Allegations lead to frenzy on 'Frontline'


May 07, 1991|By Michael Hill

There is a chilling spectacle on tonight's two-hour edition of the PBS series "Frontline," "Innocence Lost," an examination of a case of alleged widespread sexual child abuse at a day-care center in a small North Carolina town.

At its beginning, you are taken aback that such an event could visit this idyllic setting as the 6,000 citizens of the aptly named Edenton would seem to fear only the storms the blow up on neighboring Albemarle Sound as a fundamental threat to their peace.

But gradually, as the program runs its course, the chill you feel does not come from the allegations of little children being visited by unspeakable horrors, but from the sight of a community that has turned on itself with a cannibalistic frenzy; upright citizens ready, willing and able to believe the worst about lifelong friends and neighbors.

"Innocence Lost," on channels 22 and 67 tonight at 9 o'clock, is the work of producer Ofra Bikel, who illustrates with nuance and attention to detail the landscape that provided the canvas for William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote.

At issue is the Little Rascals day-care center. It was run by a hard-working woman named Betsy Kelly and her husband, Bob, who also had a plumbing business. They had borrowed from Betsy's father to expand her small day-care business.

Edenton's best and brightest sent their children to Little Rascals. All appeared to be happy until one day one of them told his mother that he had been slapped at the center. That mother sought an apology and was not satisfied with what she heard.

Exactly what happened next has not been made public, but a charge of abuse was filed against Little Rascals. The charges escalated from physical to sexual abuse as the case moved from the state's social services department to the police to the prosecutors.

The number of charges, and their seriousness, grew and grew until finally the Kellys, a male friend who runs a video store and three young women who worked at the center were arrested on literally hundreds of counts involving many children. The defendants have now been jailed for more than a year, unable to make huge bails.

In an insightful comment about what has happened to small-town America, Bikel's cameras find the town's elders discussing events over breakfast, but they don't talk about this case. "If you don't know why, then you haven't learned much about Edenton," one of them tells her.

That silence helps protect the veneer of civility that always hides turmoil in small communities where everybody knows too much about everybody else. But, in Edenton, people now believe that they did not know that their lifetime friends the Kellys were

despicable perverts who preyed on the most innocent of victims.

Moreover, they believe the Kellys were able to involve their co-workers in their horrendous practices without anyone ever going to authorities. And to hide hundreds of incidents of abuse from others who worked at the center and were not involved.

When "Innocence Lost" begins, you are swept into not only the schism of this town, but the pain of the parents of the allegedly abused children. But as it goes along, a pattern begins to emerge. No child complained of anything beyond that single slap until they went into therapy. Most of them went to three therapists, paid for by the state. After many months of treatment, their stories of abuse began to emerge. Only the prosecution and the childrens' parents have access to the therapists' reports.

Yet children who did not go to these therapist did not tell these stories. One mother said she overheard the therapist badgering her child into making incriminating statements. Another said that she went in and out of the center at all times of the day, unannounced, and never saw anything.

The simplest explanation -- and the most likely -- is that these children were never abused, that under constant questioning from therapists, little 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds finally gave the answers they thought they were supposed to give.

So why did this happen? Partly it's because we like to lean so much on experts. The therapists could bring clarity to these murky, rumor-filled waters.

But look closely at "Innocence Lost" and you'll see something else going on in Edenton. The accusers are all polo shirts and pastels, makeup and earrings, while the accused tend more toward T-shirts and blue jeans. Much of the focus of division in small Southern towns is on race, but class distinctions are very real. The bottom line in Edenton is that the children of the upper class have claimed abuse and no white trash is going to be allowed to say they are lying.

Most tragically, if Edenton becomes another of these complex child-abuse cases that falls apart as a result of psychological manipulation and prosecutorial frenzy -- as recently happened in Minnesota and Los Angeles with the McMartin case -- then we may not be able to hear the timid voice of a child who actually has been abused.

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