More Victims of the 80's Child Abuse Panic

Younger readers will be forgiven for not fully understanding just how credulous the American public became during the late 80's and early 90's as the media, prosecutors, and various advocacy groups worked hard to convince us every school was a sort of Road-Warrior-like playground for child predators.  Adult after adult were convicted based on bizarre stories about ritual murder, sexually depraved clowns, and all kinds of other dark erotic nightmares.  In most cases there was little or no physical evidence -- only stories from children, usually coerced after numerous denials by "specialists."  These specialists claimed to be able to bring back repressed memories, but critics soon suspected they were implanting fantasies.

Scores of innocent people went to jail -- many still languish there, including targets of Janet Reno, who rode her fame from these high-profile false prosecutions all the way to the White House, and Martha Coakley, just missed parleying her bizarre prosecutions into a Senate seat  (Unbelievably, the Innocence Project, which does so much good work and should be working on some of Reno's victims, actually invited her on to their board).

Radley Balko has yet another example I was not familiar with.   The only thing worse than these prosecutions is just how viciously current occupants of the DA office fight to prevent them from being questioned or overturned.

I am particularly sensitive to this subject because I sat on just such a jury in Dallas around 1992.    In this case the defendant was the alleged victim's dad.  The initial accuser was the baby sitter, and red lights started going off for me when she sat in the witness box saying that she turned the dad into police after seeing another babysitter made a hero on the Oprah show.  The babysitter in my case clearly had fantasies of being on Oprah.  Fortunately, defense attorneys by 1992 had figured out the prosecution game and presented a lot of evidence against, and had a lot of sharp cross-examination of, the "expert" who had supposedly teased out the alleged victim's suppressed memories.

We voted to acquit in about an hour, and it only took that long because there were two morons who misunderstood pretty much the whole foundation of our criminal justice system -- they kept saying the guy was probably innocent but they just didn't want to take the risk of letting a child molester go.  Made me pretty freaking scared to every put my fate in the hands of a jury  (ironically the jury in the famous McMartin pre-school case was hung 10-2 in favor of acquittal, with two holdouts).

Anyway, one oddity we did not understand as a jury was that we never heard from the victim.  I supposed it was some kind of age thing, that she was too young to testify.  As it turns out, we learned afterwards that she did not testify for the prosecution because she spent most of her time telling anyone who would listen that her dad was innocent and the whole thing was made up by the sitter.   Obviously the prosecution wasn't going to call her, and her dad would not allow his attorneys to call her as a witness, despite her supportive testimony, because he did not want to subject his daughter to hostile cross-examination.  This is the guy the state wanted to prosecute -- he risked jail to spare his daughter stress, when in turn the state was more than happy to put that little girl through whatever it took to grind out a false prosecution.

update: This is a tragic and amazing recantation by a child forced to lie by prosecutors in one of these cases.  Very brief excerpt of a long article:

I remember feeling like they didn't pick just anybody--they picked me because I had a good memory of what they wanted, and they could rely on me to do a good job. I don't think they thought I was telling the truth, just that I was telling the same stories consistently, doing what needed to be done to get these teachers judged guilty. I felt special. Important....

I remember going in our van with all my brothers and sisters and driving to airports and houses and being asked if we had been [abused in] these places. I remember telling people [that the McMartin teachers] took us to Harry's Meat Market, and describing what I thought the market was like. I had never been in there before, and I was fairly certain I was going to get in trouble for what I was saying because it probably was not accurate. I imagined someone would say, "They don't have that kind of freezer there." And they did say that. But then someone said, "Well, they could have changed it." It was like anything and everything I said would be believed.

The lawyers had all my stories written down and knew exactly what I had said before. So I knew I would have to say those exact things again and not have anything be different, otherwise they would know I was lying. I put a lot of pressure on myself. At night in bed, I would think hard about things I had said in the past and try to repeat only the things I knew I'd said before.


  1. TJIC:


    > Made me pretty freaking scared to every put my fate in the hands of a jury.


  2. Dr. T:

    These absurd prosecutions proved to me that our entire system of law enforcement and justice is not just damaged but totally broken. The writers of our Constitution made a huge mistake in the Sixth Amendment that specified trial "by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed". Our adult population contains too many fools and idiots who believe that prosecutors and police won't charge, arrest, and prosecute an innocent person.

    I believe that we need major changes:

    1. District Attorneys and Assistant DAs should be appointed by government panels and chosen from lawyers who have received special training. DAs should be forbidden from running for any office while serving as DA. These rules would minimize the politics of the prosecutors.

    2. Watchdog groups would oversee arrests and prosecutions and assess the professionalism of the DAs and police. Any law enforcement person who knowingly lies about a case, hides or alters evidence, or fails to report all evidence would be fired and arrested on felony charges.

    3. Trial judges would be specialists. Some would handle violent crimes, some would handle white collar crimes, some would handle property crimes, etc.

    4. Juries would be comprised of paid professionals and would also be specialists. Jury composition would vary by trial type. For example: a trial for embezzling would have someone trained in accounting and in business operations.

    5. Watchdog groups would review trials to ensure that the judges and jurors are competent and objective. Formal investigations would be triggered when incompetence or favoritism are suspected.

  3. GoneWithTheWind:

    And we thought witch trials were a thing of the past. I once sat on a barstool next to a lawyer who told me that accusing the father of child abuse was the easist way to get his client all she wanted so it become a standard procedure for him.

  4. Skeptical:

    I'm a baby boomer. As a kid in the 50s/60s, we weren't protected as extremely as today. We had freedom, and we learned some responsibility as a result. I always walked or rode my bicycle to school (until high school when it was too far away). We played in the streets, wandered miles around neighborhoods, and parents didn't freak out.

    Somehow, these days, kids have become a focus for the fears of many. Even as people are aborting fetuses and reducing their fertility to below the replacement rate, they are scared to death for their already born child. We grossly overspend on education, because nobody can say no to spending "for the children" even if it goes to pay teachers who can never be fired no matter how incompetent.

    I watched the child abuse prosecutions of the 80s and 90s and was pretty suspicious. The McMartin case, in particular, was all over the news, and yet the assertions made about the "abuse" were utterly implausible. Furthermore, although child sexual abuse is a disgusting activity and clearly a crime, the harm one incident does to one child is probably no more than a beating or other assault, but we have "experts" who are still steeped in the totally discredited Freudian based theories that sex is the most important thing in the development of the psyche, and that memories childhood traumas are routinely suppressed even as they ruin the person's life. It turns out that repressed traumatic memories, the fodder of many abuse civil suit attorneys, is extremely rare. Most people remember traumatic events extremely well.

    Meanwhile, the small percentage of real sexual predators were infiltrating unsuspecting service organizations such as churches, the Boy Scouts, and schools. Naturally, the only organization where you hear about this is the Catholic Church, but that's a story for another day.

    Studies have shown that it is extremely rare for a biological parent to commit child sexual abuse - extremely rare. It is rare, but less so, for step-parents.

    This is, as GoneWithTheWind writes, the equivalent of modern witch trials. It is also an example of how we need to change the prosecutor role to reduce the incentives for, well, witch hunts.

  5. chuck martel:

    Mothers that have developed a hatred for their children's fathers know the ease with which they can ruin a man's life by initiating unfounded child abuse charges and the tactic is far from uncommon. Adult males are reluctant to even be around anyone else's children now. It's created a sad situation previously unknown in human history. Unfortunately there may be no Hades as a final destination for the monsters that indulge in this prosecution.

  6. perlhaqr:

    So, ironically, these kids were abused, just not by the people who got put on trial.

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  8. Dan Smith:

    There was a similar set of alleged child abuse persecution near where I live--Jordan, Minnesota--a laid back, bucolic river town just southwest of Minneapolis. The scenario was the same: an aggressive female prosecutor, multiple accusations and stories of anal rape and murder, none of which was corroborated by physical evidence. No one was missing, no bodies were found, no pediatrician testified about what you would expect to find on physical exam of the victim. Nevertheless, people were convicted and had their lives ruined.

  9. DrTorch:

    Skeptical alludes to something I've been wondering about: the abuses w/in the religious institutions. I have been wondering if those abuses (which currently seem more likely to have actually happened) are connected w/ the "panic" you cite.

    I can think of three things
    1. Many parents were the victims of abuse, and they knew it could happen and reacted very strongly. Perhaps prosecuters were victims and that inspired their professional pursuit and their "zeal".

    2. We're being duped today.

    3. No connection, just a coincidence.

    Is anyone researching this?

  10. NormD:

    Great Post. Such a sad topic. Its just astounding that prosecutors can get away with this crap.

    One implication that may not be clear is that any prosecutor willing to behave this way n one case likely does not limit themselves to just these cases. If one looked, I am sure that you would find other equally egregious behavior for more mundane crimes.

    The one problem that I have with the story is that I have never seen a solid proposal as to what to do to stop it. Options:

    1. Make prosecutors criminally libel

    Few people will want to become prosecutors. Prosecutors pay will vastly increase. More courts and judges. All criminals innocent and guilty will charge their prosecutors with crimes.

    2. Rely on the good sense of our criminal justice system

    I think that's what we currently do and it seems to have holes

    3. Some kind of rethink of the whole system of justice to make it more efficient and just. Quite a project, although it would be interesting to discuss.

    4. ?

  11. John Moore:

    A friend has suggested that a solution is to bar former prosecutors from elective office. That helps to remove the grandstanding incentive.

  12. L. Brooks:

    Unfortunately, something not unique to the U.S.. We've a couple of high profile cases here in Canada during the same time period. People's lives were ruined and the those responsible got to skate.