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The Return of the Witchhunts

Article Index
The Return of the Witchhunts
Important Addresses
About the author and sources

(c) Copyright Jonathan G. Harris. Permission is granted to reproduce this for non profit use provided this notice is attached.

"I went to that preschool since I was a baby. I even went there during the first grade after school. I had fun. We painted and colored," Karen (name changed for privacy), now 16, describes some happy times that ended when her preschool closed ten years ago. Her parents have similar memories. The center was open and they could drop in any time. Her father said that today Karen jumped with joy at the prospect of visiting Miss Vi; but visiting the school's seventy year old former owner or her two children, Gerald and Cheryl, is somewhat difficult today. They all remain in Massachusetts prisons. The school was the infamous Massachusetts daycare, Fells Acres.

Many consider the Fells Acres prosecution, which will be ten years old this September, a landmark for child protection. Unfortunately, two juries and the media have overlooked an overwhelming body of evidence that suggests the case is a complete hoax -- part of the "ritual abuse" hysteria that began in the 1980s. The result is that for the past seven years three innocent people have languished in prison.

It was Labor Day weekend of 1984. Gerald and his wife, Patti, were awaiting the birth of their third child. Cheryl and her husband, Al, married for scarcely sixteen months, were ready to start their family. Vi was thinking of retiring and passing the eighteen year old business on to her two children.

Sunday night the phone rang at a child abuse hotline. A mother told the staffer that her son had accused Gerald Amirault of molesting him in a secret room which had a bed and a shelf with golden trophies. The boy had attended Fells Acres for approximately twenty days the previous spring, and had left in June for summer vacation.

The mother and son told several conflicting versions of the story. The boy told the police that he was taken to the secret room on several occasions when his teachers were sick and Gerald took over the class; but the teachers knew that Gerald never took over that classroom.

Initially the boy did not know where the secret room was because he was blindfolded. Another time the room was at Fells Acres. Finally at the trial the boy testified that he was driven in a car to the secret room and the magic room which were in a white house and a brown house.

The mother told the grand jury that every day her son attended Fells Acres, Gerald removed him from the classroom and took him to the secret room to molest him. She added that he had to urinate in cups and drink the urine while his teachers were "in the room." The mother's testimony before the grand jury left it ambiguous as to whether this was supposed to have happened in the classroom or the secret room and which room the teachers were in. Nobody bothered to ask her to clarify this. The boy's teachers never saw him removed from the classroom during nap time or drinking urine.

Police and social workers began interviewing children and asking about secret rooms. Soon a child accused an unidentified clown, and authorities warned parents to ask their children about a magic room, a secret room, and a clown. Accusations arose against Vi, Cheryl, most of the other teachers, and imaginary people such as Mr. Gatt and Abigail Cooper. By the time the investigators realized there were no hidden or unused rooms at the school, there were too many magic and secret room stories. They then decided these rooms were two classrooms and a bathroom. The police and DSS made no electronic recordings of the initial interviews, so it is impossible to evaluate how much the children were pressured into making accusations; nevertheless, DSS reports show how investigators subjected the children to repeated leading questions and the use of anatomically detailed dolls with oversized genitals, even though initially the children said that no abuse occurred and denied the existence of a secret room. Recently, researchers Maggie Bruck of McGill and Stephen Ceci of Cornell have demonstrated that these techniques can produce false accusations by preschool children. Such interviews themselves are an insidious form of child sexual abuse. The transcripts of the two trials read like a farce. Children admitted that they would have forgotten everything had they not practiced their testimony with their parents. Prosecutors Larry Hardoon and Patricia Bernstein had to re-ask and rephrase questions when children responded "no" or "I forget that one," to abuse questions.

Many children claimed that they were removed from their classes and that they told their teachers that they were going to the magic room. No teacher had heard of such a room until the beginning of the investigation. Various children also described attacks or molestations by clowns, robots, and a lobster. No teacher ever saw anyone dressed as a clown, except for Hicko, who performed magic at birthday parties. Supposedly, Miss Vi fed a child a frog that quacked like a duck; Miss Cheryl killed animals and buried their blood in the sandbox, leaving not a trace of evidence; and someone tied a naked boy to a tree in front of the all of the teachers and pupils.

Parents testified on how Fells Acres converted their darlings to monsters. Every problem -- nightmares, bed wetting, overeating, undereating, temper tantrums, jealousy, sex play, lying, clinginess -- became a symptom of abuse. Without any scientific basis, Psychiatrist Renee Brant justified this interpretation and introduced psychiatric jargon -- rescue fantasies, transference, and displacement -- to make palatable to the jury the children's stories of molestations by imaginary people and assaults in the presence of their teachers.

Prosecutors also introduced pediatric gynecologist Sara Jean Emans to satisfy the juries' and the public's need for "physical evidence" of the abuse. She told one jury that the vulvitis, an irritation and inflammation of the female genitals seen in three of the girls, is a "significant finding" in an evaluation for sexual abuse. This testimony was admitted in spite of the fact that one of these girls had not been at the school for eighteen months at the time Emans had examined her. When due to rubbing from abuse, such irritations generally heal within three weeks. She further added that it was unusual to see three girls from the same school with the condition, even though the gynecology book she co-authored states that the condition is common and usually due to hygiene problems.

Recently New Jersey freed Kelly Michaels, who was convicted under similar circumstances. Their supreme court recognized that suggestive interviews of children combined with the failure to record them and unscientific psychological testimony similar to Dr. Brant's violate our right to due process. In other states, the spirit of the Salem witch hunt remains alive. Not only have our courts upheld all convictions, but the parole board keeps Cheryl and Vi in prison because they will not confess. Gerald will not even be eligible for parole until he has spent twenty years in prison.

Many in the psychiatric community make snide remarks about the experts who tried to warn the jury about how the outrageous interviews prevented any reliable information from being obtained from the children. Meanwhile, Dr. Emans, Dr. Brant, and the prosecutors continue to hold conferences boasting about the success of their "do any thing to obtain a conviction" approach to justice. As long as this injustice stands, it will be a model for others to follow, once they have found another victim. ----- For more details on this and other witch hunts access my page on the witchhunts, http://liquid2-sun.mit.edu/witchhunt.html.

Update: Finally the press has started to cover this case. January 30, 1995 the Wall Street Journal had a beautiful piece written by Dorothy Rabinowitz. This led to another piece in the Malden Observer by Jay Lindsay. Later Charlie Sennot did a thorough and dispassionate investigation of the Fells Acres prosecution in the Boston Globe March 19, 1995, page 1. The Wall Street Journal has published two more pieces by Dorothy Rabinowitz and an editorial asking Governor Weld to commute the Amirault's sentences. The WSJ also announced the establishment of a defense fund for the Amiraults.