Ever feel like a documentary has the right setup but misses the punchline? That’s the feeling I walked away with after watching Investigation Discovery’s new documentary “What Happened at Fells Acres?”
It’s a harrowing tale of alleged child sexual abuse at a daycare in Malden, Massachusetts, in the 1980s. The problem? It barely scrapes the surface of what could’ve been a deep dive into a highly controversial chapter of American history.
The Fells Acres daycare sexual abuse trial involved Violet Amirault and her two adult kids—Gerald and Cheryl—who ran a daycare center. The trio was charged, convicted, and sentenced for allegedly sexually abusing children in their care.
Violet and Cheryl managed to spring free on appeal before Violet died in ‘97. Gerald was released on parole in 2004. Their staunch denial of the accusations and criticism around the interviewing techniques used on the supposed victims lend an air of intrigue to the tale.
Now, I’m a child of the 90s and have a fair handle on the satanic panic that made headlines back in the day. So I immediately doubted that Gerald had ever molested anyone.
One of the few upsides of the documentary was the interviews with the accused family. Their recounting of the trials and tribulations offered a compelling firsthand perspective. Unfortunately, the positives pretty much ended there.
For a documentary about such a complex issue, it was shockingly short. At no point did it delve into the widespread problem of daycare abuse accusations of that time, or provide enough context to the uninitiated. It felt like a skim-read of a hundred-page report. We needed a deep dive, but we got a paddling in the kiddie pool.
The devil, as they say, is in the details—and this documentary missed a lot of them. The gritty specifics of the alleged crimes were conspicuously absent. If you’re going to tell a story about alleged sexual abuse, give us the full picture, not just a thumbnail.
Then there’s the handling of the social worker’s interview techniques. These were heavily criticized at the time, but the documentary hardly touched on them. We were told they were coercive but barely saw them in action.
While interviewing the accused family provided an interesting perspective, the absence of interviews with the supposedly abused kids (now adults) was a glaring omission. Their voices and experiences, which could have offered a more balanced view, were missing from the narrative.
The thing is, this story is a messy, layered mess. You can’t just shoehorn it into a short documentary and expect it to cover everything that matters. This is a big, ugly can of worms that needs room to breathe. We needed a series!
Think about it: one episode to talk about the crazy stuff going on in the 80s, another one about this mass freak-out over daycare sex abuse, then a deep dive into what actually happened, an episode on the sketchy ways they interviewed kids, and last but not least, the personal tales of those accused and the kids involved.
You need a whole TV season to truly get into the nitty-gritty of a story like Fells Acres. The short documentary we got just didn’t cut it. It left out way too much important stuff.
In the end, “What Happened at Fells Acres?” felt like a missed opportunity. So, my advice? Keep scrolling on that streaming service. There’s probably a more satisfying watch a few clicks away.