April 13, 2009
Witch Hunt: A Documentary With Some Lessons To Teach
The documentary Witch Hunt had its television premiere last night on MSNBC. The film follows the story of a group of parents in Bakersfield California who were falsely accused of child molestation in the 1980's. The film takes the position that the Ed Jagels, Bakersfield's District Attorney (still), had an overzealous tough on crime stance that led to a "witch hunt" for child molesters. The convictions of these parents have since been overturned, but not until they served between 12-20 years in jail.
From a child advocacy perspective, the film highlights three key issues:
1. It is possible for child protective services to become overzealous and do more harm than good. ( But don't take that too far. )
That sounds like a no brainer, and the concept has been revisited recently by the FLDS debacle in Texas, but this is an important thing to remember. Efforts to protect children from harm should be lauded, and this film sometimes demonizes prosecutors and child protective workers in this case so utterly that it would be tempting for an uninformed viewer to believe that the entire system is always corrupt. This is certainly not true. However, it is a valuable shift from press coverage of abuse that usually demonizes the accused...innocent until proven guilty doesn't seem to apply if the words child abuse or child molestation appear in the charges. It is important for a balanced and just view to prevail, and for the public to begin to better understand the nature of the child protection process.
Society is a "consumer" of the services provided by child protection. We have decided as a whole that we want children to be safe from abuse in their homes, and this is a value that we have backed up with dollars and agencies. However, as consumers we are largely uninformed. The process and procedures through which each state manages its child protective functions remain largely a mystery....and the public only takes note when an extreme case of child abuse fails to be caught by the state agency, such as in a recent case in New Jersey where the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) closed its case not long before the 9 year old boy, Jamal Cruz, was beaten to death by his mother's paramour. Not as interesting for the headlines are the countless stories of dedicated DYFS workers who saved the lives of children who might have ended up like Jamal.
Public interest in how child protective services is managed and run is a crucial element to its improvement. Public education about how to recognize and report abuse is also needed. Little Jamal Cruz must have shown signs of abuse prior to his death, but they went unnoticed or unreported.
2. Unskilled or improperly trained interviewers can create lasting damage to the children they interview on child abuse matters.
One of the most chilling elements of the documentary was the series of interviews with the adults who were once the children who "reported" the molestation. Tapes and transcripts of the interviews with them as children demonstrate that they were clearly coached, led to express that they were abused even after they said they had not been. The now adult accusers spoke of the fact that even now they have trouble with authority figures. One young man said he feared bathing his baby daughter because of what he went through in the investigation of his own alleged abuse as a child. All of them spoke of the horrible guilt they suffered when people they accused were jailed. They recanted their childhood testimony and were instrumental in getting the convictions overturned.
In addition to coaching them in the initial interview, the children were also forced to testify against their parents and neighbors on the stand. When they would testify that nothing happened, a break would be called and they would come back testifying something different.
Of course, since the 1980's strides have been made in developing more effective training for people who question children in abuse cases and in understanding the impact of testifying on a child's psyche. This does not mean that this protocol is always followed. Witch Hunt documents the lasting negative effects of unskilled, untrained and improperly motivated questioning on children.
3. There needs to be oversight built into the system for when personalities or improper procedures dominate and create negative outcomes from child
How did the Bakersfield DA manage to get away with all this? The Attorney General for California at the time is interviewed in the film and said it takes an extreme breakdown of law and order for the AG to become involved. This actually happened in this case, but the AG's involvement consisted of investigating and issuing a report that improper procedures for child testifying and evidence collection was happening. Although this is of some use to defense attorneys if they can get it into evidence in an appeal, it really had no other bite to it.
An oversight provision needs to exist in every child protective structure that is triggered by events less dramatic than "the extreme breakdown of law and order" or a child's death. Although there are certainly many people out there who complain that CPS is out to get them as a smokescreen against their own misdeeds, there surely must be the occasional case where CPS is indeed to blame for improper handling of a case. It must be made crystal clear within the system how complaints against CPS are to be handled and there must be some oversight from a disinterested party when things go wrong.
Overall, the documentary Witch Hunt tells a compelling and sad story of wasted lives, a catastrophic failure of the system, and the abuse of children not by the accused parents, but by the system. Some of the lessons of the documentary are worth heeding, but it is important also for the public to educate itself in a fair and balanced way about how child protection is managed in their state.