By: Jeff Freeman
[From: ] "Jonathan G. Harris, Dept. of Chem Eng, MIT"
[Re: ] Fells Acres update
Below is a piece that I submitted to the Malden Free Press. It was published
Thursday Feb. 15. It was in response to Larry Hardoon's rebuttal of Dorothy
Rabinowitz' wonderful Wall Street Journal piece on Fells Acres (P. A20, Jan.
Her piece has rekindled the interest of the local media. The Boston Globe
reprinted her piece and Harshbarger's response. Jay Lindsay published a series
of articles in the Malden Observer Thursday, Feb. 15 describing the growing
opposition to the Fells Acres prosecution. It featured a lot of comments from
myself, Dorothy Rabinowitz, the defense attorneys, and the prosecutors. It also
included a side bar about my research into the case and another piece on the
Amirault family's coping with the situation.
Also Rabinowitz piece has stirred a lot of interest from the public. She has
gotten call from lawyers volunteering services and people wanting to give money
or hang Harshbarger.
Hardoon and Harshbarger's main points in support of their prosecution are:
1) They won the trials and all appeals.
2) Cheryl and Vi did not testify.
3) Cheryl and Vi have another conviction arising from a fight in prison.
4) The children's stories were consistent.
5) The children "came forth" much to the surprise of their parents.
In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Hardoon claims there is physical
evidence. Only the irrelevant points (1-3) are accurate. The others are wrong
and rebbutted below. The story of the physical evidence will appear in a piece
I submitted to the Wall Street Journal. Compared to that piece, the one below
is a pat on the back for the prosecution.
Rebuttal to Hardoon and Harshbarger:
In the spirit of the "true believers" in witchcraft and sorcery, Larry Hardoon
insists on ignoring the documented facts of the Fells Acres daycare
investigation. He refuses to heed the most recent scientific research showing
that the techniques his "multiple teams of investigators" used can send
innocent people to prison from false accusations of sexual abuse. In addition,
he would like us to believe the accusations of the children were both
consistent and spontaneous. The records show they were neither.
The children's stories become consistent only if one ignores the parts that
disagree with each other. They describe a wide variety of forms of physical and
sexual abuse -- urine drinking, bondage, animal slaughter, penetration by a
range of objects, a variety of other sexual activities, punching, throwing,
and cutting with knives. They accuse the three Amiraults, many of the teachers,
other children, imaginary people, and the famous star wars robot, R2D2 of such
heinous acts. Many claim their teachers either witnessed the abuse or told
them they had to go to the magic room.
The appearance of distinct common themes -- the magic room, the secret room,
and the clown -- in many of the Fells Acres children's stories can be easily
traced to the questions parents and investigators asked the children. Parents
admit investigators told them to ask their children about the magic room, the
secret room, and the clown, warning that a "no" answer did not mean their
children had not been touched. DSS records, which give only sketchy accounts of
many of the interviews, also describe social workers asking direct questions
about rooms, costumes, and various sexual activities.
Contrary to Hardoon's insinuation, no children "came forth" with spontaneous
accusations. In fact many initially said they liked the school or missed it
when it closed. Despite the horrible allegations and the prosecution's claims
that the Amiraults terrorized and traumatized their pupils, not a single
teacher ever saw a child react in fear to Gerald, Cheryl, or Vi.
All of the children were repeatedly questioned before they produced any
coherent accusations. The written reports show the "multiple independent teams"
using a variety of discredited approaches to extract abuse stories from the
children. Social workers lead children with anatomical dolls. They accept as
disclosures vague statements such as "There are bad people...they touch kids."
without attempting to determine whether the child witnessed anything or is
assuming something heard from someone else. One investigator admits to
"painful prodding" and another calls a visit that produced no accusations
"unsuccessful." A little girl complains to her mother "all these questions
about school make me sick" long before making any claim of abuse. It is almost
certain that these reports omit the details of many other examples of unsound
practices from these sketchy summaries of their interviews with children and
The few taped interviews show the prosecutions "expert", Susan Kelley,
repeatedly badgering children with direct leading questions in the face of
denials. "Do you think that you could help me the same way that April[name
changed] did by telling me the story about what happened with the clown in the
magic room," she pleads to one child. Later Kelley asks direct questions about
sexual activities and reminds the child "She said that you -- that Jane and
April-- you girls -- the clown had you girls take your clothes off in the magic
room?" Nevertheless this interview yields only a story about a clown playing
with fire and spanking children. "Please tell Ernie. Please tell me. Please
tell me. So you could help you...Please tell me. Tell Bert," Susan Kelley begs
another girl to make a "disclosure" after already obtaining two no's to her
Psychology professors Steven Ceci and Maggie Bruck along with other researchers
have shown how these approaches can easily obtain false accusations of sexual
abuse from preschool children. Using far less suggestive interviews than those
of the Fells Acres teams, their experiments produce false accusations with an
alarming frequency. Unfortunately these results come a few years after our
courts decided the Amirault's fate
During the 1980's fantastic accusations similar to those against the Amiraults
were made against workers at well over a hundred daycare centers throughout the
country. In none of these has a single pornographic pictures made by an alleged
daycare porn ring been found. Nor have investigators found physical evidence to
document claims of magic rooms, tunnels, or animal killings. In addition to
having allegations that are often remarkable similar those of the Fells Acres
children, these case all share in common an atmosphere of hysteria combined
with the same discredit techniques used in the questioning of the children.
Mr. Hardoon's defense appears to rest strongly on the belief that our justice
system is infallible. Unfortunately history shows that juries and courts do
make mistakes. Even Harshbarger, who who led the Fells Acres prosecutions as
a district attorney , uses this fact to justify his opposition to the death
It is only be reexaming cases such as Fells Acres in the light of more recent
knowledge, that we have any hope of correcting these errors. The seven years
that have passed since the convictions of Cheryl and Vi are already too long
for three innocent people to spend in prison. We must learn from these
mistakes, so that others will not be asked to defend themselves against the
ridiculous accusations levied against the Amiraults.