The Madeleine Brand Show

The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Madeleine Brand

The challenges of prosecuting child sex abuse cases

by The Madeleine Brand Show

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Members of the media gather outside Miramonte Elementary School on Friday. A second teacher at the school was arrested Friday, just days after a third-grade teacher was charged with lewd acts involving photographing nearly two dozen children for sexual thrills, authorities said. Damian Dovarganes/AP

Two teachers at Los Angeles' Miramonte Elementary School have been accused of lewd acts against children. Parents are outraged and are staging a protest today. Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy will hold a meeting with concerned parents tonight and classes are canceled tomorrow and Wednesday.

Professor Casey Jordan of Western Connecticut State University said that this widespread outrage is common in child abuse cases. "When the accusation is made, the accused is assumed guilty, not innocent. With every other thing we tend to think people are innocent until proven guilty, but everyone tends to bandwagon," she said.

According to Jordan, accused third-grade teacher Mark Berndt will most likely be found guilty due to the hundreds of physical photos that point to wrong-doing. She added that lack of physical evidence against suspected fondler Martin Springer will make prosecution much harder. She said that though less than 1 percent are falsely accused, some guilty slip through the system because there isn't enough evidence to convict them. "When a jury says not guilty, it doesn't necessarily mean innocent," she continued. Most cases are like Springer's, where the word of a child is pitted against the word of an adult, she said.

And there are questions pointing to the validity and accuracy of what a child says. "This is as it should be," Jordan said. "Children are not fully formed adults." She noted that cognition and truly understanding the difference between right and wrong kicks in at the age of six or seven.

Moreover, Jordan said everyone has to look out for the possibility that adults could use the power of suggestion to manipulate a child's responses to questions.

"Children want to please the people that they respect. And if they think that telling these stories will make them popular or make everyone happy, they can get caught in a net," she said.

The notorious McMartin preschool trial in the '80s has led to careful review of court interrogations. In that case, questioners elicited testimony from young children with suggestive and leading questions.

"You can get dozen of children to tell outrageous stories and insist that they're telling the truth," Jordan said. "In McMartin, they were saying that baby bunnies were killed in front of them, and people wore witches costumes and made them do cult-related activities, none of which were true and could have possibly happened."

According to Jordan, every child that steps forward with an allegation must be taken seriously, because child sex abuse occurrences are vastly underreported. Still, she said that people need to avoid getting caught up in a "witch hunt" and wrongly-prosecuting the innocent. "We all need to believe in due process. The investigation, the trials, and really, always assume everyone is innocent until proven guilty. And if they're proved guilty, then everyone's outrage is justified," she said.

Jordan said the effects of a faulty accusation are irreversible, having defended cases where bitter ex-wives like to accuse their husbands of molesting their children. "These things do happen. They are rare, but when they happen, a human's life is destroyed. They never come back from the accusation, even if they're cleared of it," she said.

With contributions from Andrea Wang

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