The Case From Hell, Part I

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By mid-November of 1989, Aimee recalls, (51) she was ready to put an end to the hoax. Her quick ticket to freedom had caused her brothers and sisters to be dragged from their home, and had landed her in Jackson Memorial Hospital's Child Crisis Center for a month. But Aimee says Michelle was not about to give up the ruse, especially with regular child-support payments coming in. (By court order, the Nogueses paid Michelle and Rick Porras more than $8300 for child support in the first eight months of the case.) (52) So Aimee says she hatched a plan, again employing the threat of suicide. This time she would fake a suicide attempt: "I thought, maybe if [Michelle] thinks I'm that upset, she'll see I can't go through with this." When Aimee told her sister she'd attempted suicide by taking a handful of aspirin tablets, Michelle responded by telling her (53)she could be institutionalized for life. According to Aimee, her sister said it didn't matter that her "attempt" consisted of swallowing seven aspirin, the only way to avoid being categorized as suicidal (54) would be to claim that some specific incident set her off. Out of this quandary, Aimee says, Michelle fabricated a traumatic meeting at a Kendall convenience store between her sister and Andres, and convinced her to go along with it. Michelle contacted HRS and the guardians -- with dramatic results.

Without the Nogueses or their attorney present, Judge William Gladstone on November 17 approved a motion (55) denying the parents all contact with their children. After a total of four supervised visits, each conducted in English by court order, despite the youngest children's difficulty with that language, Andres and Lisette Nogues were completely cut off from the children.

But of all the actions taken in the name of protecting the Nogues children, an HRS-ordered medical examination marked the low point. On December 11, Jeanette and two of her younger sisters were taken to the Rape Treatment Center, to be probed in the anus and vagina for about an hour each (56). The tests were considered a necessary precaution in light of the other young Nogues girl's exam six weeks earlier (57).

The girls' sobbing protests that they'd never been abused were ignored. "I'm sitting out there listening to [my sister] screaming and crying and it broke my heart," recalls Jeanette, now fourteen. "I really blew up. I was hitting the door saying, `You monsters, let her out!'" Jeanette refused her exam. The other two sisters showed no signs of sexual abuse.

The Nogueses' attorney, Juan Carrera, would later term the event (58) "tantamount to an act of rape," and even today he fumes at the exams, which he feels were an attempt to strengthen the state's weak case. "For them to take little children and subject them to such intrusive medical treatment on a hunch, on some kind of perverted institutional theory, is outrageous," he says angrily. "And to do this at a point they're supposedly no longer at risk. It makes me physically sick."

Attorney Ed Carhart says when he initially reviewed the case, he was at a loss to explain the state's conduct. He now believes it was a matter of pride turned delusion. "They locked into a position," Carhart says, "and they were not big enough to say, `Hey, you know something? We've been had by a fifteen-year-old girl. Let's straighten this thing out.' Aimee Nogues captured the hearts of all these people. They fell in love with her as the victim."

Once they were accepted as truth, Aimee's claims became an affirmation of the comforting myth that kids are by definition good, incapable of evils such as lying. By implication the Nogueses -- allegedly abusive parents -- became enemies of the state. "In too many cases, this mission of protecting kids turns into `squash the parents,'" maintains Theresa Pooler, an attorney who used to head the Dade County Child Assessment Center. This punitive ethos, she says, is especially prevalent among some Guardians Ad Litem, whose advocacy role too often presumes guilt. Witness June Shaw's response to Andres Nogues's pretrial offer to leave the house so that his family might remain intact: "NOT UNTIL WE GET A GUILTY PLEA!" she wrote in her notes of October 22, 1989.

Rightfully yanked from the closet two decades ago, the specter of child abuse -- especially sexual child abuse -- has devolved into a kind of pervasive bogeyman lurking in the shadows of our cultural neurosis. In Florida the furor has been stoked by the 1984 conviction of day-care operators Frank and Ileana Fuster on multiple sex-abuse charges, and the 1989 death of Bradley McGee, an angelic tot who died of massive brain injuries after HRS returned him to his mother and abusive stepfather. These media shark-feeds -- and their attendant political grandstanding -- have helped child-protection agencies secure sweeping new powers and have fed a collective paranoia in which the state feels duty-bound to disrupt, and sometimes destroy, families, based on little more than a child's testimony. "The child-protection workers of this county, from the judges on down, are petrified of being crucified in the press for letting a child go back to an abusive home," observes Virginia Stanley, a veteran defense lawyer in juvenile court.

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Steven Almond