Friday, May 23, 2008

Echoes of McMartin

Back when all this began, in my first post to this Blog concerning the raid in Eldorado, I said that if the allegations were true, taking the children might have been the least detrimental alternative – particularly since Texas apparently was doing something extraordinarily humane and allowing the mothers to stay with their children. (We all know how that turned out.)

But I also noted the tendency of child welfare agencies to cry wolf: "All one has to do is recall the wild allegations of mass molestation in day care centers during the early 1980s to know that child protective services can't always be counted on to get the facts right."

I am old enough to remember those cases. The most notorious was the McMartin Preschool, but they all were about the same: Very young children would be asked all sorts of leading questions and, encouraged by their "therapists," tell stories that were more and more bizarre. Once could easily come to believe that there was a Satanic Cult of child abusers in the basement of every day care center – complete with secret tunnels to get in and out. And a cadre of "experts" told credulous media that "children don't lie" about these things.

In my book, Wounded Innocents, (Prometheus Books, 1990, 1995) I wrote that

if children don't lie, then Bakersfield, California is a hotbed of cannibalism. If children don't lie, there is a secret underground amusement park near Fort Bragg, California. You get in from the ocean by submarine. If children don't lie, then they are being flown from their day care centers all over the country in planes to be molested, then returned in time to be picked up by their parents. Some of the molesters don't need a plane. They can fly through the air all by themselves. If children don't lie, then a child in Missouri killed a justice of the Supreme Court. If children don't lie, some children in El Paso, Texas had their eyes removed – and then put back.

All of these statements have been made by children in connection with a sexual abuse allegation.

Is it any wonder that eventually the media critic for the Los Angeles Times would win a Pulitzer Prize for a series asking why in the world the media hadn't been more skeptical about the allegations in the McMartin case?

I also wrote something else. There is real child abuse out there, including real cases of children sexually abused in their day care centers. The witchhunts of the 80s didn't just harm all the children caught up in them and all the day care providers and, in some cases, parents, wrongly accused – they also made it harder for real victims of real abuse to be believed.

Now it's looking more and more like the case of the Eldorado 400+ has been "McMartinized." Even before a Texas appeals court ruled that many of the removals of children are illegal (a decision Texas CPS is now appealing) one allegation after another was crumbling.

Remember the breathless announcement that a document had been found on the ranch concerning cyanide? It was part of a first aid manual. Remember the claims about young children with broken bones? Looks like the proportion of such children is about the same as in the general population. And every day more and more "underaged" mothers turn out to be adults. (I've noted previously that coerced sex is rape no matter what the age of the woman, but the only evidence CPS has put forward for coercion is the age of the mothers. And while Texas CPS rushed to tout the high number of underage mothers – and got front page coverage all over the country, now that the numbers are falling, a CPS spokesman says: "The numbers aren't important to us.")

And once again, it's not only the children needlessly taken away who suffered. Almost certainly, there are, in fact, some underage mothers on the YFZ ranch. And there are other indications that there have been some cases of actual child abuse. Those cases need to be investigated thoroughly – and individually. But now it's going to be harder to make those cases because of what CPS has done to its own credibility.

There's also a bigger question: This time, will we learn anything from all this?

Back when the day care center witchhunts ended, I thought that there was one silver lining in all of it. As case after case across the country fell apart, I assumed that, at last, press and public would be more skeptical about claims from CPS agencies and more interested in curbing their vast, unchecked power. I was sure the skepticism over McMartin-type cases would translate to the biggest, worst problem of all – the removal of tens of thousands of children needlessly from poor, usually minority families, when family poverty is confused with neglect.

Boy, did I get that one wrong.

In 1995, in an updated paperback edition of Wounded Innocents, I wrote that "Among my biggest disappointments over the past four years has been the failure of the growing skepticism about allegations of sexual abuse to translate into similar skepticism about the far more pervasive problem of the confusion of poverty with neglect." I noted that one year after Newsweek ran a cover story called "Rush to Judgment" expressing skepticism about high profile sex-abuse cases, the same magazine ran a huge, sleazy story trashing family preservation efforts – efforts geared largely to helping impoverished families. Many other news organizations did the same.

Those stories did enormous damage, culminating in passage of the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act, a law that has done enormous harm to children. (For more on ASFA see NCCPR's Brief Publication A Child Welfare Timeline and our Analysis of ASFA.) And in almost every year since the day care witchhunts ended, the number of children taken from their parents has been higher than the year before.

The reason boils down to race and class. The day care witchhunts almost always engulfed white, middle-class families. We could imagine that it could happen to us. Most of the time, the long arm of CPS only affects them – poor people and minorities. Indeed, when people contact me about their individual cases (something I wish they wouldn't do because, sadly, NCCPR is simply too small an organization to help) they sometimes seek to reassure me that they're different – they're not like those poor people, or those "drug addicts" or whatever.

Well, CPS thinks you're just like them – and now that you and "they" have something in common – wrongfully losing your children - maybe you should consider that "they" may be more like you than you think.

The FLDS case has offered a rare window into the real operations of a child welfare agency – or perhaps it's more of an X-ray of the agency's soul. And it's CPS itself that keeps saying this is how they behave in every case. If anything, the FLDS mothers actually got better treatment than the typical poor, minority single mother caught up in the system – they certainly got better legal representation.

So this time, will the skepticism over how white women in Eldorado were treated translate into skepticism over how CPS agencies treat Black women in, say, Philadelphia or Washington D.C.? Will there be any calls, particularly on the part of those who normally champion civil liberties, to get serious about checks and balances and due process in child welfare cases?

This time, I think I'll refrain from predictions.