Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Good intentions gone awry

I am going to make a wild prediction. Everyone reading this thinks that child sexual abuse is disgusting, and we should do everything in our power to ensure it does not happen to children, and if it does, everything in our power to ensure it does not happen again by the same perpetrator. I may be wrong, but I cannot remember ever meeting anyone who thinks sexual abuse is something positive for those involved (and yes, that includes the perpetrators as well, but that is a different post topic).

Based on this grandiose and general statement, it should come as no surprise, therefore, that the legal profession, and the child welfare profession have teamed up to ensure that children know about the dangers of physical and sexual abuse. We have entire teams of police, social workers, lawyers, etc. working together in forensic centers designed to interview children safely and effectively. As adults, we want to do everything we can to protect children from being harmed and help those who have already been harmed. We take the problem seriously . . . and we should.

But what happens when all those good intentions blind us to our own fallibility as humans, and the system breaks down?

That is when you get the situation expressed in a New Zealand book about the largest child sexual abuse case in New Zealand history. The book is called A City Possessed, and the convicted child molester is Peter Ellis. This is a book everyone working in the family or juvenile court system should read. It is now a decade old, and parts of the story are unique to the New Zealand situation, but the overall lesson is one we should all heed. We cannot let our good intentions blind us.

As someone who grew up with discussions about family law around the dinner table, who represents abused and neglected children, and who believes that courts do far more good than harm, this was a hard book to read. The book paints a grim picture of those involved in the Peter Ellis case; it discussed parents asking leading questions of their children and sharing information amongst themselves, repeated “forensic” interviews lasting an hour + at a time with many leading questions throughout, and evidence of these interviews denied to the jury except where the children allegedly disclosed abuse. That would have been bad enough, but the cover-up and inability to say, “the system made a mistake” went all the way up to the Minister of Justice at the time.

I could go on and on about this case and the book, but instead I urge you to either read it, or remember times in your own life where you may have gotten momentarily (or longer) blinded by your own beliefs, or your own gut reactions of, “child abuse is so gross!” that you failed to see that the accused may have done nothing. There is no question that we want to protect children, and there is little debate that we should do all we can to ensure that they are protected. The problem is when that belief stops us from being rational.

We work in an emotionally-charged area of the law, and it is important to recognize those emotions and use them. It is important to allow them out. But it is also important to remember that they cannot drive our every action. We must be willing to be wrong. We must be willing to see the entire picture. I know that the problems articulated in this book have been remedied across the world in many ways. I know that most of us do our best to ensure that innocent people are not wrongly convicted. I know that most people in the family and juvenile courts have good intentions.

None of that means, however, that we never make mistakes. None of that means that we never lose sight of the notion that people are innocent until proven guilty. Of course the book mentions other cases of misguided abuse allegations, including the McMartin case in the United States. So, we know that even though these facts might be unique to New Zealand, the problem is universal. This book was a reminder to me, a difficult reminder for sure, but I think a necessary one, that we must be vigilant and careful about our own ability to jump to conclusions.

Do you have other books and stories you would like to share? Please put them in the comments. I think this is one of the most important topics we face as a profession, and we should not be fearful of acknowledging that mistakes can be made.

Thank you!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved


    Is a trial I remember. Great article and super insight.

  2. Thanks, freedrinx! I do not personally remember the McMartin trial, but I have definitely heard about it.

  3. Very good post, Rebecca. It is a very unfortunate statement of our society that adult men are being made reluctant to participate in any social activity with children for fear of being accused, or even misunderstood. The number of men willing to engage in scouting, sports coaching, virtually any traditional male leadership activity with children is dwindling for this exact reason. The law may assume innocent until proven guilty, but society does not.

  4. Sherry, that is incredibly true, but it is not just adult men, unfortunately. I used to be a camp counselor, and we were told not to hug the children. If they were crying and hugged us, we could pat them on the back, maybe place an arm on their shoulders. It was appalling, and it is one of the reasons I left childcare. Children deserve better from all of us, and that includes trusting the people who give up money and fame to work with these children and help them become amazing people! Thanks for the comment.