Tonya Craft said she always wanted to be able to stay at home and write. She just wishes it hadn’t happened this way.
Found not guilty on 22 counts of child molestation, the former Chickamauga Elementary School kindergarten teacher is writing at least one book and stepping out into the speaking circuit to tell her story of being accused of sexually molesting three young girls, including her daughter.
The case began with her arrest in June 2008 and concluded with a jury finding her not guilty almost two years later.
Craft spoke to three criminal justice and psychology classes as well as several individuals at Dalton State College Wednesday night in what she said was her first such formal speaking engagement since the trial in Catoosa County Superior Court ended. She’s also working with jury members to form a nonprofit organization to ensure interviewers who work with children in criminal cases are well trained.
“What I really want to do is help educate and make a difference,” Craft said. “This is a case of what not to do.”
Craft said the molestation charges came as the result of persistent leading questions from several parents, law enforcement officials and a therapist who herself had mental illness problems. While no adults witnessed the incident, Craft said she believes the allegations started after one of the children got in trouble with her parents for playing a “boyfriend/girlfriend” game with the other two girls in the case.
“You had some children who were kind of caught pointing at each other,” she said.
Craft said she sees the children as victims and wants to help them and others like them. Yet she also believes someone should have picked up on the inconsistency of the testimony they gave and looked more closely in the beginning at the methods used to question them.
None said she had molested them until other adults suggested she had, Craft said. She said at least one child was asked more than a dozen times by an interviewer, “Is there anything else?” after she explained what happened.
Also telling was the children’s emotions when they testified in court, she said. Craft said she has friends who have been victims of molestation, and the experience is emotionally difficult to bring up, but the girls’ emotions didn’t match their words.
Then there was the fact that the girls’ stories didn’t add up, Craft said.
At least one girl said Craft was outside with her daughter when the alleged molestation took place while at least one other girl reported Craft was with her, she said.
Professor Dee M. Langford said she contacted Craft this summer to see if she would speak to her students and share her firsthand experience of how such an injustice can occur.
Iman Mohamed, a junior criminal justice major, said she’s studied cases similar to Craft’s in which someone was falsely accused.
“I knew kids could be manipulated easily,” she said. “I’ve always thought the (justice) system was cracked. There are millions of loopholes.”
Craft said she is neither bitter nor full of hate, but the havoc the accusations wreaked on her life left a lasting pain. She did not see her son for six months or get to speak with her daughter for two years. She lost her house and her job. The doctorate degree she had planned to pursue was put on hold, and she said she is $250,000 in debt.
Still, the ordeal has in many ways drawn her family closer, she added. Moments spent with her children are especially treasured, and her 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son are “doing phenomenally,” she said.
“They are not in therapy, and they’re doing well,” Craft said.