Was It A Witchhunt?

Kathryn Lyon is a lawyer who spent a year in Wenatchee investigating the case. To publicize her findings, Lyon wrote Witch Hunt: A True Story of Social Hysteria and Abused Justice, an examination of the Wenatchee case. She believes that what happened there is only the worst example of a problem that is occurring all over the country.

We talked to her about the case, and the issue in general.

On "Contaminated" Interviews In Wenatchee

"One of the things that happened in WenatcheeÂ… is that children were told that other people had said that they were victims. These children already knew that this was the expectation. In Wenatchee it went further. Kids were told that they were liars if they said it didn't happen. Even Perez admits that he called kids liars.

Unbearable pressure that was put on these kids. There were children that told me, and testified to the fact, that they were told that they would be arrested, or that their parents would be arrested, if they didn't say what Detective Perez believed. This is going beyond suggestion, to the level of coercion, well into the level of coercion. They were also told they couldn't go home if they didn't say what happened."

(For more information on Detective Perez, and a summary of events, see The Wenatchee Case.)

The Practice Of Sending Wenatchee Kids To Mental Hospitals

"These kids were taken from their parents at the time the questioning process took place, and parents were told to sign a voluntary placement agreement, in a situation that was far from voluntary. Then they were placed in these mental facilities without any kind of civil commitment, which meant they didn't have lawyers, they didn't have the courts involved, they didn't have the right to refuse medication. They basically had no rights, no scrutiny, it wasn't subject to any kind of public disclosure process. From what we've learned so far this was not done as a form of therapy but as a form of questioning. The children were told that they were victims and that they were there to encourage them to talk about what had happened to them. One of the therapists, in a court document recently, felt that the process was really coercive, and that the child was terrified not of the alleged molester but of the caseworker and the officials who had placed them [in the mental institution], for what she could see, for no good reason...

...This was a tool. And this kind of tool is probably used much more commonly than we're aware of. Children placed in foster care, children placed in therapy, children placed in all kinds of settings where they are questioned, where they are presumed to be a victim, where disclosure is encouraged. It's not a process a child can resist for long."

The Salem Witch Trials and Wenatchee

"There are just striking smilarities in many ways. For one thing, the population of kids in Salem were similar to this. They were kids around 11 to 13 years old. They were friends.

In Salem the people who pursued the investigation were ambitious, were ruthlessly ambitious, really. There was a pastor, there was a man working in law enforcement, who had a child living with him that he believed was a victim. In Wenatchee, the key child witness lived with Detective Perez as a foster child, and she named over 100 people as her molesters. This same pattern occurred in Salem.

In Salem these children received a lot of attention for what they said, adults hung on their every word, as certainly happened in Wenatchee. There was a response to people who spoke out against the prosecutions in Salem, that they must be witches themselves, or supporters of witchesÂ… in Wenatchee people who spoke out against the prosecution were viewed as suspects, as being child molesters or supporters of child molesters. That was an astonishing thing. I was afraidÂ… The first number in my book was a bail bondsman."

On The Atmosphere of Paranoia In Wenatchee

"People have this mentality of the crusader, this true belief, that they have to do whatever justifies the results. When someone gets in there and doesn't accept their belief system that that person must be a sympathizer. When I went to court to fight the deposition, because I wouldn't turn over my sources [ed. note: she won], the argument that the attorney for Perez made was that I was part of a conspiracy of child molesters, that my affiliation with child molesters should be explored under oath. It was strange. It was sort of surreal."

On American Child Abuse Laws

"It doesn't make any sense to me that we don't examine the laws surrounding child sexual abuse. Wenatchee is the best example of a manifestation of problems that have come out of the passage of this law passed in the mid 1970s, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. It was a law passed based on the perception that children didn't have adequate protection through the law, and that they weren't being believed and that we needed to have a mechanism to deal with child abuse. Before that it was left more with private institutions. The law is coercive in the sense that people are required to report [child abuse] if they belong to a wide range of professions, including teachers and doctors and social workers -- they're required to report suspicions of child abuse, and they are subject to civil and criminal penalties for failing to do that. About two-thirds of cases have been proven to be unsubstantiated...

...The law was not intelligently crafted. There wasn't enough knowledge about how children are affected by interviews. So there were no standards built in to the statutes for how to interview children, or how to record their statements."

On The Damage Such Cases Do To Children

"It was a process of betrayal. We need to think about what this kind of thing does to children, if we imagine that perhaps it didn't happen, as I believe, then what have we done to children that they've turned on everyone they know, and these people are spending their lives in prison? What have we done to these children? I can tell you what we're learning about the children. Several of them have attempted suicide after years in state care. [One girl] not only did she try to throw herself off a couple of balconies, she sat in the middle of the street wanting cars to hit her. This is all in the records. These kids have mutilated themselves. They are in and out of mental hospitals. At this point it's hard to say whether they're there for investigation, or they're just generally so damaged that they need to be there. They're on medication, strong courses of psychotropic medication. It's horrifying. We can only read between the lines on most of the kids because we don't have records on them. That's the kind of thing that would come out of an investigation, the access to records, access to children. This should be examined by someone who is as neutral as you can get."

On The Prevalence Of Such Cases

"We're using Wenatchee as an example. We believe that it's illustrative, and that it will draw attention to a national problem that is pervasive and is not an aberration. It's not a small town problem. It could be anywhereÂ…. We need to get this out. We need to be talking about this all the time. If it just happens to one family, it's sad. But if it happens all over the countryÂ… It's definitely a trend. It has been a trend for years. I've been working for 15 years in this fieldÂ… It's very prevalent."

Uproar In Wenatchee: Home

written by David Kohn