Column: How one SoCal preschool started a national hysteria over false child abuse crimes


You could divide us into those old enough never to forget it, and those of us who never heard of it. Thirty-five years ago, seven adults who taught at or ran the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach faced criminal charges, which eventually ran into the hundreds, of abuse of children at the school — and in the most fantastical ways: in naked games, sacrificing animals before children’s eyes, secret tunnels, flying in airplanes.

It took seven years and $15 million in taxpayer money to wind up with not a single conviction in a case that had, by then, generated many others like it around the country. There was a zeal, even a hysteria, for prosecutions of child abuse crimes that didn’t happen.

Richard Beck detailed them and the consequences in his book “We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s,” about the lives of children and adults blighted, a justice system “fail” and, more deeply, a backlash against working mothers who paid others to take care of their kids. It was the McMartin case, the longest criminal proceeding in our history, that started it.

This was a kind of hysteria that spread across any number of states. Can you track back to one moment, to one thing, that got this ball rolling?

I don't know if there's any one single moment that can account for how far the hysteria spread, but certainly Southern California — the McMartin trial — was the case that energized the whole thing. It was the first one to receive national news media attention, and in the wake of McMartin getting attention from places like “20/20” or “60 Minutes,” you started to see cases popping up elsewhere.

One of the things I was really interested to find in my research was that it's not the case that hysterias take off or really get momentum just because someone has a crazy idea that they start spreading around.

The thing that allowed these allegations to grow and grow and metastasize and really spin out of control was the participation of all of these different institutions in the case: the detectives investigating it, a place called Children's Institute International, where the preschoolers were interviewed using new techniques that had not really been applied to forensic interviews yet.

So what started as one parent worrying that her son was being sexually abused eventually turned into allegations that every teacher at the school was in on the conspiracy. The list of allegations is really incredible.

But the mantra you heard over and over again then was, “We believe the children.”

And that mantra was somewhat ironic in light of how the more outlandish allegations were actually produced. You had these interview sessions where therapists would talk to the children who had gone to the school and asked them what had happened, and would essentially, in a nice way, refused to take “no” for an answer.

Again and again in these interviews, the children start off by saying nothing [happened]: We never played any kind of naked game, it was just normal school games. And then the therapist would ask again and again and again.

These children are very young; they’re 5, 4, some of them as young as 3.

And they eventually got the drift that the interview was not going to be allowed to end until they started telling the interviewer what he or she wanted to hear. And they’re little kids, so when they start making stuff up, it's going to be pretty fantastical.

So this motto “we believe the children” is ironic, because if they had believed the children in the first place, things never would have gotten that far.

I think that the children involved in these cases were certainly victims of something. I think it's just that they were victimized by the people who were supposed to be helping them as part of this case rather than by their daycare teachers.

In the wake of McMartin, there were, as you write about, a series of massive, extraordinary allegations — in Central California, a child abuse ring with, I think, satanic overtones; in Minnesota, the same thing.

It really did become a panic on a national level. There were cases in Florida, there were cases in New York. There was a case in Massachusetts. There were cases in Washington state, in Texas.

And were all of those cases just about as big a, shall we say, nothing-burger as the McMartin case?

More or less. You would have some cases where there would be some kind of abuse — though not very outlandish abuse — happening that would be the prompt for the initial investigation. But then you would have the allegations and the charges spiral out of control in a similar way, such that even if the case had its roots in something real, you wind up with a lot of people who were totally innocent of any wrongdoing being charged.

And yes, there were certainly many cases where it is just sort of a figment of your imagination like it was with McMartin.

People did go to prison across the country and in some cases served a long time before they got out, when they were, I believe, factually innocent.

My recollection is that it was somewhere around 100 or 200 who were convicted and spent time in prison. And it took a long time for a number of them to get out. People did really serious prison time for these crimes that not only they didn't commit, but crimes that didn't occur.

People naturally draw parallels to the Salem witch trials, of false accusations by children, young women — teenage and sub-teen girls in that case. Are those fair parallels?

The parallel is there, but not sort of for the reasons that people think. Because I don't think of these cases as involving false allegations made by children. I think of these cases as involving false allegations made by adults who use children as their mouthpieces.

And in Salem, the situation was similar.

When the girls began having their fits, they weren't mostly talking about being harmed by witches. They were talking just as frequently about joyous flights of religious ecstasy and seeing angels come down from heaven smiling at them.

And the adults totally ignored those parts of the girls’ ecstatic religious outbursts. They just focused in a really single-minded way on the parts about witches and [the girls] being hurt, and emphasized those.

So like the daycare hysteria in the ’80s, the Salem witch trials were a case of adults ignoring things children said that they didn't want to hear, emphasizing or overemphasizing things they did want to hear. And what children had to say for themselves ended up not mattering a whole lot.

How did the justice system change? Did it learn any lessons from these cases?

I think that's sort of a mixed bag. In terms of developing protocols for interviewing children who have been potentially victimized in one way or another, improvements were made in the wake of this.

A lot was done, especially, to distinguish between a therapeutic interview and a forensic interview.

What is the difference?

The difference is, a therapeutic interview is one that takes as its primary concern the emotional well-being of the child being interviewed. The forensic interview focus is on eliciting the truth of what happened.

The lines between those two things got blurred over and over again in McMartin, to the detriment of those interviews’ accuracy. So you can call that a positive lesson that the justice system learned.

But I think in a lot of other ways, it was very destructive. Enormous amounts of power were handed over to prosecutors over the course of the decade, because of the perceived excessive difficulty of getting convictions in cases like this.

And if you look at the incarceration rate in the country, and the period during which they started to really explode — if you think about the fact that prosecutors put those people in prison, I think it's pretty easy to say that the pendulum swung too far in that direction over the course of the ’80s. ...

What role did the press play in the McMartin case and the subsequent cases across the country?

Initially the role was pretty destructive. Local TV news was one of the main engines of spreading the allegations around in Los Angeles during the early days in the McMartin trial.

And certainly the “20/20” investigative report on the McMartin trial was appalling. There was a sort of pro forma disclosure about how defendants have to be presumed innocent until found guilty, after which the broadcast pivoted immediately back to the assumption that all the defendants were guilty.

It wasn't until a little bit later in the decade that you started to see more valuable investigative reporting pop up. So journalism eventually did kind of catch up and begin to do its job. But certainly in the early stages it was part of the problem.

It's not clear to me, though, that major newspapers have figured out how to apply those lessons in real time. It is certainly possible to look back on your failures and say here's what we did wrong. It's very, very hard to prevent similar failures from happening again when some new kind of hysteria or panic pops up and people are agitated all over again.

What got you interested in these child care/daycare ritual abuse charges?

I was part of a little research group in New York. We were researching the legacy of a second-wave radical feminism. As part of that research, I got interested in the anti-feminist backlash that started to happen in the 1980s,

I heard about one of these cases in the course of researching this backlash, because my argument in the book is that ultimately what produced the hysteria was this anxiety about women entering the workforce, the supposed breakdown of the nuclear family.

Daycare then becomes a magnet for a lot of worry, because that's where mothers would leave their children to go work during the day.

There's this shift happening in how young children are cared for during the day, where the assumption was previously that upper-middle-class mothers would stay at home and take care of their kids. Now they're leaving them with “strangers,” and who knows what could be happening to them?

I heard about one of these cases while researching this anti-feminist backlash, and the thing that shocked me the most about it initially was that I had never heard of it.

I'm 32 now. I was 24 or so when I started doing this research. And asking around, it became clear to me that people over the age of 40 remember these cases because they'd heard about them in the news, but that people under the age of 30 had never heard of them at all.

For something to be that big a deal at the time and then to just kind of vanish from historical memory like that suggests to me that there's something about the problem that we were turning away from back then, that are still unresolved today, that still make people uncomfortable.

There are probably repercussions that you can point to that don't seem evident on the face of it: the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which was about children being held and sexually abused in the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., and that Hillary Clinton had something to do with it.

I was thinking about Pizzagate, and there is continuity between the daycare panic and Pizzagate insofar as the daycare panic in the ’80s really cemented the child molester as like the worst thing you can be in America.

There's a kind of public contempt reserved for child molesters that isn't even reserved for murderers. In prison populations, child molesters are exposed to especially brutal amounts of retaliation and violence.

And I think with Pizzagate, you had these right-wingers on the internet who were looking for something horrible to say about people at the DNC [Democratic National Committee] and stumbled across the idea that, well, what if they're all child molesters?

Did anything good come out of this?

Honestly, I don't think so. You can look at these small improvements that were made to investigative protocols and be grateful for those.

But this was a tragedy; certainly it was for the people who got caught up in these allegations.

There's a lot of talk today about people being accused as part of MeToo having their “lives ruined,” when in fact it tends to mean that they'll get some negative press coverage for a month or two, and then they'll go back about their business.

But the people who worked at McMartin preschool really did have their lives ruined by this case — including the children who got wrapped up in it.

I interviewed one woman; she's an adult now, but she was a child who went to one of these preschools.

She agreed to be interviewed anonymously, and she talked about the years and years of therapy that were required for her to come to grips with this insane thing that had happened to her, and the guilt she felt about having played a role as a 4- or 5-year-old and sending her innocent daycare teacher to prison.

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