Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced several pardons as he is leaving office, including those of Gerald Amirault and his sister, Cheryl, convicted in the late 1980s for multiple counts of child abuse. Most experts in the field of child protection believe that the convictions were a miscarriage of justice, founded on leading and coercive interviews of young children at the childcare center where the Amiraults worked with their mother, Violet.
Cheryl and Violet Amirault won a new trial, but Ms. Amirault died in 1997. The judge assigned to the retrial dismissed the charges against Violet posthumously, and barred the children from testifying in any retrial. In his opinion, the judge said that the children were manipulated by “overzealous” investigators who succumbed to a “climate of panic, if not hysteria.” He also noted that investigators unwittingly coerced the children by refusing to accept their denials of abuse.
This case is one of several that should serve as cautionary tales for people in the child protection field. We know much more now about interview techniques than we did in the 1980s, but even back then investigators should have been wary of fantastical tales that contradicted all of the physical evidence. We also have to recognize that the Amiraults were the most obvious victims of the hysteria, but they were not the only ones. Investigators left the children and their parents believing that the children had suffered from heinous abuse, and that belief no doubt upended their lives. I’m certain that the investigators truly believed that they had uncovered a ring of child abusers, but their belief was simply wrong. They reached their conclusions and then viewed all of the evidence through that lens. The result was a tragedy on all fronts.