Names of all children and their families have been changed.
In the trial of Grant Snowden, a doctor from the rape treatment center
testified that two children in the Snowdens' care had contracted sexually
transmitted venereal diseases. The testimony was powerful not only because of
its shocking nature, but also because of the certainty with which the doctor
But it now appears that the medical findings themselves, and their proof of
sexual abuse, is a good deal less than certain. This important distinction
raises questions about how medical evidence was handled in molestation cases -
particularly in courtrooms - during the 1980s, where findings that may have
been acceptable for therapeutic purposes were relied upon as legal evidence.
In child sexual abuse investigations, suspected victims routinely undergo
physical examination. Often, overt signs of traumatic abuse may not be present
though doctors may conduct testing for sexually transmitted diseases. In the
Snowden case, one such doctor was Dorothy Hicks, director of the Rape Treatment
Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.
Dr. Hicks examined 5 year-old Leslie Blandes, the central witness in the case,
and testified at trial that Leslie had a sexually transmitted condition known
as Gardnerella vaginitis, an imbalance of vaginal bacteria. Dr. Hicks
diagnosed the condition by identifying "clue cells" under a microscope, did no
further confirmatory testing and then discarded the evidence slide.
Medical research now suggests that Gardnerella vaginitis (also known as
bacterial vaginosis) may not be a sexually transmitted disease. Research
indicates that Gardnerella occurs in women that have not been sexually active
and that some women have "clue cells" as a normal condition.
Dr. Hicks also testified that one of Snowden's alleged victims, a four-year old
boy, had gonorrhea of the throat. Prosecutors argued that the doctor's
gonorrhea finding proved further evidence of Snowden's guilt. But during the
mid-1980s, at the time of the Snowden trial, researchers at the Centers for
Disease Control had become quite concerned about the potential for
misidentification of venereal diseases, particularly gonorrhea, in sex abuse
Will Whittington, a researcher at the CDC, says there was growing alarm that
investigations were being initiated based on incomplete science. "What was
shocking was the fact that there wasn't an intellectual filter that had people
question the results." explains Whittington. Yet several research studies were
indeed raising questions.
In a suspected sexual abuse case involving an 8 year-old boy, four laboratories
had identified positive findings of gonorrhea. Yet under further testing,
researchers found that the organism identified was, in fact, not gonorrhea but
rather one that is closely related to and can be virtually indistinguishable
Whittington's research showed that in 40 cases where gonorrhea had been
identified, 14 of the cases had been misidentified. The results prompted the
CDC to issue recommendations that gonorrhea testing for children, particularly
with throat cultures, undergo two separate confirmatory tests. "This wasn't
the standard of care in 1985," says Whittington, "though it should have
"Proctitis Associated with Neisseria cinerea Misidentified as Neisseria
gonorrhoeae in a Child," Journal of Clinical Microbiology, Vol. 21, No.
4, pp.575-577, April 1985..
"Incorrect Identification of Neisseria gonorrhoeae from Infants and
Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, January, 1988.
"Identification of Problem Neisseria gonorrhoeae Cultures by Standard and
Experimental Tests," Journal of Clinical Microbiology, Vol. 15, No 3,
pp 435-438, March 1982.