the child terror
what meaning can we draw from these cases?
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FRONTLINE asked four national experts to respond to the following questions: What factors propelled daycare sex abuse cases into the national consciousness in the 1980s and early 1990s? In the wake of state and federal court reversals, what lessons have been learned about the prosecution of these types of cases and about the justice system itself? Do children make credible witnesses in child abuse cases?  Should their testimony be believed in a court of law? Has the debate affected the ability of child advocates and the courts to protect children and convict individuals who sexually abuse children?

Here are the responses of:

John Myers is Professor of Law at McGeorge Law School, specializing in the investigation and litigation of child abuse.

James M. Wood, Ph.D., does research on interviewing and decision making in child abuse cases. He is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Debbie Nathan is the author of Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witchhunt


What factors propelled daycare sex abuse cases into the national consciousness in the 1980s and early 1990s?

John Myers:
Child sexual abuse (CSA) was never completely ignored by the American legal, medical, and child protection systems. Nevertheless, until the late 1970s and early 1980s, CSA was largely a hidden phenomenon. At the time the day-care cases arose, society was just beginning to acknowledge and come to terms with sexual abuse of children. Thus, the day care cases did not come to the surface all by themselves. Rather, the day care cases were part of the broader societal awakening to CSA. The day care cases captured our attention for several reasons. First, the children were very young and vulnerable. Second, some of the allegations were bizarre and fantastic. Third, some of the alleged offenses were unspeakably horrible. Fourth, with so many American children in day care, many parents could relate to these cases. Finally, the interviewing in some of the large day care cases was clearly defective. On one level, the day care cases appeal to our morbid curiosity about crime.

Debbie Nathan:
It is probably no coincidence that the decade from the early 1980s to 1990s was marked by national hysteria about bizarre sexual abuse, particularly in daycare. Anthropologists and folklorists note that throughout history and world culture, groups who are enduring rapid social change often focus their anxieties on myths about innocent children being brutalized by hidden and hideous enemies.

Such fear can erupt with particular virulence when the change involves gender roles and sexual mores. In the United States just before the daycare cases surfaced, radical transformations in the identities of women and children were taking place, even as the Reagan/Bush era was ushering in a backlash against these changes. The labor market was absorbing a deluge of new job holders: middle-class mothers of small children. Often they went to work willingly, because they wanted out of the house and into the public world. But often they felt forced to work, because by the 1980s it had become harder and harder for families to get by on only a male breadwinner's income. So, willingly and unwillingly, women got jobs, and by the early 1980s, the percentage of working mothers with preschoolers passed the 50 percent mark. During these years, an increasing number of parents used professional baby-sitters and day care centers, instead of family members, to care for their kids. In 1982 only one family in six were using these new services. By 1985 one in four were.

These difficult transitions were made harder by news reports about very rare instances of physical abuse in day care. The stories amplified parents' anxieties about child care not providing their sons and daughters enough loving attention. These were real fears, because daycare centers are often short staffed, particularly when it comes to employees trained in child development. But though many working mothers and fathers can't afford quality facilities to this day, the government and employers have shown a devil-may-care attitude toward the problem. So parents in the 1980s were out on a limb. Their anxieties increased as conservative politicians and psychologists laid a guilt trip on women, by broadcasting unfounded but frightening claims that daycare was bad for children's intellectual and emotional development.

Amid these dire warnings, the FBI and other national and local law enforcement agencies began spreading apocryphal tales about vast "kiddie porn" conspiracies and epidemics of stranger-danger child kidnappings. At the same time, a rash of mentally ill women in hypnotherapy began telling stories of having been abducted and tortured as children by Satanic cults. The women's therapists did not understand that hypnotically-induced "memories" are often fantasies. Some of these therapists were also influential workers and theoreticians in the child protection field. Many believed the rumors and fantasies about devil-worshipping child molester conspiracies. Unfortunately, it appears that new and untested interviewing methods these professionals used, on both adults in therapy and on children in sex abuse investigations, elicited horrific accusations with no basis in fact.

These phantasmagoric stories should have been recognized for the myths that they were. Instead, myth was taken literally, particularly by people who truly thought they were rescuing women and children from eons of real abuse in our culture. This tragic mix of good intentions and wild hysteria has its legacy in the countless men and women still imprisoned today because of false child abuse charges.

James Wood:
Sexual abuse first became a national issue during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Due largely to the women's movement, Americans gradually came to recognize that sexual abuse of children was much more common than previously realized. Political support grew for child protection initiatives. Reports to child protection agencies rose, and government funding increased to support such efforts.

Although the movement to protect children from sexual abuse was a highly positive development, there were some negative factors. Most importantly, some leaders of the movement seemed to ignore existing professional and scientific knowledge in the fields of child psychology and psychiatry. Leaders of the child protection movement often seemed attracted to dubious or "kooky" ideas, including beliefs that most sexually abused children recant, children never lie about abuse, anatomically correct dolls help very young children report abuse, interviewers should use praise, rewards or social pressure to encourage children to disclose abuse, and that organized, multi-generational "ritual abuse" is a reality.

Some professionals and behavioral scientists of the 1980s were dubious about such ideas and urged caution. However, the warning voices were often ignored, or even labeled as "anti-child," by some leaders of the child protection movement.


In the wake of state and federal court reversals, what lessons have been learned about the prosecution of these types of cases and about the justice system itself?

John Myers:
One needs to remember that large multiple-victim multiple-perpetrator day care cases are the rare exception and not the rule. In the vast majority of CSA cases, there is one victim and one alleged perpetrator. These cases are brought to trial, and most trials end in conviction. On appeal, most convictions are affirmed by state and federal appellate courts. This has been the case for CSA throughout the 20th Century, just as it has been for all other crimes. When you look at statistics on the way most CSA cases are handled in the courts, you won't find much that differentiates these cases from prosecutions for other crimes.

As for lessons learned, there is no doubt that cases like McMartin in southern California and the Margaret Kelly Michaels case in New Jersey had and continue to have a profound impact on the way children are interviewed. At the time McMartin and Michaels began, there was very little awareness of the special issues that arise in questioning children about abuse. As the day care cases fell apart, professionals in the field of child protection realized the pressing need for much improved training for the cops and social workers who interview kids. Although much work remains to be done, I believe we should be proud of the significant progress that has been made in the past decade to improving interviewing. The "silver lining" of the day care cases is improved interviewing.

In my judgment, then, the day care cases had their greatest impact on the way cases are investigated, particularly on how kids are interviewed. For the cases that get to court, the impact of the day care cases has been minimal. Although significant strides were taken during the 1990s to accommodate young witnesses in court, the day care cases played only a marginal role in this process.

Debbie Nathan:
New research on medical evidence and child interviewing that appellate attorneys are bringing to court amply shows that it is quite possible for untrained or overzealous investigators to tease false allegations from children, and false confessions from accused adults. In the 1980s and early 1990s it was also possible for these investigators to go to the courts and the media, where they rationalized the most illogical and illusory claims with the gloss of their "expertise."

In a daycare ritual abuse case tried in Austin, Texas, in the early 1990s, the court qualified an expert psychologist to tell the jury they should believe in Satanic child abuse conspiracies because Tituba, the Caribbean slave who started the Salem witch trials with her fortune telling, was a "ritual" child abuser. In San Diego, a nationally prominent psychiatrist testified that small children's rough play with toys was evidence of ritual abuse, because children today who sing "Ring Around the Rosie" are reenacting traumatic memories of the Black Plague of the Middle Ages. In countless other cases, "experts" with leadership positions in organizations such as the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) have claimed that when children seem happy and say that "nothing happened," their cheerfulness and denials are proof that molesters wiped out the kids' memory of abuse.

If there is anything the justice system can learn from this illogic, it is that even as society investigates novel ways of dealing with old problems, we must maintain a deep regard for what the public calls "common sense," and what courts have always called findings of fact. Common sense has never posited a class of people who are incapable of lying and who can never be pressured or cajoled into telling falsehoods. Neither have the courts. Why, then, would anyone attribute ubiquitous truth-telling to children? And why would judges, juries and society believe that lack of evidence constitutes evidence?

Hopefully, the daycare cases will encourage both the justice system and the larger culture to appreciate the need to use fact rather than cant to make legal determinations. In any case, the basic questions are: Were there witnesses? Are they reliable? Is the accusing child reliable, given what we now know about the requirements for careful investigation and questioning? Does any physical evidence exist? Does it withstand the most up-to-date scientific scrutiny?

These are common-sense questions. If too many are answered in the negative, the defendant should not be convicted, or even charged. There is no denying that, using these time-tested standards, real perpetrators may go free. After all, most child sexual abuse leaves no physical evidence; most humans have sex in private, without witnesses; and some child victims are so young that they cannot even talk, much less remember what happened to them. We therefore need to be frank and admit that child sexual abuse may be a problem whose solution lies outside the justice system. If we don't deal with this fact and explore alternative solutions, the American legal principle of "innocent until proven guilty" will be abrogated, and we will have further disasters besides cases such as Snowden, Fijnje and Fuster.

James Wood:
Because of these cases, we have had to re-learn an old, bitter lesson: Entire communities can be inflamed, and the lives of innocent people destroyed, when legal authorities use unsound methods to extract accusations from witnesses. In the following passage, scholar Elaine Pagels describes the beginnings of a bloody persecution of Christians in 177 A.D.:

"Their [the Christians'] servants, tortured to extract information, finally 'confessed' that, as the Romans suspected, their Christian employers committed sexual atrocities and cannibalism. An eyewitness account reports that this evidence turned the population against them: 'These stories got around, and all the people raged against us, so that even those whose attitude had been moderate before because of their friendship with us now became greatly angry and gnashed their teeth against us'" (see Pagels, "The Gnostic Gospels," pages 84-85).

As may be seen, Christians two thousand years ago faced the same kind of bizarre charges of "sexual atrocities and cannibalism" that were leveled against defendants in several "ritual abuse" cases in the 1980s. Roman officials elicited such allegations by torturing witnesses. In our own time, authorities extracted similar statements from children by using manipulative interviewing techniques. In both ancient Rome and the 1980s, unsound methods were used to question witnesses and "prove" what zealous investigators already suspected. The consequences were tragic, not only for those accused of crimes, but for entire communities.

The falsely accused Christians described in Pagels' book were publicly tortured and killed. Thankfully, a similar bloody pattern was not repeated in our own country. Instead, many of the daycare and ritual abuse cases of the 1980s resulted in acquittals or were eventually reversed on appeal. The United States seems to have done somewhat better in this respect than ancient Rome, perhaps because of our Anglo-American legal tradition, modern scientific habits of thought, and a skeptical press.


Do children make credible witnesses in child abuse cases? Should their testimony be believed in a court of law?

John Myers:
When it comes to credibility, children are no different than adults. There are credible children and credible adults. By the same token, there are incredible adults and incredible children.

It is clear from the literature on child development that by the time most children are four years old, they possess the moral, cognitive, and linguistic capacity to be credible witnesses in court. Whether jurors believe a particular child (or adult) depends on a host of factors, including how the child was interviewed prior to court, the child's motives to lie or tell the truth, the child's demeanor, and nature of the child's testimony.

As for the question "Should their testimony be believed in a court of law?" Anyone who thinks there is a categorical answer to this question is a fool. Some children are highly credible witnesses who should be believed because they testify truthfully. On the other hand, some children, like some adults, consciously or unconsciously distort the truth.

When it comes to children in court, the best hope for truthful testimony is competent pretrial interviewing combined with a legal system that prepares children for the courtroom experience, supports them through the process, and allows reasonable cross-examination.

Debbie Nathan:
Research shows that there is no more reason to disbelieve all children in court than there is to believe each and every one of them. While studies do indicate that very young children tend to be more suggestible than adults, the difference decreases with age. In general, then, children tend to resemble adults, both in their reliability as witnesses and in their susceptibility to memory distortion from many sources, not the least of which is investigators who conduct biased interviews.

It may be true that in the past, juries and judges did not believe children simply because they were children. That was unfair. But modern sex abuse cases are no place for affirmative action: because there has been injustice in the past, we cannot therefore grant unstinting belief to all children who take the witness stand. Nor can we assume that all confessions from the accused are true -- or false. Each case ought to be judged on its own merits. Again, basic questions have to be asked. Again, one of the most vital, for both child accusers and adult defendants, is "How was the interview conducted?"

The proof of the interview pudding, so to speak, should not be a social worker's or police officer's assertion that questioning was done correctly. Interviewing is complicated business, and it is natural for people to claim they did a good job regardless of the real quality of their work. Yet there is no reason for uncertainty, given how easy it is to videotape interviews. This is standard practice in England and other countries. It should be mandatory in the United States because, ultimately, taping serves the cause of justice. Without videotape of well-done interviews, the defense can convince a jury that an accused client was treated poorly, and a guilty party may be acquitted. With videotape of proper questioning, prosecutors -- and the children they represent -- gain the upper hand.

James Wood:
Children can make excellent witnesses. If questioned properly, they usually give honest and accurate testimony. The problem arises, however, if they have been exposed to improper interviewing techniques at some time prior to testifying.

For an interesting example, see a recent study by Sena Garven and her colleagues at the University of El Paso, as reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology. In this experiment a young man visited a preschool and read a story to the children. A week later the children were questioned using interviewing techniques from the highly publicized McMartin Preschool case in Los Angeles. As in the McMartin interviews, the children in Garven's experiment were praised whenever they claimed that the young man had done "bad things" during his visit, and they were mildly criticized if they failed to make such allegations. Within a mater of minutes, most children interviewed using the "McMartin techniques" made accusations of wrongdoing against the young man. In a follow-up study (not yet published) Garven and her colleagues found that when children were re-questioned in a neutral manner several weeks later, they tenaciously repeated the same false allegations that they had made at the first interview.

Sena Garven's experiments, along with studies by Steve Ceci of Cornell, Maggie Bruck of McGill, and other researchers, show that improper interviews can have a lasting negative impact on children's accuracy. Because children are vulnerable to pressure and manipulation, it is extremely important that they be interviewed properly from the very start. Furthermore, it is critically important that all interviews be audiotaped or videotaped, to ensure that appropriate techniques have been used. The same cautions apply to cases in which children are themselves accused of committing crimes. For example, two Chicago boys, ages 7 and 8, recently "confessed" to murdering an 11-year-old girl for her bicycle. Medical evidence later indicated that the confessions were false. The boys' lawyers charged that police had extracted the confessions using improper techniques. Similar incidents are likely to recur as more and more children are accused of crimes. It is therefore important that all legal interviews of children be taped, as is done in Great Britain. For a fuller discussion, readers may want to consult a recent Op-Ed piece by myself and Sena Garven in the September 12, 1998 issue of The New York Times.


Has the debate affected the ability of child advocates and the courts to protect children and convict individuals who sexually abuse children?

John Myers:
During the first six decades of the 20th Century, the level of doubt and skepticism about allegations of CSA were at unrealistic and destructively high levels. During the late 1970s and 1980s, however, society was much more accepting of the fact that CSA is a serious social problem. Beginning in the early 1990s, a backlash of sorts emerged against the child protection system. Although this backlash has not substantially undermined efforts by the child protection and legal systems to investigate and prosecute CSA, it [is] my belief that the level of doubt about children's credibility and about the prevalence of CSA is once again on the rise, and could return to levels that are sufficiently high to undermine efforts to protect children.

During the past decade, significant progress has been made in investigating and litigating allegations of CSA. Children and those accused are better off today because we have learned from some of the mistakes that were made in the early day care cases.

Debbie Nathan:
In response to growing skepticism about sex abuse investigative methods, many child protection professionals complain of "backlash." They say media criticism of daycare cases is pushing the public back to the dark ages before the 1980s, when few people would admit how common child sex abuse really is. These days, the child protection people claim, courts are favoring defendants and doubting the word of young accusers.

My sense is that these complaints are self-serving rhetoric from professionals unwilling to own up to their own responsibility for discrediting children. As a journalist doing critical work on false sex abuse allegations since 1987, I have been the brunt of endless animus from child protection professionals. They have accused me of not caring about kids, of helping conservative politicians set back the cause of child welfare, of latching onto a tabloid topic for sensationalism's sake. In a slightly more charitable vein, some child protection people have simply questioned why journalists would want to cover false accusations, when real ones are so much more common. "No, we didn't do everything right at first," one prominent official told me. "But in order to protect children, some innocent adults are going to get caught up in the accusations net. That's the sacrifice we have to make. Anyway, the appeals courts will take care of each case sooner or later." A social work professor and leader of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children made similar comments to his colleagues at a national convention as he spoke about a case that destroyed a thriving California nursery school and jailed its owners, in some cases for years. "Sure, we've made mistakes," the social worker quipped. "But that's OK."

It's not OK, and the moral relativism of such attitudes is appalling, not to mention un-American. In this country we are not supposed to sacrifice innocent civilians for the commonweal. When we injure innocent people, we are morally if not legally bound to repair the damage. Child protection professionals have their heads in the sand if they think they are exempt from this charge. Across the country, untold thousands of innocent people have been harassed during sex abuse investigations, terrorized, separated from their children, jailed, and sometimes imprisoned. As a result, it is not only cynical politicians and moral conservatives who say government has no business in children's live. Now, honest, decent folks are also writing off public attempts to protect children from abuse. Talking to people accused in sloppy child abuse investigations, I am chilled by their hostility towards child protection efforts, feminism, therapy, and government in general. These attitudes do not bode well for a gentler, more egalitarian nation. But they are certainly understandable.

Since the eruption of the daycare cases, many researchers in the child protection specialties have done the right thing: they have used scientific methods to investigate what went wrong, and brought their research to their colleagues and the public. Others, however, need to stop screaming "backlash" and clean house. To do that, they must stop coddling their prominent colleagues who were personally involved in the ritual abuse cases, and who rationalize their errors by refusing, for example, to encourage national policy requiring videotaped interviews. Groups such as APSAC should stop dragging their feet on this issue, as they have for years. They should also organize financial, legal and political resources to get Frank Fuster and countless other falsely convicted people out of the prisons they are rotting in, more than a decade after the ritual abuse hoax shattered so many blameless lives.

James Wood:
In the cities I'm familiar with, prosecution of child abuse cases is much more common now than before the 1980s. The trend seems to be toward a greater number of prosecutions, not fewer. Our society's efforts to protect abused children are much more vigorous and effective than in the past, though we still have a long way to go.

Ironically, the great "daycare abuse" craze of the 1980s seems to have had long-term beneficial effects on the way our society handles sexual abuse allegations by children. The daycare cases inspired a great deal of scientific research that has increased our practical knowledge. We have learned a great deal about how to interview children and improve their accuracy as witnesses (see the work of Gail Goodman of University of California at Davis, Bette Bottoms of University of Illinois at Chicago, Nancy Walker of Creighton University, Amye Warren of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Michael Lamb and Kathleen Sternberg at the National Institute of Mental Health). We have also learned a great deal about children's suggestibility and the dangers of improper interviewing (see the work of Steve Ceci of Cornell, Maggie Bruck of McGill, and Sena Garven and myself at the University of Texas at El Paso). Finally, a broad professional consensus has emerged about the way to interview children in sexual abuse cases. An excellent book on this topic has just been published by the American Psychological Association: Investigative Interviews of Children: A Guide for Helping Professionals by Deb Poole and Michael Lamb.




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