Children and Testimony
Jordan Smith, The Austin Chronicle, March 27, 2009
There is a growing body of psychological research reflecting that children can easily be led to make up stories, often with the help of inexperienced or credulous interviewers. Much of that research did not fully develop until the mid-Nineties, after the Kellers' trial and conviction.
In the Eighties, Wood says, the field was bombarded by a "propaganda blitz" from the "Believe the Children" movement. The thinking was that
The lore became that children were too frightened to tell about abuse and that social workers – with little training in child development – needed to use
It was during the Believe the Children years that stories of ritual abuse at day care centers swept the country. By the time the Kellers were tried, 20 day care workers had been convicted of abusing children in their care – and nearly every case involved accusations similar to those in the Keller case. In subsequent years, all but three have been released, most because their convictions were overturned. Two of the three still incarcerated are Fran and Danny Keller.
Some so-called experts explained the similarities among the allegations as evidence that there was indeed a vast network of cultists that had infiltrated the nation's child-care system. Wood and other researchers believe the similarities have a far less fantastic origin: poor interviewing and therapy techniques undertaken by therapists who either believed or were caught up in the sensational concept of ritual abuse and allowed that to affect their interactions with children they were interviewing. In short, in many instances, the therapists were the actual sources of the stories the children told.
There is a research-confirmed formula for eliciting false stories from children, says Wood.
First, the interviewer motivates the children to talk by offering either positive or negative feedback and consequences and then "introduces information" that effectively suggests what they want to hear.
Moreover, the number and type of allegations increase when children are repeatedly interviewed – by law enforcement, therapists, and parents who are alarmed by the possibility that their children might have been molested.
That is exactly what Wood believes happened in the Keller case.
Wood reviewed the videotaped interviews of Christina Chaviers and Brendan Nash conducted by the Travis County Sheriff's Office and portions of trial testimony – including that of Christina's mother, Suzanne Guinne, and therapist Donna David-Campbell.
What he found, he said, was very disturbing – particularly the three recorded interviews with Christina. In those sessions, conducted in August 1991 at the Sheriff's Office, Wood found a laundry list of the interviewing techniques that researchers know increase the likelihood that a child will make false statements.
From the start of the very first interview with Christina, for example, TCSO examiner Karen Knox provides a negative "stereotype induction," linking bad things happening at Fran's Day Care to Danny and a penis.
When Christina denies that Danny ever hurt her, Knox follows up by asking whether Danny had told her not to say that he'd touched her. Shortly thereafter, she asks Christina how many times Danny touched her with his penis. Wood says that this initial interview quickly diminishes the likelihood that police would ever receive an honest or accurate report. Instead of asking Christina questions designed to elicit her independent account of life at the day care, Knox introduces a narrative for Christina to follow.
The pressure on Christina increases during the second interview, with Ester Vela, when Guinne tries to convince her daughter to talk.
And when Christina finishes telling Vela her story, her mother says she can have some candy.
Finally, in her third interview with the Sheriff's Office, a fidgety Christina is told by Knox that she needs to sit still, pay attention, and answer Knox's questions; finally Knox even holds still Christina's hands and feet to induce her to cooperate and agree that Danny abused her. Knox's physicality is one
Moreover, Knox appears to ignore each of Christina's responses denying that any abuse has occurred – and there are dozens of such negative responses throughout the three interviews.
There are more subtle signs, which Knox ignores, like Christina's several baffled "What's this?" responses when she first sees pubic hair on the adult doll.