Suffer The Children

There are a few facts-a precious few-that nobody disputes. The date was last Aug. 4, the place was Mia Farrow's house in Bridgewater, Conn., and the occasion was a routine visit by Woody Allen to see his kids. (Allen is the adoptive father of two of Farrow's 10 children and the biological father of a third.) Nor is there much dispute about the state of Allen and Farrow's relationship: it had gone down in flames months earlier when she discovered that he was having an affair with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi, a college student. But nearly everything else about that summer day is a matter of accusation, rumor, speculation and emotional agony. According to Farrow, Allen sexually molested their adopted daughter Dylan, 7. According to Allen, the charge is vindictive hogwash. And according to Dylan-but whatever Dylan may think is locked up in the records of a seven-month investigation by the Yale-New Haven Child Abuse Evaluation Clinic.

Last week, in a meeting at the clinic, Allen and Farrow learned the results of the investigation: the specialists decided that no abuse had taken place. Clinic staff will not discuss the case, but excerpts from the evaluators' report obtained by Newsday show that investigators were critical of both parents. The report called Farrow's relationship with Dylan "very disturbed" and said Allen's behavior with his daughter "had a sexualized overtone." "For DyIan, girlfriend-boyfriend love was kissing and hugging," the report states. "A father did this intensely at times with her. He also became boyfriend to Soon-Yi. It is not clear how Dylan understood her father's behavior toward her or toward Soon-Yi."

Sex-abuse allegations that arise the way this one did, amid the shards of a broken relationship, are increasingly common and deeply controversial. Allen, who has accused Farrow of planting the incident in Dylan's imagination, insisted after the meeting that the report completely exonerated him. Eleanor Alter, Farrow's lawyer, insisted that the truth would yet emerge. And Connecticut state's attorney Frank S. Maco, who must decide whether to bring criminal charges against Allen, says there is no evidence that Farrow "acted in any way other than that of a concerned mother." But Maco sounds disinclined to prosecute. "To risk the well-being of a child in a case where there is evidence which points to the existence of a reasonable doubt is nothing less than to sacrifice the child on an altar of public spectacle," he says.

Whether or not Allen ever faces criminal charges, a public spectacle is assured. He is suing for custody of his children, and the day after the Yale meeting he and Farrow were summoned to a quickly scheduled custody hearing. Allen, who testified on the first day of the hearing, vehemently denied abusing Dylan and described what he called Farrow's "raging and ferocious" behavior since learning in January 1992 about his affair with Soon-Yi. After Dylan's seventh birthday in July, he testified, Farrow left him a note reading, "Child molester at birthday party. Molded then abused one sister. Now focused on younger sister. Family disgusted." When Farrow gets her turn, her lawyer is expected to call several witnesses-perhaps including the babysitter who allegedly saw Allen's head in Dylan's lap on that August day.

Experts agree that children as young as Dylan rarely fabricate tales of sex abuse. The problem is their parents, most often the mothers. "What we've seen over the last several years is that adults are throwing around these allegations in custody battles," says Joy Byers, coordinator of public awareness at the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse. "It used to be that the worst thing to accuse a parent of was adultery. Now it's abuse." David Raskin, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah who specializes in evaluating children's charges in sex-abuse cases, says that some 90 percent of the allegations tend to be valid. "But in certain contexts you have problems," he says. "In custody and divorce cases, the percentage of false allegations may be 50 percent or higher. Anytime there is an incentive for somebody to make false allegations, the risk goes up."

Other experts contend that only after a formal separation occurs, and the father leaves home, do many children feel free to tell their mothers about incidents of abuse. "The custody defense is a favorite one now with a lot of defense attorneys," warned Patricia Toth, director of the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, in a recent speech. "They'll say the child is lying or the mother planted the idea in her head. Maybe it is a custody case-or maybe the child finally felt safe enough to talk."

In most cases of child sex abuse, including custody cases, evidence is scarce. Medical examinations tend to be inconclusive, since few assaults are brutal enough to cause unmistakable physical damage. All that's available to attorneys is the word of the child, and often the child has been questioned intensively by a parent before law-enforcement officials see her. Studies show that some children are so suggestible, and so eager to please, that they may interpret an ambiguous situation as abusive simply because that seems like the "right" answer to an anxious parent's questioning. "If a parent gets alarmed and starts pursuing one hunch with a child, then emotionality drives the interview," says Stephen Ceci, professor of developmental psychology at Cornell, who studies suggestibility in children. Lucy Berliner, director of research at the Sexual Assault Center in Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, says parents who suspect their child has been abused shouldn't jump to conclusions but should gently try to ascertain the facts by asking open-ended, rather than leading, questions. Except in custody cases. "If parents are already in a legal situation, they should not question their children," she says. "Their motives will be suspect, and they may muddy the waters. If a parent in a divorce calls here, we will not see the kid unless there is a very strong reason to suspect sexual abuse. If it's just something vaguely distressing, we say, 'Bring it up to the other parent through your lawyers.' It should be handled very formally."

Little is known about the effects on children of being caught in the middle of sex-abuse battles that prove groundless. "Some children will believe for the rest of their lives that they've been molested," says Richard Gardner, a clinical professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University. "Others will be like a child who has been in a play and memorized a part. Weeks later it's over, and they have only a faint recollection." Nobody save Dylan knows what she has suffered thus far, but fortunately she has years of childhood ahead in which to heal-if her parents let her.