From Reader's Digest, April 1993, p.101:


When Parents Become Victims

By Trevor Armbrister


Of all the crimes that afflict society, none is more reviled than child abuse. With 2.7 million allegations of abuse reported in 1991, no one can deny the seriousness of the problem.

Yet the war against these heinous crimes should not lead to witch hunts that violate basic legal and civil rights and tear apart innocent families. In too many cases, parents are being falsely accused of child abuse on the basis of totally unsubstantiated claims by overzealous child-protective agencies.

Consider these cases.


In the Seattle suburb of Bothell, people were flabbergasted to hear that Bill and Kathy Swan had been charged with sexually abusing their three-year-old daughter. Bill, an electrical engineer, was a devout churchgoer who reveled in his role as a dad. Kathy, equally religious, was an accomplished musician and spoke 12 languages.

But the Swans' backgrounds didn't matter, prosecutors insisted. This case was proof that anyone could commit child abuse. And when the trial began before Superior Court Judge Anne Elllington in April 1986, it seemed the prosecutors were right.

Lisa Conradi, the day-care-center worker who triggered the investigation, testified that the Swan child and her best friend had come forward with horrifying tales of sexual molestation by the Swans. Cindi Bratvold, Conradi's boss, said much the same thing.

Jurors needed less than three hours to convict Bill and Kathy on two counts of statutory rape each. They were sentenced to serve 50 months in prison, while their daughter remained in the sole custody of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

During the trial, however, defense attorneys had been prevented from inquiring about Conradi's background. The prosecution had argued successfully that such information was irrelevant. One month after the verdict, however, Conradi confided in an interview with a free-lance writer that she had been abused for more than 20 years.

"Damn near everybody that came near" abused her, Conradi claimed. "I was used regularly, daily, by three or four hundred guys," she later said. "There are more perverts out there than normal people."

Conradi asserted that she "did drugs every day," that she hated men and that on at least 20 other occasions she had attempted to turn in sex offenders to authorities. "I went through our neighborhood, and every other house had abuse in it."

Others stepped forward to challenge Bratvold's testimony as well. But Judge Ellington appeared to give little weight to the challenges and dismissed Conradi's comments to the writer as "typical puffery to a reporter."

Moreover, although she had ruled in preliminary hearings that the Swan girl and her friend were incompetent to testify at the trial, Judge Ellington allowed statements the girls allegedly volunteered to Conradi and Bratvold statements corroborated neither by tape recordings nor contemporaneous notes into the records as evidence to convict the parents. Thus the jury never heard the two girls tell the story: they heard only Conradi's and Bratvold's version of it.

In August 1990, Bill and Kathy Swan entered separate penitentiaries. The DSHS had placed their daughter, then eight, in a foster home. Neither Kathy nor Bill had been allowed to see her since 1986.

To Bill's father, Episcopal minister William O. Swan, and stepmother, Marian, this punishment seemed incredibly unjust. They volunteered to take custody of their granddaughter, only to be told, according to Swan, not to bother. In a 1990 meeting, Reverend Swan recalls two DSHS employees implied he was guilty of child sexual assault himself, because "the acorn falls near the root of the tree." Swan says the caseworkers cited this "known certainty" as the reason his visits with his granddaughter had to be supervised.

But what infuriated the family most was that five years after the alleged assault on the little girl, no medical authority who was an expert on child sexual abuse had examined her.

In December 1990, the Swan child moved to the home of her great-aunt, Jane Swan. To gain custody, Jane had promised the DSHS she would never tell the girl her parents might be innocent. That would violate the "case plan" and work against everything the child had learned in therapy.

One month later, Jane decided her niece needed a complete physical, including a gynecological exam. The result: the girl's genitals were perfectly normal. The hymen, a protective membrane whose absence in a young girl usually indicates rape, was present and bore no evidence of scarring or damage.

As soon as they found out about the exam, caseworkers removed the child from Jane's custody and warned her, she says, that if she attempted to contact her niece, she would be subject to arrest. But Swan family attorney David Allen called the exam "important new evidence" and petitioned Washington's Court of Appeals to grant his clients a new trial.

In July 1991, Allen's petition was turned down. "The court's file in the above matter has been closed," it declared in a letter to Allen. The Swans are now out on work release, and their case will be back in the U.S. Court of Appeals this spring.

After watching a TV account of the Swan's ordeal, Charles Nesson, professor of evidence at Harvard Law School, decided it couldn't be true. The show's producers, he thought, must have presented the story unfairly by leaving out crucial evidence against the Swans.

Then Nesson looked into the proceedings and changed his mind. The Swan case, he wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, is "the most extreme example of the erosion of the confrontation clause of which I am aware."

In an interview, Nesson explained: "The Constitution says you have a right to confront your accusers, and that means the right to cross-examine them./ When a hearsay accusation is introduced, you don't get that right. Here two people were sent to prison, and their little girl taken away, on the basis of pure hearsay that was not only uncorroborated but contradicted by the evidence."


[more cases]

Links to other pages on the Swan case:
Burrell's Transcripts (for purchase) of the Swans on "60 Minutes", March 15, 1992

Burrell's Transcripts (for purchase) of the Swans on "60 Minutes II", October 19, 1999
CBS on 1999 followup by Morley Safer

The Skeptic's Refuge - Mass Media Funk

More from The Skeptic trauma-search therapy

Concerned Citizens for Legal Accountability, Wenatchee WA

Case linked by The Preble Law Firm

Link from Dubious Accusations and Convictions

Harvard Law School posting ( of Washington v. Swan, Wash. 2d 613, 790 P.2d 610 (Wash.1990), posted for Prof. Charles Nesson's classes on evidentiary law. " Problematic Cases..."

Let My Children Go! link to the case.

An attempt to tie the Swan case to Wicca

Legal Programs - Files (Zip file, owner unknown.)

The Swan case mentioned in Portuguese, Terapia de Busca do Trauma

Links to other cases

Many references to the print media here