A nationally recognized University professor and sexual abuse expert faced the first day of trial yesterday on charges that she and her staff emotionally abused a child during a 1992 interview.
The lawyers for defendant Kathleen Coulborn Faller, who heads the University's Family Assessment Clinic, faced Judge Donald Shelton in a Washtenaw County courtroom yesterday.
The University has spent more than $600,000 for the Ann Arbor law firm Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone to defend Faller in the case. The firm asked Shelton several times to dismiss the case, claiming immunity because Faller and the staff members are state employees. Shelton rejected the pleas on Thursday.
Larry Champney, an Engineering alumnus, is suing Faller and the University, claiming that his 8-year-old daughter was emotionally abused by one of the clinic's employees when she was 3 years old. The employee allegedly tried to get the young girl to "say something bad about her father." Faller, who supervised the interview, wrote a final report on the interview, stating that Champney may have sexually abused his daughter.
Champney denied the allegations and claimed that his former wife should not have been able to assist in the interview because she was a biased participant. During the videotaped interview, Champney's former wife asked her daughter questions about what Champney did to her.
Lisa Baker, associate vice president for University relations, said that Faller has the University's complete support.
"We stand behind the actions of professor Faller and her colleagues who were performing in an evaluative capacity," Baker said.
"This is consistent with the University's mission of teaching, researching and service. It is important that the people of the state of Michigan have access to our expertise, and in the instance we were providing impartial and objective evaluation, which is a public service."
Faller's attorney would not comment about the specifics of the case.
Attorneys on both sides have said that the rollercoaster ride of divorce papers, allegations of sexual abuse, custody battles and court hearings has taken a toll on the little girl. Champney has had custody of his daughter since 1995.
Demosthenes Lorandos, Champney's attorney, said this case is not the only one filed against Faller. Lorandos is using the complaints of the Bielaska family, who allege that Faller falsely accused Edward Bielaska of sexual abuse, as part of the argument for his case against Faller.
"The Bielaska case is another case in where Judge Edward Bielaska is suing Faller for what she has done to him and his family by creating memories in the minds of little girls," Lorandos said. "It has taken Bielaska years to repair relationships. This case is still in progress."
According to documentation in the state's Court of Appeals, Thomas Kavanagh, former Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and two other judges spent an entire year reviewing the Bielaska case and watching six hours of videotaped interviews conducted by Faller and her staff.
Kavanagh and his colleagues concluded that "there were numerous inaccuracies and deficiencies in Faller's group work."
Elissa Benedek, a former president of the American Psychiatric Association, testified in 1990 before Kavanagh and his colleagues that Faller did not meet the standard for unbiased interviewing in sexual abuse cases after reviewing a videotaped interview of a child by Faller.
Benedek stated that Faller's interview was "replete with leading questions, and that Dr. Faller engaged in repeated questioning while giving the child rare opportunity to tell her story."
Benedek stated in a 1990 deposition for a different case that Faller is a biased investigator.
"Kathleen Faller began the interview with an agenda to prove sex abuse," Benedek stated.
"Faller was not satisfied with 'No,' and asked the same question repetitively. Faller is coercive, and puts words in the child's mouth. She suggests her own ideas, thoughts and feelings to the child repetitively."
The trial will resume today at 8 a.m. and is expected to run well into this month.
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