Fells Acres Day Care Center

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Fells Acres Day Care Center was located in Malden, Massachusetts, in the United States and was part of the day care sex abuse hysteria of the 1980s.[1][2][3]Violet Amirault (1923–1997) opened the facility in 1966 after her husband left her.[4]

Accusations and investigation

In 1984, a four-year old student at the Fells Acres Day School wet himself while taking a nap. Upon direction by the child’s teacher, Gerald Amirault changed the boy into spare clothing. Later that year the boy was discovered playing sexually-suggestive games with his cousin. After being questioned about this by his mother and uncle, who himself had been molested as a child, the boy said that Gerald had sexually abused him. Shortly thereafter, Gerald was arrested on charges of raping the boy.[3]

The police called the parents of all the children to a meeting at the police station to discuss the situation. They were instructed to go home and interview their children and to look for signs of sexual abuse/molestation. Examples of behaviours parents were told were symptomatic of abuse included bed wetting, changes in appetite and nightmares. The children were also interrogated by the police, social workers, therapists, and others.

Arrests and trial

Eventually, Gerald Amirault was charged with molesting more children, and charges were brought against his mother, Violet Amirault, and sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave.[3]

"All nine children testified in a broadly consistent way...The children testified to numerous instances of sexual abuse. Some of the children testified that they were photographed during this abuse, describing a big camera with wires, a red button, and pictures which came out of the camera. The children testified that the defendant threatened them and told them that their families would be harmed if they told anyone about the abuse....The Commonwealth also presented a pediatric gynecologist and pediatrician who examined five of the girls who testified...She made findings consistent with abuse in four of the girls."[5]

Gerald would end up being convicted of assaulting and raping nine children and was sentenced to thirty to forty years in prison, while his mother and sister were convicted in a separate trial of similar crimes against four children and sentenced to jail for eight to twenty years.[3] At both trials the children testified in open court sitting directly in front of the jury with their backs to the defendants and their faces to the jurors.

"The motion judge who heard Violet and Cheryl's motion, declared that "[a]t best, the defendants could only see the right ear and a part of the right cheek of the testifying witness." The Commonwealth contends that the defendants could see almost a full profile view including the child's lips and that the child witness could make eye contact by turning toward the defendants."[5]

Interviews of children as evidence

Much of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ case depended on the information obtained in the interviews of the children who were allegedly sexually abused by the Amiraults. The interviews revealed that the children were raped with knives, sticks, forks, and magic wands; were assaulted by a clown (supposedly Gerald) in a "secret room" and a "magic room"; were forced to drink urine; were tied naked to a tree; and many other acts.

The main criticism of this case had to do with the reliability of the information obtained from the children. The bulk of the evidence was developed through videotaped interviews conducted by Susan Kelley, a pediatric nurse.[3] The children repeatedly told interviewers, including Kelley, that nothing happened to them, that there were no secret rooms, and there was no clown. However, the questioning continued and eventually the children claimed all these things happened. One police officer, John Rivers, said at a seminar that interviewing the children was "like getting blood from a stone." At one point, an interviewer told a child that the child’s friend had already testified that the clown had them take their clothes off. The girl being interviewed denied this happened, at which point the interviewer said that she believed what the child’s friend told her. Kelley used puppets of characters from Sesame Street to ask the children to disclose to the interviewers what happened. She asked children questions such as "Do you think that you could help me the same way that [another female child] did by telling me the story about what happened with the clown in the magic room[?]" Kelley also rejected alternative explanations for events and ignored the children’s denials of the abuse scenarios.[6] The chief prosecutor of both of the Amirault cases maintained that "the children testified to being photographed and molested by acts that included penetration by objects ... the implication ... that the children's allegations of abuse were tainted by improper interviewing is groundless and not true." [7]

Post trial

Superior Court Judge John Paul Sullivan reduced Violet and Cheryl’s sentences downward, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed that ruling in 1993.[8] In 1995, after serving eight years in state prison, Violet and Cheryl were freed on a successful appeal. A Lowell Superior Court judge ruled that their convictions were wrongful because they were not able to directly confront their accusers.[4] However, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reinstated the conviction, citing the need for "finality."[8] While awaiting this verdict, Violet Amirault passed away. After this, another judge, the Honorable Isaac Borenstein, granted two separate motions for new trials. However, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court once again ruled to send the women back to prison.[8]

In October 1999, the new Middlesex County District Attorney Martha Coakley and Cheryl Amirault LeFave reached an agreement whereby Cheryl would be sentenced to the time served and she was released from prison. In exchange, Cheryl agreed to ten years probation, and also could not give any television interviews, could not contact the families of the victims, could have no unsupervised contact with children, and could not profit as a result of her ordeal.

The Massachusetts parole board recommended the commutation of Gerald Amirault's sentence in July 2001 (an action that the alleged victims strenuously objected to[9][10]). The then–Acting Governor, Jane Swift, rejected the decision in February 2002. He was ultimately released from the Bay State Correctional Center on April 30, 2004.

See also


Further reading