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Bungled child abuse cases

D.A., county counsel shirk their share of the blame


The San Diego Union-Tribune

District Attorney Edwin Miller and County Counsel Lloyd Harmon finally have responded to the severe criticism leveled at their offices by the 1991-92 San Diego County Grand Jury -- each by thumbing his nose.

Therapists, whose often dubious opinions are touted by county attorneys as "evidence" when taking children from their families, have a word for such a posture. The word is denial.

These officials of two critical agencies of the county's child-welfare system insisting there is nothing wrong with the way they have handled abuse cases is like the patient diagnosed with lung cancer who responds by lighting another cigarette.

Fortunately, the responses this month by Miller and Harmon are in direct contrast to that of the Department of Social Services (DSS), the third, and most vital, leg of the system.

DSS took the grand jury's message to heart and completely changed its approach. Now taking children from allegedly abusive families is a last resort instead of the first option chosen.

Miller and Harmon, meanwhile, refuse to examine what went wrong in the tragic case of Jim Wade, the local Navy man wrongfully accused of raping his 8-year-old daughter. Instead, they accuse the grand jurors of bias in their investigation and of being ignorant of the way things work.

Incredibly, Harmon even hints that Wade may indeed be guilty of raping Alicia. This despite conclusive DNA evidence proving Wade's innocence and directly implicating Albert Carder Jr., the man Alicia described from the outset, the man whom county counsel -- for no logical reason -- insisted couldn't have done it.

Harmon suggests DNA evidence is unreliable, citing challenges to it in two recent cases by defense attorneys trying to cast doubt about their clients' guilt. But scientists the world over have accepted its infallibility in excluding suspects based on genetic markers, as in the Wade case. (Perhaps Joseph Wambaugh should send Harmon a copy of his seminal book on DNA fingerprinting, "The Blooding.")

In his zeal to defend a misguided system and cover various posteriors, Harmon has succeeded only in verifying his own ignorance.

But the grand jurors weren't ignorant, they were outraged. And justly so. The case of Jim and Alicia Wade exposed a system "out of control," in the jury's words, a system corrupted by mind-set and bent on finding child abuse even in families where it didn't exist.

The result, as the jury pointed out in its thorough and highly commendable investigation that was completed in June, was that many San Diego families -- many San Diego children -- ended up being abused by a system designed to prevent abuse.

The overzealous prosecution of the Wade case, which featured incontrovertible evidence and ended in not merely dropping the charges but a rare "true finding of innocence" by the court for Jim Wade, was the almost inevitable result of a system interested not in truth but in proving its own biases.

The grand jury asked District Attorney Miller to identify errors made by his Child Abuse Unit in the Wade case so they could be prevented from happening again. While acknowledging that "mistakes were made," Miller never identified the mistakes nor what could be learned from them. Instead, he spent 18 pages of his response defending his staff and alleging that the grand jury had a philosophical bias against his department.

But at least he admitted mistakes. County Counsel Harmon refused to concede any such thing.

His response to the grand jury's outrage is not only specious but is arrogant and deceitful.

Alicia gave a specific account of her rape, that she was taken out of the first-floor window, driven away in a green car like her grandpa's and hurt by a man who later returned her to her room. Nobody believed her.

Yet police soon apprehended and successfully prosecuted Albert Carder Jr. for molesting little girls in the complex where Alicia lived (and in another Navy housing complex) around the time of her attack.

In three instances, he gained access through a window; in one, he took a 3-year-old back out through the window and molested her. Carder drove a green car; he fit Alicia's description of her attacker; his foot size matched a shoe print found outside her window.

The deputy district attorney who prosecuted Carder later transferred to the county counsel's office and was assigned to the Wade case in Juvenile Court. Incredibly, she insisted a year later that it could only have been Jim Wade who raped his daughter, that Albert Carder's M.O. was completely different. She is the same attorney who also vigorously argued in favor of having Alicia adopted away from her natural family forever.

Harmon makes a point of noting that Alicia failed to pick Carder out in a photo lineup. So what? Reporters for this newspaper asked a private investigator, who had interviewed Carder face-to-face for an hour in a well-lighted room, to identify his photo from among several we had on hand. He was unable to do it.

Harmon concludes that, "A balanced review of the totality of the facts indicates that, contrary to the conclusions of the grand jury, the Alicia W. case was handled in a thorough and professional manner and with due concern for the rights and interests of all the parties before the Juvenile Court."

This ridiculous kudo for a system that devastated not only the Wades (who spent $127,000 defending themselves) but also scores of other families in cases investigated by the grand jury shows a sad resolve to perpetuate the system's destructive mind-set.

Both Harmon and Miller would do well to spend a day with social workers in the county's new Intensive Family Preservation Program. They might learn that the best way to save children is not always to destroy their families.

1992 Nov 25