The Kelly Michaels Case

Kelly Michaels worked at a day care center in New Jersey. On a visit to a doctor’s office one day, one of the children at the center said, as his temperature was being taken rectally, “that’s what my teacher does.” Soon the boy’s teacher, Kelly Michaels, found herself the subject of a criminal investigation.

Investigators repeatedly interviewed three and four-year-olds, suggesting through their graphic and disturbing questions that the children had been sexually molested. The suggestions finally worked: children who initially denied that they were abused in any way finally said that they had been. Children try hard to find answers that please adults. One child said that Michaels “made us eat boiled babies,” another said that “she put a sword in my rectum,” and a third said that she “played piano naked.”

Kelly Michaels was charged with sexually abusing twenty children. Parents wearing “Believe the Children” buttons packed the courtroom for the trial. Journalists played the new daycare horror story for all it was worth. A jury convicted Michaels. She spent the next seven years of her life in prison.

The trouble was Kelly Michaels was 100% innocent. Here a description on the case:

Kelly Michaels’ nightmare began on Apil 30, 1985 when a four-year-old boy who was a student of hers at the Wee Care Day Nursery said, when a nurse put a thermometer in his rectum, “That’s what my teacher does to me at nap time at school.” When asked what he meant, the boy replied, “Her takes my temperature.”

That one comment–easily capable of an innocent interpretation– began a criminal investigation that would lead to Michaels being charged with 131 counts of sexual abuse against twenty children. She allegedly raped and assaulted her three to five-year-old charges with knives, spoons, and Lego blocks. Prosecutors also contended she licked peanut butter off of the children’s genitals, played piano in the nude, and made the kids drink her urine. All of this abuse, according to prosecutors, somehow went unnoticed by other teachers, parents, or administrators during the seven months she worked at the Wee Care Nursery. Michaels, age twenty-six, would be convicted of 115 counts of abuse, and in 1988 sentenced to forty-seven years in prison.

The blame for this travesty of justice must rest largely on investigators and prosecutors. “Believe the children” became the motto for the trial.

Division of Youth and Family Service Investigators, convinced of Michaels’ guilt and determined to uncover the full extent of her treachery, repeatedly questioned children about possible sexual abuse. Most children said at first that they liked Kelly and that she did nothing wrong. Investigators called this “the denial phase.” The investigators pressed on, pulling out implements and anatomically correct dolls, telling them that other kids had revealed Kelly’s misdeeds, telling them that Kelly was in jail. Kids want to please adults. They are easily moved to change answers by suggestive questions. Eventually the kids provided the answers investigators were looking–indeed, hoping–to hear.

Parents were given “symptom charts,” and asked to report behavior that might be indicative of past sexual abuse–things like bedwetting and nightmares. Not surprisingly, symptoms were found.

In the atmosphere of intimidation and moral hysteria, those that should have come forward to defend Michaels did not. Other teachers said later that they believed expressions of support for Michaels might have led to the filing of charges against them as well.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, writing about the Michaels case in Harper’s Magazine, offered this reflection on the case:

We are a society that, every fifty years or so, is afflicted by some paroxysm of virtue–an orgy of self-cleansing through which evil of one kind or another is cast out. From the witch-hunts of Salem to the communist hunts of the McCarthy era to the current shrill fixation on child abuse, there runs a common thread of moral hysteria. After the McCarthy era, people would ask: But how could it have happened? How could the presumption of innocence have been abandoned wholesale? How did large and powerful institutions acquiesce as congressional investigators ran roughshod over civil liberties–all in the name of a war on communists? How was it possible to believe that subversives lurked behind every library door, in every radio station, that every two-bit actor who had belonged to the wrong political organization posed a threat to the nation’s security?

Years from now people doubtless will ask the same questions about our present era–a time when the most improbable charges of abuse find believers; when it is enough only to be accused by anonymous sources to be hauled off by investigators; a time when the hunt for child abusers has become a national pathology.