Out of Edenton: The Legal and Scientific Issues
An online discussion with Ofra Bikel, producer of Innocence Lost: The Plea, journalist Lawrence Wright, and experts on children's testimony and memory. Moderated by Jack Hitt a writer for The New York Times  and Harper's  magazines, and a contributing editor to NPR's program, This American Life.   

From time to time over the last decade, Americans have awoke to headlines announcing that another day care center has been discovered to house a coven of child-abusing conspirators. The resulting court trials have showcased often bizarre dramas of small children describing unthinkable acts of sexual abuse. What was especially alarming was that the alleged abusers looked like wholesome loving people, like us. These dramas tapped into the eternal fear of an enemy within. For such heinous crimes, the public demanded that justice be swift and severe. Who could possibly disbelieve innocent children? Over time, though, the public has learned through a variety of reports--such as FRONTLINE's ongoing coverage of the incidents in Edenton, North Carolina--that these cases may signify something much darker about ourselves than about our children. A kind of mob mentality has encouraged us to trample the usually cautious, slow processes of justice in order to win quick verdicts--and at a price. In Edenton, for example, after years of recrimination, fury, and fear, the courts overturned convictions and state prosecutors ended up offering plea bargains or dropping charges altogether. The aftermath invites us to reconsider some of the legal issues surrounding the proper prosecution of child-abuse cases and some of the scientific issues about the controversies of memory and truth in young children. FRONTLINE invited a number of different experts in the field to sign on and discuss the issues that flow out of Edenton. - Jack Hitt

Ofra Bikel   is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. She has reported on the Little Rascals case since its beginning, producing three FRONTLINE documentaries about it: "Innocence Lost" (1991) "Innocence Lost: The Verdict" (1993) and "Innocence Lost: The Plea" (1997).

Barbara L. Bonner   is an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma and director of its Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. She runs treatment programs for sexually abused children, which involves the forensic evaluation of children who allegedly have been sexually abused.

Stephen J. Ceci   is professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University and one of the leading experts on children's memory and the reliability of their testimony.

Tom Lyon   is a professor of law and developmental psychology at the University of Southern California. He has been a trial attorney for children in child abuse cases; his published work has dealt with preschool children's understanding of memory.

Lucy McGough   is a professor at the Louisiana State University Law School. Her research work focuses on child witnesses and the law's treatment of children.

Lawrence Wright   is staff writer for the New Yorker and author of several books including Remembering Satan, a study of a case of repressed memory and allegations of satanic abuse.

Jack Hitt   When we talk about children telling the truth, we are referring to the kind of truth required of a courtroom--the kind popularly known as "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Can a child tell that kind of truth? Or, to put it another way, can a child lie, i.e. commit perjury?

Ofra Bikel   Since a child cannot take an oath, obviously he or she doesn't commit perjury in the technical sense. But ask the question another way, Can a child not tell the truth? Does anyone doubt it?

What is a lie for a child? If you ask a child if he just had a cookie and he says, "no" - well, he lies. But if a child has been led to believe something, then he is not telling a lie. The child speaks what is a truth, although it may very well not be *the* truth.

I know from personal experience that I have always had a strong visual memory of my falling off the bed as a young child, and my older sister dressed in dark shorts and a white T shirt crawling under the bed and playing with me until my mother came in and screamed at her for not calling her to put me back in bed..

When I told my mother of this memory she laughed, saying that I was less than three months old when that had happened. They had told me the story when I was small (but not that small). I realized then that the clothes my sister was wearing in my memory are the clothes she is wearing in a picture my parents had of us when she was four and I was one year-old. Yet, I bet, that to this day I would pass a polygraph test on this story, so clear is it in my mind.
Would I be lying? No. Is it the truth? No.

When you say "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" - it seems to me very difficult for adults to do that - no matter how much they want to. When you look at all the misidentifications in criminal cases for example, Does the victim want to identify the wrong person? Usually not. Does it happen? All the time.

So for a child it, seems to me it is almost impossible to tell "the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth.": There is always fantasy, impressions, and the wish to please the one who asks.

Lawrence Wright  


Certainly children can lie. What is more interesting is how the courts interpret obviously contradictory statements that children sometimes make, especially when they are placed in extremely stressful situations, such as an abuse investigation.

One of the alarming trends in the day-care prosecutions of the '80's was that when children told fantastic stories of ritual sacrifice or bizarre torture scenes, those stories were interpreted as being either literally true, or else a sort of imaginative reconstruction of less spectacular real abuse; on the other hand, when children caught up in those prosecutions denied that anything had happened to them, their denials were interpreted as being products of the abuse itself. In other words, to deny the abuse was a subtle proof that the abuse did, in fact, take place.

I live in Austin, Texas, where several years ago we had a locally notorious prosecution against Fran and Dan Keller, a couple who ran Fran and Dan's DayCare. In addition to charges of molestation, they had been accused of spectacular crimes, such as placing children in a tank with sharks and flying the children to Mexico and burying them in open graves.

The principal accuser was a five-year-old girl who had been three when the abuse was supposed to have occurred. When she was called as a witness, she sat on her older sister's lap with a lollypop in her mouth and denied that the abuse had taken place.

After a ten-minute recess, she changed her story, but could no longer tell the court what had actually occurred. Was she lying in the first instance or the second? Is it useful even to call such testimony true or false, when it comes from a child whose mind is still very much in the imaginative stage of life?

There are many such cases where adults - in the form of parents, therapists, and officials of the justice system - simply refuse to believe children when they deny the allegations of abuse. A tragic case is the one in Tacoma, Washington, where Kaare and Judy Sortland were accused in 1989 of abusing three young boys in the day-care center they operated in their home. The childen initially denied that any abuse had taken place, but parents and
therapists relentlessly questioned them.

"We'll talk to those kids until they're twenty years old, if necessary, to get a believable story to the jury," one parent vowed. When a jury did, in fact, rule the Sortland's not guilty, the couple were repeatedly threatened and hounded by vandals. On Halloween night in 1992, Kaare Sortland was shot to death in his front yard. His wife heard him cry "I didn't do it" just before six shots were fired.

Similarly, in the Margaret Kelly Michaels case, there is this colloquy
between a social worker and one of the children who was under her care (Michaels was accused of various crimes including making children eat her feces, raping them with silverware, and playing the piano in the nude):

Social Worker: Do you think that Kelly was not good when she was hurting you all?

Child: Wasn't hurting me. I like her.

Social Worker: I can't hear you, you got to look at me when you talk to me. Now when Kelly was bothering kids in the music room...

Child: I got socks off.

Social Worker: Did she make anybody else take their clothes off in the music room?

Child: No.

Social Worker: Yes.

Child: No.

Who is telling the truth here?

Lucy McGough  


The definition of "lying" is important. It requires knowledge of a true fact, awareness that another person can entertain a "false belief" about that fact, and a willingness to take advantage of the other person's ignorance by giving him or her disinformation. There's a whole body of research devoted to the development of a "theory of the mind" -- the ability to impute mental states to oneself and others -- which many researchers believed very young children lacked. More recent research has indicated that while a very young child may lack the ability to articulate why he or she is doing some act, the ability to deceive may develop even in toddlers.

In a wonderful experiment by Chandler -- children aged two to four were encouraged to hide treasure - a small bag of gold coins and jewels - underneath one of four containers on a large white plastic playing board. The object of the game was to deceive a researcher who would come to look for the treasure. Unfortunately, the game constraint was that the children had to move treasure to its hiding place using a puppet who left black inky footprints wherever he moved on the board. Of the 50 participating children, all but three took active steps to mislead the searcher: by giving false verbal and behavioral clues, such as pointing to the wrong hiding place, wiping off the puppet's telltale tracks, or even laying down a false set of tracks.

If deception is defined as a "working knowledge" of false beliefs rather than the ability to articulate precisely what another believed, even children as young as two and one-half possess the rudimentary skills essential to deceive.

Of course, that was a game -- and the purpose of gamesmanship which we parents cheerfully teach is often deceit (though perhaps without full realization). Several studies -- Bette Bottoms' "Barbie Doll" experiment and Steve Ceci's broken toy experiment -- found that children would lie to protect their parent or other loved one, suppressing personally observed information that would implicate the adult from feared punishment or "trouble." In custody disputes -- intra-family abuse prosecutions -- children often find themselves in intolerable situations in which they can perceive that if they tell all they know, a loved (or feared) parent or relative can be harmed. (There is some suggestion that lying to protect or from fear of a stranger is a less potent motivation.) Some children respond by refusing to say anything: Reported case decisions are filled with examples of children who will not state what they know or who are so emotionally overwhelmed that they become paralyzed in tears on the witness stand.

Others undoubtedly lie about the adult's actions. That conclusion outrages some folks who somehow believe that children are morally superior, pristine beings. Telling the truth is a deeply imbedded artifact of our culture: witness the apocryphal story of little George Washington who could not tell a lie about the toppled cherry tree. If George's mother had chopped down the tree, George might well have not been so forthcoming. Some think that if we surface the research that children can and do lie, we cannot protect children who are the victims of abuse, particularly sexual abuse that leaves few physical scars.

Ofra isn't aware of the fact that children are very often sworn in as witnesses. In the juvenile courts across the country, children are routinely sworn as witnesses. If a child is deemed of sufficient cognitive and moral maturity to appreciate the consequences of an oath -- a witness's perception that telling a lie in a court proceeding is punishable -- then the child is sworn. The legal definition of "perjury" is very similar to the social scientists' definition of "lying": "the intentional making of a false written or oral statement in any proceeding under sanction of an oath or an equivalent affirmation relating to matter material to the issue or question in controversy when the witness knew the statement to be false."

Admittedly, lawyers are wordier than social scientists, but the gist's the same. Every juvenile court code makes a crime committable by an adult a "deliquent act" if committed by a child. Thus, a witness in juvenile court who proveably lies on the witness stand could be punished for the delinquent act of perjury. We simply do not know how often child witnesses commit perjury. I could find only three reported appellate decisions. Perjury prosecutions are undoubtedly rare even at the trial court level. Yale Professor Albert Solnit said it best: "In the context of highly charged emotions, around a crime or around the fear of where the child will be moved, and who will take care of the child, truth for the child is safety, pleasing adults so they don't get angry at them, and it isn't the same abstract meaning as it was intended to have in court."

In sum, even preschool children can lie, do lie, and, if sufficiently self-motivated or coached, will lie. The real task is to design a legal and social services delivery system in such a way so that children's justifiable safety needs can be met and they can be encouraged to speak truthfully about what they experienced.

Steven Ceci   Most humans will lie if the "ante" is high enough. For children, some motives are more powerful to prod them to lie than are others. For example, protecting a loved one or avoiding embarassment appear to be more potent incentives to lie than are sustaining a game or winning a material reward (Ceci, et al. 1993). Same is true with adults, of course.

So, the question isn't "do children lie", but rather what are the conditions that elevate the likelihood that they will do so, and how does their risk of doing so compare with that of older persons' proneness to lie under similar conditions. The question of what meaning children attach to lying and how they define lies, is complex, as already mentioned, and lots of research exists on these issues.

Jack Hitt   I am stunned to learn, as some of you are, that children can be required to take an oath before testifying. Is such an oath different from the adult oath? Is there any legal standard of the distinctions a child must be capable of before swearing in. (If a child can be found guilty of perjury, I can't help but wonder what the punishment is--five minutes of time out?) Has the court developed tests for such an assessment?

Lucy McGough   Don't forget that "children" includes all those under the age of eighteen as a general rule. Perhaps when you learned that children were administered an oath, you were thrown off by thinking of toddlers clutching teddybears. Although in recent years, some states have done away with competency exams (voir dires) and oaths for alleged sexual abuse victims, the majority of states require a special showing of competency for child witnesses if the judge thinks it warranted or if either counsel insists.

The skills required for any witness are: a capacity for observation, for recollection and for communication (understanding and responding to questions) and a sense of "moral responsibility" -- specifically of the duty to speak the truth when testifying. Some states require a preliminary inquiry through questioning the child about whether he or she understands the nature of an oath and the obligation to speak the truth. Other states permit a full inquiry - questioning the child about his family, school, etc. thereby demonstrating that the child can respond to questions and remembers some facts about his or her life and environment.

States that have modeled their rules of evidence on the Federal Rules take no special precautions where a child witness is concerned, either as to the child's appreciation of the duty to tell the truth or as to the accuracy of the child's present memory. But the oath is administered to every witness, regardless of age in the federal and some state jurisdictions patterned on the federal rules.

What sanction can be imposed for a perjurious child? Certainly the court can strike the child's testimony from the record in which case it will be rejected as a source of proof of any fact. The child could be referred to the juvenile court for the delinquent act of perjury -- which as a felony-grade offense could theoretically carry a term of detention in a secure juvenile detention facility. Again, as I noted in my last message, this rarely happens. Judges, prosecutors and the public are much more willing to assume that the child is not willfully and inexcusably lying.

Ofra Bikel   After I read Lucy's message I checked with the defense lawyer in the Little Rascal case and asked if the pre-schoolers were sworn in. He said that indeed they were. (After which they proceeded to testify that they saw babies killed in outer space, that they themselves have been thrown to sharks, and that they killed lions and made them into rugs.)

In the Little Rascal case - the three and four year olds all went to "court school" and so they knew what to say when asked if they know the difference between truth and lie. But he said that in many cases which he tried, children of this age are obviously confused and do not even understand the concept of the question. And yet almost all judges find it "good enough" to proceed.

Anyway I was wrong (if logical...): three year olds in North Carolina must take an oath - on the bible. If that does not give you pause, I don't know what will.

Tom Lyon   Most states and the Federal courts require that all witnesses either take the oath or make an affirmation that they will tell the truth. Children are frequently allowed to promise to tell the truth. Only a relatively small number of states allow for unsworn testimony by children.

In order to understand and appreciate a promise to tell the truth, it is necessary that a child understand the difference between the truth and lies and the importance of telling the truth. Therefore, children are routinely questioned regarding their understanding of the meaning andmorality of lying before being allowed to testify.

Children are often asked to define truth and lies or explain the difference between the two. Less abstractly, attorneys and judges will sometimes give children examples of true and false statements and ask them to identify the statements as the truth or a lie. Children's understanding of the morality of lying is usually tapped by asking the child what would happen if he or she told a lie. Most courts will accept responses that refer to punishment generally, rather than specific references to penalties for perjury.

If a child fails to answer such questions to the satisfaction of the trial judge, he or she can be found incompetent to testify, and will not be allowed to take the stand.

The questions asked of children to determine their competency to take the oath are sometimes misunderstood. The questions are certainly not designed to test whether the child is suggestible or has a good memory, and it therefore is no surprise that some research has found no relation between children's competency to take the oath and suggestibility. The questions are designed to determine if promising to tell the truth is a meaningful commitment for a child. Surprisingly, psychologists have not studied whether eliciting a promise to tell the truth affects children's tendency to do so.

Research on children' s understanding of lying (e.g. Bussey's work) suggests that by four years of age, most children understand the basic fact that truth refers to what "really happened" and lies do not. Research also suggests that four year olds do not understand that lies are limited to deliberately false statements (as opposed to mistakes) that are intended to deceive (as opposed to jokes), but this is of limited importance to the law, since a good witness will avoid mistakes and jokes in addition to telling no lies. With respect to the morality of lying, four year olds also appear to have a good grasp of the fact that it is wrong to lie and that lying is subject to punishment.

Lucy McGough   Tom Lyon's message was very helpful about competency and children. I thought I'd just add a postscript. A fairly typical competency examination which appears from time to time in judges' publications calls for the judge to hold up a blue book and ask the child, "What color is this book". The child presumably responds "blue". The judge says, "If you had said "green", would you have been telling the truth or a falsehood (lie)?" The child, again presumably says, "It would be a falsehood (lie)."

The judge: "What happens to you if you tell a lie?"

Child: "You get punished" ("You get a spanking" or "You don't go to Heaven", etc.)

Judge: "Do you promise to always tell us the truth in what you are going to tell us here in this courtroom?"

Presumably, the child says "Yes".

This would pass muster as a means of qualifying a child to testify as a competent witness. Yet, as several commentators have noted, this exchange wholly lacks the dimension of memory and recalled out-of-sight events. All it really does is test the child's capacity for categorization (of colors) and answering questions about a presently viewed object. And some appreciation of the perceived distinction between the abstractions of "truth" and "lies". Of course, it also presupposes that the child witness can now still accurately sort accurate from inaccurate memories, memory from suggestion.

Giving accurate trial testimony is a very complex task, and in candor, courts often do little more than go through the motions of qualifying a child, leaving the task of exploring the child's capabilities for forming accurate recollections to the lawyer on cross-examination.

Jack Hitt   Given that a child can lie--either inadvertently, to protect a parent or friend, or for some other reward--I wonder if there is any way to understand what they are trying to say anyway.

For example, throughout these trials we continually hear the kids telling extraordinary stories--of human sacrifice, of being flown to bizarre locations, of unspeakable acts of torture. If memory serves, in the California case, the kids claimed to be taken to an airport, flown to another
town, forced to star in porno movies, and then returned to the day care. But the day care operated only from 9 a.m. to noon in downtown L.A. I don't think I need to mention L.A. traffic.

But it seems commonplace in these trials for the kids to make statements that are wildly untrue. The assumption among the juries and the public has been that there must be some truth behind these frightening visions. Isn't that a
logical assumption? Does science or the law provide us with any help in trying to interpret or dismiss these descriptions?

Barbara Bonner   The results of a study were recently published in the APSAC Advisor describing an extensive review of videotaped interviews of children at the Child Protection Center in San Diego. It appears to be a carefully designed and executed study assessing the rate of fantastic elements in children's and their association with cases thought to be actual ("gold standard") cases of abuse or "questionable" cases.

In gold standard cases, the perpetrator confessed; medical evidence was consistent with the alleged details of the case; and in more than 80% of the cases, at least one piece of persuasive evidence was present (e.g., eyewitness, sibling telling a similar story). Quite frankly, I have seen very few children whose case had this level of proof.

In short, the results indicated that children in the "gold standard" cases were more likely to have fantastic/bizarre elements in their accounts of the abuse than children in the "questionable" category. The authors state that the results "fail to support the common assumption that the presence of fantasy elements should lead evaluators to suspect the entire allegation."

Jack Hitt   Barbara, you wrote: 'In short, the results indicated that children in the "gold standard" cases were more likely to have fantastic/bizarre elements in their accounts of the abuse than children in the "questionable" category.

Does that suggest that there is a method to parse these different levels of bizarre fantasy? Are there any indicators among the stories of parttime kidnapping and child-eating monsters and bad monkeys that the child has in fact experienced something more specific than generalized nighttime fear?

How can we get past the simplistic choice, especially if one is on a jury, of dismissing all fantasy as symptoms of childhood or accepting the gist of the stories with unquestioning faith ("Believe the children")?

Lucy McGough   Isn't it logical that there's something behind wildly improbable assertions like ritual sacrifice? Sheer anecdotal experience: One of our seven children had such a vivid imagination that one memorable afternoon he sat in the bathtub for several hours because, as it turned out, this one particular navy (not sky blue or black but "navy") colored monster was lurking in the laundry basket, daring him to come out.

All our children had fantasies from time to time, but this child more so than his siblings had an incredibly rich inner world--sometimes happy companions or, in this instance, scarey ones. I should add that this child is now a college senior and is our most creative offspring. If there was some logical explanation for his navy monster, we never figured out the source.

Fantasy presents difficulty for the legal system since the edges between imagination and reality can be very blurred when a child later attempts to reconstruct which is which. I think a real isssue is how to enable the child to differentiate and for triers of fact (judge or jury) to realize that just because part of a narrative is fantastic, there may a strand that is real when a child is a witness. We tend to take an all or nothing approach

Jack Hitt   Lucy, I am puzzled by your last post. You say that there may be "something behind wildly improbable assertions like ritual sacrifice." But then you go on to tell a lovely anecdote that suggests just the opposite--the story of your child with the "vivid imagination" who saw the navy monster. The monster was never identified as correlating to anything in reality. And then you say that this child grew up to become the most creative in the family and who possessed "an incredibly rich inner world."

Is it too simplistic to suggest that the children with these wildly exaggerated fantasy lives--including the visions of horror--are much more normal than we rational adults might presume? I suspect the child who has been secretly abused is the one with no "vivid imagination" and who doesn't pipe up with uncoached stories of shark attacks and space ship journeys.

Ofra Bikel   I am afraid I disagree with Lucy's conclusions..

The judge and jury do not take an all or nothing approach. On the contrary, they very often decide that, if the child says he or she was abused in a hot air balloon, they disbelieve the hot air balloon and believe the abuse. They disbelieve the sharks but again believe the abuse. They disbelieve the killing of children (since there are no children missing) but believe that the children were made to watch dolls being buried ...This is part of what makes it legally so terribly difficult for defense lawyers to mount a defense in these kind cases.

Usually if a defense lawyer can impeach part of a witness' testimony, the jury understands that there is good reason to suspect the rest of the testimony. But in cases of small children testifying, this is not what happens. In the Little Rascal case, the jury disbelieved the fantasy - or explained it away (the children have been on a space ship in the fair that week so they were mixed up... or: it did not really happen at midnight, when the child was safely in bed at home, but the child probably confused midnight with nap time.) In other words they believed what adults find possible to believe - and disbelieve everything that adults couldn't believe - but did they arrive at the truth? I doubt it.

I find it extremely dangerous to believe that one knows where fantasy ends and the truth begin. And after a while, do the children themselves know?

Lucy McGough  


I'll try one more entry on this topic of fantasy. Reality discrimination, at least the state of research three years ago (the last time I checked), had yielded only tentative answers. Marcia Johnson and Steve Lindsay are the gurus in the field of source monitoring or "reality monitoring", asking whether children have the cognitive ability to discriminate between their own imaginings and actually experienced events. In a series of experiments, they concluded that children as young as six can be as reliable as adults in discriminating between memories of what they had said from what some other person had said and in discriminating between memories of what they had done (actions) from actions others had taken, even remembering accurately whether "A" or "B" had performed some action. These children (aged 6-9) only displayed significant confusion in distinguishing their own thoughts and plans ("imagined speech and action") from what they actually said and did.

We really need this research because, as is so often the case in child sexual abuse, we outsiders -- parents, investigators, juries -- lack any record of what actually happened or may have happened in the past. So, if the child possesses the ability to search through his or her memory sources (or could be instructed about how to undertake that process by a skillful interviewer), there is some hope of unraveling the real from the unreal. However, at this point that appears to be a very daunting task, and, of course, we adults have enormous difficulty as well.

Empirical studies of adults' memories of the "Challenger" disaster two years after it disintegrated in mid air documented substantial forgetting and unreliability, with lots of extra embroidery. Lenore Terr's studies of the Chowchilla Kidnapping suggest a psychoanalytic overlay that may make accurate recall of a traumatic event nearly impossible. As she explained one six-year-old's fantasies: "Benji knows exactly what was done to him. He remembers the events of the kidnapping and what other children did and said. He elaborates upon what he himself did and said, hoping that he was more heroic than he actually was. He loses [temporarily] his accuracy in the field of perception, the ability to recognize the perpetrators, and in the field of cognition, understanding his own role in the traumatic event. Benji does not lie, or purposely change facts....He distorts his own role because his true helplessness is unaceptable to him and too remote from his ideals of strength and control to be tolerated."

I'll close with the monster in the box study because it, too, suggests that coupled with the cognitive ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy there is something else going on, an "x factor". Young children at least by age four have developed an ability to distinguish between "real" and "pretend" and can articulate the boundary. But when pretended things are fearful, that border becomes quite blurred.

In this experiment (Harris 1991), four- and six-year-olds were divided into two groups. Each child in the first group was instructed to imagine that there was a "nice, white, friendly" rabbit in a displayed box, and each in the second group was instructed to imagine that in the box there was a "horrible, mean, black monster that wants to come out and chase you." To prove that all was imaginary play, the children in both groups inspected the box to make sure nothing was there. Then the adult instructor told each child that she would have to leave the room for a few minutes. In the "pretend monster"condition, four of the twelve younger children refused to let her leave them alone. The other four-year-olds and all of the six-year-olds were unperturbed at being left alone with the pretend creature. But when questioned, half of both the younger and the older children admitted that they had wondered if there was a creature in the box, even though they "knew" there wasn't one.

Jack Hitt   Given the complications of the perception of reality and the tricks of memory in a child, what do we know about the role of the therapist? Has there been any change in the way the primary interviewer of a suspected abuse victim conducts that conversation? Since the choice of the therapist is, one might argue, crucial to any abuse case, should it be regulated?

Lawrence Wright  


There has certainly been a decline in the number of recovered-memory lawsuits, along with similar declines in the spectacular day-care abuse and satanic-ritual-abuse cases. I think in large part this is because the therapeutic practices that gave rise to many of these allegations have been discredited. I am speaking in particular of the use of hypnosis and the use of trance-inducing drugs, along with more caution in the interrogation of children.

This has not come about, however, because of self-regulation on the part of the therapeutic community. It is mainly because of the legal liability that has fallen on therapists who, however unwittingly, may have planted memories of abuse in their clients. A number of very conspicuous court suits have made the consequences of such practices alarmingly clear. Unfortunately, this has had a chilling effect on even very good therapists, who may be afraid to even talk about abuse to their clients. The level of anxiety among people I know in this field is very high. They feel besieged and vulnerable.

How did it get to this point? One obvious fact is that the field of therapy is so chaotic and unregulated. In many states, anyone can hang out a shingle and call himself a counselor, therapist or a psychotherapist. No credentials are needed. Moreover, there are thousands of different therapeutic techniques, and little consensus over what works. In this environment, untrained and unskilled people are pretty much left alone to practice whatever they want.

Psychiatrists and psychologists are governed by professional associations and state boards, but they account for a decreasing portion of mental health care. They are being replaced by social workers, who are less expensive, and also less well trained. This is a movement generated by insurance companies, which have become impatient with longterm talk therapy that by its very nature often brings only marginal results, even when it is done well. Unfortunately, lowering the standards of the practicioners is not likely to improve the quality of care.

It's obvious that we need to establish standards and licensing boards for psychotherapists if we're ever going to begin to address the question of regulation. That's just a small first step. After that, there is the larger question of which therapies actually succeed.

Jack Hitt   Now that there has been a decline in "the spectacular day-care abuse and satanic-ritual-abuse cases," one has to wonder why these cases arose in the first place. In the popular media, there have been a number of interesting theories posed. Some journalists have suggested that the motivating force behind the prosecution of certain cases was the prosecutor looking for a high-profile case of good v. evil that would help a re-election campaign. Other situations made it easy to see the unregulated and unrestrained therapists as the folks goading the parents and even the law-enforcement officials. Some writers have remarked that it is no coincidence that these cases arose at a time when a lot of parents were feeling guilty about putting their children in day-care--a situation very different from their own childhood at home--in order to work. Do any of these theories have any credence? Are they too pop, too glib? Does it all come down to the power of fear, or does the entire episode of Edenton and all the cases like it tell us something else about ourselves?

Lawrence Wright   With this last question, Mr. Hitt has invited us to engage in wholesale, unsubstantiated speculation, and I for one am going to take him up on it.

Why did these cases occur?

In 1980, when I was living in Atlanta, I spent several Sundays thrashing through the woods on the south side of town, with a shovel in my hands, looking for the bodies of murdered or missing children. Although I personally did not find any bodies, about a dozen small corpses were found in that area,which Wayne Williams used as a dumping ground for the children he abductedand murdered.

These children came from some of the poorest black families in the city - the very people, one might assume, whose voices were the least powerful, whose children were the least likely to be missed. And yet there was an international outcry. People from all over the city rallied. We combed through underbrush, we called in tips, we gave money to the bereaved families. The police conducted a relentless manhunt and caught the killer. There were crimes, there was evidence, and there was a massive response.

Soon after that pictures of other children started turning up on milk cartons. There was a telephone hotline (1-800-THE LOST) for the supposed 50,000 children abducted every year. We heard figures that there were 1.5 million children missing altogether. And yet, there was a mysterious absence of outcry and response such as we had seen in Atlanta. Part of the reason was that it was not so easy to locate the families of the victims. If there really were a million or more children missing, one would expect a million familes to be crying out for help. Most of the outcry, however, came from a small group of child advocates, who derided FBI figures that, for instance, only 68 children were kidnapped in 1985 - about average. Most of the kids on the milk cartons were runaways or had been abducted by a parent in a custody dispute.

We are always worrying about our children - that is the most human response to parenthood. This anxiety takes many forms. I am sure that most people have heard stories about gypsies abducting children - the one that was going around in 1985 in the peak of the day-care hysteria was about the gypsy gang that hit department stores - a child would be swooped up, drugged, changed into different clothing, and disguised with a wig. I heard this story three times from various trusted sources, although there was no apparent truth to it. It was an urban legend - or perhaps it's better to call it a contemporary guilt fantasy. As parents our greatest fear is that our children will be hurt or stolen from us. We innoculate ourselves against this fear by telling such stories.

That gypsy myth is not so different from the kinds of stories that arose in the day care and satanic ritual abuse hysteria. Some years ago I became interested in the phenomenon of multiple personality disorder, a syndrome that was rarely diagnosed before the seventies, and then became an epidemic. Now every hospital in the city where I live has a dissossiative disorders wing, filled with people who have been diagnosed with this formerly rare disorder. At the center of the therapeutic community that was diagnosing these cases was aprominent therapist who firmly believed in satanic ritual abuse. I asked her, if satanists were really responsible for the murder of 50,000 people a year in the U.S. - a figure that approaches or exceeds the actual number of all homicides annually - she told me that the number could easily be explained - at least that many children were abducted every year. It was the old missing children fantasy again. How were they taken? I asked her. She told me that they were picked up by satanists posing as postal workers and stuffed into mailbags.

Yes, I think our guilt as a culture is reflected in the rise of these hysterical outbreaks. For instance, I see a connection between the characteristic sacrificial baby fantasy of satanic ritual abuse and the conflictual feelings that young women in our culture have about abortion. I think the day care hysteria is largely caused by remorse that we have about surrendering our children to people we don't really know - who might be "gypsies" in one form or another. These people become scapegoats for our own failings as parents. We live in a culture where half of all marriages fail, where latchkey children are a common alternative to day care, where many children never see their fathers, where the great majority of real child abuse is inflicted by parents. It's no secret that we're failing our children. It's only too human to want to blame other people for the pain, the fear, the anxiety our children express.

Tom Lyon   I believe there was an increased willingness in the 1980s to take sexual abuse seriously, largely due to the Women's Movement. Younger children's allegations were no longer easily dismissed as oedipal fantasies. Older children (and young women) were no longer labelled as vengeful liars whenever they accused a man of a sexual crime. For the average sexual abuse case, I feel this was a good thing.

Unfortunately, however, a greater willingness to believe abuse allegations in the mainstream almost inevitably leads to a greater willingess to believe abuse allegations at the margins of plausibility. It seems easier to change people's general presumptions about the truth of allegations than to teach them how to discriminate between true and false allegations (even assuming the experts know how to do that). If you can convince people that typical allegations are generally true, you will inadvertantly lead them to believe that incredible allegations are sometimes true.

Therefore, I was not surprised to hear at a satanic ritual abuse conference I attended in the late 1980s that the skepticism confronting allegations of satanic ritual abuse was simply a replay of the skepticism toward incest allegations during most of this century.

Our discussion has been animated by the extremes. As Lawrence Wright pointed out, the day-care cases allowed the public to ignore the abuse that occurs within the family. The "spectacular day care abuse and satanic ritual abuse cases" mentioned throughout our discussion are unlike the thousands of run-of-the-mill abuse cases handled by child protective services and the courts. In such cases, an older child accuses a family member of abuse that is hardly spectacular. As often as not, the child's mother denies the allegations. Therapy is something to be hoped for rather than feared.

To illustrate the narrowness of our focus, consider Jack's comment that "throughout these trials we continually hear the kids telling extraordinary stories. How common are such extraordinary stories among abuse cases generally? As Barbara Bonner noted, Dalenberg (1996) found bizarre allegations were more common among corroborated cases than among cases without such corroboration. The data therefore suggest that bizarre elements do not mean that an allegation is false.

But the data do not imply that true allegations are usually bizarre. In the subset of corroborated allegations among younger children, a majority (85%) did not contain any instances of "impossible, exaggerated or impossible features." Across all children of all ages, 2% contained one or more bizarre elements. Certainly, bizarre features probably increase over time, and these interviews apparently took place early in the investigative process.

Nevertheless, the extraordinary allegations receive a disproportionate amount of attention, and thus seem more common than they really are. If we reorient ourselves and focus on mundane cases of abuse, the implications of doing everything we can to prevent the mass abuse hysteria from recurring are troubling. In order to prevent the overzealous pursuit of satanic abusers, we have to curb the power of those who seek out true abuse. As just one example, consider Lawrence Wright's discussion of "many cases" in which adults "simply refuse to believe children when they deny the allegations of abuse." His examples are truly disturbing, and would lead many to endorse the simple prescription: "believe the children," at least when they say that abuse did NOT occur. On the other hand, think about children who have been abused. 50% of children with sexually transmitted disease (who we can be virtually certain have been abused) simply deny that abuse has occurred (Lawson & Chaffin, 1991; Muram, Speck, & Gold, 1991). The simple presciption--believe the child who denies abuse--now guarantees vulnerability to further harm.

Ofra Bikel  


Why so many cases of alleged mass sexual abuse of children arose over the past decade? I think another part of it is our criminal justice system.

It is obvious, and was becoming more obvious to me while reading your various notes, that the best research to date has not yielded conclusive data about children's believability. There is no definite way to say: 'Yes' or 'No' - this we believe and this we don't.

Knowing that raises a huge cautionary message to our society: these cases must be handled with the greatest care and sensitivity. My worry is whether our criminal justice system, which is the adversarial system, is geared for this.

Little Rascals is a terrible example of what can happen once the system takes over a case of this nature. There, it was not a question of "Can we believe the children?" but - "Can we believe and trust the adults?"

This case is almost a demonstration of 'How Not To Conduct a Case.' Almost everything that was done there was questionable. A police inspector who did not record the first questioning of the children, and never wrote down her own questions, so that no one will ever know how the allegations came to light.

Three and four year-old children asked to 'name' other children who were also abused (which is how the list of accusing children grew to such proportions) and the names they were giving were added to the list and the parents were notified - as if a three or four year-old can distinguish between a child who was abused and one who wasn't.

The parents of the children were in constant contact with one another. Stories were flying across the small town.
The children were sent to therapists, each treating many children who knew each other, and whose parents knew each other.The therapists were talking to the various mothers, and reported allegations made in therapy to the police. There was tremendous cross-contamination in this small town.

The parents participated in workshops led by experts who came from across the country for weekend seminars to teach them about sexual and satanic abuse. They were given literature concerning it, so that within a few weeks there was no question in their minds that their children were sexually and satanically abused . They were also told that in order to heal, the child had to 'tell', at which point they almost pushed the children to 'disclose.'

So with all that, can we still ask if the Little Rascals children lied or told the truth? I think the answer is neither. All they did was trying to please the adults. This is what is so worrisome and frightening about it.

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