Credit: Michael Scott on Flickr, under Creative Commons
(WOMENSENEWS)--In his explosive new book, "The Witchhunt Narrative," Brown University Professor Ross Cheit challenges everything you think you know about the "day care center" hysteria of the 1980s.
The infamous California McMartin case, for example, was widely perceived as a terrible injustice where innocent adults were persecuted based on statements from hysterical parents, bad cops, fascist prosecutors and incompetent children. But as it turns out in this book, it wasn't such an injustice after all.
Several of the teachers charged were innocent, but the underlying claims about many children being sexually abused by Ray Buckey (aided by his mother) were quite credible. In fact, about a dozen kids made credible statements about abuse two months before they even met the social workers who were later blamed and maligned for causing the children to lie.
The handling of the McMartin case is where Cheit's book shows its strength. It might have been tempting to sweep with a broad brush and assume that if the kids were telling the truth about Buckey they must have been telling the truth about all the teachers. Cheit took the time to carefully examine the evidence and wound up concluding that some charges were supported by substantial evidence while others should never have been brought.
Cheit, a lawyer with a doctorate in public policy, meticulously documents the evidence from many of the high-profile cases and proves time and time again that nearly all the day care center cases were based on credible and compelling evidence. The children in many of the stories he discusses made statements independent from one another, free from the influence of parents, police or anyone else. Contrary to the theme of much media coverage, there was no reason to suspect the children were being made to lie by vindictive parents.
In addition to the McMartin case, Cheit unpacks the truth about the "Country Walk" case from Florida, where kids were discredited for make-believe talk about "riding on sharks." Turns out one child mentioned sharks because he had seen a Jacques Cousteau television program. Another indicated his interest in a stuffed animal shark in the interview room during one of the investigations.
That was it with the sharks but the public had no way of knowing that the statements about sharks had nothing to do with the children's credibility about abuse because the news stories did not explain why two of the kids talked about sharks.
I was disappointed to see that one of the most celebrated cases of this time was mentioned in the book but not analyzed. The "Little Rascals" case from Edenton, N.C., was the focus of a documentary by well-known filmmaker Ofra Bikel, whose reputation was challenged by her film, "Innocence Lost."
Bikel opined that the owners of the Little Rascals' day care center were railroaded by children who made wildly incredible claims. For example, Bikel showcased the testimony of a little girl who said she'd been molested on a spaceship. When asked on cross-examination whether the spaceship was "real," the child said "yes." Bikel omitted crucial context on that. On re-direct examination about the spaceship the little girl explained that the day care center had taken the kids to a carnival and that the child had been molested on one of the spaceship rides.
That particular story isn't in this book, but it is packed with many like it. Even the most skeptical reader will find it difficult to deny that they were snookered by the media coverage to some extent, which means someone owes an awful lot of abused children an apology.
Because truth matters, Cheit's book will at least bring new healing to the victims, many of whom are now parents of young children themselves, who have waited decades for the truth to be told.
It took a painstaking 15 years for Cheit to research and write the book, no doubt because of confidentiality laws that made it hard for him to gain quick access to transcripts and other official documents. And given the nature of the topic, the book required multiple legal reviews.
The benefit of such rigorous review is that the book is meticulously researched, carefully written and filled with charts and references to prove each and every fact about what really happened.
For readers who learned about these cases from news media, this book will be a shocking revelation of how media can skew criminal cases to the unfair disadvantage of victims because serious distortions of the truth, if not outright lies, are liberally permitted in U.S. courtrooms as defense but not prosecution tactics.
This is not to say cops and prosecutors always tell the truth, but they can at least get in serious trouble for lying in court (cases can be dismissed, evidence can be suppressed).
No similar sanctions apply when lies come from the defense side and when reporters write about the lies. They gain legitimacy in media simply because the public assumes statements made in court, especially if then published in a newspaper, must have some basis in reality.
At long last, an unassailable, fact-based book belies the nonsense.
Wendy Murphy is a professor of sexual violence law at New England Law/Boston. A former sex crimes prosecutor, Murphy has written numerous law review and pop culture articles on violence against women and children. Her first book, "And Justice For Some," was released in hardcover in 2007 and was recently updated and re-released in paperback.