"And When Did You Last See Your Father?" by William Frederick Yeames, 1878
depicting English Puritan inquisitors grilling the child of a Royalist family
How hysterical parents, incompetent therapists and malicious
destroyed the lives of seven innocent North Carolinians – and
have yet to admit they were wrong
In the beginning, in 1989, more than 90 children at the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, North Carolina, accused a total of 20 adults with 429 instances of sexual abuse over a three-year period. It may have all begun with one parent's complaint about punishment given her child.
Among the alleged perpetrators: the sheriff and mayor. But prosecutors would charge only Robin Byrum, Darlene Harris, Elizabeth "Betsy" Kelly, Robert "Bob" Kelly, Willard Scott Privott, Shelley Stone and Dawn Wilson – the Edenton 7.
Along with sodomy and beatings, allegations included a baby killed with a handgun, a child being hung upside down from a tree and being set on fire and countless other fantastic incidents involving spaceships, hot air balloons, pirate ships and trained sharks.
By the time prosecutors dropped the last charges in 1997, Little Rascals had become North Carolina's longest and most costly criminal trial. Prosecutors kept defendants jailed in hopes at least one would turn against their supposed co-conspirators. Remarkably, none did.
Another shameful record: Five defendants had to wait longer to face their accusers in court than anyone else in North Carolina history.
Between 1991 and 1997, Ofra Bikel produced three extraordinary episodes on the Little Rascals case for the PBS series "Frontline." Although "Innocence Lost" did not deter prosecutors, it exposed their tactics and fostered nationwide skepticism and dismay.
With each passing year, the absurdity of the Little Rascals charges has become more obvious. But no admission of error has ever come from prosecutors, police, interviewers or parents.
This site is devoted to the issues raised by this case.
The unbearable emptiness of “n =”
May 24, 2013
“The research described is a study of a clinical sample of 72 women who allegedly sexually abused 332 children. The Sample is examined from a variety of perspectives, including whether the abuse was intrafamilial (n = 33), extrafamilial (n = 18), or both (n = 21); and whether the abuse involved multiple intrafamilial offenders (n = 33), a solo intrafamilial offender (n = 17), multiple extrafamilial offenders (n = 16), or solo extrafamilial offenders (n = 6). Social situational factors and individual deficits [mental illness (n = 23), mental retardation (n = 16), substance abuse (n = 37), and other maltreatment of their children (n = 61) that might lead women to sexually abuse children are examined. Case outcomes, including the number of confessions (n = 49), criminal prosecution (n = 3), and protection of victims (n = 44) are described.”
– From “A Clinical Sample of Women Who Have Sexually Abused Children” (abstract) by Kathleen Coulborn Faller in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse (Vol. 4, Issue 3, 1996)
What ever could Faller have been thinking as she wrote the words “72 women who allegedly sexually abused 332 children”? Surely she knew the historical absurdity of those numbers.
Did she simply choose to be oblivious? Or was she swallowed up by something more powerful than rationality?
Sheriff, mayor escaped prosecutors’ dragnet
May 22, 2013
“One of the biggest strengths for the prosecution was that these children would go home every night to a parent or parents fully aligned with the prosecution theory. The story line would be reinforced at dinner, bathtime, playtime, bedtime....
“The children were, of course, separated from further contact with the accused day care workers, and by the time of trial their young memories of the actual person had been replaced by the fictional person, if they could remember who the perpetrators were supposed to be at all.
“At one point, a Little Rascals child pointed to a picture of the sheriff as one of the defendants; this identification, of course, was selectively ignored.”
– From “The
Metanarrative of Suspicion in Late Twentieth-Century America”
by Sandra Baringer (2004)
Edenton’s mayor was also among the initially accused, who numbered either 20, 24 or “dozens,” depending on the source. The inevitable question: How did prosecutors come to choose the Edenton Seven? Who lucked out – and why?
A rare chance to watch the story unfold
May 20, 2013
The day-care ritual-abuse era generated a wealth of words, many of which have been cited here. Aside from the epic “Innocence Lost,” however, little video evidence remains.
Just made available on our Case Materials page is the hour-long 1999 CBS documentary “Child Sex Scandals: Modern Day Witch-Hunt?”
Part of correspondent Mike Wallace’s “20th Century” series, it includes basic coverage of the McMartin, LIttle Rascals and Kelly Michaels day-care prosecutions, as well as the closely-akin “recovered memory” movement.
What? ‘A hotel that doesn’t take American Express?’
May 17, 2013
From Betsy Kelly’s comments at the ceremony awarding Ofra Bikel the 2007 John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism:
“I stand before you tonight because of Ofra Bikel. She spent many hours with my family and with some of the most hurtful and hateful people. She turned many [viewers] around to believe in the truth. The day she walked into my life I had somebody to hold onto... and she opened the door and she led me out.....”
From Nancy Smith Barrow’s comments:
“I thought: She comes from another planet, she doesn’t speak Southern, what can she do?
“I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to climb into that hole we were in...
“Ofra took us where we were, where hell was raining down, where people who have known us since we were born would cross the street not to meet us....
“Ofra, I owe you for the most precious thing in my life [my sister], you brought her back.....”
From Ofra Bikel’s comments:
“I was this close to not doing [‘Innocence Lost’]. I said [to assistant Rachel Dretzin], ‘Are you crazy? What are we going to do in a little town with a little hotel that doesn’t take American Express?’.... Anyway, we went, and the first day I realized we were staying....
“The whole country was awash in sexual abuse stories, but there was nothing less likely than for Edenton, North Carolina, to be involved in this satanic conspiracy... The town was calm on outside but seething on the inside with these rumors of terrible sexual abuse, started by one kid, then three kids, then 10 kids, then 80 and then close to a hundred... until they decided to close the list....
“[After the last Little Rascals charges were dropped] I was left with two very strong feelings: how many things can go wrong in the justice system.... and what a powerful tool we had in our hands with the television documentary....”
Unaccountable prosecutors: A familiar story
May 15, 2013
“As one of the lead prosecutors, [Elizabeth Lederer] helped lock up five young people [the Central Park Five] based on false confessions, no DNA evidence and media hysteria, for a collective 30 years....
“Lederer never apologized. Today, she still serves as an assistant district attorney and teaches at Columbia Law School, one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. While those wrongfully convicted lost years of their lives, her efforts to imprison them had no negative consequences for her.... People like Lederer whose failures cost livelihoods should be held accountable for their actions....
“Defending Lederer’s role in the case as an aggressive lead prosecutor, [New York Times columnist Jim] Dwyer dismissed that as: ‘Mistakes were made.’ That’s the standard public relations line used when trying to deflect blame. But what kinds of mistakes? What were their effects?”
– From “For
Central Park Five, wrongful conviction meets false equivalence”
by Raymond Santana and Frank Chi at Salon.com (May 3)
You know where I’m going with this: the Edenton Seven were locked up for some 15 years, and the “aggressive lead prosecutor” in their case remains ensconced on the state payroll, still unrepentant -- and always available to share her expertise on “how to defend the forensic interview in the courtroom.”
Perhaps, however, the notoriety she achieved as Little Rascals prosecutor helps explain why she hasn’t risen to district attorney or to district court judge.
Even if so, of course, that consequence wouldn’t begin to atone for the horrors
she inflicted over a nonexistent crime.
Investigator still believes Kelly was guilty
May 13, 2013
“On January 20, [1989, Audrey] Stever met with [social workers] David McCall and Grenda Costin, who told Ms. Stever that there was going to be an investigation into the day care. They also suggested to Ms. Stever that they put Kyle in therapy [and] that ‘they thought something was going on’ at the day care.
“On January 21, [Brenda] Toppin, Ms. Costin and Mr. McCall came to interview Kyle at his home. Ms. Stever prepared Kyle by telling him that he needed to be a ‘police helper’ to help figure out why the children at the day care were sad.”
– From brief for Bob Kelly before N.C. Court of Appeals (1994)
“As an initial social services investigator in the Robert Kelly case, I believe justice was served with this verdict.... A Salem-style witch-hunt did not occur, and a perpetrator of crimes against children was justly convicted. A significant battle in the war against child sexual abuse was fought and won in Edenton....”
–From “Crimes Against Children: A Guide to Child Protection
for Parents and Professionals featuring the Little Rascals Day
Care Sex Scandal” by David E. McCall (1995)
I asked McCall if he still believes justice was served in Little Rascals. “I stand on my original substantiation of abuse by Robert Kelly,” he said. “I was not involved in the investigation of the others charged.”
He said he went into the case with “significant training” in investigating abuse, adding that “If you ever want a child interviewed to find the truth, I really feel like I’m pretty good at that.”
McCall later left social work and
now sells real estate in Edenton.
Prosecutors' bag held one last trick
May 10, 2013
“Evidence at the trial of Robert F. Kelly Jr. consisted mainly of the fantasy-laced testimony of children and no physical proof. His conviction was overturned by an appeals court that said the proceedings had been unfair. Now prosecutors have dug into their bag of tricks and, ta-dum, come up with a new set of sex-abuse charges against him.
“It may turn out that Nancy Lamb has better documentation for the latest accusations, which date to 1987 and involve a girl who was then 9. She better have. Otherwise, the public will be left to conclude that the prosecution is simply engaged in a malicious effort to save face."
– From "Never-ending prosecution" (News & Observer editorial, May 7, 1996)
Unable to gin up such documentation, of course, Lamb finally dropped the new
charges – 2½ years later! And the public was indeed left to conclude that they
had all been “a malicious effort to save face.”
‘Right much training but nothing like she needed’
May 8, 2013
“We just had all kinds of rumors. Everybody in town was involved in it, with this one pointing fingers, that one pointing fingers. My telephone was ringing right steady....
“We really didn’t know what we had. I had a police officer who works as a secretary [Brenda Toppin] who deals with this type case, and she had right much training but nothing like she needed. So we had problems right from the start.”
– Edenton Police Chief Charles Harvey Williams, recalling for a North
committee how his 15-person department struggled to sort out allegations about
the Little Rascals Day Care center (April 23, 1991)
Toppin has been variously described as a secretary and a dispatcher in Edenton’s
15-person police department – she may well have been both. Regardless, she
seemed utterly unaware how far in over her head she was interviewing children
about supposed ritual sex abuse.
Chandler’s hopes rest with innocence project
May 6, 2013
When last we left Junior Chandler, his former appellate defender, Mark Montgomery, had asked North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services to look into the case.
But NCPLS requires the prisoner himself to request help, and that hasn’t happened. “Like a lot of the old-timers, Junior does not think they [NCPLS] are worth much,” Montgomery says. “There was a big shake up there a few years ago, and they are now very aggressive and as effective as anybody in post-conviction cases. I am going to encourage Junior (again) to ask for their help....”
Meanwhile, he has pitched Junior’s case to Christine Mumma at the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence.
Here’s the essential “evidence of actual innocence” that Montgomery offered Mumma:
“Lathern Hensley (a.k.a. Buddy Norton) was one of the adult mentally retarded riders on Junior’s bus. He and another woman testified that Junior did stuff, and they helped. They each got probation-only plea deals. I found Hensley, but his guardian wouldn’t let me talk with him. The Actual Innocence folks [with powers granted by the state] could insist on talking with Hensley. I think he would say that he was pressured into lying on the stand.”
This is just the latest long shot in overturning Junior’s wrongful conviction,
and even if the Center on Actual Innocence agrees to take the case, the process
is anything but swift. As the Center’s website cautions, “We counsel patience to
inmates and their families during the investigative phase as the process of
gathering additional documentation; identifying, locating and interviewing
witnesses; and completing many other investigative tasks can take several
A deal for Betsy? Then why not for Bob and Dawn?
May 3, 2013
“In the quaint village of Edenton, where residents have suffered either a sadistic witch hunt of historical proportions or a rampage by a despicable gang of ritualistic child molesters, the public has been slapped in the face by a deal between prosecutors and Elizabeth Kelly.
“Kelly is one of seven people charged with sexually molesting children at the Little Rascals Day Care center. Her husband Bob is pulling 12 life sentences for his part, and lowly cook Dawn Wilson is pulling one life sentence. But Elizabeth Kelly will serve only a few more months because her lawyer got her a good deal.
“A deal? Either she is guilty of inflicting unspeakable horrors on babies or she is as innocent as a lamb. There are no degrees here, either they did it or they didn’t. If they did it, they all deserve to spend the rest of their miserable lives in prison. But if they didn't do it – and the prosecution now seems unable to prove it and reluctant to try – then they all deserve to be free to exact legal revenge on a community that has put them through hell.
“There is no justice, no fairness and no answers in a deal that sets her free and leaves the others to rot in jail. If Elizabeth Kelly is set free by politicians, why should Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson be sent to jail by juries? If Mrs. Kelly gets a deal, then all of them deserve the same deal.”
– From “When justice becomes the slave of convenience, faith fades”
by News & Observer columnist Dennis Rogers (Jan. 30, 1994)
‘Parents too trusting’? No, magazine too gullible
May 1, 2013
“For several years... during which innocent people, many of whom were themselves the parents of young children, were sent to prison, the press by and large went along. ‘The horrors may only have started with sodomy, rape, oral copulation, and fondling,’ Newsweek confidently reported of the McMartin allegations in April 1984....
“Time's account noted that a horse was slaughtered in front of the toddlers to intimidate them into silence, but the magazine neglected to ask how this messy procedure was accomplished without detection in a busy preschool in the middle of town, where parents and teachers came and went throughout the day. ‘Parents,’ Time chided, ‘were too trusting, assuming that separation anxiety was the reason their children cried when dropped off at school.”
“By the late ’80s, then, the notion that many, many day care workers went into the field only to sate their Sadean lusts for small children, and that schools were places fraught with sexual ‘stranger danger,’ and that childish innocence was under unprecedented assault from the forces of evil, had sufficient credibility to darken the nightmares of mothers and fathers across the country.”
– From “Against
Innocence: The truth about child abuse and the truth about
by Margaret Talbot in The New Republic (March 15, 1999)
“By the late ’80s...” indeed – exactly when the initial allegations were made in
the Little Rascals case.
View from Edenton: ‘I never considered leaving’
April 29, 2013
If you watched “The Plea,” the concluding 1997 installment of “Innocence Lost,” you might not expect that Nancy Smith Barrow, Betsy’s sister, would choose to remain in the midst of those townspeople who caused her family such brutal and unjustified pain.
But stay she has, raising a family and participating in community affairs. I talked to her recently about her life then and now.
Why she has continued to live in Edenton:
“I never considered leaving. My parents were here. This is my home. For a long time, I imagined my dad, mom, sister and I would be back here together, after it all unraveled, after people looked behind curtain and saw the Wizard....”
What Edenton was like for her during the Little Rascals panic:
“I’d walk into a public place and scan the room to see if I would be comfortable there. I never felt any physical threat – that’s not the kind of people they are here.... But I didn’t want my children exposed to such obvious and outward hatred....”
What Edenton is like for her today:
“Once Bob’s verdict was overturned, that was the end of it. Now I go where I want and do what I want....
“Things went very badly for the indicting parents. But they still believe – because they have to believe....
“Some of them I will talk to in the grocery store or at school, but we are not welcome in each others’ homes....
“Our children went to school together, and they finished growing up together [without conflict]. It was like when the adults went away, when the adults got tired of playing, the children were left to clean up the game....”
How she looks back at the case:
“My sister [who now lives in Raleigh] has a life we could never have imagined, a
wonderfully normal life. Everyone I loved at Little Rascals is free. My children
[now 32 and 28] are fine and healthy.... The Little Rascals case was a
phenomenon of epic proportions, and we weathered it....”
‘Satanic ritual abuse’ loses its place in textbook
April 26, 2013
By 1997, when the college textbook "Family Violence Across the Lifespan" was first published, the most grievous excesses of the day-care ritual-abuse panic had passed (although it would be two more years before Little Rascals prosecutors dropped a final, unrelated charge against Bob Kelly).
The authors, social scientists at Pepperdine University, devoted entire sections to “Do Children Fabricate Reports of Child Sexual Abuse?” and “The Satanic Ritual Abuse Controversy.” More on those issues here.
Their approach is thoughtfully skeptical, but they can’t quite bring themselves to call baloney on those peers whose ill-conceived claims ginned up the “controversy” or whose gullibility prolonged it. For example:
“If there is so little evidence confirming the existence of SRA, why do so many perceive the SRA threat to be real? One reason is that... therapists, police officers and child protection authorities, who are often required to attend seminars on current developments in their field, are exposed to SRA ‘experts’.... These seminars tend to employ proselytizing techniques characteristic of organizations seeking recruits. Many well-meaning helping professionals, who are generally motivated by the desire to help abused clients, become convinced of the existence of SRA through these seminars [such as the one at Kill Devil Hills]....”
“Family Violence...” has proved popular enough to justify a third edition (2011), in which all mention of ritual abuse has been removed.
I asked sociologist Robin D. Perrin, one of the authors, to trace his thinking on the subject between editions.
“I suppose one could argue that the ‘Satanic Ritual Abuse’ issue is a bit dated at this point,” he replied, “as the Satanism scare has mostly faded into the sunset. But it is still a fascinating page in history, if nothing else....
“As for our approach on these issues, I think ‘thoughtfully skeptical’ is
probably fair. You are correct that we fall far short of an outright denial of
the validity of all ritual abuse claims. I am quite certain we are not in
position to do that. In fact, given the history of mistreatment of children
(both ‘then’ and ‘now’) I have no doubt that ‘ritual’ abuse has occurred
(depending on how it is defined, of course).”
The night Koppel redefined ‘objective and reliable’
April 24, 2013
“Ted Koppel said the idea for [a “Nightline” episode criticizing juries’ growing skepticism toward child-witnesses] had been brought to him by Civia Tamarkin, who although she ‘served on the advisory board of an organization called Believe the Children insists that she remains neutral on the subject.... We have found her to be a useful, objective and reliable source.’
“Tamarkin had indeed devoted a lot of attention to child sexual-abuse cases, along with an abiding conviction that most defendants are guilty.... She believes the McMartin prosecution should have resulted in convictions [and] has praised the prosecution in the Little Rascals case....
“I interviewed prosecutors and defense lawyers in Little Rascals and read trial transcripts. It was clear the child witnesses had been persistently manipulated....”
– From “Koppel lost his balance on child witnesses”
by Washington Post columnist Nat Hentoff (Dec. 3, 1996)
Believe the Children, organized by McMartin parents, later expanded to become a
clearinghouse for ritual abuse allegations. It apparently disbanded after
holding a final conference in Arlington Heights, Illinois, in 1995.
Why the panic ‘needs to be remembered’
April 22, 2013
“Lecturing recently, I mentioned the American witch-hunts of the 1980s and 1990s. When the audience looked puzzled, I explained that I was referring to the Satanic Panic of those years, the wave of false charges concerning ritual child abuse and devil cults that made regular headlines in the decade after 1984. The explanation helped little.
“Even people who had lived through those years, who had been following the media closely, had precisely no recollection. Lost in memory it may be, but the Satanic Panic needs to be remembered, if only to prevent a renewed outbreak of this horrible farrago. And when better than in the 30th anniversary of the affair's beginning?
“It all started in southern California, in Manhattan Beach, in the Fall of 1983....”
I share Dr. Jenkins’ concern about public memory, of course.
Which are more worrisome – those who have no recollection at all of cases such as McMartin and Little Rascals, or those who have forgotten they all were hoaxes?
Was there nothing to fear but ‘day care itself’?
April 19, 2013
“What can have spurred so many communities to such [ritual abuse] hysteria? The answer may be day care itself. The mothers who report that children never lie are simply unfamiliar with the ways of children. They may also feel guilty about putting their children in day care. A righteous rage against the day-care provider can certainly distract a parent from wondering whether she is doing an adequate job as a mother.”
– From “Believe the children?” by syndicated columnist Mona Charen (October 11, 2003)
Although Charen approaches the subject as a proselytizer for stay-at-home motherhood, less partisan observers also have speculated about the role of day-care guilt.
Parent said God knew better than ‘Frontline’
April 17, 2013
“One day you will stand before almighty God and be accountable for that which you have done here on Earth, and no amount of lies and manipulation, no ‘Frontline’ presentation will be able to hide the truth from him. He knows every sordid detail and I pity you for that.”
– From a statement read by Little Rascals parent Susan Small
at the plea-agreement hearing of Scott Privott (June 16, 1994)
On the scale of responsibility for brutalizing the Edenton Seven, the panicked, misinformed parents may rank as least culpable. They were neither demagoguing public servants (the prosecutors) nor overreaching professionals (the therapists). Even so, Susan Small’s tirade seemed gratuitously vitriolic – as if her own beliefs might have needed reinforcing?
I asked Scott Privott what it felt like being on the receiving end that day in the courtroom.
“I almost got up and told her to shut the hell up and that I would let the state put me on trial,” he said. “I thought to myself that I was glad God would judge me and not her and her pathetic cohorts.”
Scott’s recollection of his earlier knowledge of Susan Small highlights the Lilliputian stage on which the sprawling Little Rascals drama played out:
“I was in college with Susan Small's husband, Morris; in fact, Morris and I used to ride together from Edenton to Elizabeth City to attend classes at the College of the Albemarle. Susan was at the college too, but I didn't know her that well. Morris was my banker at the time of my arrest.”
A third member of the car pool: Jay Swicegood, another accusing parent.
“I am not like some of those who've been falsely accused and hold no ill feelings,” Scott says. “I have plenty of ill feelings, and I do not for one moment wish them any good tidings.”
Idle thought: Might it mitigate Scott’s bitterness if someone – anyone! – who
participated in putting him behind bars for three years and eight months had the
courage to apologize?
Prosecutors went out of way to inflame public
April 15, 2013
This from Detroit reader P. Karr:
“Raised by a mom who survived the Blitz of London, I was taught that fascism often appears at the hands of lawmakers and is then carried forth by the public at large – said public believing whatever convenient lie is crammed down its throat....
“The Edenton prosecutors’ refusal to apply reason was frightening. But not near as frightening as their hubris, their moral flogging of the accused and their trotting them out in order to inflame the public. They may as well have sewn gold stars on the shirts of the Edenton Seven....
“I wonder if it ever occurs to the prosecutors that a refusal to apologize – indeed, to even question if they may have been wrong – is the hallmark of the sociopath.
“Something tells me not.”
‘If somebody killed a rabbit at my day care...’
April 12, 2013
In January 1993, supporters of the Edenton Seven held a press conference in Hertford to demand that North Carolina authorities bring to an end – in the words of Raymond Lawrence – “this continuing social catastrophe.”
Also speaking out were Doug Wiik of Langhorne, Pa., a day care owner who survived a close call with the mania, and Susan Corbett, director of a day care in Richmond, Va.
Ms. Corbett’s contribution also included weekly letters to Dawn Wilson while she was imprisoned and gifts for her baby at Easter.
Now retired, Ms. Corbett says she recognized immediately that the Little Rascals charges were preposterous: “There was no question in my mind. If somebody killed a rabbit at my day care, everybody in town would know it in 24 hours.”
So why did so many others succumb?
“I think people uncomfortable with sexuality bought into it more easily. The
Bible Belt, the right wing and a perverted, anti-sexual stage of feminism all
came together.... And the world of social work was being sold a bill of goods at
that time – all that crap with [anatomically correct] dolls.”
Therapists were naïve in use of dolls
April 10, 2013
“Consider the use of anatomically detailed dolls to prompt shy or frightened children to reveal abuse. This was an innovation of the 1970s, and at first it certainly seemed like an effective and compassionate one.
“But more recent studies have cast doubt on whether these dolls prompt more accurate recall, especially for the pre-schoolage children for whom they are usually deployed.
“The doll is supposed to be a body double for the child him- or herself; but since the vast majority of children this age lack the symbolic thinking required to make such a connection -- most two- and three-year-olds, for example, cannot see the relation between a room and a scale model of it -- this proposition turns out to be rather dubious.
“More to the point, it seems that some children who have not been sexually abused will also play with an anatomically detailed doll in sexually suggestive ways – promptly removing its clothes, touching or grabbing its ‘genitals,’ sticking their fingers into various orifices. As the authors of one study judiciously put it, the ‘average amount of sexualized doll play by presumably non-abused children is not alarming, but there is enough of it to be potentially problematic in clinical or forensic situations.’
“In other words, if you are prepared to see signs of abuse, you may see them even in behavior that, in other contexts or at other times, would be attributed to normal sexual curiosity.
“And this is precisely the issue: At a time when there was comparatively little data available on what constituted normal sexuality in children, this vacuum was filled by people with a very narrow view of the possibilities.”
– From “Against
Innocence: The truth about child abuse and the truth about
by Margaret Talbot in The New Republic (March 15, 1999)
Prosecution therapists in the Little Rascals case made extensive use of anatomically correct dolls. During Bob Kelly’s trial, therapist Janet Hadler of Chapel Hill showed a video clip of a 5-year-old girl pressing together the pelvises of a male and a female doll. “Children who are demonstrating explicit sexual contact,” Hadler testified confidently, “are doing that because they have some knowledge of adult sexual behavior.”
Panics fade, ‘leaving in their wake bewilderment....’
April 8, 2013
“The panic over satanic ritual abuse in the United States... subsided rather abruptly, as panics usually do, whether they are individual or social. They are like an acute anxiety attack – absolutely absorbing while in course and then suddenly gone, leaving in their wake bewilderment, fear of confronting the causes of the panic, and bafflement about what just happened....
“But traces of its presence can be found without much difficulty in the child abuse and neglect [CAN] literature. The panic, and the way CAN personnel had contributed to it, made the field more self-reflective and self-questioning. CAN practitioners had been shocked by the spectacle of their colleagues battling one another in courtrooms... unable to distinguish between real events of abuse and mass hysteria over alleged satanic abuse.”
– From “Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children” by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (2012)
“More self-reflecting and self-questioning” may describe the current generation of child abuse professionals, but those who did such unspeakable damage in the 1980s and ’90s remain wedded to their junk science.
Prosecutors staged revival of ‘spectral evidence’
April 5, 2013
“In the Little Rascals Day Care case testimony was given about children being attacked by sharks kept in a pool by the accused. No prosecutor believed this story, and had such tales been told by adults, their credibility would have been laughed at.... However, [two Edenton defendants] were convicted, because under a new precedent, obviously false stories by children were set aside in the minds of prosecutors and juries, because of the belief that testimony from children needed to be treated differently....
“In [the Salem Witch Trials of] 1692, as in the modern day-care cases, the heart of the episode was the claims of the accusers versus the denials of the accused. Jurors were forced to choose between two sets of competing claims with no independent verification for any of them. Although not all the accusers were children, many were, and the idea of protecting the children played a heavy role in the prosecutions.
“Accusers claimed that the specters of the accused hurt them.... This kind of uncorroborated evidence became known as ‘spectral evidence,’ and on the basis of that evidence convictions routinely occurred. Contrary to popular, modern representations, all this took place in an orderly manner in a special court set up to investigate the outbreak. Within the rules of the day, the accused people had fair trials, just as the [day-care defendants] had a fair trial.
“What brought the trials to an end was the growing belief by the elites in Massachusetts Bay Colony, especially the clergy, that spectral evidence could not be trusted.... The trials continued, but under a new court where spectral evidence was not admissible, [and] the convictions largely stopped....”
– From “No
Finality in Fells Acres” by Bernard Rosenthal,
author of “Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692”
“In spectral evidence, the admission of victims' conjectures is governed only by the limits of their fears and imaginations, whether or not objectively proven facts are forthcoming to justify them. [State v. Dustin, 122 N.H. 544, 551 (N.H. 1982)].”
“Governed only by the limits of their fears and imaginations” – doesn’t that nail it!
Oh, those spoilsports, voicing ‘disbelief and skepticism’
April 3, 2013
In my fruitless attempt to extract a retraction from the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, I quoted only the abstract of “Sexual Abuse of Children in Day Care Centers” by Susan J. Kelley, Renee Brant and Jill Waterman.
But because the 1993 article continues to be cited in the literature – most recently in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry – it deserves a more detailed review.
Most offensive to me is the authors’ use of ostensibly sophisticated statistics. For example: “The mean number of different types of sexual acts per child ranged from 5.3 sexual acts per child in [Kathleen Coulborn] Faller’s (1988) sample to 6.6 different types of sexual abuse per child in Kelley’s (1989) study.”
Can’t you just picture the authors’ computers straining under the weight of all their meticulous research? In reality, of course, the “mean number of different types of sexual acts per child” was... zero.
And the anecdotes! What ever were Kelley, Brant and Waterman thinking as their fingers typed such unfounded claims as these:
– “Foreign objects used to penetrate children in day care center cases have included such items and pencils, needles, knives, scissors and crucifixes.”
– “Allegations of pornographic photographs and videos being taken of children in day care center cases sometimes surface.... Unfortunately, in very few cases have law enforcement officials been able to locate the pornography.”
– “Children who have been ritualistically abused describe participation in group ceremonies, use of chants and songs, adults dressed in costumes and masks, threats with supernatural powers....the sacrifice of animals, the ingestion of blood, feces and urine, and murders.”
Despite the authors’ unbridled certitude, they can’t help complaining that “One of the first complications in the evaluation of ritualistic abuse cases is the frequent disbelief and skepticism on the part of the professionals secondary to the bizarre and extreme nature of the allegations.”
The limits of ‘unequivocal and undeniable evidence’
“Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen?
“The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before....”
– From “When
Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger,
Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter (1956)
The three social psychologists studied the refusal of a cult of UFO believers to accept that their belief in an imminent apocalypse had been proven false. Seth Mnookin usefully dusts off this case in “The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear,” his 2011 expose of the groundless claim that childhood vaccination causes autism.
Before the day-care ritual-abuse mania ran its course, its theorists and trophy hunters clung ever more tightly to a belief system with no rational means of support. Long after the phoniness of the Little Rascals prosecution had become clear to the world, Nancy Lamb managed to conjure up an unrelated abuse charge against Bob Kelly. And even today...