Innocence Lost in Landmark Child Abuse Case
By Gretchen Passantino
Copyright 1995 by Gretchen Passantino.
This article first appeared in Cornerstone Magazine
The number of sex abuse charges, 429, was staggering. Seven defendants were charged with sexually abusing as many as 90 children, almost all of whom were defenseless, trusting toddlers and preschoolers at the time they were allegedly abused (fall of 1988). Prosecutors charged that Robert and Elizabeth (Betsy) Kelly, owners and operators of the Little Rascals day-care center in Edenton, North Carolina, orchestrated the systematic and horrendous physical and sexual abuse of their small clients by other day-care workers and another local businessman. Of the seven defendants, two, Robert Kelly and day-care worker Dawn Wilson, were tried and convicted in their criminal jury trials: Robert was convicted of 99 counts and sentenced to 12 consecutive life sentences; Dawn Wilson was convicted on 5 counts and sentenced to life in prison with no parole for 20 years. Appeals are pending in both cases. Robert’s wife Betsy pled guilty to lesser charges in a desperate bid for a reduced sentence that would allow their daughter at least one parent for at least the latter part of her childhood. The remaining four defendants will be tried beginning late in 1994. But in the midst of one of the longest, most complex and expensive child abuse trials, justice disappeared and the innocent — children and defendants — suffered irreparable harm.
There was no corroborating physical evidence of any of the alleged criminal incidents. There was not a single adult eye witness to any of the hundreds of alleged incidents. The children’s testimonies were inconsistent, vague, contradictory, and clearly coached by parents and therapists. Jurors on Kelly’s trial violated the judge’s orders, and several now say they were pressured into voting for conviction despite their own beliefs in Kelly’s innocence. Jurors on Wilson’s trial agreed there was no hard evidence and that the children’s testimonies were unbelievable, and that the only persuasive evidence was uncorroborated notes made by one therapist early in the investigation.
Robert Kelly, unless his appeal is successful, will never be free of prison to be with his wife and daughter. Dawn Wilson will not be free until long after her six year old daughter is an adult. Betsy Kelly pled guilty to reduced charges to salvage at least some part of her daughter’s childhood. Co-defendant and fellow day-care worker Robin Byrum faces a fate similar to that of Dawn Wilson. Video store owner Scott Privet, who said his only connection to the Kellys was that he rented them videos, faces a trial that could culminate in his incarceration for most of the rest of his adult life.
How did such a nightmare develop? The answer lies in four current but false social assumptions that have combined to create a climate where rumor and hysteria devastate innocent lives: (1) therapists can always discover truth in child abuse cases; (2) those accused of child abuse are guilty unless they can prove their innocence; (3) any unanimous jury verdict must be accurate; and (4) child abuse conspiracies are common and almost undetectable.
In the fall of 1988, Jane Maybry had a serious falling-out with her close friend, Betsy Kelly. Jane’s young son, enrolled in Betsy’s day-care center, was slapped by Betsy’s husband. Jane not only believed Robert’s discipline was inappropriate, she demanded a full apology from both Kellys, which they refused to give. Her son never returned to the day-care. Jane later said that if the Kellys had apologized, none of the rest of the story would have developed. Unable to let the matter drop, late in the year Jane started calling other day-care parents, asking if they noticed anything unusual about their children, the center, or the Kellys. From these tentative rumors came the mushroom of suspicion, charges, and therapeutically elicited “disclosures” by the young children. The first complaint reached official ears in January of 1989. Events snowballed as credulous therapists and law enforcement personnel investigated. No child willingly disclosed, and many continued to insist, through months of therapy and strong parental pressure, that nothing had happened. When children finally began disclosing, their stories were often bizarre and impossible. The small town of 5,000 quickly polarized. Those who believed the abuse conspiracy existed refused to have anything to do with those who doubted.
Part of the reason justice failed in Edenton is because of the common social belief that psychotherapy can unerringly uncover the truth of past events.
As one accusing parent, Audrey Stever, noted, there wasn’t any evidence, there weren’t any signs or clues that parents could recognize, and so she and the other parents “had to turn to an authority” — therapists.
The parents were active participants in the therapeutic investigations. One mother recounted for a television documentary, “I pushed my little one.” Parent Betty Ann Phillips, who initially worried that her child had been victimized but later decided the charges were unfounded, recounted her personal knowledge of a parent whose child, throughout the first three weeks of questioning by his parents and a therapist, denied he had been abused but then agreed that he had been when his mother refused to give him dessert unless he disclosed. Parent Peggy Brooks agreed that she had questioned her son repeatedly and leadingly. She also volunteered that she and two other parents, Audrey Stever and Debbie Sweisgood, continually telephoned each other, comparing their children’s comments and stories and passing on rumors concerning the case.
This kind of pressure on the children to agree they had been abused, and the closely interwoven communications among the parents, characterized the case from the start and seriously compromised the case’s validity. Characteristically, most children consistently denied any abuse until they experienced unrelenting pressure and persuasion from parents, therapists, and officials. Parent Gary Smith admitted his child was in therapy for quite a long time before admitting abuse. Betty Ann Phillips recounted the story of one child who was in therapy for 10 months before disclosing. The case contamination made it impossible to know whether the children disclosed because of pressure or because there were actual abuse incidents by which they had been victimized.
Totally discounted by believing parents and therapists was the wealth of research and documentation of how child sex abuse therapy can be misused to induce “disclosures” from children who have never been abused. False disclosures and accusations of child abuse not only harm the children, parents, and defendants involved, but additionally and tragically damage the integrity of genuine cases of child abuse.
A second significant social factor is the assumption that, when it comes to allegations of child abuse, the one accused is almost certainly guilty unless he can provide an absolutely air-tight alibi. Otherwise, lack of evidence merely “proves” the power of the child abuse conspiracy!
A former Little Rascals day-care worker, Deanna Chessman, testified she never saw any signs of physical or sexual abuse. Former workers Casey Bunch and Brenda Parst also didn’t see anything. Betty Ann Phillips, who was not only a worker but also had her own child enrolled in the day-care, didn’t see anything and actually believes those children who eventually disclosed were coached into “remembering” what never happened. Parent Lynn Layton, who believes the accusations, nevertheless admitted truthfully that she never saw anything to raise her suspicions.
Parent Debbie Forrest was ostracized in her community and shunned by other parents when she refused to believe the baseless accusations. She and her husband had erratic schedules and frequently showed up without notice at Little Rascals either to drop off their son or pick him up. She was convinced it was impossible for the Kellys to hide the allegedly widespread abuse under such circumstances, but her refusal to believe was characterized by officials, therapists, and parents as indication that she was a “neglectful” mother. She had her son evaluated independently by a therapist isolated from the case who could not detect any signs of abuse.
It was only much later in the case that Layton and other parents decided their children had exhibited “signs” of abuse long before the charges circulated, but no parent could provide any evidence that at the time they had noticed any problems. Late in the case Layton said “my child had lots of violent temper tantrums” before disclosure, but she also admitted that she never thought about why, or discussed the temper problem with family members or her child’s doctor. Another parent said in retrospect that her child “came in our room five times a night for ten months, absolutely petrified,” and yet neither she nor her husband recalled ever discussing the problem with each other or anyone else before the case developed. Parent Lisa Baker explained, “the signs were there . . . . but only in retrospect.”
This curious inconsistency between retrospective knowledge of severe behavior clues without any historical evidence or knowledge lends credence to the theory that parents’ memories were skewed by their expectations based on their acceptance of the abuse story. For example, parent Peggy Brook testified that during the time the abuse allegedly took place her son’s symptoms included “poor sleep; irrational fear of slides, the dark, and monsters; painful bowel movements; complaints that his bottom hurt; aggressive tendencies in school.” However, during that period she took him to a mental health clinic but didn’t mention any of these symptoms and in fact reported that he had a good appetite and slept well. She never took him to the doctor for his physical complaints. Parent Grace Bean reported after the fact that during the time of the alleged abuse her child had terrible temper tantrums lasting more than 60 minutes every day, unstoppable violent nightmares every night, and was belligerent, afraid of the bathroom, and suffered pain with bowel movements. Yet when she took her child to the doctor, she never mentioned any of the problems.
Cases like Little Rascals should give anyone facing trial by jury nightmares. While juries are charged with determining whether or not a defendant is legally guilty; personal biases, violations of judges’ orders, peer pressure, and personal problems can destroy a fair verdict.
Kelly juror Marvin Shakelford was disappointed in the inconsistencies in the prosecution’s investigation, especially the fact that the officer who first interviewed the children, Brenda Topen, destroyed all of her tapes and notes. Yet, he voted “guilty,” explaining that his heart condition was bothering him and he didn’t know any other way to end the trial.
Juror Roswell Streeter believed Kelly was innocent and was fully committed to voting “not guilty” as deliberations began. However, because his fellow jurors so strongly disagreed with him, he began to doubt his own competence and finally decided to vote “guilty,” convinced he simply wasn’t astute enough to contradict the others.
Mary Nichols, another Kelly juror, voted “guilty,” but later admitted she did so only because her health was deteriorating and she couldn’t bear longer deliberations. “I finally agreed just to get out of there.”
Sometimes one’s own assumptions color the way a juror evaluates a case. One Kelly juror remarked “I can tell when kids are telling the truth,” and he chose to believe the children’s sometimes fantastic stories. He discounted the evidence presented from experts about how children’s memories can be shaped by adult contamination and how they can be persuaded to recount something as a memory that has been repeatedly suggested by an adult.
Each juror in Kelly’s case was asked to disclose if he or she had ever been the victim of child abuse or had any other personal experience with child abuse that could influence the way he or she viewed the trial. All denied such experience, but during deliberations one juror confessed to his fellow jurors that he had been sexually abused as a child.
Among the Kelly judge’s standard orders was that jurors were to use only testimony and evidence presented at trial in their deliberations. They were not allowed to include any research, information, or evidence not presented during the trial. However, a juror brought an April 1992 article profiling pedophiles (from Redbook magazine) to deliberations and jurors tried to match that profile to Bob Kelly as part of determining his guilt. Another order from the judge was for the jury to stay away from Edenton and not visit the alleged crime scene themselves. However, one juror visited three times because he “thought it was important” and he shared his observations with his fellow jurors during deliberations.
Dawn Wilson never would have been convicted, said some of her jurors, if their decision had been based solely on the evidence and argumentation presented at trial. However, through a legal blunder, unchallenged therapy notes tipped the balance. Both sides in the trial had agreed not to call therapists to the stand to testify. Consequently, the defense did not present expert testimony regarding contaminated therapy, leading questions, inappropriate parental pressure as part of therapy, or controversial therapeutic “symptoms” of child abuse. However, Wilson’s attorney unwittingly mentioned therapy notes during questioning of one witness. During the prosecution’s summary argument, the prosecutor entered all of the undisputed and unexamined therapy notes into evidence, using the technicality that since the defense had mentioned them, they were admissible. The defense was unable to exclude the evidence, rebut the notes’ assumptions, or introduce testimony undermining the veracity of the notes. The jurors, without any information discrediting the notes, were fully persuaded that the therapists had the ability to know the truth simply through their therapeutic techniques. Two jurors agreed there was no hard evidence against Wilson and they did not believe the children’s stories. But both relied on the unchallenged therapy notes.
Child Abuse Industry
Immediately after the first report to authorities, Officer Brenda Topen, the local “expert” on child abuse accusations, interviewed pre-schooler Kyle. According to Topen, Kyle provided no disclosure until he was prompted by being given naked, anatomically detailed adult dolls to use to demonstrate “what had happened.” Commenting on Kyle’s initial denial of abuse, Officer Topen said that it was “obvious he was unable to tell us, but maybe he could show us.” Such dubious reasoning is common among therapists who drive the child abuse recovery industry.
Debbie Forest rejected Topen’s assumption that abuse had occurred to her child. She objected to Topen’s repeated questioning about a “doctor” game with Mr. Bob (Kelly), noting that her child responded that the children had, indeed, “played doctor” with Mr. Bob — but it wasn’t abuse. According to Forest, her child related that when any child fell down and was hurt, Mr. Bob would play doctor by putting a Flintstone or G. I. Joe bandage on the scrape. Betty Ann Phillips’ child was also interviewed by Topen and Betty rejected Topen’s suspicions as well.
Although Topen testified for the prosecution in Kelly’s trial, and was considered a key expert supporter of the allegations by the accusing parents and the prosecution, her professional conduct was inconsistent and unsophisticated. She testified that she did not believe handing a child genitally detailed adult dolls was leading the child; she inexplicably destroyed all of her initial interview tapes and notes before the trials; and she reduced lengthy and complex child interviews to simple summary paragraphs in her reports.
As is true in most cases of unfounded child abuse charges, the vast majority of children were seen by only a few therapists, all of whom were predisposed to believe abuse had taken place and all of whom practiced techniques that were leading, pressuring, and unlikely to produce any final response from the children other than affirmation of abuse. Most children saw one of four therapists: Judy Abbott, Susan Childers, Dr. Betty Robertson, and Michele Zimmerman. According to parent Phillips, “it wasn’t therapy, it was an investigation.” Her husband added, “We were brainwashed by the therapist. Our son didn’t act out until therapy.”
Parent Grace Bean, who wanted an independent therapist, was recommended to Betty Robertson. What Bean didn’t know was that she was already seeing children from Little Rascals. By the time Bean’s child had a third session, Robertson was treating a dozen Little Rascals children, quickly advanced to 17, and eventually saw 23 children from Little Rascals. Robertson devised “homework” for the children, described by Bean, “I would have to set up the whole disclosure. [My son] wasn’t willing to say it on his own. I had to ask the questions to get the answers.”
In addition, Robertson assigned two books for parents to repeatedly read to their children. Patty the Rabbit and Tilly the Kitten are stories of cute young animals who feel bad and disappoint people until they admit they were abused and hiding their memories. Robertson and the believing parents denied these books, read every night, could persuade young children to “remember” a story regardless of whether or not they had actually been abused.
In addition to poor investigative techniques, biased official involvement, parental naivety regarding child abuse, and therapeutic contamination, expert evidence and the incredible nature of many allegations additionally discredit the Little Rascals story.
During Kelly’s trial, University of Georgia professor of psychology Dr. Henry Adams repeatedly criticized the therapeutic techniques used, especially repeated interrogation and the consistent refusal of parents and therapists to believe the children’s denials. The defense also presented physician testimony that there was no conclusive evidence of sexual abuse in any of the children’s physical examinations. Dr. Philip Esplen, one of the few psychologists who saw all of the records, complained about leading questions by prosecutors, contaminated interviews, poor documentation by investigators and therapists, and coercive interviewing by therapists and parents.
Among the more incredible stories offered by the children included the insistence by one child that Betsy Kelly stuck a knife in the child’s sister’s eye (there was never any documented injury to her eye) and “took a lot of pictures” (none were ever found). Another child testified that Bob and Betsy killed babies with a gun in outer space. All of the children told stories about boats, including one about how Bob Kelly and Scott Privett (a local video store owner) took the children on a boat in the harbor. Privett allegedly kept pet sharks in his back yard, brought them in an aquarium in his truck to the harbor, and used them to scare or eat the children after Bob threw them off the boat. Supposedly Privett recaptured his sharks using a special boat machine he had invented himself. Another child recounted how Bob threw a younger child off the boat and this child (about three years old at the time of the alleged incident) had to jump overboard and save the younger child. Children testified that Bob dressed up like a clown and robbed the jewelry store on Main Street (it hadn’t been robbed). A child testified that body parts of babies used in human sacrifices regularly littered the day-care facilities.
Innocence lost in Edenton — and so did the Kellys, Dawn Wilson, the other defendants, the children, the parents, and the jurors. So did real victims of child abuse whose anguish and hurt have now been tainted by the failure of justice in this case. If we care about truth and justice, we can’t afford to let Edenton become the pattern for “justice” in a contemporary system that embraces the illusions of therapeutic omniscience and judicial perfection.
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