How Not to Investigate Child Sexual Abuse
Three cases of wrongful conviction
Pittsfield is a small city "nestled within the beautiful Berkshire
Hills of Western
Massachusetts," which "combines old-fashioned New England
tranquility and charm with
contemporary living," according to the town website. The website
doesnt add this
important disclaimer: "Just dont be falsely accused of
child abuse in Pittsfield. If you are,
you may be sent to prison for life." Advocates for the wrongfully
convicted say that at
least three people have been wrongfully convicted in Berkshire County
since 1984: a day
care worker, a 64 year old school bus driver, and a father caught
in a bitter divorce battle.
These cases are distinguished by persistent and leading questioning
of children, a
technique that has been proven to produce false accusations; by
a failure to investigate the
cases fully, as one would investigate any other kind of crime; and
the use of inexperienced
and unqualified counselors whose zeal to protect children overmatches
their ability to
objectively judge the evidence.
Update -- Family torn apart when Berkshire
bullies try to take children away -- read about the Piccone
The cases are:
Bernard Baran: In 1984, 19-year-old Bernie Baran worked
at a Pittsfield daycare center.
The stepfather of one of the children complained to the school officials
that he and his wife
objected to Baran working with children because he was an homosexual.
The first charges
against Baran came from the same couple. Dozens of children were
questioned, and five
young children eventually testified against Baran. One little girl
claimed that he wiped blood
from her vagina with scissors and that he also stabbed her in the
foot. He was sentenced to
three concurrent life terms. Baran was profiled in Justice
Volume 1 Issue 8
Bob Chatelle, a Boston-based advocate and writer, has set up a
website about the Baran
case. Update -- Baran's conviction was overturned,
but Berkshire County vows to send him back to prison.
Robert Halsey was a school bus driver
in the nearby town of Lanesboro. In 1993, he was
accused of tickling a little girl and was removed from elementary
school bus route. A year
later, eight-year-old twin boys accused him of sexually assaulting
them in the woods and
of torturing fish, turtles, frogs and crayfish to frighten them
into silence. Five children
testified at trial and Halsey was sentenced to three consecutive
life terms in 1994.
Bruce Clairmont was separated from his wife of almost twenty years.
He didnt know that
An overlapping cast of characters is involved in the prosecution of
these cases, including
she had put his son into counseling after catching him "playing
doctor" with his sister. The
therapist suspected that the Clairmont children had been abused.
After months of therapy
sessions, both his son and daughter made accusations against him.
clinical psychologist interviewed the family and concluded that
the accusations were most
unlikely. Nevertheless, the case proceeded to a jury trial and Clairmont
was found guilty in
1994 and sentenced to 9 to 12 years. Clairmont is now out on parole
and fighting to clear
his name. Clairmonts story was told by his sister in Justice
Denied Volume I Issue 8.
Daniel Ford, the prosecutor for the Bernard Baran case, who went on
to become the judge
in the trial of Robert Halsey; Timothy Shugrue, the prosecuting attorney
in the Halsey case,
who moved to private practice and represented Bruce Clairmont's ex-wife
in her divorce;
Joseph Collias, a detective who specialized in child abuse investigations,
who worked on the
Baran and Clairmont cases; Gerard Downing, who was involved in the
Baran case and is now District Attorney; and Jane Satullo (now Satullo
Shiya), a counselor, who interviewed children in both the Baran and
Shugrue and Collias were the founding president and vice-president
of The Kids Place, an
agency that coordinates child abuse investigations in Berkshire
County. Amy Moran, who
counseled the Clairmont children, served on the Board of Directors.
RoAnn Vecchia, who
also interviewed the Clairmont children, is the forensic interviewer
at Kids Place today.
Berkshire County doesnt tape record
"No excuses -- the audio tape recorder should be to the
sexual abuse investigator
what the pad and pencil is to the journalist -- the essential
tool that is used as
automatically as one breathes in and out."
-- Lee Coleman and Patrick Clancy
In the mid-eighties, a movement arose across the country to bring
child abuse out of the
closet. In Berkshire County, Detective Joe Collias and other concerned
formed a group called Citizens Against Child Abuse to raise public
awareness. They also
collected funds to create a child-friendly interviewing room for
police investigations. The
new room featured toys, brightly patterned wallpaper and child-sized
Against Child Abuse proudly noted that they had purchased "state-of-the-art
equipment." This equipment was in place in 1990, but its use
was soon discontinued.
Why did Berkshire County switch from state of the art back to pencil
and paper? The
official reason, as given by DA Gerard Downing to the Boston
Globe in 2000, is that tapes
are not admissible in court - child witnesses must testify. In other
words, why bother with
But Detective Collias (now retired), recently offered the unofficial
reason: "We didnt do
any tape recording. In the beginning we did. After that, we stopped.
A lot of that stuff
became too powerful for the defense attorneys."
He explained, "When we first started interviewing, we tape-recorded
interviews, then the
defense attorneys had it and they would be pounding these kids on
ever word they said
and how long the interview took. And we decided to stop tape recording
interview. We just used note takers." (By comparison, Hampshire
and Franklin counties,
also in Western Massachusetts, do videotape interviews.)
When the three and four year olds who attended the Pittsfield daycare
Baran worked were interviewed and asked if Bernie had ever touched
them, at least some
of the interviews were taped. Some edited versions of tapes were
shown to a grand jury,
but the contents of the unedited tapes were a closely guarded secret.
new legal team obtained a court order for release of the tapes,
but two years went by before
the prosecutor's office turned the surviving tapes over to Baran's
Journalist David Mehegan reported in the Boston Globe in
2000 that "the videotapes of
[Jane Satullo] Shiyah's individual interviews at the DA's office
were not viewed for this
story but it is not apparent from police notes that she led or pushed
the children to
Mehegen is unaware of just how misleading and incomplete summaries
of interviews can
be. Coleman and Clancy, quoted above, have analyzed recordings of
child interviews in
some notorious child abuse cases and compared the prosecutions
written summaries with
the actual interviews. They write that "not only are leading
and suggestive methods used
in the vast majority of cases, but the written summaries give no
indication that this
happened and instead concentrate on what the child said after such
have influenced the child." For example, Neal Clairmonts
first interview with Detective
Collias lasted about forty-five minutes, which Collias summarized
into one single spaced
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health reported the same
finding in 2000. "More
than half [57%] of the interviewers' utterances along with 25% of
the... details provided by
the children were not reported in the "verbatim" [police]
systematically misattributed details to more open rather than more
focused prompts," that
is, investigators said that they were asking neutral, open-ended
questions when in fact they
were asking specific and possibly leading questions. For example,
the question, "did he put
his penis in your mouth?" provides a child with sexual knowledge
of which he or she
might previously have been ignorant.
Rush to Judgement
"All too often, investigators consider the accusation,
once it has
been stated during an interview with the child, to be sufficient
evidence to conclude that the case is genuine. No further investigation
is judged necessary."
-- Coleman and Clancy
Investigators probing the child abuse complaints in the Halsey,
Baran and Clairmont cases
apparently never seriously considered alternate hypotheses for why
the children would be
alleging abuse. "They had no reasons -- you know, those are
some pretty horrific things
for kids to make up," RoAnn Vecchia told Bruce Clairmont's
The Clairmont children were pawns in a nasty divorce; the Walker
against Halsey (that he shot a gun at turtles and frogs and set
crayfish on fire) were utterly
bizarre, and allegations against Baran came, not from a child, but
from a step-parent with a
pronounced prejudice against homosexuals.
Detective Collias appeared to rely more on new-age intuition than
work in deciding that Bruce Clairmont abused his children. Renee
and Neal, two of the
five Clairmont children, and the only two to be involved in making
allegations against their
father, were brought to the police station in the spring of 1993.
It was almost two years
since their father had lived with them. Neal told Collias that his
father used to wash his
penis and make him uncomfortable. In his report of the interview,
Collias wrote: "I told
him that I thought that there was much more to this and that he
was holding things back."
Neal continued in therapy and by July, was back to tell Detective
Collias more. He claimed
that when his mother was out of the house shopping, his father would
sit on the edge of
the tab and have Neal kneel on the floor and force Neal to perform
oral sex. "Neal
remember that his father had him flush the toilet while this was
going on," the report
notes. Interviewed for this article, Collias said that he didnt
measure the distance from the
bathtub to the toilet to see if a child Neals age could have
reached the toilet handle while
kneeling by the bathtub. According to Clairmont, he couldnt
have reached it.
Renees allegations against her father similarly progressed
from touching to penetration
over a period of months. Later still, the children alleged that
the sex acts had continued at
their fathers home when they went to visit him, a home that
Clairmont shared with his
brother. Although this was an alleged crime scene, Collias never
even visited this home as
part of his investigation, or interviewed anyone who lived there,
besides the defendant.
A child abuse investigation should include a profile of the child
and the family, and should
investigate the childs prior sexual knowledge. Does the child
have a precocious amount
of sexual knowledge for his age, and if so, why? Is it because he
has been molested or
could there be another explanation, such as exposure to adult conversation,
inappropriate television programs. In his cross-examination for
the Clairmont trial, Collias
admitted that he did not interview the Clairmont childrens
teachers, or school counselor,
Investigators should ask, did the accused have the opportunity,
the place or time, to
molest the children as alleged? The Baran trial jury heard that
Bernard Baran was never
alone with the children, that bathroom doors were left ajar as a
matter of policy, that he
didnt have a key to a tool shed where he allegedly took the
children, but none of this
mattered to the verdict. Halsey was supposed to have molested children
on his bus route.
Since he clearly didnt have time for this, the prosecutor
theorized in his closing argument
that Halsey must have kept the children with him all afternoon on
early dismissal days. But
Shugrue never asked the childrens mother, when she was on
the stand, if she paid
attention to what days school let out early.
Investigators should ask, could the child have been abused by someone
else? The parents
who accused Bernie Baran were admitted drug users with chaotic and
violent lives. Their
son, only three years old, was almost expelled from the day care
because of his violent,
anti-social behavior and was in foster care at the time of Barans
trial. Two of the children
in this case made accusations against other adults in their lives
-- but this information was
not shared with Bernard Baran and his lawyers.
After Halseys arrest, both Jane Sattullo and the school principal
were quoted in the paper,
discussing the accusations as though they were confirmed facts.
Neither of them appeared
to give a moments consideration to the presumption of innocence
for Halsey. "We all feel
violated," Principal Thomas Gillooly told the Berkshire
Interpreting childrens testimony
"Todays interviews also frequently demonstrate
that the believe the child
doctrine so popular among child protection advocates is very selective.
Regardless of how suggestive an interview might be, eventual statements
of abuse are believed, but statements by the child that abuse
has not occurred
are not believed. The child is said to be in denial."
-- Coleman and Clancy
As an example of how interviewer bias can affect perceptions, consider
descriptions of the same child, Christopher Barton. Jason and Justin
Walker accused their
bus driver of molesting them. The twins named Christopher as having
assaulted as well. Christophers mother watched his forensic
interview through one-way
glass. When questioned, Christopher denied that anything unusual
had happened on
Robert Halseys bus. "After it was over I talked to the
[investigator] and they said that
they didnt think we needed to worry [because it appeared their
son hadnt been
molested]." She recalled that the investigator agreed with
her that Christopher was "the
kind of kid who would have said something."
But Lanesboro Chief of police Stan Misiuk described Christophers
interview this way in
front of a grand jury. "Christopher was extremely evasive.
He did not want to talk about
Bob [Halsey] or the bus at all. He was having a hard time sitting
still. He was always
doing something in the interview room."
"Based on your training and experience," the prosecutor
asked, "do you feel that....
Christopher [was] not forthcoming about all they knew about what
happened on the bus?"
"No, [he was] not forthcoming," said the chief.
Christopher was re-questioned at play therapy sessions at school,
conducted by Jane
Sattullo, but continued to deny that anything had happened. He told
his mother that the
twins, Halseys chief accusers, were encouraged to draw obscene
pictures and swear at
them to "get their anger out." His mother finally took
her son out of the therapy sessions.
"He was definitely affected and definitely hurt [by the therapy]."
She told the investigators,
"He is a very honest child. He has told you over and over that
Supplying testimony for the children
When these cases came to trial (because every defendant asserted
his innocence rather
than plead guilty), judges allowed the prosecution to lead, and
openly prompt their young
witnesses into providing the desired testimony. When the children
faltered, the prosecutor
also provided an explanation for the jury, suggesting that the children
were afraid or
anxious. In the Baran case, children as young as three and four
testified, or rather, the
prosecutor testified on their behalf:
MR. FORD: Remember something coming out of Bernie's peniey when
he touched you
GINA SMITH: Uh-huh.
MR. FORD: What?
GINA SMITH: Nothing.
MR. FORD: I thought something came out?
GINA SMITH: Nothing came out.
MR. FORD: Mommy, could you just tell Gina it's okay to tell the
THE MOTHER: What do you think came out?
GINA SMITH: I don't want to.
MR. FORD: Remember some pretend worms coming out?
GINA SMITH: (Witness nods head up and down)
At 13, Neal Clairmont was old enough to tell his story in his own
words when he testified
before the Grand Jury. But it was all provided for him by the prosecutor.
Here is Neals
grand jury testimony, in its entirety (excluding being sworn in
and chit-chat about schools:
yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yeah, yeah, yeah,
yeah, yeah, yeah, yes, yes, yes,
yeah, yah, yup, yeah, yes, yes, yeah, yes, yes, yeah, yes, yes,
yeah, yeah, yes, yup, right,
yeah, yeah, yes, no,* yup, yeah, yeah, yeah, yes, yes, yes, yes,
yeah, yes, yes.
*(the question was, "did you ever go for overnight visits"
to fathers house after the
The prosecution contended that Robert Halsey, the bus driver, could
maneuver his Chevy
Suburban around some large concrete blocks that lay across Nobodys
Road, and that he
would take the children up to some secluded fields to assault them.
Shugrue also deftly maneuvered the children on the stand into giving
testimony. "Could you tell us," Shugrue asks Justin Walker,
"were you able to get around
those blocks?" Justin answers "Sometimes yes and sometimes
The answer Shugrue wanted was "yes, we could." Shugrue
ignores Justins equivocal
answer and acts as though he has said, "yes we could."
"All right," he persists. "Tell me, when -- how
you got around those blocks?"
But Justin has chosen to go with the "sometimes no" part
of the equation and testify that
the van couldnt get around the blocks. He adds, "Sometimes
he stopped the bus there (at
the blocks), and then hed take us into the woods."
Shugrue ignores this remark as well, and asks "Did you ever
drive up there?"
"Yeah," Justin replies.
"How did you drive up there?"
"With the bus."
"Did you go around the blocks?" By repeating the question,
Shugrue sends Justin the
message that his first answer wasn't the right one.
"Yeah," answers the witness.
Shugrue appeared at times to not hear what the children were saying
at all. Both twins
testified that the stuff they saw coming out of Halseys penis
was "yellow." Shugrue told
the jury the kids said it was "white." The children said
Halsey "moved it around," to
describe the way Halsey moved his finger and his penis during anal
and digital intercourse.
They appeared to believe that intercourse was a swirling sort of
activity. Shugrue told the
jury that the children described an "in and out" motion.
Neal Clairmonts descriptions also raise the question of whether
he was speaking from
experience, or from what he imagined sex to be. He evidently believed
sex resembles campers trying to start a fire by rubbing sticks of
Questionable credentials, questionable theories
"It should be obvious that if increasingly serious allegations
after weeks or months of questioning of the child by family, police,
workers, or therapists, careful investigation is the only way
to decide if
the expanded claims are the result of the childs gradually
to say everything that happened, or are instead the result of
attempt to satisfy interviewers who are prodding the child to
say more and more."
-- Coleman and Clancy
Psychologist Jeffrey Fishman testified for the prosecution in the
Halsey and Clairmont
cases. In a pre-trial hearing, Fishman explained that boys whove
been sexually abused are
especially likely to delay disclosing abuse, "because theres
a concern that somehow
theyre going to be seen as damaged by having... a homosexual
act, that somehow as a
boy they should have been more responsible and more able to protect
added later in his testimony, when he started treating the Walker
twins, "I asked them
what sex was, they didnt really know what that was. So when
they were talking about
sexual acts, what we would consider sexual acts, they were solely
describing them as
intrusions upon their body." Since the Walker twins had no
concept of what sex was, how
could they have internalized the cultural stigma against homosexuality?
Why then, would
Fishman have used his stigma theory to explain why the boys delayed
about Halseys actions for a year after he stopped driving
"It is my understanding that Ms. [RoAnn] Vecchia, the Dept.
of Social Services worker
did not receive any license until 1998 and that in 1998 she obtained
a license as a "Social
Work Associate," an attorney friend of Bruce Clairmonts
pointed out in a scathing letter
to the parole board. "The requirements for this sort of license,
which she didn't have at the
time she was involved with Bruce's young children, appear to be
either two years of
college in a "human science" field or four years of college
in any field."
"In other words, any of the following college graduates are
permitted to ask probing
questions of small children in the State of Massachusetts on the
subject of possible sexual
encounters with their father: 1.) Art history majors with a concentration
in 20th Century
Minimalist Art, 2.) Physical Education majors with a concentration
in aquatics, 3.) History
Majors with a concentration in Irish folklore and mythology. Sobering
Vecchia, as noted above, is the forensic interviewer at The Kids
Place today, despite
having the lowest level of accreditation possible in Massachusetts.
Inadequate or misleading medical information
"Of the many hundreds of cases we have studied in which
and clefts were said to be healed tears, or pale areas were said
to be scars,
rarely did an investigation of the childs medical past reveal
that at the time
of the alleged assault the child was noted to be acutely injured."
-- Coleman and Clancy
In the Halsey case, the Walker twins were examined by a pediatrician.
were presented at trial of the scarring that the pediatrician claimed
to find. No evidence
was presented at trial to indicate that anyone noticed, back when
the boys were
supposedly being assaulted, that they had been injured in such a
way as to leave scars. The
boys regular doctor wasnt called to testify.
Detective Collias got mixed up on the medical evidence in the Clairmont
case and told the
grand jury that Neal had a "tear" on his rectum. But Collias
was wrong. In fact, the
medical report indicated that Neal had an "anal tag,"
a tiny flap of excess skin which can
be a normally occurring variation in human anatomy and isnt
considered indicative of
The jury was told in the Bernard Baran trial that little Peters
mother was giving him a
bath one night and she noticed blood on his penis. She later admitted
that she hadnt seen any
blood. A medical examination of this boy showed no damage to his
The Kids Place: impartial investigator?
"Those who interview children for possible abuse and
allegations should not see themselves as advocates for children
of the truth... Our society needs child advocates who offer services
and neglected children.... however, such persons should not be
part of a legal investigation."
-- Coleman and Clancy
The Berkshire County Kids Place, a "childrens
advocacy center" co-founded by Shugrue
and Collias, is precisely what Coleman and Clancy warn about --
an agency which
combines therapeutic intervention for children with forensic investigation.
The founders of
the Kids Place also sought to convince the public that an invisible
epidemic of child abuse
existed right there in Berkshire County. A fundraising pamphlet
for The Kids Place claims
that "The Pittsfield Police Department last year handled 100
rape cases -- 65 were
However, the official crime statistics dont bear out the
claim. The pamphlet is undated,
but predates the Centers official opening in 1995. In 1993,
1994, and 1995, the Uniform
Crime Reports for Pittsfield show that the police department handled
29, 32 and 30 rape
reports (from complainants of all ages) in those years. How
could the police handle 65
"cases" of child rape and not have these cases reflected
in the Uniform Crime Reports?
The pamphlet also confused the reporting rate for child abuse of
all kinds (such as neglect
or physical abuse) with the rate for child sexual abuse. The Kids
Place pamphlet told
donors that 85 out of 1,000 children in Pittsfield were reported
for child sexual abuse
every year. Its true that 85 out of 1,000 Pittsfield children
were being reported for
suspected abuse every year -- twice the state average -- but this
was for child abuse of all
kinds. In fact, only 6 percent of substantiated child abuse reports
in Pittsfield involve
sexual abuse. (Neglect is by far the most common type of substantiated
To compare actual case figures against the distorted figures in
the fundraising pamphlet,
between July 2002 and July 2001, an unusually busy year for the
center, the investigative
team interviewed 109 children. Criminal charges were brought on
nine cases. On the
other hand, if the pamphlet statistics were correct, the Kids' Place
would expect to see 2,905
children, not 109.
The Kids Place executive director did not respond to a request
to explain why the
distorted figures were used on the pamphlet -- was it a mistake,
or do the professionals at
The Kids Place believe that exaggeration is the best way to
raise money? And given this
sloppy research (at best) or exaggeration (at worst), could any
person falsely accused of child
abuse in Berkshire County feel confident in knowing that the Kids'
Place was in charge of the investigation?
District Attorney Gerard Downing told the Berkshire Eagle
newspaper in 2000 that the
way in which child abuse investigations are conducted in Berkshire
County hasnt changed
substantially since the days of the Bernard Baran case. The Kids
Place continues to
combine investigation, which should be neutral, with advocacy, which
is never neutral.
Bernard Baran's legal team has recently received (Summer, 2003)
some edited videotapes of
the child interviews. He and Robert Halsey remain in prison.
False accusations hurt children as well as adults. Wrongful prosecutions
from protecting children. Those who claim to care about the children
of Berkshire County
need to face up to the errors of the past, and prevent wrongful
convictions in the future.
All excerpts from Coleman and Clancy are from: Has a Child Been
Molested: the Disturbing
Facts About Current Methods of Investigating Child Sexual Abuse
by Lee Coleman, M.D. and Patrick Clancey, J.D., published by Berkeley
Creek P:roductions, 1999.
In 1993, Newsweek debunked nother widely cited statistic,
also used in Kids Place
literature, that one in four girls are sexually abused. The statistic
comes from a 1985
survey (in which) childhood was up to age 18, and abuse
included everything from a
single glimpse of a flasher to forced intercourse. Studies limited
to girls under 14, defining
abuse as sexual contact with a man at least five years older, have
shown a fairly consistent
rate of 10 to 12 percent since the 1940s.
Special thanks to Carol Clairmont Weissbrod for her research assistance.
In this article, the names of children have been changed.