For eight days, 12-year-old Amy sat alone and stunned in a 10-by-12-foot concrete cell in Fairfield, Calif.’s Solano County Juvenile Hall. She had a TV and radio in the cubicle, furnished otherwise with an open toilet, a washbasin and a thin mattress on a concrete slab jutting from one wall. Her hours of solitude were broken by visits from her mother and lawyer and trips by sheriff’s van, in handcuffs, to the Solano County courthouse, where she was taken against her will to the witness stand. But what made Amy’s punishment particularly grotesque was that she was no juvenile offender, but a victim. She had been ordered incarcerated after refusing to testify against her stepfather, a 32-year-old emergency-room physician who had confessed to sexually molesting her.
During the same week that ABC’s breakthrough incest drama, Something About Amelia, attracted an estimated 60 million viewers, Amy’s real-life trauma outraged the nation. The Kafkaesque legal fiasco—the system punishing the child it was designed to protect—raised questions about the law itself.
It was last summer when Amy, who had been unusually angry and withdrawn for a month, admitted to her mother that her stepfather had been sexually fondling her. From that day onward, recalls her mother, life in her family became “a nightmare.” Confronted by the mother, the stepfather—a well-respected doctor in a community of 48,000 people 50 miles from San Francisco—confessed, moved out of the house and immediately sought help from a therapist. He was aware at the time that California, like all states, requires therapists to report all child-abuse cases to child welfare agencies. But he did not realize that California, under a 1980 “report” law also requires the agencies to turn over all such information to law enforcement authorities. A week after voluntarily signing a confession at the Vacaville, Calif. police station, he was charged with committing “a lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14,” punishable by eight years in prison.
The stepfather went to a preliminary hearing on Dec. 30. Deputy District Attorney Kenneth Kobrin, 31, demanded that Amy testify as the key prosecution witness. She refused, and continued to do so on her five subsequent trips to court. “She was embarrassed,” explains the girl’s natural father (who punched the stepfather, bruising his face, outside the courthouse). “She just didn’t want to talk about the bad things that had happened to her.” According to another account, Amy, who had spent the six weeks before the trial in the custody of her maternal grandparents, was also hoping that by her silence she could restore a semblance of unity to her shattered family.
But neither D.A. Kobrin nor conservative Judge John DeRonde, 61, were impressed. “We had a doctor we knew had molested a child,” explains Kobrin. “This physician was going to continue giving intimate examinations to young children in private. We had a confession, but the only independent evidence we had was the testimony. Under the circumstances, it [locking her up] was the only thing we could do.”
At Prosecutor Kobrin’s urging, Judge DeRonde charged Amy with civil contempt and remanded her to the juvenile hall, an institution housing 70 troubled 13-to 17-year-old children. After four days he barred the girl’s mother from further visits there when a D.A. staff member told Kobrin that the mother was pressuring the child into refusing to testify. The mother told Amy that “a conviction would result in their losing the house and losing the furniture,” says Kobrin. “They would have to move away. She also told her that when it was all over she would get a new brass bed and new wooden furniture.” (Amy’s mother admits promising her a new bed, but claims it was merely to cheer her up, not to dissuade her from testifying.) On Jan. 7, eight days after Amy was incarcerated, a California Superior Court judge ordered her released to a foster home. Two days later, faced with a firestorm of public criticism and the child’s continued refusal, Judge DeRonde dismissed the case. Amy went home.
The debate over the tactics of Judge DeRonde and D.A. Kobrin, however, continues. Some argue that the prosecutor’s determination to imprison a child-molesting doctor justified the brutal means employed. Most observers, however, including townspeople and child welfare officials, were horrified by what they perceived to be Amy’s insensitive treatment at the hands of a prosecutor and a judge who had lost sight of their primary mission: protection of the child. “Amy felt more a victim of the courts than of the molestation itself,” says her first attorney, Anthony Finkas. Experts such as Carole Shauffer, an attorney at San Francisco’s Youth Law Center, believe the chief culprit is the inflexible 1980 statute, which brings the police into what are often, she feels, family problems better dealt with in therapy.
There are others who believe that child molesting is an escalating compulsion that cannot be dealt with by therapy alone. That view is shared by former State Senator Omer Rains, sponsor of the 1980 reporting bill. He contends that the law “has saved the physical and psychological lives of thousands of children” by taking responsibility out of the hands of well-meaning but naive professionals who otherwise would not report abuses. “We have here an overzealous district attorney and judge who didn’t exercise the best judgment,” he concedes. “But I think it would be absolutely tragic to repeal the law based on this one case.”
Meanwhile, Amy and her family struggle to mend their lives. “This is a small town,” says Amy’s mother. “You just can’t hide. When I go to a grocery store and see people standing around whispering, I wonder whether they’re talking about me.” Nevertheless, the family has resolved to stay on in the community. Amy’s stepfather, who is continuing his therapy and has been barred from seeing his stepdaughter indefinitely, is “devastated” by the ordeal, according to his attorney. He is living in an apartment in the town. Despite support from some of his colleagues, his professional future may be in doubt, says one associate. He remains consumed by guilt, according to his wife of four years. “He feels so terrible about what has happened,” she says. “Nobody can punish him more than he punishes himself.” Despite his wife’s anger and hurt, she says, the couple talks on the phone. “We say we love each other. We try to keep each other’s spirits up.” Amy herself is seeing a therapist but still has not returned to school. Emotionally, she “goes back and forth,” says her mother. “She feels love, hate, anger and sorrow. She needs some time to sort things out.”