Too little skepticism, and too much, both can hurt children.
UPDATE, NOVEMBER 22: This example of child abuse hysteria occurred last year. But there will be a lot more of it if we don't start curbing post-Penn State paranoia.
In the previous post to this blog, I wrote about how the Penn State horrors threaten to spark a revival of the witchhunt mentality that dominated child welfare during the 1980s. Today’s “child savers” to use the term their 19th Century counterparts gave themselves, are reviving a series of myths about child abuse that hurt huge numbers of children more than two decades ago.
Because so much time has passed, many people have forgotten the lessons of that era, or never knew them. There was a time when I could use simple shorthand to remind reporters – I could just say “McMartin.” But there are reporters on the job today who hadn’t been born when the lurid allegations about mass molestation at the McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles first made headlines. So it’s well worth reviewing the lessons from that era.
SORRY, WRONG NUMBERS
One of those lessons has to do with phony numbers that nobody bothers to check – absurd claims about the prevalence of child sexual abuse that appear to have been pulled from thin air.
By 1990, there were studies attempting to estimate the percentage of people sexually abused during childhood that had come up with results ranging from one percent to 62 percent. The studies used widely varying definitions of abuse, some of them breathtakingly broad, and usually included abuse by anyone, not just cases subject to the jurisdiction of child protective services.
But because large numbers attract more attention than small numbers, all through the 80s it was claimed, repeatedly that "one out of three girls and one out of ten boys will be sexually abused" during childhood.
Most of those claims, at least for the girls, could be traced back to a single, highly-publicized study which used extremely broad, vague definitions. But at least there was one study.
In the wake of Penn State, one news account after another claims that one out of four (or sometimes one out of three) girls and one out of six boys will be victims of child sexual abuse during their childhoods.
Typically the figure appears with no attribution at all, except some vague reference to “experts say” or “most experts believe.” I have yet to find a news account that cites an actual study of any kind, let alone a valid one. Instead there are quotes about how these crimes are so awful that we desperately want to “turn away” and refuse to face up to how widespread they are. In other words: if you try to check facts, you’re “in denial.”
Then, a segment of NPR’s Tell Me More last week, Dr. Leslie Walker of Seattle Children’s Hospital took things a step further, declaring:
I think you have to remember that one in three girls under the age of 18 do get sexually abused. And it's no different, it's the same number of boys under, before puberty. So when someone says that they have been abused you have to assume that it happened immediately … One in three people have been abused …”
Could we stop and think about that for a second? Most of us have at least one sibling. So if Walker’s number is correct, at least two-thirds of American adults either were sexually abused as children, or are siblings of a child sexual abuse victim.
If there are that many victims the number of perpetrators must be astronomical as well. Then you must add all the parents and others who are guilty of “neglect” because they should have known it was happening and “failed to protect” their children.
So if nothing else, if these claims were true the entire American child welfare system would have to be dismantled immediately – because if there are that many child molesters out there, the odds that children taken from their parents and placed in foster care will be molested are so staggering that foster care is way too dangerous an option. (As it happens, there is solid research indicating that there is child abuse in one-quarter to one third of foster homes, with an even worse record for group homes and institutions. Jerry Sandusky, who stands accused in the Penn State cases, was a foster parent and his charity began as a group home.)
THE REAL NUMBERS ARE BAD ENOUGH
The best evidence we have concerning the true prevalence of child sexual abuse comes from two comprehensive reviews of the scholarly literature.
The first is a review of 20 different studies conducted by seven Canadian researchers, published in 1991. They found that the studies with the best methodology consistently indicated that between 10 and 12 percent of girls under age 14 are sexually abused by someone during their childhoods. The 1980s study that produced the "one out of three" claim was singled out for criticism by these researchers.
A decade later, another comprehensive review of the literature put the actual figure at 9 to 11 percent for girls and 5 to 6 percent for boys. The review found that studies which met two fundamental tenets of good research, high response rates and large sample size, tended to find lower rates of abuse than the smaller, less representative studies.
Odds are the figure is lower today, since, as the Associated Press reports, there is strong evidence that the rate of child sexual abuse has declined significantly in recent years.
Those figures, like all of the best evidence concerning the true extent of child abuse in America, are cause for concern and action. The real numbers are bad enough. Exaggeration serves only to panic us into seeking "solutions" that hurt the children they are intended to help.
Right now, this kind of exaggeration and fear mongering can do even more harm.
HOW IT HURTS CHILDREN
In the 1980s, the rhetoric about “children don’t lie,” discussed in the previous post to this blog, and the absurd numbers made it easy for people to suspend reasonable skepticism when “child savers” started talking about satanic cults operating out of day care centers.
All those claims in the previous post about secret tunnels and child molesters with wings grew out of the way children were interrogated about allegations of sexual abuse in their day care centers or at the hands of their own parents. The result was a series of witchhunts across the country lasting all the way into the 1990s. The McMartin Preschool was only the most notorious. There were witchhunts that tore apart communities in Massachusetts, New Jersey, San Diego, Kern County, California, Jodan, Minnesota, and Wenatchee Washington, among others.
Hundreds of innocent people had their lives ruined, many were jailed. In the end, in almost every case, almost everyone accused was exonerated.
But they were not the ones who suffered most. As usual, the best efforts of the child savers backfired against the children. There were the children who suffered when they were separated from their jailed parents. There were the children who suffered when, at a very young age, they actually were persuaded by caseworkers and therapists that they’d been abused when they hadn’t. Some believe it to this day.
But children also suffered as a result of the climate and fear and paranoia spread by the child savers. Teachers and day care workers became afraid to hug their students – sometimes actually telling them to “give yourselves a pat on the back.” (Among the potential side effects: Children denied normal affection are easier prey for actual child molesters.) Men were largely driven out of pre-school teaching. Children were taught not simply to be prudent in dealings with adults but to be constantly fearful and on guard.
That seems to be making a comeback, too. One post-Penn State news story after another warns parents to never, ever let their children be alone with any other adult. (That’s going to make it rather difficult for teachers to meet with students having trouble with their homework or for guidance counselors to help them with personal problems, or for mentors to help kids with school projects.)
A Washington Times columnist warns that “sports are the perfect hunting ground for perverts, pedophiles and other assorted monsters.”
Some go further. One Huffington Post blogger raged against “how we encourage our kids to abandon their sense of self-trust -- their instinct and intuition -- in order to be polite through showing physical affection to adults.” He is referring to parents who, at holiday gatherings “pressure” the kids to “give your uncle a hug and kiss."
This blogger seems to suggest a child reluctant to do this, knows by “instinct and intuition” that uncle is a child molester. The possibility that uncle may just have bad breath or a scratchy beard does not seem to occur to him.
There was plenty of paranoia before Penn State (check out this list of absurdities, which I first discovered thanks to Lenore Skenazy at her Free-Range Kids blog. This one is my favorite). So it would be understandable if adults now hesitated to so much as smile at a child for fear of being accused of “grooming” that child into a sexual abuse victim. In fact, if this story from Florida is any indication, the paranoia is back, with a vengeance.
But there’s another way all this hurts children.
After the hysteria of the 80s came the skepticism of the 90s. There are children who almost certainly suffered because some people may have become too skeptical. In the wake of the collapse of the mass molestation cases there are bound to have been children who really were abused, but were not believed. Given how far back the allegations go, some of the Penn State victims may even be among them. As I wrote in my book, Wounded Innocents, in 1990: If so, the blame rests squarely with the child savers. They have managed to find one more way to destroy children in order to save them.
Ultimately, the Los Angeles Times would win a Pulitzer Prize for some of its writing about the McMartin case. But not for coverage of the case itself. Rather, the late David Shaw, the paper’s media critic, won it for a series asking why the media accepted all the wild claims from the child savers so easily. The headline in the first installment summed it up: “Where was skepticism in media?” it said.
Is it too much to ask for a little more skepticism this time, before it’s too late.