Reno Reconsidered (Part B)
Later they would play Candyland. Later, too, they would eat homemade muffins and frolic with the anatomically correct dolls. But first, four-year-old Donna had to practice. That was what her therapist, Miss Suzanne, told her. Over and over again.
Because this wasn't just any rehearsal. Tomorrow Donna (which is not her real name) would visit Pam, a counselor at the State Attorney's Children's Assessment Center, and if all went as planned, Donna would tell Pam how Bobby Fijnje, a fourteen-year-old daycare worker at Old Cutler Presbyterian Church, had sexually abused her.
"What did Bobby do to you?" psychologist Suzanne Keeley asked Donna during that audiotaped session August 24, 1989. "Practice with me so that when you go talk to Pam tomorrow, it will be easy. What did Bobby do to you and what did he ask you to do?"
"I don't know," Donna answered.
"You do know, Donna, and you've got to tell," Keeley instructed. "You do know." The rehearsal was not going well. Donna was denying again, something she'd done -- or tried to do -- routinely since her mother had brought her to Keeley five months earlier. Keeley was having none of it.
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"What did he do to you?" she pressed.
"He did bad things to me."
"He was bad."
"What did he do to you?"
"He touched my private parts."
"On my pee-pee."
"He touched you on your pee-pee? He touched you on your pee-pee with what? ...You told me once before he touched you on your pee-pee with something of his," Keeley reminded her. "Remember, we got the dolls down and you showed me that he touched you on your pee-pee with his -- with what?"
"His finger," Donna answered.
"But what else did he use to touch you?"
"With his hand."
"His hand? Stay right there, Donna, now finish this up, okay? You're going to practice with me so that when you go down there, you can tell them what he touched you with."
Keeley fetched the dolls. They were going to play.
"Here's Donna. Okay. You told me that he took your clothes off. Okay. Is that right? You're shaking yes. Okay. You can get him ready, okay. You're taking his clothes off."
The odd game continued for a few more minutes. Then Keeley's tone of voice turned serious.
"Donna, you must, you must get this out once and for all, okay. You must and then everything will be okay. You won't have to keep answering my questions. You must tell."
To help her, Keeley loaned Donna her dolls to practice with at home.
"You are doing the good and right thing by telling," the therapist assured her. "I'm so proud of you. Do you know that? And your mommy is so proud of you and your daddy is so proud."
Keeley was even prouder the next week, because Donna did tell Pam the counselor about Bobby. True, her story was a little confusing. She contradicted herself a few times, and denied much of what she had told Keeley. But Pam seemed to believe her. And of course, Bobby Fijnje was sent away to jail.
Fijnje (pronounced feen-yea) would remain incarcerated for the next twenty months. Eventually he would be accused of more than 100 acts of violent perversion against some twenty children, including Donna, most carried out in the nursery school at Old Cutler Presbyterian Church. In January 1991, the lanky, curly haired boy, by then sixteen, would stand trial as an adult on six counts of sexual battery against a minor. Jurors would hear four months of testimony before acquitting him of all charges.
If the Country Walk case won State Attorney Janet Reno a national reputation as a child-rights crusader, the State of Florida v. Bobby Fijnje ranks among her most humiliating prosecutions. Child advocates now routinely cast the conviction of Country Walk's Frank Fuster as an affirmation of "ritual abuse." Fijnje is cited, less frequently, as a lesson in how panic over ritual abuse can warp the minds of parents, children, psychologists, even prosecutors.
"This was the most inhumane, despicable case I have seen in 23 years," says David Raskin, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "There was no credible evidence of any sexual abuse. None. What you had was a bunch of kids who initially had nothing to say about abuse. Only with the work of a dozen different therapists, over a number of months, and constant pressure from parents, did any allegations emerge."
Raskin points to Donna, whose disclosures spurred the three-year scandal that culminated in the Fijnje acquittal, as a prime example. In August 1988, Donna began having nightmares and told her mother that she was afraid of Bobby, a babysitter at church. Two months later Donna's mother confronted a minister at Old Cutler with her suspicion that Fijnje had abused her emotionally troubled three-year-old.
At a weekly prayer group with other parents, Donna's mother began sharing her fear that Bobby Fijnje had sexually abused Donna. When the child confided that she'd had another nightmare, and began drawing sexually explicit pictures, she was sent to Keeley, a private psychologist who also attended Old Cutler. In March 1989, after speaking to Donna, Keeley called the state's child abuse hot line. She, too, felt the girl had been abused by Fijnje.
Donna, though, was less forthcoming. She told a state investigator that she was afraid of Fijnje because he had played too roughly with her. She denied that Fijnje had abused her. The State Attorney's Office, which had initiated an investigation, dropped the matter.
But Keeley remained suspicious about Fijnje. In June 1989, Donna began making what her psychologist characterized as "disclosures." On August 8, Donna's mother brought her to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Rape Treatment Center, where doctors found possible signs of sexual abuse -- two "healed tears" on her hymen. Two weeks later, with the aid of Keeley's coaching, Donna told Pam Garman, a Children's Assessment Center counselor, that Bobby had "touched my pee-pee."
By this time Fijnje's suspected abuse was being discussed weekly by nervous parents at the prayer group. A psychologist had visited the church to point out signs of child sexual abuse. And a second mother had contacted the police after recalling a comment her son had made six months earlier about Fijnje doing "something bad to his bottom or whatever."
On August 28, Metro-Dade police officer Mark Martinez arrested Fijnje, who suffers from juvenile diabetes. After several hours of grilling, Fijnje, woozy from hypoglycemia, told Martinez that his fingers "had slipped" mistakenly into a girl's vagina two or three times while he was wiping her in the bathroom. Fijnje would later testify in court that Martinez had promised to release him if he made the "confession." When it became clear that wasn't the case, Fijnje denied the claim. He was sent to Youth Hall.
The arrest kicked up a squall of terror at Old Cutler, an affluent South Dade congregation. Parents who had once regarded Fijnje as the nursery school's best babysitter now began asking their children about his alleged abuse. Keeley served as a nerve center for worried parents, referring a growing number of children to private therapists. What began with Donna's murky comments, quickly mushroomed.
Children began telling therapists stories of feces-eating, urine-drinking orgies orchestrated by Fijnje. One four-year-old detailed Fijnje's mutilation of live animals. Another described being stabbed by Fijnje, and dancing naked on a roof. Two brothers eventually accused Fijnje of decapitating and eating newborn babies. Fijnje reportedly also led an expedition to a cemetery near Old Cutler to unearth dead bodies, and led naked dances around a campfire. His alleged victims said he shoved everything from swords to teapot handles to his own penis up children's anuses and vaginas. More perpetrators soon emerged. Children named other teenagers, respected daycare teachers, even a member of the Old Cutler clergy. One child alleged that he had watched the father of another victim murder a man.
Janet Reno, realizing she had another Country Walk on her hands, assigned several staffers to work with police in gathering evidence. She would later deploy three of her highest-ranking prosecutors to prepare and try the case. While the state investigated, parents hired their own "satanic" expert to confirm their kids' increasingly outlandish scenarios.
Even the FBI was called in. Based on a few children's claims that the Fijnje parents, devout church elders, had filmed the alleged rituals, agents launched a probe aimed at uncovering an international child pornography ring. "The alleged videotapes may have been transported out of the country," an FBI spokesman told reporters. "We have no physical evidence. The information was developed from interviews."
Indeed, the only physical evidence ever uncovered to support any of the allegations were the medical exams of three girls, showing the "healed tears" on their hymens. More curiously, no adult witnesses ever came forward, despite the fact that virtually every member of Old Cutler's 2500-person congregation was questioned. No one had seen Fijnje abuse his nursery school charges. Or dig up graves. Or rip apart a baby with his bare hands. Except his alleged victims.
Prosecutors nonetheless moved swiftly to file charges against Fijnje. His indictment, made public in November 1989, accused him of 108 separate acts of abuse against 17 children. He was formally charged with eight counts of sexual battery. But because he was indicted as an adult, he faced a maximum of life in prison for each count.
Criminal defense attorney Mel Black, aware the case would take months to come to trial, asked Judge Norman Gerstein to release Fijnje on bail. Prosecutor Abbe Rifkin argued that the teen was a flight risk because his family was originally from Curaçao, in the Dutch Antilles, and he had relatives in Holland. Black countered with a plan to place Fijnje under house arrest in Connecticut, wearing an ankle monitor, under the supervision of his aunt and uncle, a former justice of the state's Supreme Court.
The judge rejected this proposal after listening to the pleas of two alleged victims' mothers, who testified that their children would not be able to sleep at night knowing that "Bobby was out of jail."
Fijnje returned to Youth Hall to wait for more than a year. Black pondered how to dismantle the claims that his client was the Devil incarnate.
To anyone who followed Fijnje's travails -- and in Miami it would have been nearly impossible not to -- the case held an eerie familiarity. Hadn't the same sordid affair played itself out a few years earlier in Country Walk? Hadn't both cases begun with a child's offhand remark to a nervous mother? Hadn't both evolved into dark tales of ritual abuse?
The cases weren't just related thematically. "Without the hysteria surrounding Country Walk, without the sensitization of the community, Fijnje wouldn't have developed into the juggernaut it did," notes University of Utah psychologist Raskin, who was hired by Fijnje's attorney as an expert witness. "The geography of the case is absolutely creepy. Most of the core parents, including the first accuser, lived in Country Walk, or nearby in South Dade. These parents had regular contact with Country Walk parents. The place was a hothouse for accusations."
As in Country Walk, parents in the Fijnje case quickly organized themselves into a close-knit network. They not only talked at weekly prayer groups, but at meetings of Justice for Sex Abused Children, the group formed by Country Walk parents.
In turn, Raskin says, Old Cutler parents were quick to internalize the lessons of Country Walk: that children don't lie and that ritual abuse does occur, even if there are no witnesses and no physical evidence.
Raskin says the guiding principle of "therapy" in the Fijnje case was that abuse had in fact occurred, and that alleged victims needed to cure themselves by confiding -- or conjuring -- their dark secret.
"When you listen to some of the interviews, what you see is actually coercive," seconds Stephen Ceci, a Cornell University professor of psychology who specializes in child-interviewing techniques. "Again and again children are told that they must talk about Fijnje's abuse. Therapists ignore denials and offer an endless litany of rewards if the child will disclose.
"Coming out of Country Walk there was this confusion between taking a child seriously versus believing everything they say," adds Ceci, an unpaid expert who testified for the defense in the Fijnje case. "What you find in these settings, where passions run high, is a tendency to lapse into what we call confirmatory bias. That is, you begin looking for evidence that abuse has occurred, and ignoring facts that contradict your hypothesis."
Ceci, whose reputation is such that the prosecution initially listed him as a potential witness, insists that Janet Reno's office exhibited this bias. Disregarding the paucity of solid evidence, prosecutors concentrated on the similarities in children's allegations as evidence of Fijnje's guilt, ignoring another obvious explanation: that constant interaction among the alleged victims' families might account for the overlap. The dynamic was at play in a broader sense, since the motifs in the Fijnje case were typical of alleged ritual-abuse cases all over the country. Was this because Fijnje was party to a far-roaming satanic conspiracy? Or because the victims' parents -- who had learned about signs of the occult from their "satanic investigator" -- had planted these motifs in their kids' minds through regular quizzing?
As the tales of abuse grew more preposterous, it became obvious that the children were, at times, outright fantasizing. Apparently this did not prompt prosecutors to question the credibility of their young witnesses. Instead, Ceci says, they fell back on a convenient, and questionable, form of logic: Something must have happened at that church nursery school or all these kids wouldn't be telling such crazy stories.
But prosecutors were forced to sharpen the blurry line between criminal reality and a child's make-believe as they prepared for trial. Their solution was to severely limit the case. While the state insisted that Fijnje had abused more than a dozen children over two and a half years, he was formally charged with just eight sex crimes against three girls. By order of Judge Norman Gerstein, the jury was allowed to hear their accusations only. Thus jurors never heard the far-fetched claims of Fijnje's other alleged victims. In fact, prosecutors dropped one of the three victims on the eve of the trial. This maneuver saved them from trying to explain the girl's more florid claims -- namely, that she had seen a woman turn into a witch and fly, and had dug up a grave with Fijnje out of which horror-movie villain Freddy Krueger crawled.
To spare alleged victims further trauma, Gerstein forbade the defense from interviewing them at all -- an odd ruling considering the insistent questioning they faced from their own private therapists.
The state's concerted effort to strike a plea bargain with the defendant marked another glaring inconsistency. "On the one hand, they tried this kid as an adult, knowing he could have been sent to prison for the rest of his life," Ceci observes. "At the same time, they were ready to give him three years in a state mental facility, with no criminal record. It didn't make sense. If he was the demon they made him out to be, why were they so desperate for him to bargain?"
Ceci himself was asked by prosecutors to explain the state's plea offer to the Fijnje family. He remembers sitting in a jury deliberation room making his pitch. "I said, 'Please, it's not worth the chance that even one count comes back guilty.' But Bobby's dad was determined not to plea. He pounded his fist on the table. 'This is harassment,' he said. 'My son has done nothing!'"
Psychologist Raskin insists this refusal to plea marked the crucial difference between the Fijnje and Country Walk cases: "They thought they'd offer Bobby a deal he couldn't refuse. But they were not able to do to him what they did to Ileana Fuster."
After fourteen months of hearings, Bobby Fijnje went to trial in January 1991.
"We were hands-down losers walking into that courtroom," recalls Mel Black, Fijnje's defense attorney. "Everyone was calling us 'Dead on Arrival.'" The local media described the state's case as strong. But as the trial dragged on, it became clear that the prosecution's only compelling evidence was the victims' testimony.
Judge Gerstein had ruled that testifying at court would be too traumatic for the two alleged victims, so their words were presented either in videotape or transcript form. But Black was able to show that the children rarely made any detailed accusations against Fijnje. Frequently they contradicted themselves. Other times the alleged victims discussed ostensibly brutal abuse in an oddly casual manner. According to Donna's mother, her daughter told her one night that Fijnje had had anal intercourse with her. "Isn't that funny?" the four-year-old reportedly asked.
The second alleged victim reported that Fijnje had tied her up and driven her to an American Legion post. But Fijnje, by all accounts, had not yet learned to drive, and nobody from the American Legion had ever seen him.
The defendant's ability to molest children, undetected, in a busy nursery school also invited doubt. Fijnje's co-workers conceded that the boy was left unsupervised occasionally, and sometimes took his charges to the bathroom alone. But he was rarely out of sight for more than a few minutes.
Black's most effective expert witness was Dr. David Muram, an obstetrician at the University of Tennessee in Memphis. A recognized authority on the physical evidence of child sexual abuse, Muram had never before testified for the defense in a sex-abuse case. His one day on the stand destroyed the notion that the two alleged victims showed signs of abuse -- a contention journalists had been reporting since Fijnje's arrest.
Citing the definitive study of hymenal shape in young girls, Muram explained that the "healed tears" found on one girl's hymen were more likely harmless "notches," which appear on many young females. The other girl was deemed abused because her hymen was crescent-shaped rather than circular. Muram reported that about 40 percent of all hymens are naturally crescent-shaped.
Muram said Fijnje could have touched either girl without leaving a trace, by adroitly slipping a single lubricated finger into their vaginas. But using Muram's testimony, Black stressed that the allegations in this case -- of penile penetration, for instance -- would have left damage of the sort never found in either of the alleged victims.
Fijnje, who testified in the last fortnight of the four-month trial, steadfastly denied being the monster portrayed by prosecutors. He described his "confession" to Officer Martinez as a misguided attempt to mollify a bullying policeman. "I was under the impression that I could get out of there and go home if I gave a statement," he told jurors.
In a three-hour closing statement, Black argued that Fijnje's alleged victims were merely saying what they thought their anxious parents and counselors wanted to hear. "I had my doubts about going over all the interviews again," Black says now. "But when I started rereading the excerpts, I could tell the jury was getting the message." The same six jurors who weeks earlier had listened misty-eyed to Donna's videotaped disclosure were now nodding their heads.
Bobby Fijnje's acquittal came as a stunning blow to State Attorney Janet Reno, who at one juncture had half a dozen of her top prosecutors working on the case. Though she never involved herself in the Fijnje prosecution to the extent she had in Country Walk, Reno did meet with the parents of several alleged victims after the trial, and briefly considered filing new charges based on the testimony of other children.
Reno, whose schedule has been hectic since her nomination as U.S. Attorney General, would not respond personally to questions about the Fijnje case. She referred the matter to John Hogan, a chief assistant who helped lead the prosecution of the Country Walk case and who, at Reno's request, conducted a review of the Fijnje acquittal.
Based on his post-mortem, Hogan says he found "no fault with the trial techniques or the other things done in this office." He believes the state's one major mistake was not spending enough money on the case. "We hired one expert where the defense hired seventeen," he notes.
Hogan concedes that he was troubled by the interviewing techniques used by some of the private therapists. "There was a confusion," he says, "between treating kids and trying to develop forensic evidence. But as prosecutors we're not in a position to tell a parent who thinks their child has been hurt not to seek therapy. Or to stop talking with other parents."
Fijnje was tried as an adult, Hogan says, "because he needed treatment past his nineteenth birthday, the limit of juvenile court jurisdiction. That doesn't mean we would have asked that he be incarcerated for life." Hogan also defends the state's decision to limit the scope of the case. "One of the lessons of Country Walk was: go with your strongest counts, don't present every charge," he says. But didn't the children's more far-fetched allegations -- of infanticide and fecal debauchery -- lead prosecutors to question the more subdued claims?
"To some extent those allegations do detract, or make one look more carefully at other allegations," Hogan admits. "But one of the things that's true in every one of these multiple-abuse cases is that children often say things that are difficult to understand. That doesn't mean a child should be disbelieved."
The absence of physical evidence didn't bother Hogan, either. "The reality is that you don't expect to find physical trauma in these cases," he contends, disregarding Muram's testimony. "The core argument in Fijnje was simply one of numbers. All these children have independently made disclosures and they are independently worthy of belief. Taken as a whole, the case is overwhelming. The real problem with this kind of case is that people don't want to believe that this happens. They'd rather blame it on the interviewer or the therapist than accept that children are being raped."
Attorney Mel Black, who spent two years defending Fijnje, is surprisingly forgiving these days. Though he vociferously opposed several state decisions during the case, he defends Janet Reno's supervisory role. "Even in the worst moments of the case, I never felt she was being unfair or blind," Black says. "The decision to file on this case was based on sound rationale. She was being told there were multiple allegations, damage to girls' hymens, even a confession. Any hysteria in this case was outside her office."
Black says he was impressed by Reno's decision to meet with local child therapists after the case for evaluation. "There was never any bitterness," he says. "She just didn't want the mistakes repeated. That says a lot about her. She'll make a wonderful Attorney General. I just hope [the Fijnje case] isn't retried in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee."
David Raskin says that's precisely what he wants. "This should come up at the confirmation hearings," says the University of Utah professor. "She needs it conveyed to her that she's playing on a national field now and that she's got to be more careful."
Stephen Ceci says invoking the Fijnje acquittal could have a boomerang effect. "Given the concern over child-abuse issues, she may be trumpeted as kind of a hero, a woman who will go the extra mile to make sure our children are safe. The crucial point -- that Bobby Fijnje himself was a child throughout this ordeal -- may be lost."
Ceci notes one final point that has been obscured in reviewing the case: "That boy would almost surely have been convicted if the [Old Cutler Presbyterian Church's] insurance company hadn't poured well over a million dollars into his criminal defense." Without that aid, Bobby Fijnje, like Frank Fuster, would likely be incarcerated right now.
As it is, he's in Holland with his family.
The Fijnjes, though, are less forbearing than Mel Black. Bob Fijnje, Sr., a retired diplomat who moved his family to Holland after the trial, has set about sending angry letters to the States blasting Reno. "Sir, you don't know what it's like to watch your only son in shackles for two years," he says shakily.
At age seventeen, Bobby Fijnje has nearly outgrown the awkwardness of adolesence. He stands six feet, six inches and plays center for a basketball club in his new hometown, 90 miles south of Amsterdam. A member of the Model U.N. club, Fijnje expects to graduate from high school in June, just a year behind schedule. His plan is to become a marine biologist, and he has requested an application from the University of Miami. He says he misses his friends here, though he's not sure he wants to return.
With the help of a psychologist, he has exorcised most of the painful memories of his case. There's one, however, he can't shake: the excruciating wait that ensued after the jury filed into their wooden box with a verdict.
During those minutes, time dilated. The seconds crawled. "I just keep thinking about what my life would be like if the jury said guilty," he recalls. "I couldn't figure out what the jury was waiting for." Finally, after 90 minutes, the source of the delay entered the courtroom: a tall, gangly woman with thick glasses who had requested that the verdicts not be read until she arrived.
It was the first and only time Bobby Fijnje saw Janet Reno.
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