Tonya Craft Prosecution Evokes Shadows of Other Dubious Child Abuse Cases

Just when teachers, day care workers, babysitters, etc. thought it was safe…

Throughout much of the 1980s and 90s, people who worked with children did so under a pall. Stories in the press told of children murdered or sexually assaulted in bizarre rituals that brought to mind the Manson Family. And sure enough, people started getting charged, tried and convicted of the most heinous abuse of small children. Cases like the McMartin Pre-School case and the Fells Acres case drew national attention and sent people away to prison.

The stories children told were horrifying, and what made them all the more so was that they were about people who had always seemed above reproach. Not strangers, but friends and neighbors seemed to be committing the worst crimes imaginable.

But then it all fell apart. Enterprising journalists figured out that, of all the countless lurid claims of satanic ritual abuse, none held up to scrutiny. Some were clearly made up and even those in which prosecutors brought cases, many looked dubious at best. Key to all the cases was the testimony of the children. Surely little kids like that didn’t lie. More importantly, how could they possibly know about the things they told investigators? That was always the lynchpin; kids of four and five couldn’t know about those things, so they must be telling the truth.

Except they weren’t. They were doing what kids learn to do early in life – please adults. Once the “investigative” techniques of police and social workers came under the microscope, it became obvious where the children got their ideas. Videotapes revealed children time and again denying allegations against teachers and daycare workers, only to have the same questions asked again and again until they produced the “right” answer. The “right” answer of course was the one the adults wanted. And it seemed that the adults wanted the “truth” to be loathesome.

Over the years, many of the convicted were set free. Even Gerald Amirault was recently freed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts after years of confinement for crimes against children no reasonable person believes he committed. And over those same years, police learned how to properly question children who are the key witnesses in child abuse cases. For example, leading and repetitive questions are verboten.

But it seems that not everyone got the memo. Former kindergarten teacher Tonya Craft has just been acquitted of 22 counts of sexual assault of three children in her care, but her case bears some of the earmarks of those that wrongly convicted others in similar positions in the past. Read about it here (Atlanta Journal Constitution, 5/12/10). Here’s what one juror said about the evidence he heard in Craft’s trial. (This is a man who says he would personally kill anyone who harmed children in the way Craft was accused of doing.)

“I think the parents played a big role in all the girls’ testimony, whether they meant to or not.”

In other words, what police, social workers and prosecutors now know not to do, parents may do anyway. From the start, it looked like the three girls had been, if not coached by their parents to level accusations at Craft, nudged in that direction. And, according to the same juror, the jury never seriously considered conviction.

But apparently prosecutors may not come out of the trial with clean hands either. According to this article, Craft’s defense attorneys attempted to stop the process of interviewing the children many times because they viewed it as biased (News Channel 9, 5/12/10). Because prosecutors refused, the attorneys have turned the matter over to the FBI and the United States Department of Justice for investigation. In addition to their claim that the interview process was flawed, they say the prosecution withheld evidence in violation of state and federal statutes. Add to that the fact that the Judge in the case, Brian House, apparently had represented Craft’s ex-husband in their divorce case some years ago, and you have what defense attorney Demosthenes Larandos calls,

something really rotten in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit.

And what of Craft? The veteran teacher lost her job, her house and custody of her daughter. She and her husband had to move out of the community because of the allegations against her. Having been acquitted by a jury of her peers, she’s free, which is more than many people similarly accused could have said. But her life, her career, her reputation and doubtless her bank account are a shambles. Such is the power of the state, even when a defendant “wins.”

Her first job, now that she’s not fighting to stay out of prison, is to regain some semblance of a relationship with her daughter whom she hasn’t seen in two years. She began that process the day after the verdict in her criminal case.

The hysteria about child sexual abuse in daycare has largely abated, but overreaching by prosecutors has not. It’s the price we pay for family breakdown. For decades, we’ve seen the assault on the family succeed; we’ve seen that bedrock institution of society eroded more than it has been in recorded history and it worries us, as it should. It worries us particularly for our children and that worry takes the form of too much state intervention into parental authority, too much state scrutiny of every possible act by any adult toward any child, too much criminalization of pats on the butt and tweaks of a cheek.

In a recent piece I pointed out that males get the brunt of this, but Tonya Craft can tell us that women aren’t immune either.

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