As the Tonya Craft trial started its fourth week in Ringgold, another defense witness criticized the interviewing of three children who have accused the former kindergarten teacher of child molestation.
Dr. Nancy Aldridge, a licensed social worker who holds a Doctor of Philosophy in clinical psychology and social work, cited flaws in questions asked of the three young girls.
She also said parents of the children should not have been making numerous calls to one another.
She was asked, “Can little kids be convinced that something happened when it really didn’t.” She replied, “Yes, and that is a very dangerous thing.”
Dr. Aldridge began by telling the jury of her credentials and what she did to earn her degrees and certifications. At one point, assistant district attorney Chris Arnt rose to stipulate to her credentials in an effort to keep the jury from hearing her curriculum vitae. However, defense attorney Demosthenes Lorandos continued with his probe into Dr. Aldridge’s background as an expert. As a diplomate in social work, her chosen field, she testified that she must conduct numerous forensic interviews each year in order to remain certified.
Dr. Aldridge is a member of several boards that review and write protocols for those involved in forensic interviews of alleged child abuse victims. In addition to her academic training, she also worked as a registered nurse and a psychiatric nurse – where she did her internship at a family center as a therapist. She worked with the Dekalb County District Attorney’s office to help set-up an interview system for them. She developed the Georgia Center for Family where she worked with children and adolescents that had been abused and neglected.
Dr. Lorandos asked, “How long have you been in private practice?” She replied, “21 years.” He also had the witness tell about her experience in working with cases that began out of domestic violence and divorce cases. She testified that fathers as well as mothers have made up incidents of abuse as part of their separation and divorce.
She told about several articles that she has had published, one in particular dealing with guardian ad litems and their role in questioning children placed in their care by the judicial system. Dr. Lorandos also reviewed with the witness the process and procedures for submitting articles to psychiatric and law journals.
In regard to interviewing children, she spoke of processes that help and limit the process. She said there was a way involving context reinstatement to habilitate the child’s memories. A procedure called cognitive interviewing is a way to help with that, she said.
“How long have you been dealing with child sexual abuse?” “Probably 22 years.”
Dr. Lorandos, “How many times have you testified in court?” “Probably around 275.” “How many times have you testified involving any kind of child abuse?” “About 200.” “How many times for the prosecution?” “All but 15.”
The defense offered Dr. Aldridge as an expert and she was admitted with no objections from the prosecution.
The defense counsel asked about scientific method and scientific knowledge and then takes her through examples of each. Scientific knowledge is where hypothesis have been proven, she said.
Dr. Aldridge described peer review to the jury as a case where all research and data has been proven and accepted by a group of one’s peers. She then described the difference between scientific knowledge and one’s own personal opinion.
She was then asked about the “big, frontline” cases such as the McMartin, Wenahatchee and others. These are cases of child abuse allegations before forensic interviewing had not been perfecting. “I studied these cases to see what went wrong and what not to do,” said Dr. Aldridge.
Dr. Lorandos picked up a stack of books several feet in height and Dr. Aldridge said, “You’ve got my books.” Together they went over several topics including the Cornell Study, one that he has questioned each of the prosecution’s experts about. None of those witnesses had any knowledge of this research.
The expert witness continued to quote study after study and text after text of child abuse forensic interviewing. She states in many cases, “It is an excellent book.”
Defense counsel asked, “Are you saying we can have a memory of something we were just told about?” “Yes, we can. Children are led to believe that adults are omnipotent… that if an adult tells a child something, they come to believe it.”
In describing one book she said it covers how to look at everything associated with the history of the child before reaching a conclusion. She described it as a “must read.” She stated that an interviewer that does not know this literature is more likely to make mistakes. The witness said it is very irresponsible for forensic interviewers to not have this knowledge.
“What is the appropriate philosophy for interviewers to have?” asked Dr. Lorandos. “To be unbiased, you don’t need to know the history of the case to be an effective interviewer; there are many guidelines published that are available for use by forensic interviewers.” She further mentioned that the end result should be data that is reliable and truthful.
After objecting to a particular question, Dr. Lorandos changed his inquiry. Mr. Arnt commented “That’s a more appropriate question.” To which Dr. Lorandos replied, “Thank you.”
The witness said it is irresponsible to treat a child as sexually abused when they have not been abused. This validates it even more for the child and makes it even more concrete for them, she related. So much so, she continued, that it becomes indistinguishable for the child.
Dr. Aldridge said that sometimes parents can exhibit symptoms of PTSD when they feel their child has been abused or even if they’ve just been told of something that never happened.
“I want to know what the research says if a parent hears that that child may have been abused?” asked Dr. Lorandos. “Parents become very anxious and concerned and question more.” Do they keep questioning until they get an answer?” “Many things could happen, it depends on the circumstance. They generally ask more questions. If they get more information they usually call the authorities. They may also call a friend, who says, ‘Tell me more.’” The child begins to think that maybe something did happen to me because my parents are upset, she continued.
She said children may not remember how many times a certain question was asked.
“Tell us the effect of accusatory questions.” “There is pressure put on the child in an accusatory way. The child may come up with an answer even though they may not know the answer.”
Answering a question about the cases she has written about, she said there was evidence that parents called each other. She said it is like a rumor that gets formed and there is a network of parents concerned about their child and it makes it more valid and solidifies the rumor.
If parents call one another over and over and over, the attorney asked, does it tend to make the information more accurate or not? Usually not was the witness' answer. She also said that she tells parents not to call one another or communicate with one another about the accusation. It limits the number of times the child hears themselves talked about, she related.
“Hypothetically if a little kid says something and the parents start questioning again and again and again and call each other again and again and again, even though they’ve been told not to, does that make the story more accurate or less accurate?” “The accuracy goes down,” said Dr. Aldridge.
The witness stated that sexual development actually begins in the uterus and it is not uncommon for little girls of six or seven to experiment with one another and themselves. Is it more appropriate for a parent to tell the child to go outside and play or to spank them, asked Dr. Lorandos. To tell them to go play – or redirect the child – is more appropriate is her response.
She also said that if a child is participating in a sexual incident and the parent spanks them the child may either stop entirely or become fixated on the action, thinking it is not appropriate.
“When parent as interviewers of kids have a bias when they are asking their kids questions, can that bias have an effect on the kid?” “Yes sir, it can.”
“If the parent has a belief, is it your opinion that the parent can get the child to conform to that belief?” “Yes, the child could begin to agree with the parent. The parents won’t listen to anything that disagrees with their opinion.”
“Do kids catch on to confirmatory bias?” “Yes, they can.”
“We don’t go in with only one belief and we don’t ask questions to confirm that one belief,” stated Dr. Aldridge. “What about repeated questions?” asked the defense. “If a question is asked over and over to get more information, that would be okay. However, once the information has been given, the interviewer should not repeat the question.”
Referring to (child)’s interview with Sgt. Tim Deal, Dr. Aldridge said the child abuse detective had broken a cardinal rule of interviewing by introducing new material to the child.
Dr. Lorandos asked concerning when an interviewer indicates status to a five-year-old child, such as a police officer, fireman, etc..., does research tell us the impact of status on a child? Research said children are more likely to agree with a person with such status, she said. The witness also said interviewers should never give a child a question with only two answer options. These are all techniques utilized by the state’s interviewers in the videos shown to the jury, she said.
When asked about her role as an expert witness, she said, “My job is to answer your questions, to give an honest answer based on scientific knowledge and to educate the jury.” “When you were asked to testify in those 95% of cases for the prosecution was your role the same or were you a ‘hired gun’ for the State?” She stated that her role remained the same, regardless of which side she testifies for.
Dr. Aldridge said she only spoke to Ms. Craft for approximately five minutes prior to testifying for the defense. She also stated that she only spoke to Cary King once and with Dr. Lorandos for a couple of times before coming to court. In an hour-long phone conversation, the witness stated that Dr. Lorandos had done most of the talking.
The witness stated that she reviewed videos, transcripts, investigative notes and psychotherapy notes on all three of the alleged victims. She stated that she received every piece of information she asked for from the defense and that she was asked to review the interviews of the children.
Dr. Lorandos took her through a list of the interviews made with the children and asked her she had reviewed each one. She answered in the affirmative for each video. Her method of review involved not only the transcripts, but she said she watched for reactions, body language, eye contact, etc. Each video was reviewed three times by the witness.
She stated that Stacey Long, one of the state’s forensic interviewers from the Fort Oglethorpe CAC, did not follow any of the professionally developed protocols. She said when the child said she was there “because someone was mean to her” her first inclination should have been to establish the meaning of mean.
ADA Arnt rose to object but apparently was never recognized by the judge. He spread his arms as if to say, “What?” and sat back down. Dr. Lorandos kept right on with his questioning.
The witness continued with the use of repetitive questioning, stating that the child after so many times of being asked, “Is there anything else?” decides she must come up with an answer.
During an objection, ADA Arnt referenced “the ultimate reason we are here,” to which Dr. Lorandos answered, “The ultimate reason we are here is if they have proven their case or not.”
“If the child said my momma told me, is that significant?” “Yes it is, is that something the child heard, or was told, or witnessed? We won’t to know how that originated?”
As to the child coloring during the interview she stated that the child is not connecting to any of what is going on. On the issue of asking about the child being kissed on the head by Ms. Craft, the witness said that was totally inappropriate by the interviewer; that the interviewer was introducing new evidence which reinforces to the child that these are things an adult can do to a child.
According to Dr. Aldridge, Ms. Long’s entire line of questioning was inappropriate and put new ideas into the child’s memory which could have led her to believe she had been touched inappropriately when she had not.
“By asking the child “Did Miss Tonya ever tell you to touch each other” what is the impact of that?” “That is very dangerous,” answered the witness.
“I felt that the interviewer did not follow particular guidelines, she should have done much more in the beginning to set up the interview, and should have done more to encourage the child’s episodic memories. My concern was the omission of questions by the interviewer, things she should’ve asked but didn’t,” stated Dr. Aldridge. She said she basically felt that the interviewer did pull enough information to make a learned supposition of the interview.
When asked about a 10-minute break in the interview of the child and then coming back in and making more statements, the witness said the significance was that the interviewer introduced the idea to the child that she was scared to tell. “Did you notice whether or not this child was anxious or upset?” “She did not appear to be either.”
“What’s the significance of the kid saying ‘I get to go the spa today?’” She replied that rewards or reinforcement should not be offered whether they intended it or not.
Prior to the jury being brought in on Monday morning, defense attorney Lorandos addressed Judge Brian House on the matter of alleged personal attacks and unprofessional behavior on the part of the prosecutors, Len Gregor and Mr. Arnt, specifically referring to Mr. Gregor and his slamming of materials on the podium and his “uncaring” remarks towards veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Distress Order. Asking if this was supposed to be an intimidating gesture, he remarked that he, himself, was a second-degree black belt and was not intimidated by such acts. In closing, Dr. Lorandos asked the court to please rein in the alleged conduct of Mr. Gregor. Neither the judge nor either prosecutor had a reply to this address.
There was then a break for lunch.
Dr. Aldridge wound up spending over 10 hours on the stand. Beginning shortly after nine a.m. she finished her testimony at just before 7 p.m. During her time on the stand she pointed out numerous alleged gaffes and incorrect interviewing techniques utilized by Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office deputies, Fort Oglethorpe Children’s Advocacy forensic interviewers, as well as interviewers from the Green House in Dalton and a former employee of the Hamilton County Children’s Advocacy Center.
At one point in the witness’ testimony, in response to a question of why the police would leave a specific piece of information out of a transcript, Dr. Aldridge replied, “It didn’t fit with their theory.”
With most people in the courtroom tired from this marathon day, ADA Len Gregor made yet another complaint of those in the gallery as the clock moved toward 6 p.m. He reported to Judge House that people sitting in the area behind Ms. Craft were “gasping and sighing” in response to Mr. Arnt’s reading a rather graphic passage from the McMartin sex abuse case from the 1980’s.
On the 16th afternoon of the now nationally-known molestation trial of Ms. Craft, a courtroom packed with the defendant’s supporters, all apparently dressed in bright yellow to show their support for her, the defense continued its attack on the state’s expert witnesses.
Following the lunch recess, Dr. Lorandos launched into a third hour of examining Dr. Aldridge, the defense’s third expert witness of this now four-week trial.
The questioning at this point was centered on one of the childrens’ conflicting testimony with a second state’s forensic interviewer. According to Dr. Aldridge the interviewer was again placing information into the child’s memory. The witness stated that "we now have information that we do not have any idea of its origin."
The alleged victim had told the interviewer how Ms. Craft had touched her and about threats that the defendant had made against her mother. When asked if she believed the threats, the child told the interviewer no. When asked about this, the witness told the defense that it appeared that the child might still have some positive feelings toward her former teacher.
When the girl was in school, she said that Ms. Craft had accused her of calling one of the other alleged victims “Willy Wonka.” The young girl then made a statement that Miss Tonya had always been mean to her and following the third instance of being asked “anything else?” the girl brought up Ms. Craft listening to rap music and that it had bad words in it.
Following more times of asking “anything else?” Dr. Aldridge commented that “interviewers just don’t take no for an answer.”
“The significance of that is that the interviewer, it’s called co-witnessing, had information from someone else,” the witness replied in response to a question regarding another instance of the interviewer allegedly introducing new information to the young girl.
After ‘anything else’ number seven what does (the child) come up with, inquired Dr. Lorandos. “That she (Ms. Craft) would not allow her to watch TV.” “The child is being asked anything else, anything else and the child comes up with all these other things that might be the answer to the question ‘is there anything else?’” said Dr. Aldridge.
“Where’s the story with the fingers sticking in her privates, doc?” asked Dr. Lorandos. “I don’t know,” said the witness, “she’s trying to think of anything that might answer the question, “anything else.” The defense asked if the child appeared to be traumatized, to which the answer was, “She did not appear to be.”
During the absence of the interviewer, the witness noted that the child appeared to be a happy child, not upset at all.
Questioning the expert about the first accuser making her initial disclosure of penetration, Dr. Lorandos asked if it was ever a good thing to take the girl back to the interview room and put it on tape? The witness replied that this should always be captured on tape. The detective told Ms. Thorne she did not have to video this, does this make sense to you, inquired the defense counsel. The interviewer and the police officer should have made a decision to take the child back in and document it, the witness said. Now we have no idea as to what was said or how she said it, she said.
“In your two decades of doing this have you ever known a prosecuting attorney who wouldn’t want to know this?” asked Dr. Lorandos. “No, sir,” answered the witness.
Next the defense wanted to know how many treatments the child had had between 2008 and 2009. The answer given was 34. She then stated her concern over an interview conducted a year after the first interview and that the child was in treatment. In the book Jeopardy in the Courtroom, it is stated that if the treatment is ongoing and the question about the abuse is asked over and over, the child may be encouraged to fantasize and the memory of the child may be contorted and confused, relayed the expert in the field.
She further stated that she was concerned with the fact that the child had been in treatment for over 30-something treatments and was now making another disclosure.
Dr. Aldridge stated that she thought this child had been contaminated and her memory tainted.
Talking about the interaction between the child and Sgt. Tim Deal, the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office Crimes Against children investigator, the witness stated that in cases like this an authority figure could influence the child.
Talking about an instance in the interview video with (child #2) and her statement of “which is which and where she touched me” as told by her momma which was originally said to be inaudible by Sgt. Deal, but later enhanced by the defense team, the witness was asked why she thought the police would leave this out. Her reply was that "it did not fit with their theory."
This child also was noted to be coloring throughout her interviews and Dr. Aldridge said she did not appear to be anxious or upset about being in the interview situation. The doctor also said she notes the child’s body language to see if it matches what she is talking about. In this case she said the child’s outward appearance did not match the subject matter at all.
Again, there was no attempt for the interviewer to control for leading questions, repetitive questions or suggestive questions according to the published expert.
At one point when Dr. Lorandos made a mistake in a sequence of events, Mr. Arnt rose to correct him, which earned Mr. Arnt a polite “thank you” from the defense counsel as he pressed on with his questioning.
Dr. Lorandos continued his direct examination of Dr. Aldridge, going through each girl’s responses. Turning to an interview done by Suzie Thorne, then of the Green House in Dalton, the witness pointed out alleged gaffes made by the now deputy sheriff in Whitfield County. Ms. Thorne had questioned the little girl about her mom being arrested which was a very traumatic issue for her to deal with, related the witness.
Dr. Lorandos spent the next to last hour of the court day questioning the behavior of therapist Laurie Evans, a former employee of the Hamilton County Children’s Advocacy Center, and one child’s change in behavior and feelings toward her mom. As in Friday’s examination of Dr. Ann Hazzard, Dr. Lorandos was ordered to treat Ms. Evans in the hypothetical. Dr. Aldridge’s testimony supported the opening statement made by the defense regarding the effects of a child being separated from their mother. She said it is not uncommon for a child separated from a parent to come to believe that one parent is good and the other parent is bad.
At 140 days of separation the child became fearful to talk about her mother and had not seen her mother for that period, as well. With 165 days of separation the child is now angry with the parent over what they did. At 187 days, Ms. Evans saids in a deposition that the child is described to be extremely anxious and scared. “Is that what you call a symptom of alienation?” “Yes, sir.”
Dr. Aldridge stated to the jury that social workers must have ethics and attend conferences every year on the subject and are bound to delineate the roles of social worker/therapist and patient. It is not ethical for a social worker to obtain forensic information during treatment to be used later in a custody hearing. Again, this line of questioning was directed towards Ms. Evans and her role in the custody battle between Joal Henke and Ms. Craft.
Ms. Evans is further depicted in the hypothetical as paranoid and going out to obtain a license and gun. Asked if that would bother her as a supervising social worker, Dr. Aldridge replied in the affirmative. It was also alleged that she sued for divorce with a $100,000 award for her husband’s abuse of her. Dr. Aldridge said a clinician with all these issues should stop working and take care of herself.
“If you’re supervising a social worker involved in a case like this and dealing with all these kids and others and she had a financial concern in the outcome would that bother you?” The reply was in the affirmative, once again.
She also indicated that, in this hypothetical, if a guardian ad litem wanted the therapist removed she would want to know about it.
As a closing question, Dr. Lorandos asked, “In a case this sensitive wouldn’t we want to get it right?” “Yes, of course,” answered Dr. Aldridge.
ADA Arnt, on cross, asked about a subpoena which immediately garnered an objection from Dr. Lorandos. Judge House overruled the defense by stating, “He’s on cross.”
Mr. Arnt continued on with his questioning, asking about suggestibility and various statistics regarding forensic interviewing. He explained that there are differences when a mother tells a child what her body parts are and where it’s not okay to touch. The witness agreed that there could be a difference.
The judge interrupted with a question to the jury, “Do you mind sticking around until we get rid of this?” That garnered laughs from the jury and the gallery, while Dr. Aldridge asked it that was a hint.
The witness related that 70–80 percent of children disclose the core details of sexual abuse during a properly conducted interview.
“Would you consider it to be anxiety if you turned purple then red upon hearing an accusation?” “Either anxiety or anger.” This question related to Ms. Craft’s reaction as reported by Sgt. Deal when he told her of the charges against her.
Mr. Arnt at one point attempted to get Dr. Aldridge to challenge a finding made by an earlier expert, Dr. Hazzard, to which the witness replied that it would be better not to as Dr. Hazzard was reviewing the videos for a different purpose than herself.
Next, the discussion turned to one of the girls and an issue of Ms. Craft placing medicine on their private parts. While Mr. Arnt tried several different ways to get an admission out of the witness that this was indeed related to a bad touch of some sort, the assistant DA could not shake the doctor’s testimony.
Mr. Arnt asked about the child buying gifts for the mom at day 187 and stated that this was something that meant the child still liked the mom. Dr. Aldridge said that that meant the child still had some part of her that liked the mom. She also stated that what he was talking about was not what she was reading at all.
When Mr. Arnt asked about her fees for today, she told him that, “Frankly, neither side pays very well – the defense or the tate.”
Mr. Arnt also continued his line of questioning from earlier defense witnesses and asked Dr. Aldridge to define a narcissist. She next stated that she has a problem with the current interview protocol used by the state of Georgia since 2003 in that it doesn’t gather enough information from the child. Her preference is to use open-ended questions and then to focus your questions after you get a disclosure from the child that something has happened.
The doctor also told the jury that if you have asked the child the same question three times without receiving an answer you should leave it alone and move on. However, you may come back to it at a later point in the interview.
At the conclusion of Mr. Arnt’s cross, Dr. Lorandos used less than 10 quick questions to finish up. The marathon day spent on the second floor of the venerable old courthouse in Ringgold finally drew to a close.
(You can email Dennis Norwood at email@example.com. Daily Twitter updates can be found at DennisENorwood, KevinWestWGOW and Chattanoogancom)