Charge of child sexual abuse nearly destroys a family

October 04, 1990|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

Up until the afternoon of March 29, 1988, "Johnny" thought he had an unusually happy life.

He had a wife, a steady $25,000-a-year job, a small house in Cecil County and two daughters.

"Johnny" (not his real name) would not have been insulted if someone remarked that his family was ordinary, for he says he wanted nothing more.

But on that afternoon in 1988, his oldest daughter, 4 at the time, told someone that her father had sexually abused her. And the happy life that Johnny remembers -- if it ever really existed -- was gone forever.

Johnny's story shows how a charge of sexual abuse affected one family. The story also serves as a window on how the authorities cope with such cases, which involve wrenching decisions often based on hazy evidence.

Within hours of the accusation, the machinery designed to protect children and punish abusers kicked in. The system includes the police, prosecutors, the courts and local social-services departments.

A criminal court would hear the charge against Johnny. In addition, a juvenile court hearing -- a civil proceeding concerned with child welfare -- would determine if the two daughters were at risk of abuse and whether immediate action was required.

Often the immediate action in such cases is placement in foster care, and this is what happened to Johnny's children, even though two doctors had different findings on whether the older girl had physical signs of sexual abuse.

Eventually, though he professed innocence and had passed a polygraph test, Johnny plea-bargained in what he calls an effort to protect his family. Now he faces having his children put up for adoption.

Johnny's real name is not being used here to protect the identity of his children. This account is based on interviews with him and his wife, some of his therapists and officials of the child-protection system, and on court records and other available documents.

Workers in Cecil County's Department of Social Services are prohibited by state privacy law from discussing the case directly. But their correspondence with Johnny, and comments at a public hearing, indicate they steadfastly believe he sexually abused his older daughter.

Over the past two years, Johnny's children have been placed in foster care twice. Now the department favors taking his daughters away forever, by terminating his parental rights.

His wife has said she is prepared to divorce him if that is the only way she can retain custody of her children. After two years of professing her husband's innocence, she left him last month in hopes of improving her custody chances.

Children are not automatically taken from parents when a complaint of sexual abuse is ruled to be "indicated," which is the social-services classification for any case where there is a strong indication that abuse or neglect has occurred.

Current social-services doctrine, with its emphasis on keeping families together, holds that a parent or guardian who confesses to sexual abuse can be treated. But an abuser who denies guilt is considered unsuitable for treatment programs, says Carolyn Mumma, assistant director of the Cecil County Department of Social Services.

Johnny contends that social workers kept telling him, "Just tell us you did it and you can keep your children. Tell us you did it and we can get you treatment." But he says he refused because "I can't say I did something I didn't do."

Mumma says she doubts that her caseworkers ever would be so blunt.

Johnny's family "was just at that point of realizing the American ,, dream," says one of his therapists, who has requested anonymity. Johnny's only obvious failing as a parent was "overindulgence of his children," the therapist says.

But Johnny's wife admits that life was not quite perfect in the little house in Cecil County.

For one thing, her friends did not get along with Johnny. They liked parties and having a good time, but Johnny was against drinking and did not tolerate boisterous behavior.

This and other differences led to a few violent quarrels in which he sometimes struck her or grabbed her, Johnny's wife says. "And sometimes I started it. But it wasn't very often," she adds.

On the afternoon of March 29, 1988, she went to pick up their 4-year-old daughter at the home of a woman friend who was baby-sitting. The woman and her boyfriend were not fans of Johnny.

When Johnny's wife arrived, she was told by the baby sitter that the child had said Johnny "done dirty bad things" to her. The baby sitter and her boyfriend insisted that the mother take the child to Elkton's Union Hospital.

A doctor there found no evidence of sexual injury. But the case was reported to the social-services department and the police, as required by law.

The child was interviewed that night by a two-man team: Joe Rando, an investigator for social services, and Trooper Gary Pierce of the State Police. Johnny's daughter repeated her accusation.

Since that interview, though, the girl has said during therapy that "Daddy never did it."

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