Friday, February 6, 2009

The 80's-90's Daycare Sexual Abuse Hysteria

I have this tendency, a tendency in which I am certainly not alone in possessing, to become interested in completely random subjects and devote excessive periods to studying them. I find this tendency gets worse when I'm sick, as I am now.

Subject of the hour: the day care sex abuse hysteria from the late 1980's to early 1990's. This was a moral panic touched off by an increase in day care centers and parents becoming insecure about them. A mentally ill grandmother and a schizophrenic alcoholic brought up some rather crazed accusations involving quite spectacular stuff - orgies, torture, child pornography rings, secret hidden tunnels, livestock and pet butchery, blood drinking, feces eating, Satanic worship and rituals... some daycare providers were even had a Satanic power of flight. All of this (minus the flight, which was generally ignored) was held credible by people across the nation, law enforcement officials and courts who rigged or forced convictions, and of course parents who knew 'in their hearts' that this had been true all along.

Of course, it wasn't. Kids were bullied into confessing, the lives of those accused were completely ruined, and, more subtly, I suspect some actual abuse cases were pushed under the rug once they all got the taint of the hysteria. And now arrogant young folk like me look back on this and say, "What were they thinking?"

Moral panics. They're fascinating things, really.

This article from the New York Times gives an interesting take on the whole thing. A choice quote:
In the prototypical witch hunts in Europe and in the Massachusetts colony, the accused were often scapegoats for some calamity -- disease, bad harvests, the birth of a deformed child. In the witch hunts of the 80's, there was no such injury to be avenged or repaired. There was, however, a psychological need to be fulfilled. Our willingness to believe in ritual abuse was grounded in anxiety about putting children in day care at a time when mothers were entering the work force in unprecedented numbers. It was as though there were some dark, self-defeating relief in trading niggling everyday doubts about our children's care for our absolute worst fears -- for a story with monsters, not just human beings who didn't always treat our kids exactly as we would like; for a fate so horrific and bizarre that no parent, no matter how vigilant, could have ever prevented it.

Many of those of my generation (I'm 23) may look at this with bemusement, as something 'our parents' worried about, something irrelevant, even, if an era post-9/11. But then again, most of those who fell for this craze lived through or had parents who lived through at least one World War; we are all equally susceptible to this brand of madness, I suspect.

Though I have to admit, as a writer, my first thought isn't so much "What can I, or we as a society, do to stop something like this from happening again?" so much as "How can I use this in one of the stories I'm writing?" I take comfort in the fact that my immorality is a shared one.


Anonymous said...

You are getting confused about the McMartin case.

The "schizophrenic alcoholic" you are referring to was presumably Judy Johnson, who was the first parent to complain about sexual abuse at the McMartin primary school to the police. However, she was not the first parent to report that her child had complained of sexual abuse at McMartin.

Johnson had taken her son to a doctor for persistent rectal bleeding, and the doctor had referred her son to psychology centre on suspicion of sexual assult. The child disclosed sexual abuse at McMartin. It emerged that a number of other children were also being treated at the same centre for suspected sexual abuse at McMartin. Subsequently, most current and former students of the McMartin school would also disclose being sexually abused at the school.

Johnson's behaviour was erratic and she subsequently died of an alcohol-related illness. She was never diagnosed as schizophrenic, although many journalists have since claimed that she was. She was clearly a very distressed and unhappy woman who drank herself to death whilst her young son was on the stand testifying in a sexual abuse trial. I don't know why so many journalists and researchers have found this humourous, by there you go.

You might want to look a little deeper into this case. It's much more complicated then you think. One sceptical article in the Times isn't the most accurate of sources for a budding writer.

Jake Jesson said...

Hello, Anonymous -

Thank you for your comment!

For the record, it was Wikipedia that I was browsing for information on this; the news article was something I ran into that I thought was well done.

However, I'm not talking about the alleged child abuse in this specific case. The fact that her wild claims of satanic rites were taken seriously is what's funny, in a macabre sort of way. The claim of child abuse itself? Not funny.

What's interesting is the moral panic that ensued, and the fact that people were willing to believe claims that were absolutely ludicrous (satanic rituals, supernatural powers, etc etc). Whether or not child abuse took place there is not a question I can answer, nor have I tried.

(Though I should point out that child sexual abuse primarily occurs in the home, from parents, relatives, and friends of the family. Not day care centers, rendering the panic pointless.)

I ought to point out, too, that the story of a distressed and unhappy woman who drank herself to death out of misery over her son's travails is as much an invention as journalists' portraits about a crazy schizophrenic who drank herself to death because she was unbalanced. Far be it from me to pick one.

Jake Jesson said...

Oh, and yes I did combine the facts of two cases in such a way that it may imply that the cases were the same; in reality, to be sure, they were only connected (so far as I know) by being part of the same cultural phenomenon - the moral panic. I apologize for my oversimplifications...