Fells Acres Day Care Center was located in Malden, Massachusetts, in the United States and was part of the day care sex abuse hysteria of the 1980s. Violet Amirault (1923–1997) opened the facility in 1966.
Accusations and investigation
In 1984, a four-year-old student at the Fells Acres Day School wet himself while taking a nap. Upon direction by the child's teacher, Gerald Amirault changed the boy into spare clothing. Later that year the boy was discovered playing sexually-suggestive games with his cousin. After being questioned about this by his mother and uncle, who himself had been molested as a child, the boy said that Amirault had sexually abused him. Shortly thereafter, Amirault was arrested on charges of raping the boy.
The police called the parents of all the children to a meeting at the police station to discuss the situation. They were instructed to go home and interview their children and to look for signs of sexual abuse. Examples of behaviors parents were told were symptomatic of abuse included bed wetting, changes in appetite and nightmares. The children were also questioned by the police, social workers, therapists, and others.
Arrests and trial
Eventually, Amirault was charged with molesting more children, and charges were brought against his mother, Violet Amirault, and sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave.
In 1986, Gerald Amirault was convicted of assaulting and raping nine children and sentenced to 30 to 40 years in prison. In 1987, at a separate trial, his mother and sister were convicted of similar crimes against four children and sentenced to jail for eight to 20 years. At both trials the children testified in open court sitting directly in front of the jury with their backs to the defendants and their faces to the jurors.
Interviews of children as evidence
Much of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' case depended on the information obtained in the interviews of the children who were allegedly sexually abused by the Amiraults. The interviews claimed that the children were raped with knives, sticks, forks, and magic wands; were assaulted by a clown (allegedly Gerald) in a "secret room" and a "magic room"; were forced to drink urine; were tied naked to a tree; and many other acts.
The main criticism of this case was directed to reliability of the information obtained from the children. The bulk of the evidence was developed through videotaped interviews conducted by Susan J. Kelley, a pediatric nurse. The children repeatedly told interviewers, including Kelley, that nothing happened to them, that there were no secret rooms, and there was no clown. However, the questioning continued and eventually the children claimed all these things happened. One police officer, John Rivers, said at a seminar that interviewing the children was "like getting blood from a stone." At one point, an interviewer told a child that the child's friend had already testified that the clown had them take their clothes off. The girl being interviewed denied this happened, at which point the interviewer said that she believed what the child's friend told her. Kelley also rejected alternative explanations for events and ignored the children's denials of the abuse scenarios. The chief prosecutor of both of the Amirault cases maintained that "the children testified to being photographed and molested by acts that included penetration by objects ... the implication ... that the children's allegations of abuse were tainted by improper interviewing is groundless and not true."
Superior Court Judge John Paul Sullivan reduced Violet and Cheryl's sentences, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed that ruling in 1993. In 1995, after serving eight years in state prison, Violet and Cheryl were freed on a successful appeal. A Lowell Superior Court judge ruled that their convictions were wrongful because they were not able to directly confront their accusers. However, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reinstated the conviction, citing the need for "finality." While awaiting this verdict, Violet Amirault died. After this, another judge, Isaac Borenstein, granted two separate motions for new trials. Borenstein held that the children's interrogations were so tainted by "grave errors" in the investigation process that they could not be used in any new trial. He explained that:
These grave errors led to the testimony of the children being forever tainted. The only allegations made by the child witnesses occurred after they were subjected to the admittedly suggestive interviews, and investigative techniques, as well as inappropriate - even if understandable - influence by their families. Moreover, neither behavioral symptoms nor physical evidence which may be consistent with child sexual abuse were revealed until after the children and their families were subjected to these improper interviewing and investigative techniques. These alleged symptoms were only discussed after the families were overwhelmed by the panic, hysteria and media attention that snowballed this case into national headlines and widespread concern about ritualistic sexual abuse of children.
Charles M. Sennott published an article in the Boston Globe that was sympathetic towards the Amiraults and reported that Miriam Holmes, who was assigned as a counselor by the Department of Corrections to Violet and Cheryl, and Joel Skolnick, who counseled Cheryl, believed that both women were innocent. Joel Skolnick, LICSW, interviewed Cheryl Amirault while she was incarcerated in MCI Framingham as well as reviewed transcripts of interviews administered by the Department of Social Services. Skolnick determined that the interviews were not properly administered and biased the children's responses making them unreliable. Furthermore, he noted that the vast majority of sex offenders will readily confess to their crimes if offered freedom in exchange for doing so, and that in light of this the steadfast refusal of the Amiraults to do the same was further indication of their innocence. A study by Dr. Maggie Bruck of hundreds of children aged 4 to 6 found that the kind of prolonged, repeated questioning used on the children in the Amirault case frequently results in false reports. Other studies had shown that the method of interrogation via anatomically correct dolls also had an incredibly high margin of error.
However, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court once again ruled to send the women back to prison.
In October 1999, the new Middlesex County District Attorney, Martha Coakley, and Cheryl Amirault LeFave reached an agreement whereby Cheryl would be sentenced to the time served and she was released from prison. In exchange, Cheryl agreed to 10 years probation, and also could not give any television interviews, could not contact the families of the victims, could have no unsupervised contact with children, and could not profit in any way from her trial and imprisonment.
The Massachusetts parole board recommended the commutation of Gerald Amirault's sentence in July 2001 (an action that the alleged victims strenuously objected to). The then–Acting Governor, Jane Swift, rejected the decision in February 2002. Amirault was ultimately released from the Bay State Correctional Center on April 30, 2004.
- Little Rascals day care sexual abuse trial
- McMartin preschool trial
- Satanic ritual abuse
- List of wrongful convictions in the United States
- Rabinowitz, D (1995-03-14). "A Darkness in Massachusetts--II". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 2003-08-26. Retrieved 2007-10-31.
- Goldberg, C (1998-06-13). "Youths' "Tainted" Testimony Is Barred in Day Care Retrial". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-31.
- Rabinowitz, Dorothy (1995-01-30). "A Darkness in Massachusetts". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 2003-08-16.
- "Day Care Workers Get Retrial, As Accusers Did Not Face Them". The New York Times. 1995-08-30. Retrieved 2007-10-31.
- Commonwealth v. Amirault, Middlesex, 424 Mass. 618.
- Hayward, E (1998-02-18). "Prof: Therapist Swayed Kids against Amiraults". Boston Herald.
- Hardoon, L (1995-02-24). "Letters to the Editor: The Real Darkness Is Child Abuse". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original (archived reprint) on 2001-07-19.
- Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, Editorial: Travesty of Justice, Sept. 13, 1999.
- Commonweath v. LeFave, Proceedings, June 12, 1998 Archived September 4, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
- Commonwealth v. LeFave, Findings of Fact, Rulings of Law, and Order on Defendant's Motion For New Trial
- Sennot, Charles. "Questions prompt reexamination of Fells Acres sexual abuse case". Boston.com. Boston Globe. Retrieved 19 October 2016.
- Gelzinis, P (2001-08-07). "Amirault's accusers reveal their faces, and their pain". Boston Herald.
- Miller, L (2001-08-02). "Mass. Victims Fight Commutation Plea". Associated Press. Archived from the original on 2001-08-07.