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Behind the Strawberry Door

Article by Ed Quillen

Social services – June 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

A dozen years ago, our younger daughter, Abby, attended Strawberry Door Pre-School in Salida. One evening at dinner, we asked about her day, expecting to hear that some Brittany or Geoffrey had learned to tie shoelaces or count past ten.

However, Abby soberly informed us that a jet had landed in the field behind the school. All the children had stepped aboard for a field trip to Ohio, returning that afternoon after “wandering around and looking at weird stuff.”

As a skeptical journalist and interested father, I ascribed that whopper to a four-year-old’s imagination, and gave it little more thought.

But if I’d been a social worker, I might have launched an investigation: innocent children being removed from the school without parental permission, then being exposed to “weird stuff.” And that was followed by an ominous conspiracy of silence among the staff and other students and their parents to keep others from discovering these gross violations of law and trust.

It appears that social workers these days take the testimony of four-year-olds quite seriously, even when there’s no physical evidence to confirm it. One result has been months of grief for Dr. Andrew Kahan, executive director of Strawberry Door.

His turmoil started in January, when the police began questioning present and past staff concerning allegations of sexual abuse of a child enrolled in the Chaffee County Head Start program. Head Start in Salida (the county has one in Buena Vista, too) is formally under the auspices of the school district, which in turn contracts with Strawberry Door to handle the education aspects of Head Start. Other functions, such as health and nutrition, are handled by Head Start employees.

Among the Head Start children were two four-year-old twin girls. They moved here last summer, and the family has since moved on, but to protect their privacy, we’ll call them Mandy and Mindy.

Mandy often seemed upset, especially at bath time, and began wetting her bed — symptoms, some experts say, of possible sexual abuse.

Their mother took the twins to the hospital emergency room, but there was no examination of the children. Then she connected with the Chaffee County Department of Social Services (DSS).

“Under the law,” director Robert N. Christiansen explained, “we have to look into all allegations of abuse or neglect of children. We make a preliminary inquiry, and if there appears to be any substance, we start a full investigation.”

Christiansen said the law prohibits him from discussing any specific case, but he must have decided to pursue the matter, since DSS asked the Salida Police Department to investigate.

EACH GIRL had a story to investigate. Mandy, the twin with bath-time fears and bedwetting problems which might have indicated sexual abuse (although she had bedwetting problems before moving to Salida), said that a female teacher at Strawberry Door sometimes took her out, by herself, to look at horses.

Mindy, the twin who appeared rather well-adjusted, said that on occasion she was removed from Strawberry Door by a teacher and taken to a place called “the shop” where there was a turquoise bed. There, she and a teacher would play games without anyone else present, and that she sometimes took a bath there.

Mindy sometimes indentified the teacher as “a man named Andy.” Her story varied. Sometimes she said she was taken away from her classmates every day, and then again, she’d say that this happened six or seven times over the course of several months.

Darwin Hibbs, Salida police chief, directed the investigation, interviewing staff members and former employees, to see if children had ever been taken out of Strawberry Door without parental consent or knowledge. No “shop” or turquoise bed was identified, and staff members agreed the children could not have been improperly removed without someone noticing.

“We found no evidence that would support those allegations,” Hibbs said.

Gail Kahan, Andy’s wife and the school’s director of education, was more specific. “We count the kids all the time, in case there’s a fire or some other reason to evacuate the building. If a child were missing because one teacher took the child out, another staff member would notice. So would the kids.

“Besides that, we never know when parents are going to come in and pick up their children. If they were taken away, by Andy or by anybody else, then the children wouldn’t be there when their parents came, and the parents could come by at any time. People would sure notice if that ever happened.

“It’s entirely possible that there’s some truth to the little girl’s story,” Gail continued. “But it’s impossible for it to have happened while she was at Strawberry Door. It couldn’t happen under the way we operate. We have procedures to insure that that sort of thing can’t happen.”

So the police investigated, with the result that the District Attorney’s office found no reason to pursue the matter. A thorough medical examination of both Mindy and Mandy found no evidence of physical or sexual abuse.

Further, Salida is a gossipy little town, and the gossip sometimes concerns Strawberry Door. But in the 16 years I’ve lived here, the gossip concerned nothing more dire than favoritism. In the 20 years that the Kahans have been running Strawberry Door, you’d think that there would have been more talk — if there had been anything to talk about.

But until DSS launched its “confidential” investigation in January, I never heard such talk, and I like a juicy story as much as anyone does.

HAD THIS BEEN any other kind of allegation, the case would have ended there. Somebody said something that might indicate criminal behavior, the authorities looked into it, found nothing, and that’s that. In the Mandy case, that’s pretty much how things worked out.

But allegations of sexual abuse of children don’t work like that, and the Mindy allegations remained on the table. Instead of concluding with the police and medical reports, DSS sent the girls and their mother and step-father to the C. Henry Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

There they talked to Clare Haynes-Seman, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics and director of the family evaluation team.

Dr. Haynes-Seman conducted “non-directed play interviews” with each twin separately, and reached these conclusions:

1) “Being removed from school without written permission of the parents”

2) “Evidence of grooming for sexual activities”

3) “Exposing developmentally inappropriate information about pregnancy and babies”

4) “Being ‘hurt’ in various parts of the body with someone helping them feel better afterwards”

5) “Taking baths when taken from the school premises”

6) “Evidence of not feeling safe, and fear of being overwhelmed by consequences of disclosure”

EVERYONE WHO LOOKED into the matter in Salida — where the evidence would presumably be found — said children were not being taken from the school without parental consent, and so Nos. 1 and 5 are based solely on the word of two children, even though the children’s stories often did not agree.

As for the other conclusions from Dr. Haynes-Seman, they’re so vague that they’d cover the most innocent of activities. “Evidence of grooming for sexual activities?” Does that include combing your hair?

Being “hurt in various parts of the body and somebody helping them feel better.” This could mean a fall on the playground followed by a pat on the shoulder and “you’ll be fine.” If it means more than that, why didn’t Dr. Haynes-Seman say so?

And what is “developmentally inappropriate information”? Anybody care to try to define that?

From Dr. Haynes-Seman’s report, Christiansen concluded that the children had been subjected to “grossly improper conduct by the administrator [Andy Kahan].”

Christiansen sent a social worker to pull two of the Kahans’ children out of their public-school classrooms to interview them in closed rooms, asking them details about the Kahans’ home life, the operation of Strawberry Door, and even about Mandy and Mindy.

When his children came home with that answer to “what did you do in school today?,” Andy wrote to the American Civil Liberties Union. Now his home life was being investigated and 20 years of work building Strawberry Door was threatened, all on the words of a four-year-old — words that didn’t stand up to police and medical investigation.

In early May, Kahan got a favorable answer from the ACLU. It will consider funding a civil lawsuit, probably for abuse of authority in pursuit of a baseless child-abuse allegation.

That’s the good news for the Kahans. Their list of bad news is much longer.

For one thing, Andy might be on a statewide registry of “confirmed” child abusers. “I’ve been told my name would be placed on the registry,” he said, “but I can’t find out if it’s there or not.”

Christiansen said that anyone placed on the registry would get a letter to that effect, and at press time, Kahan hadn’t received such a letter.

Enrollment has dropped about 20 percent at Strawberry Door. “I don’t know how much of it is on this account,” Gail says, “because people don’t tell you that. But I’m sure that it’s a major factor.”

Strawberry Door has also lost students because Christiansen had the DSS cease paying for some enrollment at Strawberry Door, “in light of the concern for children’s health and safety,” apparently based on Dr. Haynes-Seman’s “non-directed play interview.”

This inspired friends of affected parents to picket the DSS office early in the year, a demonstration that put the allegations, though not any details, before the public.

Strawberry Door is licensed by the state as a day-care center, and the state license could be in jeopardy.

Strawberry Door has canceled its summer session. “We’re still licensed and we plan to open in the fall as usual,” Gail says, “but we’re so frazzled from all this that we need some time off.”

AN INVESTIGATION of sexual abuse of children at a pre-school is like a sausage grinder. Once it starts, it chews up everyone, and there’s no way to reverse the process and make people whole.

Christiansen agrees. “I’m not fond of the present system, but the state makes the rules we have to operate under.” Try as one might, it’s hard to make Christiansen into a ruthless zealot. He takes his job seriously, and he’s in a system where he’s in more trouble if he dismisses an allegation than if he pursues it, even if evidence is lacking.

And the system — guilty until proven innocent, and no real mechanism for proving one’s innocence — has been a nightmare out of Kafka for the Kahans. Even if the Kahans triumph in court at some distant date, there’s no way to restore the trust they built in 20 years of operating in Salida. There will always be talk. They can’t ever get back what they had before Jan. 17, 1994, when DSS began the investigation.

What matters here? I trusted the Kahans with my own children, and the Kahans have been casual friends since I moved here in 1978. I’ve never heard a hint of gossip concerning anything untoward at Strawberry Door. I’ve had friends who worked there, and though they might complain about the pay and having to eat lunch with pre-schoolers, they never mentioned anything that might raise suspicion.

The police conducted a full investigation and came up empty. No physician found physical evidence of abuse.

THAT’S ONE SIDE of the balance scale in the hand of blind-folded Lady Justice. On the other side is the word of one of the four-year-old twins that she was taken out of school on certain occasions (she’s not sure just when or how many times it happened) and that some strange things happened. Even if you want to “believe the children,” her story conflicts with her sister’s account; which child to believe?

To me, the reading is obvious. My own knowledge of the Kahans and Strawberry Door and 16 years of Salida gossip, the physical examinations, the extended police investigation, the Kahans themselves — they all indicate that none of this happened at Strawberry Door, that those children were in Strawberry Door at all times that they were supposed to be there, and that any system which allows the prattle of a four-year-old to overwhelm evidence of innocence is a rotten system.

At best, some reputations have been permanently marred, based on the kind of “evidence” that American courts have not accepted since the days of witchcraft trials in 17th-century Salem.

Children do get sexually abused. And society shouldn’t tolerate it. But in the process of protecting children, we shouldn’t abuse other citizens, and that’s precisely what the current system does.

The Kahans continue to live under a cloud because a therapist in Denver conducted “non-directed play interviews” with two children and concluded that Andy Kahan was guilty — without ever visiting the school or talking to possible witnesses to determine whether the events were even possible.

And it’s in the interest of places like the Kempe Center to find child abuse. The more they find, the more they get rewarded at budget and fund-raising time.

CONSERVATIVES FEAR that if our criminal-justice system were turned over to psychiatric professionals, those bleeding-hearts would let brutal serial murderers walk away because they were “misunderstood” or “victimized.”

But there’s just as much reason to be afraid when psychiatric professionals manage to reach guilty verdicts without following traditional standards of evidence. To them, the way that a child plays with dolls counts for more than evidence or the testimony of witnesses. And there’s no obvious way to appeal or overturn such verdicts.

When psychological evaluation suggests sexual abuse — when police investigations and physical evidence don’t support that conclusion — nothing is resolved.

Something presumably upset one or both of the twins, but the truth hasn’t really been ascertained.

It seems obvious that medical professionals should always consider all of the information available before making a diagnosis. But sometimes they don’t.

This reminds me of my youngest brother, Philip. When he was one year old, he was diagnosed as mildly retarded and “experts” recommended that my parents be stern. Medical advisors told us to refuse to help my brother with physical tasks in order to maximize his learning potential and co-ordination.

THAT DIAGNOSIS PERSISTED even after my brother learned to talk at a normal age, and then began to read. And it still makes my mother cringe to remember all of the times she refused to open doors for him or to help him to stand when he couldn’t seem to do it on his own.

My brother died of muscular dystropy at 13, with five years of his short life made far more difficult by family counselors.

The same thing happened to one of my wife’s cousins. A victim of cerebral palsy, she spent her early years diagnosed and treated for retardation. Later, she graduated from college.

Psychological diagnosis can be trendy. Retardation was trendy then. Sexual abuse is trendy now.

As for my daughter Abby, she never did back down on her tale about Strawberry Door’s trip to Ohio — until last week when I mentioned it. According to Abby, Ohio had cows, sheep, and horses, and sounded suspiciously like a local farm that the pre-schoolers really did visit.

But Abby’s Ohio also had big cities, amusement parks, and elephants. Anyway, I’m fairly sure that Abby will recover from that flight of fancy in 1982.

But I doubt that Andy and Gail Kahan will ever recover from the trauma of being investigated, and effectively found guilty — without benefit of trial, without examination of the evidence, without a jury of their peers, without due process.

That isn’t justice. Perhaps the ACLU lawsuit will restore some semblance of fairness. But it makes one wonder. How many people out there have had their lives disrupted, their careers destroyed, and their rights trampled by “family evaluators” whom they’ve never even met?