Bookmarks, Who Do You Trust?

By Cole, Diane | Psychotherapy Networker, November 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Bookmarks, Who Do You Trust?


Cole, Diane, Psychotherapy Networker


Bookmarks

Who Do You Trust?

Revisiting the McMartin Preschool Case

By Diane Cole

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s

By Richard Beck

Public Affairs. 323 pages.

9781610392877

The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children

By Ross Cheit

Oxford University Press. 544 pages.

9780199931224

The McMartin Preschool child sexual abuse case, a story that generated more controversy within the mental health field than any news story in the past 40 years, began in 1983 when a mother reported to the police that her two-and-a-half-year-old son had been sodomized by a male teacher at the school. The police took the charge very seriously. They identified a suspect and sent a letter en masse to the 200-some families whose children attended the school. In a tone all the more alarming for its matter-of-factness, the letter (from the local police chief in Manhattan Beach, CA) asked parents to question their preschoolers about any acts of "oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttock or chest area, and sodomy" they had witnessed or been subjected to. "Please keep this investigation strictly confidential," the letter went on to state. Looking back, it's hard to imagine a more incendiary way to inflame parental fears, and more missteps followed.

Over the next months, approximately 400 children were interviewed, using a battery of overtly leading questions and coercive techniques that constitute a textbook of how not to approach young children. Some of the children's stories became increasingly strange over the course of the interviews, including accounts of their taking part in satanic rituals led by school personnel and witnessing gruesome animal slaughters. Saturation media coverage further sensationalized the story, pumping the primal fears of protective parents everywhere. Prosecutors out to make their political careers were overly aggressive, charging suspects on insufficient evidence, holding them without bail. And yet, after a pretrial and two separate trials that resulted in a hung jury, all charges were dropped.

This outcome was unsettling on many levels, especially after so much time (seven years from the initial report to the jury's inability to reach a decision), money (the estimated cost of the prosecution was $15 million), and public outcry about children's safety on every talk show and in every publication. What were people to make of it all? It raised justified doubts about the methods by which the children's testimony was obtained-and subsequently did lead to the establishment of protocols in handling children's disclosure, interviews, and testimony, as well as to stronger regulation of daycare centers. Credibility questions spilled over to various other preschool child-abuse cases that were making headlines in different locales around the country and, in the minds of a now skeptical public, melding into a single phenomenon, a witch-hunt that falsely targeted innocent teachers, ruining their reputations and wrecking their lives.

In addition, a highly critical spotlight was placed on the therapy profession itself. Were the therapists called in to consult on this case, as well as others around the country, too easily swayed by the unreliable memories and uncorroborated accusations of children and parents? Had sympathy for the children unintentionally led to suggestive questioning, tainted testimony, even the implanting of false memories? Therapists increasingly drawn into cases where "recovered" memories of childhood abuse stirred up intense family conflicts themselves asked whom they should believe in abuse cases filled with ambiguities. How were they to make sure they didn't injure their clients or their families?

Some therapists took the critical jabs thrown them as valuable feedback, compelling the profession to be more objective when child abuse is disclosed, making sure not to rush to judgment, but to listen with disciplined, open-minded sensitivity. …

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