The legacy of the notorious McMartin Preschool case of the 1980s is playing out this week in Sacramento.
As the principal of a private elementary school in Citrus Heights stands accused of molesting his students, authorities are warning the school's parents against aggressively questioning their children about the man they affectionately know as "Mr. Bob."
It is the exact opposite of what police asked parents to do during the McMartin case, in which members of a Southern California family who ran a highly regarded preschool in Manhattan Beach were charged with numerous acts of sexual abuse.
In that case, following an initial accusation from one mother, police sent form letters to more than 200 parents at the preschool, urging them to question their children about possible sexual abuse. Many parents, as well as therapists aiding in the investigation, asked the children provocative questions that led to wild accusations involving underground tunnels and satanic rituals. The case unraveled in court, and eventually all charges were dropped.
"We learned everything from McMartin," said John Myers, a Pacific McGeorge School of Law professor whose specialty is investigating and litigating child abuse cases. "It was the case that launched the modern era of psychological research" on proper ways of interviewing youngsters who may have been abused, he said.
Authorities this week shut down Creative Frontiers preschool and elementary school pending an investigation into sweeping allegations that principal Robert Adams molested children over the past 14 years. He has not been arrested, and on Wednesday he declared his innocence.
"I am shocked at the allegations that have been made against me and the school, but I welcome a full investigation," Adams said in a brief and emotional appearance with his lawyer, wife and daughters in front of the Sacramento Superior Courthouse.
"I am sad, mostly, for the trauma this has created for these children, closing the school in this manner. But I assure you I'm very confident that nothing inappropriate has happened."
His attorney, Linda Parisi, suggested that a former volunteer at the school, Irma Mertens, triggered the investigation in retaliation for the school's decision not to hire her as a full-time staffer
Mertens did report an alleged incidence of abuse, claiming she walked into the school office last summer and saw Adams touching a young girl in a sexual manner. But investigators said others also have made accusations.
The state Department of Social Services, in a complaint filed in support of revoking the preschool's license, accuses Adams of "inappropriate physical and sexual contact with female children" on "numerous occasions" beginning in 1997. The complaint cites two specific allegations, including the one by Mertens, and other more general accusations. Those include Adams touching children's bodies under their shirts and down their pants, and lying with female children on a mat in a secluded area.
Interview techniques key
As confused parents and children tried to make sense of the developments, police have begun carefully questioning youngsters about their experiences at Creative Frontiers. Police are still reviewing evidence obtained during searches of Adams' home and school, and say they are moving "methodically."
The Citrus Heights Police Department "continues to receive new significant information relating to these allegations," said a news release issued Wednesday.
Parents contacted by The Bee described Adams, who ran swim schools for kids prior to founding Creative Frontiers, as affectionate but not inappropriate with students. They said they were devastated by the allegations.
"We are all very surprised," said one mother who did not want to be named for fear of identifying her daughter. "He just seemed very sincere. I would never think of him doing these things. But what we are hearing sounds really bad, so it's confusing."
Properly questioning youngsters is the key to finding truthful information that could either put a molester in prison or exonerate a wrongly accused person, said Myers. But interviewing children about sexual abuse can be tricky, he and others said.
Young children, they said, are vulnerable to "suggestive questioning," in which the interviewer coaches a child into saying things that incriminate the accused person.
"Parents, by definition, are going to ask their children leading questions in these cases," said Myers. "The fear is that if parents or others talk to these kids and then they are interviewed by a professional, they will repeat what they told their parents. You can't unring the bell."
In the McMartin case, according to transcripts, parents and therapists asked children such leading questions as "Can you remember the naked pictures?" and "Did he touch you on the bottom?" Interviewers told youngsters they were "smart" if they answered yes to certain questions and "stupid" if they denied abuses by the McMartin staff.
The case, which spawned a national hysteria about child sexual abuse, was such a disaster that it sparked new investigative techniques that today are the gold standard, said James Wood, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, El Paso. Wood has written extensively about McMartin and has served as an expert witness on child abuse.
In response to the McMartin debacle, authorities across the country established "child advocacy centers" with special rooms where youngsters can be questioned by trained psychologists or law enforcement specialists.
"In the Sacramento case, ideally they would say something like, 'Tell me about Mr. Bob. What are the things you like or don't like about him?' " Wood said. "Interviewers are not supposed to tell them what other kids said, thank them or praise them or condemn them for their answers."
Interviews should be conducted as soon as possible after an accusation surfaces, said Wood, and parents should not further question their children.
"It sounds like the Sacramento officials are doing the right thing," said Myers. "This kind of response is light years ahead of what it was when the McMartin case was decided."
Yet, similarly horrifying cases still slip into the courts, he said.
Lawyer: 'No sex abuse'
Wood served as an expert witness in the case of a Fort Worth, Texas, schoolteacher who in 2007 was accused of sexually abusing several of his female students.
The case created a public and media frenzy.
"It set off a panic, and one by one parents started coming forward, saying they believed their children had been molested," said Wood.
"After awhile it became clear that these kids, who initially denied that anything happened, had changed their stories" under questioning by parents and others. All charges eventually were dropped, but the teacher lost his reputation and his job, Wood said.
As the investigation continues into Creative Frontiers, parents are scrambling to find new schools for their children. Some of the youngsters attended Creative Frontiers during the regular school year in addition to participating in summer camp.
Parisi on Wednesday sought to portray her client's school as an institution that has been needlessly harmed by police announcing a probe without filing any charges.
"That school is a treasure to the community," Parisi said, adding that Adams has received many calls of support from families and former students. "It was an educational model."
"There was no sex abuse going on at that school," Parisi declared.
The mother who described Adams as sincere said her daughter has attended Creative Frontiers for more than two years and is upset that she no longer can go to class.
"The kids are taking it hard," she said. "They had to leave their school all of a sudden, and they didn't even get to say goodbye to each other. Now we have to find somewhere else to place them."
The parent said she has "vaguely" and gently questioned her daughter and has no evidence that she was ever harmed at school.
"All she knows is that Mr. Bob lost his license, and she just hopes that he's able to find it soon."