Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Child abuse in America: Why we need to remember “McMartin”

I was asked recently about the issue of highly-credible allegations of child sexual abuse not being taken seriously when they should.  The explanation once could be boiled down to simple shorthand – it’s a response to “McMartin.”

Another commentator recently wrote a column extolling the virtues of one of those awful parking-place shelters that do so much harm to children.  I wonder if he would have been quite so credulous about the claims made by his primary source had he realized that she was a key player in the injustices that once could be summed up just by saying “McMartin”?

When it was all still fresh in people’s minds, we understood that “McMartin” was a reference to a wave of mass hysteria over alleged “mass molestation,” usually in day care centers, that seems almost incomprehensible today.  Or, as The New York Times put it in a story looking back on that era:

[S]ome of the early allegations were so fantastic as to make many people wonder later how anyone could have believed them in the first place. Really now, teachers chopped up animals, clubbed a horse to death with a baseball bat, sacrificed a baby in a church and made children drink the blood, dressed up as witches and flew in the air — and all this had been going on unnoticed for a good long while until a disturbed mother spoke up?

But they believed – oh, how they believed.  The case involving the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California was among the first and got the most attention.  But, as the Times explained, it didn’t stop there: 
 McMartin unleashed nationwide hysteria about child abuse and Satanism in schools. One report after another told of horrific practices, with the Devil often literally in the details. 
Criminal cases of dubious provenance abounded. One that received great attention involved Margaret Kelly Michaels, convicted in 1988 of rampant sexual abuse at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood, N.J., where children said she had sexually abused them with knives, spoons and forks, and had urinated in their mouths. None showed signs of injury. Six years later, Ms. Michaels’s conviction was overturned. Another prominent case from those days involved charges of rape and sodomy brought against the operators of the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, N.C. As with McMartin, there were bizarre allegations early on about babies being murdered and children thrown in with sharks. Though defendants were found guilty, their convictions were later overturned and charges were dropped. 
They believed in large part because a whole lot of medical professionals and therapists told them to believe.  “Believe the children,” they said.  “Children don’t lie,” they said.  And if you don’t believe the children then you’re little better than an abuser yourself.

But the children were coached.  Sometimes bribed, sometimes cajoled, sometimes bullied until they told the “professionals” what they wanted to hear.

In what is probably the best account of all this, Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker’s book, Satan’s Silence, the authors describe how Dr. Astrid Heger, then of the Children’s Institute International, which fomented the McMartin hysteria, questioned one girl who repeatedly denied being abused.  Heger tells the little girl:

I don’t want to hear any more “no’s.  No, no!  Detective Dog and we are going to figure this out.  Every little boy and girl in the whole school got touched like that … I think there’s something to tell me about touching.”

That’s far from the worst example.  Watch the documentary accompanying the Times story for others:

But I mention the example involving Heger here because Heger now runs the clinic that’s the first stop for medical and mental health examinations for thousands of children taken from their parents by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.  The clinic is right down the hall from theparking place shelter she wants to keep.

Both now and during the McMartin case, Heger had only the best of intentions.  But she's mistaken now as well.  She claims that if her shelter is closed “rates will go back up of [sic] reabuse.”  But according to the excellent database maintained by the California Child Welfare Indicators Project, the rate of reabuse didn’t go down in the years since the shelter opened – it stayed the same.

The other reason to remember McMartin is the devastation left in its wake – not just the lives destroyed by legal bills, at best, and jail terms at worst.  But all the children who lost their families, and all the children who actually were persuaded they were abused when in fact they were not.  Click on the comments tab for the Times story and you’ll find a comment from someone who says he was one of them.

And even that is not the end of the damage.

The hysteria was just starting to abate when my book, Wounded Innocents, was published in 1990.  At that time I wrote:

When hoaxes are exposed, they cast suspicion on all children who say they have been abused and make it easier for the public to retreat back into denial of a very real problem.
Recently there have been charges that the problem of false allegations in [divorce and] custody cases is beginning to produce a backlash.  Instead of automatically believing the charge, some judges are said to be automatically disbelieving.  If so, the blame rests squarely with the child savers who started the hysteria.  They have managed to find one more way to destroy children in order to save them. 
If that’s happening now in some cases, there may be a variety of reasons.  But one reason can be summed up in one word: McMartin.