Delicate Questions of Abuse

By Tamara Audi (Wall Street Journal)
February 14, 2012

LOS ANGELES—In the photos, the smiling dark-haired girl poses with her favorite teacher, Mark Berndt, or displays a cookie sticking out of her mouth—part of the "tasting games" he played with her and other students.

It wasn't until a sheriff's investigator showed up to ask about her time in Mr. Berndt's classroom at Miramonte Elementary School that the now 10-year-old girl got a sense that some of the games the teacher led in his after-school sessions may have been less innocent, according to Greg Owen, a lawyer representing her family and eight others.

Mr. Berndt, 61, was charged last month with sexually molesting 23 children; investigators say they suspect he fed them his semen on spoons and cookies. His lawyer had no comment on the charges, pending his arraignment later this month.

Most abused children know they are being harmed, according to experts. But the scandal that has enveloped the Los Angeles Unified School District, whatever the legal outcome, raises a vexing procedural problem: how to pursue an investigation that authorities know may lead to traumatic revelations for the children and for their parents.

"You walk up to that door knowing you're going to change this family's life," said Michael Osborn, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent in Los Angeles who runs a multiagency task force investigating sex crimes against children, but isn't involved with the Berndt probe and didn't comment on the investigation.

He said he and his team have faced unsuspecting abuse victims, calling it "one of the most defining moments of a case."

There are protocols for questioning children who may be victims of sexual abuse, but there is no national standard for how—or whether—to inform them that they may have been victimized. Children too young to be aware of the possibility, or who were victimized in ways difficult to detect, may realize it during questioning.

Authorities and child advocates are confronting the issue more often as they track down victims of child pornography on the Internet.

"They don't understand what these pictures [of them] meant until much later, when an FBI agent knocks on their door and starts questioning them," said Dr. Frank Putnam, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and an expert on child sexual abuse.

Scott Burns, a former district attorney in Utah and now the director of the National District Attorneys Association, said that in cases in which prosecutors can rely on photographs or DNA instead of child testimony, officials consult with parents and psychologists about whether to inform or question children who don't understand that they may have been abused.

"It's a delicate balance, and these are very, very difficult cases," Mr. Burns said.

Investigators tread carefully when interviewing children, typically asking open-ended questions to avoid planting suggestions that might later prejudice the case, law-enforcement officials say.

In the Berndt case, they have asked students to "talk about the activity in Mr. Berndt's class: Did you play any games? What kind?" said Sgt. Dan Scott, who leads the special-victims bureau of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.

But experts say kids can figure it out. "There's a dawning realization," said Teresa Huizar, who runs the National Children's Alliance, an advocacy group for abused children. "By the end of an interview, and by the time they've had a medical exam, their life has changed dramatically."

Not everyone agrees that open-ended questions are the norm. "I've seen the interviews with law enforcement. They ask close-ended, directed, and leading, suggestive questions," said Dean Tong, a defense consultant on child-abuse cases, who said specially trained child advocates are better at the task.

Last year in Delaware, a pediatrician was convicted of abusing scores of young patients between 1998 and 2009. He is appealing the conviction.

Many of his young victims are unaware of the abuse, which occurred during medical examinations, said Joseph Zingaro, a psychologist who runs a support group for parents in the case. "The community is very divided about if and when they should even share that with the kids," Mr. Zingaro said. "Some parents are choosing not to say anything, for fear they may trigger a response. Other parents have been more proactive."

At Miramonte Elementary, investigators said they began pursuing the case against Mr. Berndt after a photo developer sent them pictures of students blindfolded and poised to eat a substance on a spoon, which they said DNA tests showed was Mr. Berndt's semen.

They still needed to question children to understand the "totality of the circumstances," Sgt. Scott said.

Kids who learn they were abused think, " 'I thought I could tell who is my friend,' " said Ms. Huizar, the child advocate. "And they sense a loss of personal safety because of that."