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?
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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
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