Several North Georgia agencies responsible for protecting children from sex crimes have untrained employees and together foster an environment in which false allegations of child abuse and molestation go unchecked, a federal lawsuit charges.
In a $25 million lawsuit filed Monday, attorneys for Tonya Craft, who recently was acquitted on 22 counts of child molestation and other charges, ask that the U.S. District Court in Northern Georgia require the Children's Advocacy Centers and the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office to change their protocol for child interviews in sex abuse cases.
One law professor said it is unusual for a defendant who is found not guilty in a criminal case to seek injunctive relief by asking a judge to review local agencies' procedures.
"It's very unlikely that a judge would grant that kind of relief," said Bob Jarvis, a professor at Nova Southeastern University Law Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Using examples from her case, attorneys for Ms. Craft, a former Chickamauga Elementary School teacher, say in the lawsuit that the three girls whose testimony supported the charges repeatedly were asked the same questions. The attorneys also say social workers and detectives did not talk with the parents to find out how the girls were questioned before the interviews.
Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers said last week that, because the public has the perception that some proceedings are not conducted fairly, he wants to re-evaluate the way interviews are conducted.
"We've got to review our process, and we've got to do everything possible to make sure an innocent person is not put through this process," he said.
While officials from the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit and the Conasauga Circuit's Children's Advocacy Center either declined comment or did not return calls, social workers with those agencies testified in court they are certified after taking a state course on interviewing children.
The week-long course, called Finding Words, is powered by the state Children's Advocacy Center and the Department of Human Resources' Division of Family and Children Services, according to department's Web site.
Interviewers at the advocacy center in Fort Oglethorpe, an agency named in the lawsuit, are not required to have a degree but must receive training through the state program, director Ione Sells has said. Any extra training is not included in the budget, and the department uses fundraisers to earn that money, she said.
When a child suspected of being a victim of molestation is brought to the advocacy center, the social worker talks with the detective before the interview, Ms. Sells said. In the past, the interviewer had an earpiece through which they could receive questions from the detective, but that policy was stopped after children noticed the noise, she said.
The lawsuit states that, during one forensic interview in the Craft case, one of the accusers told Catoosa County sheriff's detective Tim Deal that "my mommy told me which is which and where they touched me." The girl's response shows how her mother lad the child to believe she was molested and that the detective didn't follow through with her statement, the suit claims.
Such poorly conducted interviews aren't limited to Ms. Craft's case, the document states. Other people were denied their rights and treated unfairly because the agencies didn't adequately train or supervise their employees, according to the lawsuit.
"Somebody's got to stop this," Ms. Craft's attorney Scott King said on Tuesday.
Sheriff Summers called the lawsuit "frivolous." In a statement from the sheriff's office he and Detective Deal deny doing anything wrong in their investigation.
Days before the lawsuit was filed, Sheriff Summers told the Times Free Press that his detectives were properly trained to interview children if needed.
When someone files a child molestation complaint, a detective at the sheriff's office sets up an interview at the Children's Advocacy Center, the sheriff said. While sometimes the detectives have to conduct their own interviews, they try to avoid it and use an independent interviewer, he said.