A rash of recent sex abuse arrests involving New York City teachers and other school employees has left parents and the public stunned and angry. Society has little tolerance for any form of sexual abuse of children, especially in a school setting.
Even the so-called “consensual” cases result in cataclysmic consequences for the teacher and often psychological harm to the minor.
All the more reason to remember that the only thing worse than the sexual abuse of an innocent child is a false accusation of the sexual abuse of an innocent child.
The sexual exploitation of minors in academic settings seems to be as old as the existence of academic institutions themselves. There is no category or type of accusation more instantly destructive of a person's life, reputation and career than an accusation of the commission of a sexual crime against a child, especially when the accused is a schoolteacher.
Criminal justice systems here and around the world are littered with the wrecked lives of teachers and daycare workers and other victims of false child and other sex abuse allegations.
Notorious cases of false accusations against teachers and childcare workers in recent decades have occurred in New Jersey (Margaret Kelly Michaels – Wee Care case), California (McMartin Pre-School and Kern County cases) and elsewhere.
As a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney for 25 years, I have been involved on both sides in child sex crime allegations. This has given me a special perspective on the pitfalls of such cases.
I believe that while we are justified in our zeal to hold the guilty to account, we should be equally zealous in the protection of the innocent against false accusation or, at least, false conviction.
Few people realize how often there are false accusations of sex abuse and/or rape, including child sex abuse. The subject which receives far too little attention: it makes for impolite cocktail party conversation; it rarely has enthusiastic advocacy; and it is notoriously difficult to document.
The recent exonerations of falsely accused young men in notorious cases including the Hofstra and Duke University and Central Park rape cases come easily to mind.
In 1974, the New York legislature, after decades of debate and under enormous pressure from sex assault victim and women's advocacy groups, eliminated the so-called corroboration requirement of “victim” testimony in sex abuse and rape cases.
This meant that sex crime convictions could now result despite the absence of any independent witnesses or forensic evidence of the commission of a sex crime– a sobering thought.
No group of people is more susceptible to false accusations of child sex abuse than teachers. No category of adults spends more time with and often alone with children than teachers.
Teachers suffer the enmity and incur the wrath of their students inside and outside of the classroom every day for a wide variety of easily identifiable reasons.
Personality conflicts, demanding academic standards, strict discipline, and grade disputes are among the sources of antagonism that can propel students into making false accusations—in the hope of seeking revenge or some other advantage.
The situation is complicated by a tendency toward incomplete and ineffective investigation on the part of school principals, child protective services and other social workers. They, along with pediatricians, nurses and law enforcement officials, are required to report suspected abuse even if the evidence is ambiguous or uncorroborated.
If they do not, they face arrest and employment termination themselves.
Section 420 of the New York Social Services Law subjects people with status as mandatory reporters to one year in jail and civil liability for failure to report suspected child abuse. This obligation applies to teachers, school nurses, guidance counselors, principals, doctors, hospital nurses, social workers, EMTs, mental health professionals, substance and alcohol abuse counselors, law enforcement officials and others.
The obligation is mandatory whenever there is “so-called” reasonable cause to believe that child abuse or maltreatment has occurred. According to the website of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, the following observations may trigger a reporting requirement:
Indicators of Sexual Abuse Can Include:
- Symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases;
- Injury to genital area;
- Difficulty and/or pain when sitting or walking;
- Sexually suggestive, inappropriate, or promiscuous behavior or verbalization;
- Expressing age-inappropriate knowledge of sexual relations;
- Sexual victimization of other children.
Indicators of Maltreatment Can Include:
- Obvious malnourishment, listlessness, or fatigue;
- Stealing or begging for food;
- Lack of personal care—poor personal hygiene, torn and/or dirty clothes;
- Untreated need for glasses, dental care, or other medical attention;
- Frequent absence from or tardiness to school;
- Child inappropriately left unattended or without supervision.
As soon as child abuse, including child sex abuse, or maltreatment is suspected, and there is reasonable cause to believe that such abuse/maltreatment occurred, a mandatory reporter must report his or her concerns by telephone to the New York Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment (SCR).
Individual school districts and other institutions customarily subject to these reporting obligations have rules further establishing the specifics of reporting obligations, including under what circumstances the police must be notified, etc.
These numerous indicators, frequently the result of innocent circumstances, and the prospect of criminal prosecution, civil liability or employment ramifications, contribute to a panicky “cover-one's-own-behind,” and “better safe than sorry” mentality.
The result is a system which errs on the side of presuming that accusations by children and teenagers are true.
Honest investigation of the merits of the claim is often the casualty.
Of all the important safeguards against false conviction, none is more important than the presumption of innocence. Let us remind ourselves of the critical importance of suspending judgment until all the facts are in.
Even for Jerry Sandusky—as hard as it may be.
Let's be wary of the witch hunt.
Kevin Kearon is a partner at Barket, Marion, Epstein & Kearon, LLP, a Garden City, NY criminal defense and civil rights law firm. He is a former Nassau County Assistant District Attorney. He welcomes comments from readers.