A pair of vindictive teen girls were (once again) the unlikely culprits on tonight’s SVU, in an episode that mashed up the real-life sex abuse cases involving The Voice judge Cee Lo Green (cleared of all charges), Elmo’s creator Kevin Clash, and TV host Jimmy Saville.
A music coach on an American-Idol-like show is accused of sexually abusing two four-year-old boys at the posh private school where he’s their music teacher. The detectives build a strong case, arrest him, and hold him on $1,000,000 bail. But, it turns out, the boys were coached to lie by their pouty teenage sisters, who were angry at the coach for rebuffing the girls’ attempts to sing on the TV show.
What they got right:
The first half of this episode showed some authentic details about how child-sex-abuse cases are built. The boys initially gave very good disclosures: with specific details, in their own words, without appearing rehearsed. They described things a four-year-old would not usually know, like the purple egg-shaped vibrator. They corroborated each other, without giving verbatim stories. And many of the details of this case were exactly the kind of details that would come out in a real case of child sex abuse: like a kid mysteriously coming home without his underwear (an occurrence I heard several times in my caseload) and the suspect changing his stories. “I was never alone with kids” became “I was alone with the boy because he fell in the toilet, and he was embarrassed, so I threw his underwear out and, uh, I never told his mom.” Often, predators do not give full confessions, but are caught in a web of lies and inconsistencies.
The episode also nailed many of the real-life procedures by which kids are questioned. Most child victims are taken to a child’s advocacy center, which is designed to put them at ease. The décor is bright and cheerful, the furniture is child-sized, the place is quiet and filled with toys and kids books. Detectives there very often use gingerbread drawings like the ones Olivia and Amanda used to have the kids describe what happened. Often, children have their own terminology for anatomy and sex acts, like tonight’s “super-special magic egg.”
And the show authentically captured many of the feelings that sex-offense professionals experience. Olivia felt like she was playing “Whac-a-Mole,” convicting one predator just to encounter another, over and over. Amanda’s doubt underscored another truth keenly felt by sex investigators: that a mere allegation can ruin on a defendant’s life. And the women’s debate intelligently captured a conflict inherent in many SVU-type cases, where professionals must walk a precarious line between protecting the community while protecting suspect’s rights, while trying to find the truth.
You can see the practical urgency of this in the real cases behind tonight’s show. Jimmy Saville (whom Ice-T mentioned) was a popular British TV host. He was also a predator, alleged to have sexually abused hundreds of children and adults, both male and female, via a career that involved visiting kids in schools and hospitals and granting their wishes. Earlier action by authorities and TV execs might have prevented the victimization of hundreds of kids. On the other hand, The Voice judge Cee Lo Green was accused of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman – before the DA decided not to press charges, noting that the same woman dated Green for months before, and had made a similar claim against him a year earlier.
And we’re all familiar with the charges made against Elmo creator Kevin Clash. Most recently, three young men brought charges against Clash, claiming that he molested them when they were underage. A judge dismissed the charges on the grounds that too much time had passed between the alleged acts and the charges. What really happened between the parties is unclear, as is the future of Clash’s career.
What they got wrong:
You knew how innocent tonight’s music coach was by how earnestly he denied the charges, right? He just couldn’t believe anyone would accuse him of that. Don’t be fooled. In real life, predators are excellent liars. I think they even convince themselves. I’ve had sex-offense defendants earnestly insist they never touched a girl – after DNA tests conclusively proved they fathered a baby with the victim. Jimmy Saville went to the grave vehemently denying any sex abuse – despite massive evidence and witnesses to the contrary.
Olivia and Nick were so outraged at the coach’s statement that they stormed out of the interrogation room. “Wait!” the suspect cried, “I want to talk to you!” “You had your chance,” Nick snarled, before slamming the door. Hang that in the Bad Detective Hall of Fame. Any time a defendant is willing to talk, a good cop listens. Even if he’s not telling you the truth, even if you don’t believe him. Give him enough room to spin his lies, and he just might tangle himself up in them.
Amanda sounded shocked when she announced that medical tests were “inconclusive as to sex abuse.” That is actually very common. Children who are sexually abused bear many psychological scars but few physical ones.
“He’s four years old,” the ADA said. “No judge will find him swearable.” Not true. While competence is often an issue for child witnesses, the question is basically: can the child tell the difference between the truth and a lie? If she can, she can be a witness, whatever her age. Usually, the very first questions a detective in a Children’s Advocacy Center asks concern the child’s ability to distinguish truth and lies. When Amanda finally asked Cooper that — in the last ten minutes of the show – it was seriously bad form. Think of all the heartache she could have saved if she’d just asked that at first!
After the kids confessed that they’d lied, ADA Barba advised the detectives: “Go ask the coach about it.” No. Do not keep collecting evidence. Go to court. Go directly to court. Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect $200. Inform the court and the defendant that all of the victims have recanted. Prosecutors have a duty to turn over any evidence that shows the defendant might be innocent. In this case, where the defendant is sitting in jail awaiting trial, this information was urgent. Besides, no decent defense attorney is going to let his client be interrogated by the detectives at this point.
Finally, was I the only one shaking my head when the bad guys turned out to be the two teenage girls? I guess I should be relieved that we got through five full episodes before SVU’s instinct to blame the cute girls kicked in.
What do you think, SVU fans? Leave your comments!