Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Two Decades after McMartin: A Follow-Up of 22 Convicted Day Care Employees

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Two Decades after McMartin: A Follow-Up of 22 Convicted Day Care Employees

Article excerpt

It has been more that two decades since the notorious McMartin Preschool case created a day care ritual abuse master-narrative that recruited many social workers into becoming involved in case-finding, investigations, interviewing and advocacy. The purpose of this article is threefold: it introduces a sample of 22 day care employees who were convicted in day care ritual abuse cases; it updates their current legal status; and it discusses the relevance of these cases to social workers who currently are being recruited by today's new master narratives about extra-familial sexual threats to children, whether from neighborhood pedophiles, child pornographers, parish priests or internet predators.

Keywords: day care, ritual abuse, social work


It has been more than two decades since the notorious McMartin Preschool case came to public attention. At the "Nightmare Nursery," as the Manhattan Beach, California preschool was quickly tagged by the popular press (Green, 1984), more than 350 past and present enrollees accused their providers of sexually abusing them in rituals that included such acts as blood-drinking, cannibalism and infant sacrifice.

The appalling nature of the allegations in the McMartin Preschool case not only contributed to that era's rising social anxiety about the sexual abuse of children (Best, 1990), but necessitated the coinage of a new term for talking about it. "Ritual abuse" was that term, and although there has never been a consensus definition of it, generally it is understood to refer to sexual abuse that is systematic, stylized and terrorizing, and that is carried out in the context of satanic, occult or magical rituals (APSAC, 1996).

Just as the earlier "discovery" of incest had created what Davis (2005, p. 28) describes as a "socially recognized story of victimization" that led to a "massive outpouring of victim testimonies," so the McMartin Preschool case created an "archetypically familiar plot," or master-narrative, of day care ritual abuse that led to aggressive case-finding by child protectionists; many of whom were social workers (deYoung, 2004, p. 25). As bizarre, improbable and wholly unsubstantiated as that master-narrative was, it was repeated over the ensuing decade in the investigations of as many as 100 day care centers in large cities and small towns across the country.

From its creation in the McMartin Preschool case, the master-narrative was a profoundly moral story. The alleged offender was depicted not just as a person who intends harm, but as evil; the alleged victim was seen not just as naive, but as innocent and thoroughly traumatized, and thus worthy of more than just sympathy and support, but of rescue and protection. This moral framing ideologically and materially recruited many social workers, that is, it influenced them to think and to act in ways that reified the narrative and constructed day care ritual abuse into an urgent social problem (deYoung, 2000; Victor, 1988).

It is important to emphasize that not all social workers were persuaded by this narrative. The profession was, and remains to this day, deeply divided over whether the allegations in these cases are credible accounts of ritual abuse, symbolic representations of some other form of abuse or trauma, or imaginative stories formed in conversational partnership with zealous interviewers and investigators. Those who were persuaded, however, often became involved in local case-finding, investigation, interviewing and/or advocacy. Thus, their recruitment had legal consequences for those day care employees who came under suspicion as ritual abusers.

In 1990, after the longest and most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history, Peggy McMartin Buckey was acquitted of all charges in the McMartin Preschool case. Her son, Raymond Buckey, was acquitted of all but 13 charges against him; retried on 8 of those charges, a mistrial was declared when the jury deadlocked, and all charges against him then were dismissed (Butler, Fukurai, Dimitrius, & Krooth, 2001). …

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