In testimony that could either support or cast doubt on statements made by the alleged victims in the trial of former Mountain View soccer coach Pedro Carbajal, two expert witnesses were questioned about a condition known as Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome. Carbajal is charged with sexual abusing his three young nieces.
Beginning on Thursday, Jan. 27, and running through Friday, Jan. 28, Deputy District Attorney Dan Fehderau and defense attorney Darby William questioned and cross-examined each expert witness about the syndrome, which was named by a psychiatrist in the 1980s to explain the counterintuitive behavior often exhibited by sexually abused children.
Superior Court Judge Griffin M. J. Bonini, the jury and members of the public listened to the testimony in Department 26 of the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice in San Jose.
Fehderau called the first expert witness, Carl Lewis, a former police officer and current private investigator, asking him to explain the four basic tenets of Child Sexual Abuse Syndrome.
According to Lewis, the syndrome was first described by Dr. Roland Summit, a psychiatrist, who conducted extensive studies on children who had been sexually abused.
Summit found that young victims of sexual assault commonly keep their abuse a secret for long periods of time, feel helpless in the presence of their attackers, behave in a way that accommodates the assaulting adult and give unconvincing and conflicting accounts of their abuse if and when they ultimately come forward.
In cases where a family member or someone close to the victim perpetrates the assault, "the child will be confused" by the betrayal, said Lewis, who estimated that he has worked on more than 500 child sexual abuse cases over the course of 17 years.
The children in these cases sometimes worry that they have done something wrong, he said. These feelings often result in the child wanting to keep the abuse secret, and the victims often find ways to put up with their attackers and delay telling others.
The three alleged victims in the case claim that their uncle, Carbajal, sexually molested them five to 11 years ago. The eldest says she was raped when she was around the age of 8 or 9; the two younger girls have testified that they were inappropriately touched and groped by Carbajal when they around the same age.
The alleged victims, all of whom are sisters, say they waited to come forward because they were scared that they would break up their family if they disclosed the alleged abuse, and said they weren't always sure what had happened was wrong.
"I didn't know if that was what uncles do to nieces," the eldest niece said during her testimony.
In her cross-examination of Lewis, William took to a line of questioning which sought to demonstrate that the syndrome was never meant to be used in the courtroom.
"It's not a divining rod," Lewis said, in response to one of William's questions.
Nonetheless, Lewis said, it is a useful tool to help explain why children of sexual abuse may not come forward immediately after an assault has occurred and is meant to remind adults that their "preconceived ideas on how abused children should look, how abused children should act ... are often without merit."
William later called her own expert witness on Child Abuse Accommodation Syndrome, Dr. Annette Ermshar, a clinical psychologist with expertise in child sexual abuse, physical abuse and trauma.
Ermshar told the court that Dr. Summit had published his research on the syndrome specifically for clinicians and had never intended it to be used in a courtroom. The syndrome, she said, has been "misused and misrepresented" in the legal realm as a diagnostic tool.
While she agrees that sexually abused children often exhibit the behaviors described by the syndrome, the sheer fact that a child is exhibiting such behavior does not mean that that particular child is a victim.
"Children do lie," Ermshar said. "Children do make things up, for whatever reason."
William previously questioned the alleged victims if they had any reason to be angry with their uncle before coming forward with their claims, and at one point she asked the eldest of the sisters if she had ever called Carbajal a "snitch."
The sisters all denied having a score to settle with Carbajal.
Before he was arrested in February 2009, Carbajal coached a Mountain View soccer league for at-risk youth and was active in the community.
In a show of support, a group of four to eight people identifying themselves as "friends and relatives" of Carbajal have sat on his side of the courtroom in varying numbers since the trial began on Jan. 14.