Globe and Mail

Vilma Climaco was a popular nanny until a vengeful ex-boyfriend accused her of the ultimate offence: sexually abusing her young charges. She lost her job, her home and her own son. Two years later, she has cleared her name but fears she may never see her boy again

MARGARET WENTE
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, January 20, 2001

Vilma Climaco has much in common with many Filipina nannies in my pleasant Toronto neighbourhood. Ten years ago, she left her homeland and family to help raise other people's children in Canada.

She came here when she was 28 and is a Canadian citizen now. The families who employed her remember her with great affection. Like other nannies, she has always looked forward to the time when she could raise a family of her own.

This is the story of how her dream turned into a nightmare.

Vilma Climaco got caught up in the greatest social panic of our time, one that has ruined the lives of many innocent people. She was accused of despicable sex crimes against young children in her care.

The accusations were ludicrous, and the evidence against her was flimsy and tainted. But Ms. Climaco spent nearly two years in the justice system before her name was cleared last week. She went to trial twice. And along the way, she lost the most precious thing to her on Earth -- her own son. She may never get him back.

I met Ms. Climaco a few days ago. With her were her lawyer, Cindy Wasser, and a friend named Pet Cleto from the Migrante Women's Collective, a group that helps Filipina women in trouble. In her soft, accented English, Ms. Climaco related what happened to her.

In the spring of 1998, she got a job through the nanny network with a middle-class Toronto family. Their twin boys had just turned 4. They hired Ms. Climaco because everyone said she was wonderful with kids.

Nanny and family bonded quickly. Every day, Ms. Climaco took the kids to the park and the pool. She took along her own son, Jonathan, too. He was 2. She found a triple stroller at a garage sale and paid for it herself. In the afternoons, the kids would play together in the back yard until the twins' father came home from work. Ms. Climaco and her son lived in a small apartment nearby.

The kids thrived. The parents testified later that, at first, they could not have been more satisfied with their new nanny.

Vilma Climaco had one big trouble in her life: Jonathan's father. His name is Joseph Kiss, and he is married, with a family of his own. Jonathan was the product of an affair. Ms. Climaco had decided to break off her relationship with Mr. Kiss, and he was giving her a very hard time. He threatened to fight her for their son.

One day, the nanny poured out her heart to her employer, who reacted with concern and sympathy. "They were very nice to me," Ms. Climaco says. "I thought I could trust them."

At first, they stood up for her. The twins' father even threw a punch at Mr. Kiss one day. Shortly after that, Mr. Kiss told them to watch out, because Ms. Climaco was hitting their children. He had seen it himself, he said. He told them they ought to videotape her.

That is how it all began: a vengeful father, a bitter breakup. In an unrelated court proceeding later on, a judge scathingly pointed out that under the circumstances, Joseph Kiss was perhaps not the most reliable guide to Ms. Climaco's character.

But by then it was too late. The snowball was rolling.

Her employers liked Ms. Climaco, but they decided to take no chances. They remembered the time one twin had a black eye. He said he got it from playing with a toy train, but who really knew? In midsummer, they let her go.

Ms. Climaco found other work, but Mr. Kiss kept phoning the family almost every day with accusations: Ms. Climaco had hit their kids; she was a lesbian.

Their anxiety grew, and they began to pepper the twins with questions. What bad things did the nanny do to them? They even phoned Children's Aid. A social worker interviewed the twins, but they said nothing that would justify further action.

Still, the parents were distressed; the twins were acting up with lots of talk about their genitalia.

And then, one day near Christmas, it happened. The family was on a car trip and the twins were acting up again. They stopped for lunch and their mother remarked on how well they were eating, and one twin said, "Vilma never fed us. She made us lick her pee-pee for food."

Bingo.

Horrified, the parents pressed for details. One twin (they can't remember which one) said Vilma's pee-pee was brown and smelled yucky and was wet on their faces when they licked it and it made them throw up.

The parents stepped up the questioning and three weeks later they phoned the police.

In child sex-abuse allegations, the police are sometimes inclined to be overly vigilant. It's safer to lay the charge and let the courts sort it out. The Crown, too, has very little discretion over whether to prosecute.

And there are generally social workers and child-abuse experts on hand, some of whom are quick to believe every suspicion and every piece of evidence, however slight. Too often, their credo is: Believe the children -- even if it's very hard to make out what the children might be saying.

The police interviewed each twin twice on videotape. One said he had been made to suck a suitcase. He mentioned a green hose. The other twin didn't say anything suspicious at all.

On Feb. 4, 1999, the police arrested Ms. Climaco at the computer school where she was taking classes. She was charged with four counts of sexual assault and sexual touching.

Mr. Kiss told Ms. Climaco's landlord about the arrest and got her evicted. Children's Aid took her son away and put him into foster care. A few months later, he was released in the custody of Mr. Kiss, with whom he has remained ever since.

Then Mr. Kiss and his family moved to California and took Jonathan with them. The last time Vilma Climaco saw her son was in July, 1999.

"The most important part of my life is my son," she says.

Meantime, the twins began to receive special counselling at the local child-abuse centre, where they were repeatedly asked about secret touching and encouraged to draw pictures expressing their hurt and anger.

Ms. Climaco got in touch with Migrante, the immigrant women's aid group. "I had to have company," she says. "I had to be strong."

Unemployable in child care, she continued classes and lived on a student loan. "I kept going to school, but I could not think properly," she says.

There were no witnesses, and the kids' tapes were shaky. But there was an expert -- Dr. Louise Sas, a child psychologist who has testified for the prosecution in numerous abuse cases. Dr. Sas found the evidence against Ms. Climaco quite damning.

In a report prepared for the Crown, she had this to say about the incident in the restaurant:

"The way in which the first disclosure came about initially is of significance. It is what can best be described as an unsolicited accidental delayed disclosure, triggered by a conversation which brought to mind the specific incidents of sexual abuse.

"In this case, the discussion of food and appetite by their mother at a restaurant brought on the disclosure of oral sex with the babysitter, whom the boys reported had withheld food from them. According to the evidence, the boys had already been describing sexual acts in the car which they would do to each other, and the tone of the conversation in the car was overtly sexualized.

"This in and of itself is highly irregular, and this type of discussion suggests that they had been eroticized and introduced to that type of behaviour."

The inconsistencies, the nonsense language, the many months that had passed since Ms. Climaco had left before the kids spoke out -- to Dr. Sas, it all fit together.

"The disclosures were delayed, which is consistent with the abuser being known to the child. . . . There may well have been intimidation as well (the eye injury) and a grooming process (such as using the term 'toy' for vibrator or 'sandbox' for vaginal area, or involving a hose as part of a sexual game) which made it difficult for the children to explain what happened."

Tim Moore, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, is also an expert on children's testimony. He was scheduled to appear for the defence. I asked him about the complications of children's testimony, especially children so young.

"Children are inclined to be co-operative and compliant," he says. "The problem is that with the right ingredients of social pressure, suggestiveness, repetition and unintentional reinforcement, children may say what they think is expected of them."

I asked if frequent talk about genitalia is abnormal for four-year-olds.

"There's a natural fascination with body functions at that age," he says. "Scatalogical terminology is hysterically funny. Kids can amuse themselves endlessly with body-part references."

Cindy Wasser, Ms. Climaco's lawyer, says: "Dr. Sas can interpret every fact and every behaviour as evidence of abuse."

But the most astonishing part of the case had yet to come to light.

In fact, the twins had been enticed into inappropriate sex play -- not by their nanny, but by an older boy who lived nearby. There was even a witness -- the twins' own father. He just hadn't bothered to mention it.

The older boy was 12. He is developmentally delayed, functioning like a six-year-old. Sometime in the spring of 1998, the twins' father found him in the basement with the four-year-olds. He was on his hands and knees and the twins had their pants down.

The twins' father asked what he was doing. The boy said, "I'm kissing their penises. I know it's wrong, but I like it."

The twins' father eventually chose to mention this incident to his sons' counsellor at the abuse centre. Children's Aid was summoned once again, and the 12-year-old and his family were interviewed.

The older boy's mother said she wasn't surprised, because he had been caught interfering with other little kids.

But the boy denied the basement scene. He got counselling, and the case was closed.

The twins' parents never discussed the incident with their sons. The police never interviewed the four-year-olds about it either. Nor did Louise Sas ever mention it. Did anyone ever wonder whether the twins' behavioural problems were connected to the neighbour instead of the nanny? Evidently not.

Ms. Climaco's first trial began in September, but it didn't last long. In the middle, the twins' father got a call one night from the father of the older boy. The 12-year-old had told his parents that he himself saw Ms. Climaco abuse the twins. Not only that, the boy said Ms. Climaco had abused him as well. He didn't know her name. He described her as having blond hair and blue eyes.

At last, a witness. The Crown decided to put him on the stand.

Even someone not schooled in the law might wonder if this was wise. The boy had a history of inappropriate sexual contact. His own parents thought the basement story was probably true and had been grilling him about it when Ms. Climaco's trial hit the media. In other words, he had a strong incentive to lie.

But before the wisdom of the Crown could be tested, Ms. Climaco's lawyer asked for a mistrial because of the surprise witness. The judge agreed, and a new trial was scheduled to start all over again in January.

Meantime, the new witness was interviewed three times on videotape. His stories were contradictory, and in the third interview he declared that he had been lying all along.

Once again, the Crown called on Dr. Sas to give her expert opinion of the tapes. Her verdict? All the testimony again pointed to Ms. Climaco's guilt.

"There are strong indices of reliability in his allegations about sexual victimization," she wrote. "His retractions and then reaffirmation of the veracity of the information he was providing was a clear example of his difficulty sharing the information."

In other words, all the boy's contradictions, as well as his assertion that he had been lying, were really signs that he had been telling the truth.

On Jan. 2, Ms. Climaco's second trial began before Mr. Justice Paul Rivard. It, too, was very short. Before a jury could be summoned, the judge assessed the evidence and the circumstances surrounding the case. He viewed the tapes and decided they were completely unreliable. So he threw the case out.

Vilma Climaco was free to go.

You could say the justice system worked. After all, a judge was wise and an innocent person did not go to jail. Ms. Climaco's defence was excellent and was funded by legal aid. Still, the price she paid is almost unbearably high.

"She's been completely vindicated," Ms. Wasser says. "But it's a bittersweet win."

Today, the former nanny works part-time in a Wal-Mart. She is $17,000 in debt for student loans. She can see her son Jonathan now, but he is in California, and she is broke.

She can't get legal aid there, and she might have to fight Mr. Kiss to give her access. To get her son back, she will have to mount an expensive legal battle. The courts will be reluctant to give her custody because Jonathan, who turns 5 this April, has lived with his father for so long now. Ms. Climaco's toughest fight lies ahead.

The interview is over and I've closed my notebook. We're all packing up to leave when Ms. Climaco turns to Ms. Wasser and says, "Can you get my son back?"

The lawyer wraps an arm around her shoulder. "We'll try, Vilma. We'll try."

Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.