Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Margaret Kelly Michaels

Other New Jersey Exonerations
On October 8, 1984, 22-year-old Margaret Kelly Michaels, an aspiring actress, started work as a teacher’s aide at the Wee Care Day Nursery, a facility that occupied several rooms in a church in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Less than a year later, on June 6, 1985, she was indicted on charges of performing sex acts on and with children, as well as inserting knives and forks into their bodies and forcing them to eat human feces and to defecate on her.

The prosecution was one of several cases of child sexual abuse hysteria that swept the nation in the 1980s and 1990s in which coercive and suggestive interviewing techniques by social workers, therapists, and law enforcement induced children by the score to say they were sexually abused in fantastical circumstances and to testify to bizarre and impossible behavior.

Michaels was no longer working at the nursery when the first allegation was made in April 1985. On April 30, 1985, a Wee Care student visited his pediatrician. While the nurse was taking his temperature rectally, the child commented that his teacher did the same thing to him. When the nurse asked the child what teacher, he responded "Kelly" – the name the children knew Michaels by.

The child, who was six-and-a-half years old at trial, had started Wee Care when he was almost four. He remembered that Joan was his teacher but that he had Kelly, not Joan, at nap time. He said that he hated nap time because Kelly had once taken his temperature and he did not want her to. She had put "gasoline" [Vaseline] on the thermometer first. Kelly put the thermometer in his "bum," and she said nothing when he told her not to do it. He said that she also took the temperatures of two other children, and he saw her pull their pants down.

Although ultimately, neither of those two children indicated that their temperatures were taken at school, and although the pediatrician found no evidence of abuse of the boy, the boy’s statement ignited an investigation.

On the recommendation of a Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) investigator, the interviewing of children was expanded and intensified to include virtually all of the children Michaels could have had contact with.

As the interviews progressed, the allegations of abuse became more egregious.

The accounts of sexual abuse obtained through the interviews ranged from relatively minor accounts of touching to virtually incomprehensible heinous and bizarre acts. A common act alleged by both boy and girl students was that Michaels inserted knives, forks, and spoons into their "butts," penises, or vaginas. One girl stated that Michaels inserted a light bulb in her vagina, and a boy claimed Legos were inserted in his "tushie." The children told of games where both they and Michaels took off their clothes and, according to varying accounts, laid on each other, licked each other and Michaels, including applying and licking off peanut butter and/or jelly, had "intercourse" with Michaels while she apparently was having her menstrual period, defecated on the floor, ate "pee and poop," and performed oral sex on her.

The children said Michaels committed oral sex on some of the boys. She was said to have played "Jingle Bells" on the piano during many of those games. The acts were said to have taken place in the music or choir room, the gym, lunch room, nap room, and bathroom. Michaels was said to have "pooped and peed" on or in a piano bench, on the floor, on the lunch table, and made a cake out of execrement that the children had to taste.

She was also said to have taken off her clothes in the lunch room in the presence of both children and adults.

Several of the children claimed to have told their parents of Michael's activities while they were happening, and some children claimed that Wee Care personnel were present or had been told of the occurrences. No adults corroborated the children's contemporaneous complaints. Many of the children asserted that Kelly threatened to harm their parents if they told of the activities.

Michaels went on trial in 1987 in Essex County Superior Court. Over a 10-month period, a jury heard children testify that she engaged in oral sex with them and forced nude children to pile on top of her while she was naked, or pile on top of each other while she played the piano. Some children testified that Michaels urinated in a bucket in front of them and then drank it.

Of the nineteen children who testified at trial, only five had actually been assigned to Michaels's class. The facts surrounding the alleged sexual abuse came from two sources: the children testified in the judge's chambers via closed circuit television, and the children's parents and grandparents testified regarding what the children had told them after Michaels left Wee Care. Much of the parental testimony was devoted to the behavioral changes that they had observed in their children.

The prosecution relied upon Eileen Treacy, who testified as an expert in child psychology and child-sexual-abuse treatment. Although Treacy had neither a doctorate degree nor licenses to practice psychology in New York or New Jersey, she had a Master’s degree in psychology. She also had done extensive post-graduate work and had clinical experience with child-sexual-abuse victims.

Treacy had not come into the case until October 1986, which meant the parents were being asked to reconstruct events a substantial time after they had actually observed them. She had given the parents a checklist of behavioral changes to consider as they recalled their children's actions at the time of the alleged abuse.

Using that model, Treacy testified that there were five phases of behaviors seen in children who had been sexually abused: (1) the engagement phase, usually an affectionate, but non-sexual phase, where the offender gained access or seized an opportunity to get the child involved in a relationship; (2) the sexual interaction phase, wherein sexual activity began; (3) the secrecy phase, wherein the perpetrator sought to keep the child quiet by means of bribes, tricks, rewards, or threats; (4) the disclosure phase, which caused a crisis for the child and the child's family; and (5) the suppression phase, wherein the child developed coping mechanisms to deal with the abuse, such as denial, avoidance, minimization, rationalization, rescue fantasy, or disassociation.

Treacy explained that 32 behavioral indicators were potentially associated with what she called Child Sex Accommodation Syndrome (CSAS). She said that an abused child would be expected to exhibit a clustering of between five and 15 behavioral indicators or symptoms. The number and type of symptoms that a given child exhibited would depend on the child's prior coping mechanisms and the support systems in the child's life, Treacy said.

Treacy described some of the symptoms or behavioral indicators of child sexual abuse, including eating disorders, sleep problems, regression, sexual symptomatology, and development of fears.

Treacy conceded that some of the behavioral symptoms could be caused by factors other than sexual abuse which might be operating in the child's life such as marital discord, death in the family, illness, and the like. Treacy called those factors "confounding variables." She also acknowledged that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, third edition (DSM3), a reference book used by mental health professionals, did not recognize the child-sexual-abuse syndrome.

Treacy testified that a finding that CSAS existed in a child was based on four elements: (1) the child's statement that he or she was abused as well as the child's accompanying affect or demeanor; (2) the presence of at least four of the five phases described in the "theoretical model;" (3) the clustering of five to fifteen of the behavioral indicators; and (4) an analysis of the confounding variables and their impact on both the extent of the child's prior sexual knowledge as well as other stress factors in the child's life, which could account for some of the symptomatology.

Treacy admitted on cross-examination that nearly all of the items on her checklist of behavioral indicators were common to all types of traumatic stress. She said, however, that what was crucial was the clustering of those symptoms, accompanied by the child's report, and other stress factors. Treacy testified she would not focus solely on the behavioral symptoms to reach a conclusion about a specific child.

During six days on the witness stand, Treacy testified about whether the testimony and conduct of the children were consistent with child sexual abuse based on her analysis of the pretrial interviews of the children, the trial testimony of each child, the behavior attributed to the child by the relatives, and the affect and demeanor of the children. She gave an affirmative conclusion with respect to all of the children except one. She said she was unable to reach a firm conclusion as to that child because of other variables in the child's life. Even in that case, she said the child's behavior was consistent with the child's statement of abuse.

Treacy testified that the behavior which the children exhibited during the alleged period of abuse and after disclosure was "consistent with" that of a child who had been sexually abused. Despite the defense's objection that the "consistent with" testimony was really vouching for the credibility of the alleged victims, the trial judge admitted the testimony in the belief that any purported shortcomings in the validity of the testimony could be presented to the jury through cross-examination of the expert.

Defense attorneys contended that Michaels was the victim of a “witch hunt” and that the children’s account of being abused, including being probed with a rectal thermometer, kitchen utensils, and plastic blocks were fantasies generated by improper questioning. The defense had sought to bar Treacy from testifying about the CSAC theory because it was based on a “theoretical model” that Treacy had adopted from the work of Dr. Suzanne Sgroi, but the trial judge rejected a motion to prevent Treacy from testifying.

To respond to Treacy’s testimony, the defense called Dr. Jonas Rappeport and Dr. Ralph Underwager. Dr. Rappeport, who was board certified in psychiatry, testified that Treacy's checklist of behavioral indicators, which supposedly indicated a child was suffering from some type of stress reaction, was misleading. He said it was not appropriate for a professional to conclude that a child was sexually abused based upon observations of the five phases in the alleged victim. In his opinion, Dr. Sgroi's model was not intended for diagnostic purposes, and he said it would not be appropriate for a professional to conclude that a child was sexually abused based upon observations of the five phases in the alleged victim.

Dr. Underwager, who had a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and estimated that he had treated over 500 child-sexual-abuse victims, told the jury that none of Treacy's 32 behavioral indicators could be attributed exclusively to the sexual abuse of a child. Dr. Underwager testified that Dr. Sgroi's model was but one of many which related to the child-sexual-abuse syndrome. He testified that at the time of trial, none of those models had been tested and none was generally accepted within the scientific community. Dr. Underwager criticized Treacy's thirty-two item checklist as having no source other than herself and thus had no validity or reliability.

In rebuttal, the prosecution recalled Treacy. She claimed that her checklist was approved by the National Institute of Mental Health to be used in conjunction with a clinical interview.

On April 15, 1988, after 13 days of deliberation by the jury, Michaels was convicted of 115 of 163 counts of sexual abuse of 19 children between the ages of three and five.

On August 2, 1988, Michaels was sentenced to 47 years in prison and fined $2,875.

The New Jersey Superior Appellate Court overturned the conviction on March 26, 1993, ruling that it was tainted by unreliable and inadmissible testimony from Treacy. The court said that the Treacy “was permitted to lead the jury to believe that the [interviewing] process was rooted in science and thus was a reliable means of determining sex abuse.”

The court said, “Clearly, her purpose in testifying was to tell the jury that the laundry lists of ‘abnormal’ behaviors testified to by the children's parents or caregivers was ‘consistent with’ the behavioral patterns of sexually abused children. Treacy's use of her confounding variables to filter out any other cause for the children's behavioral symptoms was intended to support the conclusion…the children were sexually abused.”

“Contrary to the belief of the trial judge, no amount of cross-examination could have undone the harm caused by Treacy’s purported validations,” the court declared. “[Michaels’s] convictions were obtained by the use of expert testimony which should have been excluded. The impact of the error was so overwhelming as to require reversal.”

Michaels was freed on bond on March 30, 1993, and on June 23, 1994, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the reversal. The court said, “We find that the interrogations that occurred in this case were improper and there is substantial likelihood that the evidence derived from them is unreliable.”

On December 2, 1994, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the charges.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 6/11/2023
State:New Jersey
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1985
Sentence:47 years
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No