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Friday, June 3, 2011

Children's Assessment Center

Note: In the 2003 Coy vs. Texas appeal I am using for this post, the CAC worker is referred to as 'Fiona SteVenson'. There are also several references to the Houston "Children's ASSISTANCE Center. Since I am not able to find any other mention of this name connected to the Harris County courts, or to any organization called the Children's Assistance Center outside of this document, I'm going to assume that whoever typed up the appeal just didn't give a fuck about spelling things properly in an official document. There is plenty of information out there about Fiona StePHenson and her work at the Children's ASSESSMENT Center.
Incompetent Bastards.

"There are days
you feel everyone in the world is
doing this to their kids. You have
to remember that we're here
and we're helping."


So said Ms. Fiona Stephenson, a social worker at Houston's newly dedicated Child Assessment Center, two years before her assessment interview with the child in Coy vs. Texas(2002).
That same year, 2000, she was the assessor in the case Sauceda vs. Texas. Kevin Sauceda, a wheelchair-bound former coma patient, was accused of sexually assaulting his three nieces, ages 8, 9, and 12.
According to the 2003 appeal Sauceda's sisters, after "repeatedly questioning" each girl, and after numerous denials, finally got them to agree (beginning with the youngest) that they had all been assaulted by their uncle. If you want to read how the children were TOTALLY NOT COERCED into accusing their invalid uncle, who at the time was not even able to feed himself, check here:


Sauceda was arrested and indicted on three counts of sexual assault, but the state decided only to proceed with the case involving the 9 year old.
The girl, M.S., was interviewed by Fiona Stephenson at the Children's Assessment Center. In court, M.S. testified that she had been threatened with a gun and a butcher knife during the assaults. She said she had not mentioned these to her aunts, but that she had told Stephenson during the interview. Later she said that she had told her aunts, but the aunts said nothing about weapons in their written statements to police, nor in their testimony at trial.

The interview with Stephenson was taped, so the defense had proof that M.S. had said nothing about any weapons being used in her original interview. This might have been a powerful tool for the defense to use, but if they showed that part of the tape, the court ruled that they must show the entire interview, which referenced the other, previous charges (you know, the ones the state decided to drop). Whether M.S. revealed actual criminal acts or was making things up is never addressed.
The defense council hoped to bring in Stephenson to testify instead of playing the tape, but the court ruled that if the defense brought in Stephenson, the Prosecution would be allowed to show the tape in it's entirety, allowing the jury to hear about two other alleged crimes that the prosecution itself had decided not to pursue. This decision was later brought before the Texas Court of Appeals, and eventually overturned.

Here we have two issues. The first is, it looks like M.S. was either making things up on the stand, or for some reason she felt more comfortable revealing violent coercion in a room full of strangers than she did while talking to the social worker or even her mother & aunt. Embellishing a story on the fly is something kids do everyday; adults should be able to recognize when they're doing this. A kid wants to make up monsters to get you to believe that he should be allowed to sleep on the couch with the TV on? Not a big deal. A kid wants to pull knives and guns out of the air to please their mother, while sending a man to prison? That might be a big deal, anywhere outside of a Harris County Criminal Court room.

The second is, the defendant was effectively denied the use of potentially exculpatory evidence because of the faulty interviewing technique of the nurse, and the REFUSAL of the court to allow the defense to present that same evidence without the contaminating extras.

Anyway, I'm up to my armpits in legalese that I barely understand, and I don't really care about the Sauceda case. The court moved to start a 'harm analysis', which I can't find a copy of online but presumably that's where they get to decide if their cock-up caused the trial to go badly for the accused (in this case, convicted). A search of the Harris County District Clerk's website doesn't turn up any information on Sauceda's Agg Sex Assault case, so maybe they realized they couldn't get away with this one and went into full on ass-covering mode.

The real point here, as pertains to Coy vs. Texas, is this; Stephenson conducted an interview of a potential abuse victim, and allowed the recorded statement to become inextricably woven into information about two other, separate cases, rendering it useful only to the prosecution. Why? Was this one of those days when she felt that 'everyone in the world' was raping their kids, and she didn't care if Sauceda got a fair trial or not? How about the day she conducted the interview for Coy. Vs. Texas? Was the video taken that day introduced at trial, or was it considered damaging to the defense because of incompetent interviewing and omitted? Once again, Stephenson herself does not appear to have testified about the assessment during the trial, but Susan Szczygielski, who was in the room at the time, did. Szczygielski appears to have also been therapist to Ramirez, the child's mother. Szczygielski claimed to be an expert at identifying children who had been coached to lie about sexual assault, but there's no information on whether or not she ever identified any of Colleen Taft's 300 'faulty' interviews in 2002-2004?. Szczygielski worked at the same Children's Assessment Center since 1992, so you better believe she came into contact with at least a few of Taft's 800 interviewees.

In an unpublished  [*2]  opinion, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's ruling. Sauceda v. State, No. 14-01-00408-CR, 2002 Tex. App. LEXIS 1526 (Houston, [14th Dist.] February 28, 2002)(not designated for publication). We granted review to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred by upholding the trial court ruling that simply asking a question for impeachment purposes rendered an entire videotaped interview of extraneous offenses admissible under the rule of optional completeness. We hold that the Court of Appeals' ruling was error, and we will reverse.

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