How to Talk to a Child

Joseph and Laurie Braga were invited by State Attorney Janet Reno to interview many of the children involved in the Country Walk case. Their efforts earned them both praise and criticism. Press accounts at the time quoted supporters describing them as "remarkable," "honest, caring, and sincere." One observer suggested they might be geniuses.

On the other hand, Ileana Fuster's attorney, Michael Von Zamft, had this to say to the Miami Herald: "They use much more subtle forms of coercion than the North Vietnamese did to our prisoners of war, but the end result is probably the same."

The Herald, along with other media, often described the Bragas as psychologists or psychiatrists. In fact, they are neither. According to the registrar's offices at their alma maters, Laurie Braga has a Ph.D. in speech from Northwestern University and Joseph Braga has a Ph.D. in education from Boston University.

The excerpted interview below was conducted by Laurie Braga on August 16, 1984. The subject is J.L., whose parents were deeply involved in the Country Walk case from the beginning; it was they who hosted the first neighborhood parents meeting in their home one week before this interview.

J.L.'s two-year-old brother, D., had been questioned extensively by Laurie Braga a week earlier. D. spent the better part of the interview saying nothing about abuse. After Braga's unremitting attempts, via suggestive doll play and leading questions, to elicit accusations against the Fusters, D. pulled down his shorts and stated that Ileana had "hurt" him.

In this videotaped interview, J.L. is four years, eleven months old. She appears cheerful, loquacious, matter-of-fact, and offers no direct knowledge of wrongdoing at the Fusters'. Braga repeatedly stresses to J.L. that she is one of the "bigger" children and thus is obligated to "help" the younger ones accuse the Fusters. This line of reasoning apparently impresses J.L.

Braga: See, the thing is, you're real grown-up compared to some of the other kids.... I thought maybe you might be able to help a little bit because some of the other children are so small that it's hard for them to talk.... But D. talked to us. And he told us about some stuff that happened when he was at Frank and Ileana's.

J.L.: What did he say?
Braga: Well, uh, he...mainly he showed us some things with the dolls over there. He took the dolls and he showed us some things that happened, with the dolls.

J.L.: What happened?
Braga: Well, maybe before I tell you what he said, you could tell me if you remember anything. Okay? Is there anything you could tell me?

J.L.: They did nothing bad to me. Never. But Ileana painted my nails. Pink ....

Braga: So did Ileana and Frank do anything bad with the other children?
J.L.: No.
[Braga then tells J.L. that "some of the children said that they were scared because there were masks. Your brother said that." Braga goes on to show J.L. anatomically correct dolls and tells her that her brother played with them.]

Braga: "We would make believe with D. and some of the other children that this one was Ileana and this one was Frank."

J.L. [picking up a doll]: That would be me!
Braga: And so then D. would show us some games that they would play.
[Braga and J.L. then spend several minutes playing "Duck Duck Goose" with several dolls. Braga then asks J.L. how she knows that Frank Fuster is "bad."]

J.L.: My mom told me.
Braga: Did she tell you what he did that was bad?
J.L. [shakes head no]: Do you know what he did?

Braga: ...Would you like me to tell you what D. said? ...Okay. D. said...he took Lead: the dolls...and one of the things is that he took all the clothes off the dolls.

J.L.: Why?
Braga: He said that the children played a game, like "Ring Around the Rosy" A

J.L.: With no clothes on.
Braga: With no clothes on.
J.L.: That's one of the things that's bad.
Braga: Do you think D. was telling the truth?
J.L.: [Shakes head no]
Braga: You don't? Does D. tell stories?
J.L.: [Nods head yes]
Braga: So you don't think D. was saying the truth?
J.L. [shakes head no]: But can we play that game?
Braga: Sure.
J.L.: Because they're only fake dolls.
Braga: They're not real, they're just pretend.
J.L.: Let's take off the clothes.

Braga: And maybe you could tell me if they were just pretend what they might do.

[J.L. undresses the dolls.]
Braga: Now what kind of a game do you think they would play? Just make believe.

J.L.: Duck Duck A
Braga: Really? Without any clothes? ...I'm going to tell you something just in case you talk to any of the other children now or next year in school or something, and some of the other children talk about Frank and Ileana? Okay...because're older you can explain it to them.... Some of the children feel like they were bad and they did something? But they didn't...because when grownups like...let's just pretend that maybe D. wasn't telling a story. Okay? Maybe it was true that Frank and Ileana were taking off their clothes and the children taking off their clothes and...Frank and Ileana were touching the children in private places? Let's just pretend that maybe it was true.... And some of the children think that they were bad.... Do you know what this is? [Picks up unclothed, anatomically detailed male doll] Penis? Like, let's suppose that Frank touched D.'s penis.... The children didn't do anything wrong. They are not bad.

J.L.: Then why are they in jail?
Braga: ...If Frank did touch the children A their private places A then that was something he shouldn't do...and that's why if that happened, then that's why they put him in jail...."

J.L: 'Cause they didn't do anything bad to me.... I would tell my mom but if they said it's a secret I would say I wouldn't do it but I would trick them.... I would say I'm not going to do it but I would trick them....

Braga: You're very grown-up.... Some of the children are afraid...because some of the children said that they were acting like they were monsters and they wore these masks and they scared them.

J.L: Is that true? Do you know?
Braga: I'm not sure, but some of the children said so, and I believe the children because I don't think children make up stories like that. Do you?

J.L.: Which children?
Braga: Well, D. And some of the other children.
J.L.: That were bigger than me? ...Did they tell that they were naked? ...What did they say?

Braga: They said that they played games with Frank and Ileana A some of the littler children. That everybody took off their clothes and that they played some games and that people touched each other's private parts.

J.L: That's true.
Braga: Is it true?
J.L.: Yeah, but if D. said it and the other big children said it so D. might be right...because the bigger children said's true because the other children said.

Braga: ...Maybe you could tell us something....
J.L.: [Shakes head no]
Braga: ...They [J.L.'s parents] would be very proud....

Five months later, on January 17, 1985, J.L. was interviewed again by Laurie Braga. On the surviving videotape, she tells Braga that she has come back "because the last time I was too little. And I said nothing."

J.L. has apparently been under pressure at home to generate accusations. For example, when Braga asks her if she ever has "bad dreams about what happened" at the Fusters', the little girl answers "No, but my mom has a dream about my grandma, and my grandma tells what happened in my mom's dream...."

Now, largely in response to Braga's leading questions, J.L. accuses Ileana and Frank of taking off their clothes in front of children; of terrorizing them with a knife, tales of monsters, and the "cut your head off" game; of playing "Duck Duck Goose" and "Ring Around the Rosy" naked, of filming the children, and of "pull[ing] on my pee-pee."

"You didn't tell for a long time," Laurie Braga says. "How come? Were you scared?"

"I think I was too young," J.L. answers.
J.L., who went on to make more bizarre allegations, was eventually the only child deemed capable of testifying in open court at Frank Fuster's trial.

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