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When do we believe the children


SHE HAD a good deal more dignity than I remembered from the days when we worked together. Perhaps it was the passage of time, the segue from clerk to editor, single woman to mother. Or perhaps dignity is the armor you don when you've spent years listening to your daughter describe sexual abuse. Describing how her teacher penetrated her with eating utensils. Describing how her teacher engaged in sex acts with the kids placed in her care. Describing it at home and in the courtroom.

It has been seven years. Her daughter was 5. Now the girl is on the verge of adolescence. Nothing she says or does, no reticence or mood, no odd comment or bit of sexual curiosity, comes to her mother except through the scrim of this thing.

"It's always there," she says, dignified.

In some sense she thinks she is one of the lucky ones, although she knows it is not an apt description. Kelly Michaels, the teacher at a New Jersey preschool who molested the woman's " daughter and 18 other children, was convicted and is in jail. The parents think of themselves as lucky in North Carolina, too, where the other day a small-town day-care owner was convicted of 99 counts of child abuse stemming from charges made by 12 children.

The case at the McMartin Preschool in California came out differently. This country's longest criminal trial, it ended with acquittals and the bitter disappointment of parents who believed their children had been irreparably harmed, first by caregivers, then by the courts.

All criminal cases are different, but child sexual abuse cases tend to sound the same. The defense discredits children by blaming adults, saying that leading questions and group hysteria have led to outlandish charges. The prosecution strategy can be summed up in a bumper sticker: "We Believe The Children."

If it were that simple, there'd be no need for juries. Some studies have found that child witnesses are as credible as adults. Others have found that they are often susceptible to suggestive questioning. Believing the children is often not as simple as a slogan: It's necessary to know the genesis of their charges.

But just because it's difficult and disturbing doesn't mean it's impossible. It's become popular to suggest that there is a national hysteria about the sexual abuse of children. At a time when we are coming clean about so much pathology, when rape victims are coming forward, when battered women are willing to speak out, it seems to me that it is only wishful thinking that leads us to conclude that because there is an explosion of reports of child sexual abuse, those reports must be fabricated or greatly overblown.

The biggest difference between now and then is our children's willingness to tell. The woman whose daughter was abused knows this from experience; she and her sisters were silent for years about their molestation by a great-uncle.

The problem is that this reporting explosion has come before the expertise. Just as many police officers know now how to provide prosecutors with evidence that will pass judicial scrutiny, so a sophisticated approach to questioning children must become a routine part of law enforcement.

These cases are not going to go away. The testimony of the former wife of the day-care owner in North Carolina that she once found child pornography in his post office box is the worst nightmare of working couples. Even in the McMartin case, several of the jurors said they believed that something had happened to the children. They found reasonable doubt in the way they thought the children's testimony had been tainted by adults.

"She will always need more from me than my other children," the woman I once worked with says quietly of her daughter, who is still terrified of Kelly Michaels and who, at age 12, refuses ever to sleep alone.

And children in these cases may always need more time, more attention, more care in eliciting their testimony than any other kind of witness in any other kind of case. The response to that is not to muddle through from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, hoping for the best.

And it is not to assume that parents are looking for a pedophile in every day-care cubby and that children are obliging with detailed delusions. It is to do better, case by case, kid by kid.

New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen was awarded the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

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