WESTMINSTER — Law enforcement officials in Carroll and across the country are seeking ways to strengthen their cases since the defendants were acquitted in California's controversial McMartin child abuse case.
National child abuse experts say the $16 million, six-year McMartin day-careabuse case -- the longest and most expensive trial ever conducted inthis country -- was mismanaged and investigated improperly.
But instead of ignoring the faulty handling of the case against Virginia McMartin and her son, Raymond Buckey, prosecutors, counselorsand police in Carroll are trying to draw a lesson from it to make sure it never happens here.
Westminster Police and the Carroll State's Attorney's Office are sponsoring a child abuse seminar this week at the Quality Inn to teach those lessons to county prosecutors, social workers, and state and municipal police.
The seminar began Monday with a videotape called, "After McMartin: Who Walks Point?" in which legal experts and the judge from the McMartin trial discuss the case's effect on prosecutors' willingness to charge suspects with child abuse.
Westminster City Police Lt. Dean Brewer, Family and Children's Service Director Marcia Meyer, Department of Social Services caseworker Ruth Ann Arty and Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman then engaged in a panel discussion of the case.
One of the most hotly debated aspects of the trial was the use of videotaped and live courtroom testimony by the alleged child victims, panelists said.
The testimony of suspected abuse victims in Carroll is not videotaped, and court and police officials here want to keep it that way.
"It probably does more to hurt a case than anything," said Brewer, who specializes in investigating abuse cases. "There is no need to tape a child. It raises a question about the credibility of the investigator who is testifying to what the child told them. Taping clouds live testimony."
In the McMartin case, which alleged that the children in day care were subjected to a bizarre pattern of ritualistic abuse with satanic undertones, jurors listened to the children testify on the stand, then could watch their taped testimony repeatedly during deliberations.
Often the taped accounts -- made years before the children took the witness stand -- differed from live testimony.
"It (taping) goes with the assumption that we don't believe children," said Arty. "We don't need to intimidate children with a videotape. We don't do it to adults.The studies tell us we can't assume children are lying and adults are telling the truth. Children have less reason to lie."
One of the problems in prosecuting child sexual or physical abuse cases is that most adults -- and jurors -- do not want to believesuch crimes are committed against children, Arty said.
"It doesn't make sense to them. They have a difficult time believing these things happen," she said. Even trained investigators don't want to believe it happens.
In McMartin, interviews with the children were conducted by a social worker who did not have experience in criminal investigations. She conducted the interviews because the police in Manhattan Beach, Calif., did not want to do them, said Mimi Rose, an attorney with the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse in Alexandria, Va., who gave a 3 1/2-hour presentation Monday afternoon.
In Carroll, state and municipal police try to go out on interviews with caseworkers from the Department of Social Services so that a childwill not have to tell his or her story over and over, Brewer said.
"Sometimes children disclose (abuse) once and they never do it again," said Arty. "It's off the child's mind and in their immediate past. That's why it's important for us to go to the interviews together."
Investigators should keep in mind, however, that disclosure sometimes can be a long process, not just a single event, Hickman said.
Fallout from the McMartin case and other recent prosecutions of day-care personnel has created some paranoia among county providers, saidMeyer, who talks to such groups about looking for signs of abuse.
"There is a huge amount of fear of becoming involved in any way in abuse cases," said Meyer. "They are afraid a disclosure will cause parents to pull kids out of day care or make the provider a suspect."