Dr. Maggie Bruck's Comments

[ Click here for some excerpts from the interview videos.]

February 28, 2005

Dear Friend of Justice,

Bernard Baran had a very good day in court today, although things got off to a rocky start.

At 7:50 a.m., as my train was nearing Worcester, I got a call from Bee on my cell phone. He was still at the Treatment Center in Bridgewater. No arrangements had been made for his transportation to court, although the proper habeas had been issued. (These snafus are all too common here in Massachusetts, as most of you already know.) I called his lawyer, John Swomley, immediately, who set about getting Bee to Worcester as soon as possible.

About 40 Baran supporters showed up. The hearing was scheduled for 9:00 a.m., but at about 9:15, Swomley told us that it would be at least 9:30 before we would start. Bee was finally brought into the courtroom at 10:37. It took another ten minutes to locate the judge, who was tending to other business.

Finally, Dr. Bruck was called to the stand and very briefly reviewed her credentials. Dr. Bruck received her Ph.D. from McGill University, taught at McGill, and is now a full professor at John Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore. She is an experimental psychologist with expertise in memory, especially the autobiographical memory of young children. Her research has addressed such questions as, “How faithfully and well do children remember?” and “What are the effects of different interviewing techniques?” She has also done research on the dangers inherent in the forensic use of anatomically detailed dolls during child interviews.

Dr. Bruck has published 30-40 articles in peer-reviewed journals and is co-author (with Stephen Ceci) of Jeopardy in the Courtroom, an award-winning book about child testimony.

Dr. Bruck identified two fundamental issues pertaining to accusations of child sexual abuse. One issue is the validity of theory of child sexual abuse accommodation. According to this theory, children are silent about sexual abuse. If there is suspicion, and the child is questioned, the child will deny the abuse. Suggestive questioning is necessary to break through the denial. Eventually, the child will assent and the stories will elaborate. But the child will sometimes recant. And sometimes restate the accusation.

This theory has been presented to the courts many times over the years. But research shows that while it is common for children not to reveal sexual abuse, there is little evidence to support the notion that children will deny abuse if questioned. And recantations are very rare.

A second fundamental issue is the reliability of children’s reports. Are children vulnerable to suggestion? Do children come to believe the statements of the interviewers? Hundreds of studies have shown that this is the case, and suggestive ways of interviewing children have been discredited.

Dr. Bruck testified that she had studied the videotapes of the interviews of Baran’s child accusers and that it is her opinion that these tapes would have been useful – necessary – for an expert at Baran’s trial. If you don’t have the videos, you don’t have the word-for-word questions and answers. Reports of interviews are filled with errors, even if the interviewer takes detailed notes. People usually say they don’t ask leading questions, but in fact they do. They just don’t remember that level of detail.

Bruck pointed out that a problem with videotapes is that they seldom depict the first interview. And early interviews contaminate subsequent interviews.

Dr. Bruck explained the proper way to interview children. You should get them to say in their own words what happened. You should ask open-ended questions. You shouldn’t guide children down a path. You need to stress to children that they should only talk about things that really happened. You should be as neutral as possible and test as many alternative hypotheses as possible. You must ask whether the child’s statements make sense. The interviewer should have no a priori beliefs. Hypotheses should arise from the interview itself.

Bruck said that the core problem of improper interviewing is interviewer bias. Information that confirms the interviewer’s hypothesis is rewarded. Inconsistent information is ignored or punished. Eventually, the child comes to accept the beliefs of the interviewer. Bruck calls this selective reinforcement.

An improper interview very quickly focuses on the topic. There will be many yes-or-no questions. And there is a very large margin of error when you ask children yes-or-no questions. They respond differently to the same question put at different times.

Suggestions build up with repeated interviews.

Another sign of bad interviewing is what Bruck calls atmospherics. The interviewer will set the tone by making statements such as “that was really scary” or “you were very brave.”

Dr. Bruck went on to describe some further problems pertaining specifically to the Baran interviews. She pointed out that all of the children were interviewed with at least one parent in the room, and that the parents were interviewers as well. She stated that the children were not lying. They are merely being compliant.

Bruck said it was a terrible mistake to have the parents in the room. The children were being told to tell what they had told the parents.

Another major problem with the Baran interviews was that they all used anatomically correct dolls. The children treated the dolls as play objects. And the children used them suggestively. Bruck pointed out that three- and four-year-old children don’t have the cognitive apparatus to use these dolls. They don’t understand that the dolls are supposed to represent them or other people. Children this young react to the dolls as dolls, not as symbols.

Bruck described some of her work that demonstrates the problems of using the dolls. A group of children were examined by their pediatrician. Half the children were touched on their buttocks or genitals. Half were not. The examinations were videotaped.

The children were subsequently interviewed and dolls were used in the interviews. The children were fascinated with the dolls, and often got fixed on their genitals. Many children were compelled by these dolls to show touching where no touching took place. And the children who were touched described the touching as much more invasive and aggressive than was the case. One little girl hammered a stick into the doll’s vagina, and claimed that the doctor had done the same thing to her. Another strangled the doll with a ribbon and claimed that she has also been strangled by the doctor.

The doctors, of course, had done nothing improper at all.

Dr. Bruck then began talking about the interviews of the individual children in the Baran case, beginning with the first accuser, whom I call “Peter Hanes” at the Baran web site.

Peter’s parents had complained to ECDC (the daycare center) that Baran was a homosexual and shouldn’t be around children. A month later, they launched the first complaint against Baran. These parents also said that they had seen a TV program about child sexual abuse, and that Peter had all the signs. Bruck pointed out that there are no signs that indicate sexual abuse.

Bruck pointed out that the video of Hanes was not his first interview. Bruck showed excerpts of the interview, making comments from time to time.

Hanes was interviewed by Jane Satullo. Satullo was incredibly leading. She would say things like, “You can take the pants off. Just pull them down.” And “What’s that?” pointing to the doll’s penis. Satullo would say, “What happened to your peepee hole? Did someone touch your peepee? Were your pants on or off?”

Satullo created suggestive atmospherics by saying things like, “This is hard to talk about. Were you scared? Sometimes when we talk about these things we get scared.”

At one point, Satullo says, “Tell me a little more about what Bernie did to you?’

Peter replies, “He didn’t do nothing.”

Satullo ignores this and goes on to, “Did Bernie touch you while in the bathroom? I know you are scared.”

Peter again says that Baran didn’t do anything. But Satullo doesn’t listen. As Bruck pointed out, to Satullo no really means yes. Her interviewing was highly suggestive and she continually overrides the child’s statements.

Satullo goes on, “Did it hurt you when Bernie touched you?”

Peter says, “He didn’t.

Satullo grabs the doll’s penis. She says, “Did he pull it? Did he twist it around?”

And, of course, “Were you scared?”

To get more cooperation from Peter, his stepfather David was brought in. Peter is asked more leading questions. Satullo asks, “Did Bernie tell you anything when he pulled on your penis?” Peter, of course, never said that. (It was Satullo who was doing all the penis pulling.)

Finally Satullo brings in Peter’s mother, and it is now three adults to one child. David says, “Remember what you told us Peter? Did Bernie touch you?

Again, Peter says no.

Throughout the rest of the interview, Peter said a lot more no's under a lot of pressure. No details whatsoever were produced.

Bruck summed up the interview by saying, “At the very best Peter said Bernie touched him on the outside of his crotch. But he really didn’t say anything.”

The next interview shown was of a girl accuser, the girl I call Gina Smith at the Baran web site. (Bruck pointed out that what we were going to see was not Gina’s first interview.)

Satullo is again the inquisitor. She says things like, “It’s OK to tell me bad stuff. Can you tell me the bad stuff Bernie did? It’s real scary.”

Gina says, “I forgot the bad stuff that Bernie did.” Gina’s mother is brought into the room. Gina says to her mother, “I forgot the bad stuff that Bernie did to me.”

Satullo drags our her dolls and says, “Can you show me what Bernie did to you? Did Bernie touch you in that hole? Did Bernie touch you in your peepee hole?”

Satullo suggests, “Did he use his finger?” When Gina agrees, Satullo says, “You’re a very good little girl.” Gina also says that another teacher, Stephanie, was in the room. But she cannot name the room and Satullo gives a lot of suggestions about what the room  might be.

At one point she gets Gina to say, “He just did the same thing I did to the dolly.”

Bruck pointed out that this interview would have lasting effects because there were so many suggestions about what Bernie did to her. She pointed out that Gina often started by nodding no, would change to yes upon questioning, and often change her mind again.

Satullo tried very hard to get Gina to talk about something called, “The Bird’s Nest Game.” Satullo says things like –

“You’re real scared, and we understand how scared you are.”

And –

“My guess is that someone told you that if you talked about it you would get in trouble.”

And –

“No one’s going to hurt you. No one goings to hurt your mommie and daddy. No one’s going to hurt the baby bird.”

Bruck said that Satullo created an aura around the Bird’s Nest Game as something scary and terrible. The origin of the Bird’s Nest Game was probably a well known children’s book about a baby bird called, Are You My Mother? This is a book that Baran used to read to the children at ECDC.

Bruck said she had never heard of a sexual use of the term Bird’s Nest Game among children or anyone else.

Near the end of this interview, Gina said, “Mommie, when we get home can we call Bernie?”

Bruck said that Satullo appeared to be on “automatic pilot” and that all inconsistent answers were simply ignored. Bruck also pointed out that there was an enormous change from this first interview to the testimony that was eventually presented at trial. For example, at trial, claims were made that Bernie had raped Gina in the bathroom, scooped blood out of her vagina with scissors, and stabbed her in the foot.

The next videotape was of the child I call Richard Thompson at the Baran web site. The interviewer is not Jane Satullo, but Pat Palumbo.

Richard had been taken to a good touch/bad touch puppet show involving anatomically correct dolls. He was interviewed after the puppet show, but denied abuse. But he was subsequently reinterviewed. The video was of one of the reinterviews.

Palumbo begins by undressing a doll. She points to the penis and says, “What do you call this?” Richard says, “Doobie.” She points to the butt, which Richard calls a butt. Then Palumbo starts talking about touching.

Bruck pointed out that you just don’t start a child interview by talking about doobies, butts, and touching. She described the technique as a “funneling process.”

Palumbo presents Richard with what Bruck called “an army of dolls” and questions Richard about someone touching him. Richard first discloses that “Joey,” and then, a bit later, “Jerry” touched him.

Palumbo ignores this and says, “You had an adult teacher. A boy teacher. Did this boy teacher ever do anything to the children that you want to tell me?” [Baran was the school’s only male teacher.]

Palumbo then says things like, “Let’s pretend that this doll is Bernie and this doll is Richard…”

Bruck said, “You don’t ask children to make believe. That does not tell the child that we want to know what really happened.”

Palumbo also said things about Richard’s friend, “John Larson.” Bruck said that it is very dangerous to use another child’s information in an interview.”

Pat Palumbo also interviewed another boy, who I call John Larson at the Baran web site.

Palumbo asks, “Do you remember being touched with a bad touch? Who touched you?

Larson replies, “Bryan.”

Palumbo says, “How about another person? A big person.”

Larson replies, “Mary.”

Palumbo asks, “Did you have a boy teacher? How did you like him?”

Larson says, “Good.”

Palumbo whips out her dolls and says, “You want to check these dolls out? You want to take their clothes off and see what they look like?”

When Palumbo succeeds in getting John to say he was touched on the butt, Palumbo changes this to dinky. John never uses the work dinky. At another point the detective when John can’t remember, the detective goads him, “Richard remembers.”

Palumbo asks a great many leading questions about Baran, but he is not at all cooperative.” Even the segment that was shown to the Grand Jury contained no accusations.

Palumbo asks Larson to draw a picture of Bernie. At one point the child says, in response to a question, “In his mouth.” Palumbo says, “In mouths?” and interprets this to mean that Baran was putting his penis into children’s mouths. But it was entirely unclear what Richard might have meant.

When Palumbo asks, “Do you remember if it happened in the shed one time?”, Richard replies, “Nothing happened.

At the end of the interview there is an exchange between Palumbo and a detective in which Palumbo apologizes because she didn’t get much. But the detective assures her that they got quite a lot. Bruck said that this demonstrated that the main point of the interview was not to find out what had happened, but to “mine information.”

Because time was running short, Bruck spent little time on the video of another child, who I call Annie Brown at the Baran web site. The tape was very short and appears to be incomplete. The interview seems well in progress where the tape begins. Annie uses the dolls to show she’s been touched. She provides little information. The mother was in the room and there were many previous interviews to the one that was taped. Bruck called the Brown interview, “Uninterpretable.”

After showing the videotapes, Dr. Bruck talked about some of the themes that ran through all of the interviews. Almost all questions were specific, not open ended. The child was never allowed to tell anything in his or her own words. A tremendous number of dolls were used. There were usually at least two, sometimes three adults present. There was heavy use of atmospherics – the interviewers made the children afraid that something terrible might have happen. There was a lot of recantation. Bruck said she had huge concerns about the reliability of the children’s statements.

Bruck also spoke briefly about the competency hearing of the remaining child witness, the girl I call Virginia Stone at the Baran web site. The judge was trying to question Virginia about whether it was a good thing to tell the truth when Virginia came back with, “Bernie touched me.” Bruck said that Virginia didn’t understand the question but knew she was supposed to say, “Bernie touched me.”

At this point the judge called an adjournment because he had another commitment. (This was at about 1:40 p.m.) While John Swomley had nearly completed his direct examination, DA Capeless hadn’t even begun his cross. We hope the hearings will continue at 9 a.m. on March 21. This may be a problem for the judge, as he is starting a murder trial on March 14. But we have also reserved April 14 as a court date. I will provide more details later this month.