to perform oral copulation. They described naked games during which they were photographed, sometimes at houses away from the school.
They said Raymond Buckey threatened to kill their parents if they told of the secret activities, and underlined his threats by mutilating and killing animals.
Lawyer Danny Davis, who represents Raymond Buckey, asked MacFarlane on cross-examination if, “Looking at the videotapes that you employed with the children in this case, do you feel some of (your) techniques may have tended to induce the children to construct or fabricate a memory that was not reality?”
“No, I do not. That’s not to say that I think or felt that the children I interviewed at the time had crystal-clear memories that they were able to spit out of what happened to them. I saw children struggle to both remember things and express things as I struggled to frame questions in ways that might help them do that.”
She added: “If a child says, ‘No, I never remember that,’ it could be that they have blocked it out and it’s not available to them. It could be that they remember it precisely but they’re telling you they don’t, or it could be that they need something to trigger that memory.”
She said molested children often disclose information in bits and pieces, a gradual unfolding she has come to call the “No-maybe-sometimes-yes syndrome,” a process whereby a child may at first deny that anything happened, then admit it might have happened, later that it sometimes happened but not to him, and finally that, yes, he was one of the victims.”
She said they tend to be consistent in their recall of central events, but inconsistent in remembering peripheral details.
Under cross-examination, MacFarlane said she does not believe she could “place” a permanent erroneous image of having been molested in the minds of children or their parents.
She said that half a dozen studies published since she conducted her interviews in late 1983 and early 1984 support her view--that 99% of children cannot be misled into thinking that they have been molested by suggestive or even misleading questions.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders, outside the jury’s hearing, expressed frustration at the lengthy cross-examination, explaining that in his view, “The central issue is what she did and how it affected the children, whether it programmed them.”
And that, he said, is for the jury to decide by watching the nine videotaped interviews in their entirety, which they are to do this week.
But as the days passed, the judge confessed--again when the jurors were not present--that he was becoming concerned about her credibility.
“I’ve been concerned, and I want to be very candid about that, by the number of times that Miss MacFarlane has indicated in her answers that her answer depends upon definitions that don’t seem to me to be very complex, and that she does not have a memory of a number of things that I would have expected her to remember. So in my view her credibility is becoming more of an issue as she testifies here.”
But he also criticized the defense for its “smear” tactics in trying not only to give the jury information about a romantic relationship between MacFarlane and a former KABC-TV reporter who broke the McMartin story, but also for suggesting in open court that the reporter was “sexually deviant.”
The defense contended that MacFarlane leaked information to reporter Wayne Satz to further both their careers, but Pounders said there was no evidence that the relationship existed when allegations of child molestation arose at the school in 1983 or when she was interviewing children, and said that such attacks on witnesses were inappropriate.
Citing other examples of defense attempts to intimidate prospective witnesses, Pounders added: “My concern is that the defense is trying to blow prosecution witnesses out of the water and say to anybody who steps forward, ‘There’s a smear waiting for you.’ ”
The defense attacked MacFarlane’s credentials, asserting that she misrepresented herself on her resume as a psychotherapist in private practice for eight years, when she holds no professional licenses. She holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland, and, she said, is not required to be licensed as a social worker or psychologist in her present position.
MacFarlane was the last key witness scheduled to testify for the prosecution, which expects to rest its case by month’s end. The trial is expected to last into next summer.