The Verdict

Del Richardson*

ABSTRACT: This is a subjective case study of my own experience with child protection and the criminal justice system after I was charged and subsequently acquitted of sexually molesting my daughter.  The case study describes what happened to the members of my family in the ensuing eight years after the state's intervention and explores various aspects of the experience and its aftermath.

In my files somewhere there is a piece of paper.  A copy, it has three signatures: a public defender's, a prosecutor's, and a judge's.  The judge's signature on the dismissal order, with the words "dismissed with prejudice," means that the charges could never come back.  I keep the paper, out of some diffuse sense of "maybe I'll need to prove something to someone someday."

The court order only proves I was not convicted.  It cannot prove innocence.  To be accused of molesting a child (in this case, my own child) is, in a de facto sense, to be convicted.  It is the latter day mark of Cain, the twentieth century's Scarlet Letter.  Few crimes cause such revulsion and contempt in our society.  To be accused of it is to always be accused, because you can never prove your innocence.  But because this accusation exempts you from any presumption of innocence, you must nevertheless always try to prove it.

The accusation puts you in a fight for your life, your family, and your reputation.  Of these three you might save the first and perhaps the second, but you lost the third the day the police arrived.  The fight is really about damage control — managing your losses.  At best, the court order says I wasn't convicted.  At worst, it says I beat the rap.  The court order cannot restore my good name, my family, my children's childhood, the years this inquisition took from us all, or repay the horrible debts it left.  It cannot reassure anyone who discovers my past.  It does nothing for the surprise and shock friends feel, "You did what?  I mean, you were accused of what?"  Consequently it stays hidden along with the nightmares and the terrible memories.  The Dismissal Order is a Pyrrhic victory.  Like Job's friends, it is a miserable comforter.

The Story

It's the eighth anniversary of the verdict.  I have a new life.  Eight years ago a policeman and a Child Protective Services (CPS) caseworker came to my front door, informed my stunned wife that our two older children had accused me of sexual and physical abuse and that they had been placed in protective custody.  Someone, they said, would be in touch with us within 48 hours to give us more details.  With that they left.

As I tried to eat dinner that night my hands began to shake so violently I was unable to keep food on the fork, or even to get the food into my mouth with my hands.  You come home, the house is dangerously vacant, you say vacuously reassuring things to your spouse.  You try ridiculously hard to do "normal" things in order to feel something besides that ghastly, tragic rage and dread.  You spend the night with the pretense that your world hasn't really come to an end, but you don't sleep.

In the next week, criminal charges were filed, my children remained in foster homes, and I was briefly incarcerated and then ordered into an apartment (the judge believed that I posed a threat to my 3-year-old daughter).  What little cash we had was swallowed by an attorney in a few days.  My father, for whom I worked and who helped engineer the charges, told me to plead guilty or he'd fire me.  Refusing to plead, my $35,000 a year job was gone.

My children ran away from the foster home, but we returned them hoping if we cooperated things would go better for all of us.  Not so.  The first psychologist, a CPS psychologist, said I was guilty, but the next two said I wasn't.  The first "child therapist" told my kids I was guilty, as did the next and the next (until after the charges and then new ones told them I wasn't).  When the children tried to deny the allegations and said they had been made to say these things, they were told they were lying.  My son was dismissed from counseling since he had no physical marks of abuse.  My daughter saw two therapists who did conjoint therapy by trying to convince her that she was truly abused and that her desire to protect her daddy was causing her to tell terrible lies.  After a few sessions my daughter retracted her retraction.  The accusation catches the maker as well as the accused — once made it is always true, retractions are always untrue, evidence of denial.

My wife slipped into a catatonic depression.  Since I was out of the house, CPS returned the children.  I was told that any unsupervised contact between myself and my children would result in immediate imprisonment.  Nevertheless, my children would ride their bikes to see me.  As the weeks turned into months, I would sneak home to see them, often hiding in my own home — under a bed, or in a closet, during surprise case worker visits.

During the first days of outrage I went straight to the police, confidently waived my rights and talked, hoping, believing, knowing, I could get it all cleared up.  After all, I was innocent, there must be some mistake.  The police suggested I could clear all this up, that this could all be talked through.  If I would consider taking a polygraph, and if I "passed," maybe they wouldn't file charges.  This was the first light at the end of the tunnel.  I shut out the doubts because this was a chance to end& it.  It was a roll of the dice I was happy to take.  I would have done anything to straighten this all out.  I was about to find out how naive and nihilistic my rage and terror and despair had made me.

While they strapped me into the polygraph it occurred to me that this must be like the shock a woman feels when she is getting raped and realizes anyone can violate her any time they want.  I failed the polygraph.  The police then demanded I confess or I was going to jail.  There wasn't much to confess, but my wife was in tears, I was in shock, my children were God-knows-where, so I gave them some kind of a statement I hoped would keep me out of jail long enough to gather my wits.  My wife and I went to breakfast.  Between the waitress and the coffee refills I heard myself tell her that I didn't understand what was happening but I hadn't done it, couldn't have done it, and couldn't admit to it.  I don't know how we finished the eggs, but I knew I was innocent.  It was the slim piece of reality still clear in all the noise and confusion.

The police now had a report they got from my son and daughter (then 11 and 10) at their school (in the presence of a teacher and the principal as well as an officer and a CPS caseworker), a failed polygraph, and a vague statement I made in response to their threats.  Felony second degree incest charges were filed.  I was arrested, briefly jailed, and released on my own recognizance.

Unemployment from the job I had been fired from, coupled with the tiny income from a small church I had been serving part-time helped us through the first weeks.  Within a month I had found a cheaper apartment and began looking for a cheaper home for my family.  I couldn't find work since I was in court often enough to make hash of any kind of a work schedule — and how would I explain all my absences to a prospective employer?  Tell the truth?  The loss of our company cars put me on my motorcycle and my wife in a used car through that winter (I endured more than one exotic crash that winter as I tried to ride on snowy streets).

Being broke took its toll.  Fathering on-the-lam took its toll.  Trying to deal with my own pain and their pain was sometimes overwhelming.  Life became an endurance contest, a daily struggle with depression, grief, and hatred.  The neighbors all found out (CPS chatted with a few) and the kids in school all knew.  After the criminal charges were dismissed, we moved to an adjoining state.  CPS told the next state's CPS, they told the new school administrators, the administrators told the teachers, then the kids all knew, and the new neighbors began to know.  Broke and harried, cracks widened in the marriage as I hid from case workers and others for two years, and tried parenting and husbanding on the run.

The Legal System

The court system operates in Byzantine ways.  It has both a criminal court and family court so if CPS decides you are abusive, you can find yourself in both systems simultaneously.  Our cash gone, we were fortunate to qualify for public defenders.  Initially both attorneys assumed we were guilty and counseled us to go with the program.  My public defender from criminal court let me know that I had almost no chance of winning in court and that the very best thing for me and my family was to plead guilty and hope for the best.  Fighting the charges and losing would run the risk of the court deciding that I was a hard case and landing myself in the state prison for a few years — and how would I support my family from a cell?  This was essentially the counsel of the family court lawyer — "you can't win, cut the best deal you can, get on with your life."  But later, as they got to know my family and me, they became our saviors.

Family court operates on the premise of a preponderance of evidence.  This creates a Catch-22 world for laymen in both courts.  One can find you not guilty (you are never found innocent, your case is ultimately dismissed, or you are not convicted, but you are not found innocent) while the other finds you guilty.  In my case the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence in criminal court, but continued for another year and a half in family court before they too, were dismissed.

In the initial hearings in criminal court I was sternly warned by a number of judges not to have contact with my children or else.  In the crowded system, my appearances usually followed appearances by drug dealers and other accused felons.  My first impression was of how respectful the judges seemed to be towards the accused.  When it was my turn, the impression changed.  Hard words and solemn threats came from the bench.  The judge's duty was to protect my children and society from me.  "You will stay away from your daughter and other children unless there is a caseworker present.  If you return home, I will have you imprisoned the moment I find out, and don't think I won't!"

Initially my daughter stayed with her story.  I stayed with mine.  Reluctantly my public defender fought.  As he got to know my children and my wife he said something that restored some of my humanity: "There is no way those kids could have been abused, this is too damn good of a family."  From that moment he really went to work — days of waiting, furious negotiations in the halls of the court house, tense encounters with people fighting on the other side, late night planning sessions.

My daughter was sequestered at an attorney's home during the trial (to keep her from being influenced by me).  She was called to the stand and forcefully recanted her original allegations.  The charges collapsed.  As the judge dismissed the court my father rose to his feet screaming.  Aside from a few quiet hand shakes, they all filed out.  The courtroom that was to decide my life was empty except for its chairs, and tables and me.  That I hadn't been found guilty and taken to prison was wonderful.  That the state was still planted in our lives was not.  That the allegations were still alive was clear.  Cautioned by my attorney to continue to obey the court order placing me out of the house, I couldn't go home to see my exultant children.  As I returned the terrific smile and happy wave of my daughter as she drove away with her mother, knowing I couldn't follow, I realized it might never be over.

Upon calling my family court attorney I was congratulated that the charges were dismissed but was then told that it would have no effect on the family court proceedings.  By now I wasn't shocked, I was just tired.  In a month, armed with statements by psychologists and hoping we had a good case made for dismissal, we went to court with our hopes up.  It was an emotional proceeding.  The state and the Guardian Ad Litem stated their side and we tried to state ours.  The judge interrupted our proceeding, found for the state's motion for continuance of the dependency and forced counseling and that I be kept out of the home.  As he began to congratulate the Guardian Ad Litem on her fine work our attorney leapt to her feet and screamed, "Your honor, you are presiding over a tragedy ..."  Before she could continue the judge slammed his gavel and ordered her to silence.

A year went by and by now I had been out of the house for a year and a half.  I had moved and my wife and children had moved.  Our lives had gone in different directions through the ordeal.  Called into court again we battled for a week.  By now CPS wanted my wife charged and both of us jailed in contempt of court.  We were resistant.  We weren't cooperating.  We were a danger to our children.  We should be incarcerated until their psychologist believed we were safe to re-enter society.  The process was becoming irrational and vindictive.  They paraded their experts, we ours, the kids were consulted in chambers (for the nth time), and my wife and I attacked on the stand.  My parents and her parents attacked us from the stand.  Lawyers shouted and swore under their breath at each other.  The week dragged on and on.  Finally, the judge stopped the proceeding and ordered us into counseling, again.

We appeared for therapy.  The therapist began by asking me if I had ever licked my daughter's genitals or forced her to perform fellatio on me, or forced her to perform some other sexual act with me.  It was getting harder to shock my wife and me, but the counselor had found a way.  I asked the counselor why she was asking me such twisted questions.  She said she wanted to be sure.  "Well did you?" she demanded.  I said: "Of course not!"  After a few sessions she told us that it was her belief that we were all in denial and that therapy was going nowhere.  Since the counselor refused to see us any more because we were in denial, we wondered what would happen next.

Apparently the state got tired of us.  In early spring the judge sent out a dismissal order.  It was over, just over, like the month of March, or a plague of locusts.  I didn't have to hide from case workers any more and the children didn't have to lie to the Guardian ad Litem.  But by then they weren't lying.  The family was wrecked.

The Counseling Experience

There are two kinds of counselors.  One kind makes money from state referred clients, the other kind doesn't get state referrals.  Within a week of the initial CPS intervention I was well on my way to figuring this out.  Both state counselors I saw felt I was guilty of molesting my daughter or at least "grooming" her for future molesting.  Both non-state counselors didn't see it that way.

It was more difficult for my daughter.  Initially she told her therapist that she didn't think she had been molested, but that she had been encouraged by others to make the report.  But her therapist eventually told her she was lying when she tried to recant and telling the truth when she didn't.  Another therapist was called in to work with the first; she told my daughter the same thing and added that my daughter was crazy to think anyone would believe her.  This went on through the criminal trial.

When we returned to court-ordered counseling the third therapist made my daughter review all the charges and challenged her recanted story repeatedly.  My daughter stood by her recantation, her therapist stood against it.  For the third time my daughter was told by a professional that her father was a criminal (this time one who "beat the rap"), that I was a danger to her, and that she should stay away from me.  This third therapist also suggested to our daughter (like the others already had) that her mother had not protected her from me adequately and probably wouldn't be protective in the future.  This coupled with the inside-out world our daughter lived in for two years adversely affected her connection to her family and her own mental health.

I was broken hearted the first time she ran away, about a year after the initial report.  The Guardian ad Litem immediately placed her back in foster care and she got more therapy.  She ran away again, before the charges were thrown out of family court.  Then at 12 she discovered drugs and began to run away often.  At wit's end we had her placed in psychiatric facilities several times (about $45,000 worth), trying to get her help.  Every time the therapists found out about the charges they focused their work on the "abuse."  Every time she was released, sooner or later, she would take off The police refused to help.  The state suddenly ignored us.  She was married by 14, divorced by 17, and has a three-year-old son.  My grandchild lives between his adolescent parents and the father's parents and shelter care.  I saw him about a year ago.


Three years after the charges were filed, we filed for divorce.  What do you say?  It didn't work anymore?  Let me say it raw: we were broken.  Five years later it still feels raw.  Three years ago I remarried.  It hasn't been easy.  She wants kids.  I don't.  We fight a lot.  Every time I deal with my children, there is the guilt and the brokenness all over again.  I know that the past is over, but there are times when it is not.  There are times, odd times when I remember the little girl, the honor student, running to my office to tell me about everything, the camp-outs, a child sleeping in my arms, those huge blue eyes she had, the long talks about life, the celebrations.  Each child has his or her special feeling, a special presence, and yet each one is gone.  I can't look at the old pictures yet.  When I talk to my former wife sometimes I just want to start walking somewhere and not stop.  My new wife lives with this blended family of ghosts and flashbacks that can sometimes disable me.  Eight years later and it is hard.

My son isn't 11 anymore.  He just turned 20.  He dropped out of school for a couple of years.  After he was beat up by a couple of his mom's boyfriends, he moved out on his own at 16.  He quickly found the drug crowd.  It wasn't long before he was in and out of jail.  However, the system worked for him.  Befriended by one of the cops that busted him, and a judge who suspended jail time and a fine on my son's promise to return to high school, he went back.  Each semester he would go to the judge's office and show the secretary his report card.  I just attended his graduation.  I was very proud.  The Exchange Club in that town awarded him "Turn around student of the year" and he got his name on the high school reader board as "student of the year."  He starts college this fall.  The judge wanted to know why he hadn't been invited to his graduation.

My youngest daughter lives on the other side of the country with relatives.  Since my family was convinced that I was and am a pervert they worked to get my youngest daughter away from me.  It's pretty easy to work a 10- or a 12-year-old.  She came out for Christmas, said she wanted to live with me, I sent her back to finish the school year and she isn't coming back.  How can I be so naive?  I think she's doing okay.  The accusation lives on.

Before the intervention, my oldest daughter was tested for the gifted and talented program, would frequently get positive comments on her report card from her teachers and principals, and had been a wonderful, sweet little kid.  Her most recent living arrangement was with a man 20 years her senior.  Rumor has it he is a drug dealer.  Their parting fight landed her in jail.  Being very beautiful, she aspires to be a model.  I had heard that she was trying to get her GED.  She left school in the 8th grade.  Her grandparents bailed her out of jail this weekend.  We talked, but she'd been drinking and there was a party going on, and who knows?  She'll be 19 soon.  I hear she's going to move back with the guy she left.

I helped my former wife get through nursing school.  She began living with a man from Chile and had his child.  After a falling out, he took the child back to Chile.  He works on a fishing boat in Alaska and goes back and forth.  My children mention that the guy beats her sometimes.  He beat up my son, put him in the hospital, and briefly left the country when charges were filed.  She is on the other side of the country working as a charge nurse, my son is visiting her.  She used to bake bread.


I was 35 eight years ago.  After I was fired I continued to serve my small church.  During the months of the trial, frankly, I don't know how I functioned.  To say I did it poorly is to put it mildly.

During the trial the church stood with us.  As my family and personal situation deteriorated, so did the church.  By the time we divorced, the church was pretty well over.  Five years ago I decided to get into graduate school and pursue a counseling degree.  More irony.  Having been in the pastorate for 15 years I did a lot of counseling and liked it.  Sensing that my career as a pastor was probably finished, it seemed like a logical, if morbid (given my recent experience with counselors) decision.

In April of the first year of graduate school, the second time my oldest daughter was in a psychiatric ward, I had a heart attack.  After a week of hospitalization I returned to graduate school and the pastorate.  Finishing my masters I went on to graduate studies in theology.  Admitted to a doctoral program in counseling at a state university following my two graduate degrees, I moved.  In the early spring of 1990 I had triple bypass surgery.  The next year I completed a Specialist's degree in counseling, and began to get hired to various teaching positions at the university.  As far as my Ph.D. was concerned, by then I was pretty much ABD (All But Dissertation), people liked me and it was good to work again.  I loved teaching.

In early 1992 someone called the department I was on appointment with and told them about the allegations.  Following several months of deliberations at the highest levels in the university I was given the choice to either voluntarily resign or be fired, despite the fact that I was already on contract for a full-slate of teaching assignments that summer.  Once again I found myself unemployed and this time there were no unemployment benefits.  The paper I kept in my files with the judge's signature meant nothing to the University; it was after all, a public relations issue.

I had established a small counseling practice at the Campus Christian Center.  About this time the director called me to his office and told me that allegations had been made about me and while he refused to "get into them" the long and the short of it was that he was concerned that donations to the center might be affected and consequently he had to ask me to leave.  We wrangled over this in various ways for a year, but I recently received an eviction notice from the Board and had to go.  I've been using a friend's apartment to see clients in.  We just found an office.

During my time here I let someone talk me into leading a bible study.  Two years later it has grown up into a church.  A good one.  We have an active ministry in the community, in the jails, and on the campus.  This is the best part of my life.  The counseling practice is the second best.  Having received my license a year ago, I've enjoyed working with a variety of clients and issues, including sexual abuse issues.

There are still nightmares.  Following a car wreck brought on by a probable stroke, my father shot and killed himself four years ago, his insurance company tried to lay it on the allegations.  I spent a day giving a deposition.  I dream about him.  I dream about my former wife and kids.  I live knowing that the inquisition is never far away.  Grateful I wasn't convicted, I also know that the paper in my file is a technicality.

* Del Richardson is a counselor and can be contacted at 1000 Driscoll Ridge, Troy, Idaho, 83871.  [Back]


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