Wee Care Nursery School abuse trial
Employee Margaret Kelly Michaels, known by her middle name Kelly, was found guilty of multiple sex abuse offenses and sentenced to 47 years in prison. The decision was overturned after she spent five years in prison. An appellate court ruled that several issues in the original trial had produced an unjust ruling and the conviction was reversed. The case caught the attention of several psychologists who were concerned about the interrogation methods used and the quality of the children’s testimony in the case. This led to an era of more thorough research on the topic of children’s memory and suggestibility, resulting in updated recommendations for conducting interviews with child victims and witnesses.
The facility was located in the upscale community of Maplewood, regarded as a suburb of New York City. St. George's Episcopal Church, a large three-story building, rented rooms on two floors for use during the workweek.p. 204
Michaels had moved to New Jersey in the summer of 1984 when she was 22 years old and a few credits short of earning a college degree. First hired as an assistant, she eventually was promoted to an independent teacher with her own classroom in the late afternoon after most other teachers and children had departed for the day.p.204
In late April 1985, Kelly unexpectedly quit a few weeks before the end of the school year. She first gave two weeks notice, then quit before the end of the two week period.p.204 Her resignation later became a factor in the trial, as she gave contradictory explanations for leaving shortly before the abuse allegations surfaced.p.204
On April 30, 1985, Dorinda Pierce took her 4-year-old son Mitchell to the doctor due to a rash. Medical assistant Laura Hadley took Mitchell's temperature with a rectal thermometer. After about 30 seconds, Mitchell said: "That's what my teacher does to me at nap time at school." Hadley asked the name of the teacher, and Mitchell replied "Kelly."p.206 Dorinda was then unaware of any teacher or staff member named Kelly, as Kelly Michaels supervised the boy only during his nap-time and was not his regular teacher.p.206 Dorinda asked her pediatrician for advice, and he recommended she contact the New Jersey Department of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) to report possible sexual abuse.p.206
Mitchell's comment was reported to the local authorities. DYFS had legal authority to investigate suspected child abuse, but having no experience with possible institutional abuse cases opted to work with the Essex County prosecutor's office. Jurisdictional rivalry thus became a factor in the investigation when the Prosecutor's office was reluctant to work with DYFS and both offices conducted parallel investigations with limited cooperation.p.207
The investigation formally began when Detective George McGrath interviewed Mitchell Pierce on May 2, 1984. Mitchell repeated the claim that "Her [Kelly] takes it [temperature] in my bum" and further reported he had witnessed Kelly Mitchell "hurt" two other boys: Eddie Nathanson and Sam Raymond.p.207 Both the other boys were interviewed. Nathanson said nothing unusual, while Raymond reported that Kelly had kicked his groin and locked him in a closet or small room.p.208 McGrath confirmed that while children's temperatures were occasionally taken, the facility used heat-sensitive forehead strips and not rectal thermometers.
Based on these findings, all the children at the school were eventually questioned by police, social workers and therapists. During the interviews, children made accusations such as that Michaels forced them to lick peanut butter off of her genitals, that she penetrated their rectums and vaginas with knives, forks and other objects, that she forced them to eat cakes made from human excrement, that she made them play duck, duck, goose while naked; and had played and sang "Jingle Bells" at the piano while naked.p.214 The multiple reports of object rape with kitchen utensils were regarded as particularly important, as these details were repeated by several children in the earliest phase of the investigation before the case earned any publicity or was even widely-known to the parents.
Detective Lou Fonolleras's report of the investigation stated that authorities had substantiated abusive behavior by Michaels towards 51 children, and had excluded about ten children as victims.p.224 Michaels was indicted for 235 counts of sexual offenses with children and youths. The high number of charges stemmed from the way prosecutors calculated the allegations under New Jersey law (e.g., a girl who reported both anal and vaginal penetration could result in two separate charges). Michaels denied the charges.
The trial began on June 22, 1987. "The prosecution produced expert witnesses who said that almost all the children displayed symptoms of sexual abuse." Prosecution witnesses testified that the children "had regressed into such behavior as bed-wetting and defecating in their clothing. The witnesses said the children became afraid to be left alone or to stay in the dark. They also testified that the children exhibited knowledge of sexual behavior far beyond their years."
Some of the other teachers testified against her. Several employees testified about odd comments by Michaels, including her unsolicited announcement that she was not wearing underwear one day and another who reported that she had said "for all they know, I could be abusing children."p.234 Michaels admitted to making the latter statement, but claimed the prosecution had taken it "out of context".p.234 Judge William Harth dismissed 38 of the charges after the prosecution closed their case.p.234
The defense argued that Michaels had not had the opportunity to take the children to a location where all of the alleged activities could have taken place without being noticed. Murray Bartkey, a psychologist hired by the defense to evaluate Michaels, ended up hurting her case. After his interviews with Michaels, Bartkey characterized her as displaying "areas of pathology, particularly in the sexual area" and further more as "stunted and conflicted" and "sexually confused."p.233
After nine months, the case went to the jury for deliberation. At that time, 131 counts remained, including charges of aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, endangering the welfare of children, and making terroristic threats. The jury deliberated for 12 days before Michaels was convicted of 115 counts of sexual offenses involving 20 children.
On August 2, 1988, Michaels was sentenced to 47 years in prison, with no possibility for parole for the first 14 years. The judge "said the facts in the case were sordid, bizarre and demeaning to the children." Michaels "told the judge that she was confident her conviction would be overturned on appeal."
In March 1993, after five years in prison, Michaels' appeal was successful and she was released. The New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the lower court's decision and declared "the interviews of the children were highly improper and utilized coercive and unduly suggestive methods."
A three-judge panel ruled she had been denied a fair trial because "the prosecution of the case had relied on testimony that should have been excluded because it improperly used an expert's theory, called the child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome, to establish guilt." In June 1993, the State Supreme Court refused to hear the prosecutor's appeal of the decision. In February 1994, "the court heard arguments...about the admissibility of evidence."
In December 1994, the prosecution dropped the attempt to retry the case "because too many obstacles had been placed in the way of a successful retrial." The major hurdle was that "if the state decided to reprosecute Michaels, it must produce 'clear and convincing evidence' that the statements and testimony elicited by the improper interview techniques are reliable enough to warrant admission." "While the Supreme Court stopped short of instructing the prosecutor to drop the case, the court made it clear that it believed the children's testimony would not hold up."
During Michaels’ appeal, researchers Maggie Bruck and Stephen Ceci prepared an amicus brief regarding the case that pointed out several potential problems with the children’s testimony that was the primary evidence. Some of the issues that were addressed were the role of interviewer bias, repeated questions, peer pressure, and the use of anatomically correct dolls in contaminating the children’s testimony. These interview techniques, they argued, could have led to memory errors or false memories. In addition to the proposed problems with the interviews themselves, the fact that there were no recordings of initial interviews meant that important evidence was missing; therefore, it was not possible to determine the origin of some of the information that children reported (i.e., it could have been suggested to them by interviewers in the early interviews). Bruck and Ceci circulated copies of their amicus brief to colleagues asking them to sign in support, though a substantial number declined to sign due to concerns that the document was intended to discredit children as court witnesses in general.
Interviews from the school and McMartin preschool trials were examined as part of a research project on the testimony of children questioned in a highly suggestive manner. Compared with a set of interviews from Child Protective Services, the interviews from the two trials were "significantly more likely to (a) introduce new suggestive information into the interview, (b) provide praise, promises, and positive reinforcement, (c) express disapproval, disbelief, or disagreement with children, (d) exert conformity pressure, and (e) invite children to pretend or speculate about supposed events."
Ross E. Cheit, political science professor at Brown University, has taken a contrarian position on the case: he agrees that the investigation was flawed, but also argues that Kelly Michaels was justly convicted in the first trial, and that successful appeals represent the miscarriage of justice. He suggests that the bulk of the evidence against Kelly would be considered strong enough to indict even by later more stringent standards. He characterizes common criticisms of the interviews in the case as examples of the cherry picking fallacy: most of the weak or questionable allegations were either never presented in court (having been dropped during the pre-trial process) or were rejected by the court when Judge Harth dismissed over 30 charges after the prosecution closed their case. Cheit further suggests that there is a double standard in criticism of the abuse case. He notes that Eileen Treacy, then a doctoral student in psychology, was hired by the prosecutor's office to conduct an independent review of the children's interviews before trial. She used then-standard interview procedures with the children, including asking purposely misleading questions to test the children's suggestibility. "In the reports located in the course of this research, there were no examples in which a child accepted the suggestion and parroted back the misinformation supplied by Treacy [...] The narrative has never explained how children could be so susceptible to suggestion when being interviewed by investigators yet never succumb to suggestion while being interviewed by Treacy."p.223
- Sullivan, J. (February 4, 1994). "In Retrying Abuse Case, A New Issue". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-01-21.
Just how to prevent fantasy from being presented as fact in sex-abuse cases is facing the New Jersey Supreme Court in the wake of one of the most sensational of the spate of cases involving day-care workers during the 1980's. The court heard arguments today about the admissibility of evidence in the case of Margaret Kelly Michaels, who was convicted of sexually molesting 19 children, many of them 3- and 4-year-olds, during her seven-month employment at Wee Care Nursery in Maplewood. She served 5 years of a 47-year sentence before her conviction was overturned early last year.
- "Nightmare at the Day Care: The Wee Care Case". Crime Magazine. Retrieved 2007-08-21.
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- Cheit, Ross E. (2014). The Witch Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology and the Sexual Abuse of Children. Oxford University Press
- "The Kelly Michaels Case". University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Retrieved 2007-08-26.
- Narvaez, A. (February 28, 1988). "Former Day-Care Teacher Denies Sexually Abusing Schoolchildren". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-01-21.
- Narvaez, A. (March 29, 1988). "Legal Arguments End in Jersey Child-Abuse Trial". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-01-21.
Legal arguments in the nine-month trial of a day-care teacher accused of sexually abusing 20 children at a center in Maplewood ended here today.
- Rangel, J. (June 3, 1994). "Ex-Preschool Teacher Sentenced to 47 Years in Sex Case in Jersey". New York Times.
- Seth Mydans (June 3, 1994). "Prosecutors Rebuked in Molestation Case". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-08-21.
- Fiason, F. (March 27, 1993). "Child-Abuse Conviction Of Woman Is Overturned". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-01-21.
- "Court Rejects Bid to Restore Abuse Verdict". New York Times. June 10, 1993. Retrieved 2007-01-21.
- Nieves, E. (December 3, 1994). "Prosecutors Drop Charges In Abuse Case From Mid-80's". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-01-21.
Ending one of the most sensational child sex-abuse scandals in the nation, prosecutors today formally dropped their case against Margaret Kelly Michaels, the former day care teacher who spent five years in prison before her 1987 conviction was overturned on appeal last year.
- Schreiber, Nadja; Lisa Bellah, Yolanda Martinez, Kristin McLaurin, Renata Stok, Sena Garven and James Wood (2006). "Suggestive interviewing in the McMartin Preschool and Kelly Michaels daycare abuse cases: A case study". Social Influence. Psychology Press. 1 (1): 16–46. doi:10.1080/15534510500361739.