Berkshire County: How Not to Investigate Child Sexual Abuse
By Lona Manning
Edited by Carol Clairmont Weissbrod
Justice:Denied magazine, Issue 24, page 5
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 doesn't add this important disclaimer: “Just don't be falsely accused of child abuse in Pittsfield. If you are, you may be sent to prison for life.” Justice advocates 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. The cases follow.
Bernard Baran: In 1984, 19-year-old Bernie Baran worked at a Pittsfield daycare center. The common-law husband of a woman who had a son enrolled in the daycare complained to the school officials that he objected to Baran working with Children because Baran was a homosexual. The first charges against the young daycare worker came from this couple. During the investigation of the charges, 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 JD Volume 1 Issue 8, http://www.justicedenied.org/bernie.htm. Bob Chatelle, a Boston-based advocate and writer, has set up a website about the Baran case at www.freebaran.org.
Robert Halsey was a school bus driver in the nearby town of Lanesboro. In 1993, he was removed from his elementary school bus route because he tickled a little girl on his route. The incident sparked rumors among Lanesboro's parent's, even though the little girl stated that she liked Bob the bus driver and that he had only tickled her. 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. More information about the Robert Halsey case is available at http://members.shaw.ca/imaginarycrimes/
Bruce Clairmont was separated from his wife of almost twenty years and going through a nasty divorce proceeding. He didn't know that she had put their son into counseling after catching him “playing doctor” with his sister. The therapist told Mrs. Clairmont that she suspected that the Clairmont children had been abused. After months of therapy sessions, both his son and daughter made accusations against him. A court-appointed clinical psychologist interviewed the family and concluded that the accusations were doubtful. 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. Clairmont's story was told by his sister in JD Volume I Issue 8, http://www.justicedenied.org/bruce.htm
An overlapping cast of characters is involved in the prosecution of these cases, including Daniel Ford, the prosecutor for the Bernard Baran case, who went on to become the judge in the trial of the bus driver, 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 was an assistant District Attorney during the Halsey trial, and who is currently serving his third term as District Attorney; and Jane Satullo (now Satullo Shiya), a counselor, who interviewed children in both the Baran and Halsey cases.
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 doesn't 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 1
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 professionals 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 furniture. Citizens Against Child Abuse proudly noted that they had purchased “state-of-the-art recording 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 tapes?
But Detective Collias (now retired), recently offered the unofficial reason: We didn't 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 with an 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 where Bernard 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 remains a closely guarded secret. Bernard Baran's new legal team has battled Downing's office for access to the videotaped interviews that survive (Downing claims that most have probably been erased).
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 incriminate Baran.”
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 prosecution's 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 suggestive methods have influenced the child.” For example, Neal Clairmont's first interview with Detective Collias lasted about forty-five minutes, which Collias summarized into one single spaced page.
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) notes.... Investigators 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 Judgment
“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 lawyer.
The Clairmont children were pawns in a nasty divorce; the Walker twins' allegations 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 parents with a pronounced prejudice against homosexuals.
Detective Collias appeared to rely more on new-age intuition than old-fashioned detective 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 bathtub and have Neal kneel on the floor and force Neal to perform oral sex. "Neal remembered that his father had him flush the toilet while this was going on,” the report notes. Interviewed for this article, Collias said that he didn't measure the distance from the bathtub to the toilet to see if a child Neal's age could have reached the toilet handle while kneeling by the bathtub. According to Clairmont, he couldn't have reached it.
Renee's 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 father's 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. Instead, the accusations, obtained under dubious circumstances, were relied upon to send a man to prison for nine to twelve years.
Because of the heinous nature of child sexual abuse, the presumption of innocence is often given short shrift, especially in Berkshire County. After Halsey's arrest, both Jane Sattullo, the therapist, and the children's elementary school principal were quoted in the local newspaper, discussing the accusations as though they were confirmed facts. Neither of them appeared to give a moment's consideration to the presumption of innocence for Halsey. “We all feel violated,” Principal Thomas Gillooly told the Berkshire Eagle.
But accusations of child abuse, like any accusation, should be investigated carefully. A child abuse investigation should include a profile of the child and the family, and should investigate the child's 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, or inappropriate television programs. In his cross-examination for the Clairmont trial, Collias admitted that he did not interview the Clairmont children's teachers, or school counselor, or pediatrician.
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 didn't 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 didn't 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 children's 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 Baran's 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.
Interpreting children's testimony
“Today's interviews also frequently demonstrate that they ‘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 these two descriptions of the same child, Christopher Barton. Jason and Justin Walker accused their bus driver of molesting them. The twins named Christopher as having been sexually assaulted as well. Christopher's mother watched his forensic interview through one-way glass. When questioned, Christopher denied that anything unusual had happened on Robert Halsey's bus. “After it was over I talked to the (investigator) and they said that they didn't think we needed to worry (because it appeared their son hadn't 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 Christopher's 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, Halsey's 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 nothing happened.” Certainly, if his mother had not taken steps to remove her child from the so-called therapy, the relentless, sexually explicit questioning would have continued for this child.
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 peney when he touched you with it?
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 truth.
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 Neal's 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 father's after the divorce))
The prosecution contended that Robert Halsey, the bus driver, could maneuver his Chevy Suburban around some large concrete blocks that lay across Nobody's Road, and that he would take the children up to some secluded fields to assault them. Prosecutor Timothy Shugrue deftly maneuvered the children on the stand into giving the desired testimony. “Could you tell us,” Shugrue asks Justin Walker, “were you able to get around those blocks?” Justin answers “Sometimes yes and sometimes no.”
The answer Shugrue wanted was “yes, we could.” Shugrue ignores Justin's 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 couldn't get around the blocks. He adds, “Sometimes he stopped the bus there (at the blocks), and then he'd 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 Halsey's 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 Clairmont's descriptions also raise the question of whether he was speaking from experience, or from what he imagined sex to be. He evidently believed that homosexual sex resembles campers trying to start a fire by rubbing sticks of kindling together.
Questionable credentials, questionable theories
“It should be obvious that if increasingly serious allegations emerge only after weeks or months of questioning of the child by family, police, social workers, or therapists, careful investigation is the only way to decide if the expanded claims are the result of the child's gradually increasing ability to say everything that happened, or are instead the result of the child's 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 who've been sexually abused are especially likely to delay disclosing abuse, “because there's a concern that somehow they're going to be seen as damaged by having... a homosexual act, that somehow as boys they should have been more responsible and more able to protect themselves.” But, added later in his testimony, when he started treating the Walker twins, “I asked them what sex was, they didn't 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 coming forward about Halsey's actions for a year after he stopped driving them?
“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 Clairmont's 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 notion, indeed.”
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 hymenal notches and clefts were said to be healed tears, or pale areas were said to be scars, rarely did an investigation of the child's 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. No photographs 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 wasn't 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 anus. But Collias was wrong. In fact, the medical report indicated that Neal had an "anal tag," a tiny flap of excess skin which is a normally occurring variation in human anatomy and isn't considered to be an indicator of sexual abuse.
The jury was told in the Bernard Baran trial that little Peter's mother was giving him a bath one night and she noticed blood on his penis. His mother later admitted that she hadn't seen any blood. A medical examination of this boy showed no damage to his genitals.
The Kids' Place
“Those who interview children for possible abuse and investigate abuse allegations should not see themselves as advocates for children but seekers of the truth. Our society needs child advocates who offer services to abused and neglected children... however, such persons should not be part of a legal investigation.”
-- Coleman and Clancy
The Berkshire County Kids' Place, a “children's 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 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 children.”
However, the official crime statistics don't bear out the claim. The pamphlet is undated, but predates the Center's 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 reports of rape -- 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 potential donors that 85 out of 1,000 children in Pittsfield were reported for child sexual abuse every year. It's 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 child abuse).
To compare actual case figures against the distorted figures in the fundraising pamphlet, between July 2000 and July 2001, an unusually busy year for the center, the investigative team interviewed 109 children. 2 Criminal charges were brought on nine cases. If the pamphlet statistics were correct, the Kids' Place would see 2,905 children, not 109 that year. 3
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 hysterical exaggeration is the best way to get their point across?
District Attorney Gerard Downing told the Berkshire Eagle newspaper in 2000 that the way in which child abuse investigations are conducted in Berkshire County hasn't 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 continues to wait for complete disclosure of the child interviews that he is entitled to receive, and for which he has a court order. He and Robert Halsey remain in prison.
False accusations hurt children as well as adults. Wrongful prosecutions divert resources 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.
P.S. Berkshire County District Attorney Gerard Downing died at the age of 52 on 15 December, 2003.
Lona Manning is a freelance writer and researcher who lives in British Columbia, Canada. Several of Manning's crime articles may be found at www.crimemagazine.com. She maintains a website about wrongful child abuse convictions at http://members.shaw.ca/imaginarycrimes.
Special thanks to Carol Clairmont Weissbrod for her assistance in researching this article.
#1 All excerpts from Coleman and Clancy are taken from, "Has a Child Been Molested: the Disturbing Facts About Current Methods of Investigating Child Sexual Abuse Accusations," by Lee Coleman, M.D. and Patrick Clancey, J.D., published by Berkeley Creek Productions, 1999.
#2 During the 80's and 90's, the topic of child abuse received a lot of publicity and government and charitable resources were brought to bear to combat the problem. One result is the number of reports of child abuse rose phenomenally. In Massachusetts reports of abuse doubled from 1987 to 1997. However, nationwide statistics show that the number of substantiated cases of abuse rose only slightly, meaning that investigators found that the majority of abuse reports are either without merit or lacking proof. Since 1992, substantiated cases of child sexual abuse have actually declined, which we hope means that the actual occurrence of CSA has declined.
#3 Using 2000 Census data figures which show that 34,159 residents of Berkshire County were under 19.