|The Report Newsmagazine, 2001 06 11, p. 25|
The right way to ask
Kids can lie, and that's one reason Edmonton is fixing the way it handles child-abuse complaints
by LOUISE MALENFANT
As the Canadian divorce rate soared during the past three decades, so too did false child-abuse allegations made in the heat of marriage breakups. Although figures on the extent of the problem are hard to come by, a study conducted by Queen's University researcher Nicholas Bala identified 196 Canadian divorce-related child-abuse cases that went to trial between 1990 and 1998. Of these, only 23% were proven true. Similarly, a 1993 Ontario study identified more than 4,000 allegations of child abuse made in divorce proceedings. As in the Bala study, only 23% were proven to be legitimate.
The party most seriously aggrieved in such cases is usually a man. But the child-welfare system is harmed too. The phony charges bedevil ill-prepared social workers, frustrate overworked police and tie up already-clogged courts. In response, child-welfare authorities in Edmonton have recently taken a series of steps designed, in part, to weed out concocted charges and, in the main, to better deal with those cases that are legitimate.
It began last month with the announcement that Edmonton's joint police and social worker child-abuse investigative teams (known as Child At Risk Response Teams, or CARRTs) are making plans to move into a new home, the Child Protection Centre (CPC). Designed as a one-stop clearing house for parents and children who are involved in child-protection investigations, the centre also hopes eventually to provide medical and psychological services. All five CARRTs, as well as other child-abuse detectives, hope to move into the CPC by September.
The CPC, which has been in the works for several years, is modelled on programs in Phoenix and San Diego. Staff Sergeant Darren Eastcott, of the Edmonton police force's family-violence division, says its primary goal is to eliminate duplication, thereby avoiding the need for multiple interviews of an alleged victim child. "We want to speed up the process," Staff Sgt. Eastcott says, "and streamline it so the family can get on with the process of healing." The officer adds the CPC will be "a child-focused environment, not unlike a pediatrician's office, where children can be comfortable for the investigative process."
Family-welfare advocates are also looking into the establishment of a special court process for crimes involving minors. Currently, two prosecutors work part-time in this area, but Staff Sgt. Eastcott says Edmonton police are studying other jurisdictions and negotiating with crown counsel to see whether it is feasible to designate a single prosecutor to be responsible for child-related crimes.
But problems with child-abuse cases often crop up well before they end up in court. One crucial area involves interviews between investigating authorities and alleged victims. Too often in the past, techniques used to question children resulted in tainted information. In an attempt to remedy the problem, 270 child-welfare and police officials from across Canada attended a three-day seminar in late April in Edmonton. There they learned of the Step-Wise program, designed and implemented by world-renowned credibility expert Dr. John Yuille, a professor of forensic psychiatry at the University of B.C.
Dr. Yuille has assessed the allegations of children and adults in more than 800 cases, and has also provided expert evidence in criminal, civil and family court in both Canada and the U.S. His program, which follows 20 years of collaboration with psychologists, social workers and prosecutors, aims to implement standardized procedures for investigative interviews and credibility assessment.
A Step-Wise interview is designed with three goals in mind: reducing the trauma a child may experience during an interview; increasing the amount and quality of the information obtained from a child (and reducing contamination of that information); and the maintenance of the integrity of the investigative process.
Dr. Yuille's seminar also described a way to assess the credibility of a child's allegations. This tool is based on the assumption that the description of experienced events is qualitatively different than the description of an invented or coached event. Dr. Yuille has pointed out that lack of training has led professionals to commit a number of errors, with the result being they failed to obtain reliable information.
The UBC professor also noted some professionals still believe children never lie about sexual abuse. That, he said, can lead investigators to commit themselves prematurely to believing an allegation, and then to look only for information that proves what they presume to be true. However, there is increasing evidence that children, particularly those younger than five, can be induced by the interview process itself to produce a simple but false allegation of abuse. Indeed, researcher Dr. Stephen Ceci has noted that children who are subjected to a barrage of suggestive techniques will sometimes adopt a false belief in an abusive event, which few experts can then detect.
The Step-Wise interview technique involves asking children open-ended questions that do not include suggestive details. The aim is to minimize contamination of the interview with the suspicions of the interviewers. Without careful interviews, a child who has never experienced abuse can be taught through repeated questioning that he is an abuse victim, resulting in significant harm to the child, the family and, of course, the wrongly accused person. Similarly, poor investigative interviews can provide real child abusers with a method of discrediting the testimony of a victim child, thereby allowing the criminal to get away without detection.
Edmonton's child welfare system is developing another project with an eye to help address the problem of child-abuse allegations arising during divorce proceedings. Information officer Bob Arseneault explains that allegations in divorce proceedings have arisen frequently enough to persuade child-welfare officials that something was needed "to give some consistency to the process that deals with these matters." As a result, officials have begun advertising for a special investigator to consult on any sex-abuse allegation in divorce cases arising throughout the Edmonton system.
Vindication for a Manitoba father
Despite a troubling abundance of administrative errors, inadequate investigations and deficient decisions, Canadian child-protection agencies rarely admit making mistakes. More rarely still do they voluntarily offer a financial settlement to the wronged individual. But that is just what happened this spring in the case of one Manitoba father. The man, who can be identified only as "Mr. A," received a cheque for $20,000 from the Winnipeg Child and Family Service (CFS) after being wrongfully accused of sexually abusing his three-year-old daughter.
Mr. A's problems began in the fall of 1995 when his common-law wife moved herself and their little girl into a women's shelter following the breakup of their relationship. Child-welfare officials became involved soon after when it was alleged the child had accused the father of sexual abuse. Following a clinical assessment of the allegation, however, authorities exonerated Mr. A in February 1996.
Nevertheless, Catherine Hudek, the director of abuse services at the time, was convinced Mr. A was a child abuser and, as a result, ruled that he could see his daughter only under supervised conditions and that he must pay $100 an hour for the privilege. Not surprisingly, he frequently missed visits solely for financial reasons.
The matter was to be settled by a judge in May 1998, but one day before the trial was to begin, the CFS apprehended the girl and her infant sister (unrelated to Mr. A) from their mother. This led to a year's delay to allow the CFS time to prepare its case. On the plus side, the agency did agree to pay Mr. A's supervision costs from that point on.
The matter finally went to trial in May 1999. Justice Laurie Allen eventually ruled that the father should have custody of his daughter. The judge also noted that one social worker was the primary cause of delay in dealing with the case and had acted as "judge, jury and executioner of Mr. A's relationship with his daughter." The judge's ruling, known as AA v. LT v. Winnipeg Child and Family Services, is considered by many observers to be a landmark in its detailed criticism of a Canadian child-welfare system.
After finally winning back his daughter, Mr. A requested the Manitoba Ombudsman's office to conduct a formal review of his case. That led to the CFS's hiring of two consultants to review the agency's actions and make recommendations for change. As a result, the agency has mandated that the accused will always be interviewed as part of the investigation, has ruled that results of polygraph tests must be considered, has ensured that child-welfare investigators will be specialized and will receive training in child-interview techniques, and has written job descriptions for front-line staff and supervisors to clearly outline job duties.
Finally, in what is thought to be a first in Canada, the CFS gave $20,000 to Mr. A. Officials refused to comment on the settlement but Mr. A's lawyer, Regan Thatcher, says he has never seen a case where the child-welfare system voluntarily handed over money to make up for a mistake. He hopes, however, it will not be the last time.
Nevertheless, Mr. A is still out-of-pocket. "My expenses were over $40,000 through all this," he says, "but I didn't even have to file a lawsuit, so I guess I am luckier than most." In the end, he hopes the changes that have been instituted will prevent false allegations in the future, and "make it better for the next guy."
© The Report Newsmagazine