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Sexual Abuse

Child Testimony In Day Care Center Sexual Abuse Cases

Between 1983 and 1991, a series of cases involving allegations of sexual abuse by day care center workers drew national attention. During this period, investigations of suspected sexual abuse of preschool children by their teachers took place in more than 100 U.S. cities. Many persons were convicted of crimes, but others were either acquitted or had their convictions overturned on appeal. The key issue in these cases was whether the children involved had told the truth or whether their testimony had been tainted by the way they were interviewed by parents, social workers, and psychologists. Though this type of multiple victim, multiple offender sexual abuse charge has disappeared, the issue of the credibility of children discussing sexual matters and sexual abuse remains a charged issue.

The most famous case involved the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. In 1984 authorities charged Virginia McMartin, age 76; her daughter Peggy McMartin Buckey; her grandson Raymond Buckey; a granddaughter; and three female teachers with sexually abusing 120 children. The children reported violent rituals where rabbits were mutilated and the children were forced to touch corpses. Eventually prosecutors dropped charges for lack of evidence against everyone except Peggy Buckey and her son Raymond. They went on trial in 1987.

In January 1990, after the longest (two-and-a-half years) and most expensive ($15 million) criminal trial in U.S. history, Peggy and Raymond Buckey were acquitted on 52 counts of CHILD MOLESTATION. The jury deadlocked on 12 counts of molestation against Raymond Buckey and on one count of conspiracy against both defendants. The charge against Peggy Buckey was dismissed, but Raymond was retried on 8 of the 13 counts. In July 1990 his second trial ended in a mistrial, and the case was finally dismissed.

The McMartin preschool case revealed troubling questions about the way the investigation had been conducted and how evidence had been obtained from young children. The initial allegation of abuse was made by a mother later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. She accused Raymond Buckey of molesting her son. The police investigated and declined to file charges because of lack of evidence. The Manhattan police chief then sent a letter to the 200 parents of past or present McMartin pre-school students and alleged that Buckey may have molested their children. Parents were urged to question their children about any sexual abuse.

The letter caused a panic. Hundreds of children were given medical exams and interviewed by a group of psychologists at a counseling center. During these interviews, children were asked leading and suggestive questions and were rewarded for giving the "right" answers. Children reported bizarre events, including being taken into subterranean passages at the school where animal sacrifices were performed. No passages nor any traces of animal sacrifices were found at the school. Several children reported that they were taken on airplanes and molested.

At trial the jurors had difficulty distinguishing between fact and fantasy in the children's accounts. The prosecution argued that children seldom lie about abuse but that they are often reluctant to disclose what has happened to them. Therefore, the prosecution said, a therapist interviewing a child will often use suggestive questioning, prompting, and manipulation to encourage the child to disclose the truth about sexual abuse. As for the bizarre tales, they were simply the children's way of dealing with what had happened to them. The jurors did not accept these explanations, expressing concern that the children's testimony had been influenced by adults. The videotapes of the interviews showed therapists asking leading questions and the children appearing to try to provide answers that would please the interviewers.

Prosecutors and many therapists contend that children rarely lie about sexual abuse and that the implanting of false memories through leading and suggestive questions is unlikely. They worry that refusing to believe children's testimony victimizes the children a second time and sends a message that society does not want to hear about sexual abuse.

Others are more skeptical. About 20 studies have shown that suggestive questioning about events that never happened can contaminate young children's memories with fantasies. When police, social workers, therapists, and prosecutors conduct multiple interviews, details they provide in their questions and statements are likely to find their way into the statements of children. Children will use their imagination and confabulate stories that are richly detailed but are a mix of fact and fantasy. This is not to say that children are not to be believed. Children rarely lie when they spontaneously disclose abuse on their own or when a person seeks the complete story with the least probing or leading yes-no questions.

The McMartin preschool outcome has forced investigators to learn better ways of asking children questions. Many interviewers are trained to gain a child's trust, evaluate the child's ability to remember and give details of past events, and let the child tell what happened in her own words. Interviews are generally videotaped to allow both the prosecution and the defense to evaluate the investigator's methods.

FURTHER READINGS

DeBenedictis, Don J. 1990. "McMartin Preschool's Lessons: Abuse Case Plagued by Botched Investigation, Too Many Counts." ABA Journal 76 (April).

Goldberg, Marion Zenn. 1990. "Child Witnesses: Lessons Learned from the McMartin Trials." Trial 26 (October).

Moss, Debra Cassens. 1987. "Are the Children Lying?" ABA Journal 73 (May).

Additional topics

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