The Special Room
When Angela first started telling people about what Carson was doing, she didn’t think it was a big deal—neither his doing it, nor her telling people.
After all, it was only one story. She had lots of others. And they were all part of a larger story. Carson was only the beginning—and really, he wasn’t even that. The story began with her parents of course, and then it sort of began again on the day Angela was born.
Or maybe it began with the birth of Sharon Valley itself. In the 1700s. Or half a billion years ago.
Although the most difficult aspect of Angela’s story is that it has no proper ending, it’s nearly as difficult to know when or where to begin.
Angela’s forensic interview did not begin with the subject of incest. That came much later.
Most forensic child-sexual-assault interviews follow a similar protocol, the first of phase of which, called the pre-substantive phase, begins with introductions and rapport-building. The interviewer engages the child in sundry icebreakers and innocuous chit-chat designed primarily to create a relaxed environment in which the child will begin to “open up.”
The interviewer may help the child relax by using a number of techniques — appearing interested in everything the child has to say; sitting eye-level with the child; giving the child toys, stuffed animals, etc.
In Angela’s case, she was given a brand-new teddybear even before she was asked to follow the nice lady to the special room. The teddy was fluffy and cute, and unlike the standard oatmeal version, it was white as snow — except for a red ribbon tied around its little neck.
“OK,” said the nice lady, opening the door. “We’re gonna come in here, and you can have a seat on the couch, or I can pull this little chair over if you want to draw stuff while we talk.”
The chair was a hard-plastic cafeteria chair.
The couch was a loveseat with big cushions, in front of which was a coffee table with boxes of pencils and markers and a stack of blank paper.
Angela picked the loveseat.
It was not a difficult choice.
She was also careful to leave plenty of space for the nice lady to join her on the loveseat, but the nice lady, apparently unaware of Angela’s gesture, chose instead to sit in an adjacent folding chair as she began with the chit-chat.
“So, who’s your teacher this year?”
Angela looked at the loveseat’s empty cushion, then scooted over, even further, up against the arm of the loveseat. “Umm,” she said—making eye contact — “I have a question.”
“What?” said the nice lady.
Angela patted the empty cushion. “Could you sit next to me?”
“I absolutely could sit next to you,” said the nice lady, getting up as quickly as she’d sat down.
Angela watched as the nice lady made her way around the coffee table. There was not a lot of space. The special room was rather small, and the nice lady was rather large and moved as if her knees remembered the feeling of banging into things. Plain black trousers, beige sweatshirt, she wore very little makeup, if any, and wore no jewelry but for the chain attached to her reading glasses. She and Angela both had brown hair, but the nice lady had a lot more of it — all big and wavy. Angela’s hair was straight and neat, falling just below her shoulders, with a clamshell clip to keep it all in place. It was an important day, and she had dressed accordingly, looking smart and pretty in a blue knit top and coordinated skirt.
The nice lady moved a throw pillow, preparing to join Angela on the couch, then paused and pointed to her original seat.
“Can I grab my stuff?”
“Sure,” said Angela.
“Just in case I need it. OK?”
Angela held her white teddybear in her lap.
CAIT forensic interviewer Kathi Legare was nothing if not a hard worker. Married at age nineteen, foster parent at twenty, prior to joining CAIT Legare had spent two decades helping to manage her husband’s plumbing business while taking care of their seven children — six of whom they’d adopted.
Whatever scant freetime her schedule might have afforded, Legare had forfeited in order to go back to school, and after commuting two hours every day to her classes, over a period of years, she eventually graduated with a Masters Degree in Social Work from no less an institution than Smith College.
When the New York Times looked to Smith for a feature on non-traditional-age students, Legare was among the graduates whom the College recommended for an interview.
“I went to Smith without a clear understanding of what anything in the world was about,” Legare told the Times. “I knew reality from the blue-collar standpoint, but I had no idea about social policy — other than how it affected my children — about world politics, about local politics, the courts, the way others lived in general. My eyes opened wide when I got there. I was reading books I never knew existed.”
Not long after graduation, Legare’s experiential child skills and hard-won education proved a perfect fit for CAIT.
Once in the interview room Angela asked that I sit next to her on the couch. She was animated, her speech was clear, and her language was age-appropriate. She made age-appropriate eye contact and her affect was congruent to the mood. . . .
Legare retrieved a stack of papers and a box of tissues from her original seat. She tucked the papers away, out of sight, and set the box of tissues on the coffee table. (Tears were to be expected in the special room.) Settling down at last, beside Angela, she drew a breath and began again.
“So, who’s your teacher this year?”
“Ms. S.,” said Angela, quietly.
“Do you like Ms. S?”
“Her name is really Ms. Spallholz.”
“Ms. Spallholz? You don’t have to spell her name, do you?”
“Try to spell it,” Angela challenged.
“I don’t think I could,” the nice lady confessed. “I’m not a very good speller. Are you a good speller?”
“I can spell precipitation.”
“You can? Let me hear.”
Angela spelled it flawlessly, without hesitation.
However special the CAIT interview room may have appeared to Angela or the hundreds of other children who had been coaxed through its door, the room was far more special, of course, to Legare and the other adults who operated its hidden microphones and video cameras.
Ironically, neither the design of the room nor CAIT as a legal entity was actually special in the sense of unique. In fact CAIT was just one of eighteen multi-agency investigation teams across the Connecticut’s eighteen judicial districts; all of the teams funded by the National Children’s Alliance and the CT Department of Children and Families, among others; each team equipped with its own special interview rooms, police detectives, medical experts, social workers, victim advocates, et al.
Nor was any of it specific to Connecticut. By 2003, most states in the U.S. had similar child abuse investigation teams.
Allowing children to testify via videotape, rather than take the stand in court, was a relatively new development and was indeed a special dispensation. Although critics argued that videotaped testimony violated a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to face their accusers, prosecutors appreciated that such an arrangement eliminated the possibility of a child freezing up — or worse, changing their statements — when facing the defendant in open court.
The teddybears are special inasmuch as they serve a double duty. First to comfort the child. Second to play on the heartstrings of jurors. Although juries in the U.S. are generally smitten by children anyway, if a jury is forced to watch a video instead of getting the real thing, then the added visual effect of the teddybear can help seal the deal.
“Do you have spelling bees at your school?”
“Sometimes,” said Angela, distracted. “Not all of the time.”
“How do you do in them?”
Angela did not reply. She was still perusing the layout of the room and its various props. Presently she was examining the dark-complected male doll sitting directly behind her, on the back of the loveseat.
Legare reached for the doll. “Do you want me to move him?”
“No,” said Angela. “I was just kind of scared by him.”
In Angela’s hometown of Sharon, with a population under three thousand, there were extraordinarily few people, let alone dolls, with dark complexions.
Torrington, home of the CAIT offices, was Litchfield County’s only city. With less than forty-thousand residents, ninety-three percent of whom were white (compared to Sharon’s ninety-seven percent), Torrington’s demographics also made the statistical necessity of multi-racial dolls a matter of some debate, but CAIT had decided to err on the side of inclusiveness.
“I can move the him if you want,” Legare repeated. Adapting on-the-fly was a requisite skill when working with children. There’s no telling where the conversation will go. A social worker can have a script, but she’d better be ready to ad-lib.
“Do you want me move him?”
“No,” said Angela.
“OK,” said Legare.
“So, were you ever in any spelling bees?”
“Yeah,” said Angela. “Once. Last year.”
“How did you do?”
Angela moved her teddybear from her lap and gave him his own seat between her and the nice lady. “I did OK,” she said. “But I lost a whole lot of points.”
“So you had spelling bees in kindergarten?”
“No,” Angela corrected, “I’m eight.”
“Oh, you’re eight. And you’re in the third grade?”
“And you had spelling bees in second grade?”
“Is that when you start having them? Wow.”
“We also did Around the World,” Angela offered.
“What’s Around the World?”
“It’s when you go. . . .” Angela tried to figure out how to describe the game. “The teacher, he has these cards? They’re mathematic cards. You get, like, 8×7, and if you get it right, then you can move a space.”
“If you get it wrong, you have to sit back down in your chair.”
“How do you do in that game?”
“And is Around the World, like, around the classroom?”
“Wow. And what do you get if you go all the way around the world?”
“You get a candy.”
“How cool is that,” said Legare. “Are they candies you like?”
Angela giggled. “Mmm hmm.”
“That’s very cool.”
“So,” said Legare, moving along. “What school do you go to?”
Angela didn’t reply.
She could hear a strange noise and was pretty sure that it was coming from the nice lady — from a little plastic thing, specifically, that was stuck inside the nice lady’s ear.
“What are you looking at?” said Legare.
“Umm — ” said Angela.
“This thing? You want to know what that is?”
“This is a microphone,” said Legare. It was time again to adapt. “It’s kinda like a telephone? Only I can’t talk into it. I can just hear in it.”
The nice lady was wearing a wire.
Angela said nothing.
Legare pointed to the mirror on the wall. “See that glass there? See that mirror?”
Angela looked over, slowly, at the mirror.
“Behind that mirror is Dave,” said Legare. “Do you remember Dave, the detective who came to your house?”
“He’s behind that mirror.” Legare waved to the mirror. “You can wave to him if you want.”
Angela scanned the mirror. She couldn’t see Detective Dave, only reflections, but she waved nonetheless — politely — toward the special mirror in the special room.
“Dave’s behind there so he can hear what you’re saying. And then if he has any questions that I didn’t ask you today, he can ask me, in my ear. That way, you don’t have to tell anything to anybody else again. You can just tell me.”
“Oh,” said Angela.
“So not everybody will keep asking you questions a million times. Okay? Does that sound like a good idea?”
Forensic child interviews were still relatively new ground in 2003. Methodologies had developed over the previous decade, largely on the heels of high-profile alleged child-abuse cases that had gone spectacularly wrong in court. A chief concern in current protocol was limiting the number of times a child was questioned. Repeated questioning by multiple authorities, whether social workers or police or both, not only subjected the child to possible “secondary trauma,” but also left a door open for defense attorneys to argue that the child was badgered into making accusations.
“Yeah,” said Legare. “So that’s what the earpiece is for. Sometimes I’ll be hearing stuff in that. Okay? But that won’t be for a while. Alright?”
Angela sat up straight and took a deep breath.
The interview was getting serious.
The nice lady was very different from Angela’s therapist. The therapist helped by talking to good people about bad things. The nice lady helped by sending bad people to Detective Dave, who put them in jail.
READ CHAPTER 4: