Investigating the Legacy of the McMartin Child Abuse Trial

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Media clippings from the time of the McMartin Preschool panic.
From and

In 1983, teachers at the McMartin Preschool in California were accused of sexually abusing young students. The details of the alleged abuse held a horrified country in thrall. 

One mother's concerns, which turned out to be unfounded, were amplified after the police sent 200 letters to families, asking parents to talk to their children about possible abuse. The number of alleged victims grew into the hundreds, and the eventual trial cost some $15 million.

Richard Beck, an editor at the digital magazine n+1, recently authored the book "We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s." He argues that dramatic changes in the cultural status of the nuclear family fueled parental anxieties about putting their children into day care and preschools. But psychiatrists and therapists also propelled this panic about the abuse of American children. 

In reviewing transcripts from the interviews with children, Beck says therapists lacked good protocols and conducted coercive interviews, perhaps unintentionally. Doctors like Roland Summit produced research that encouraged interviewers to be forceful, yielding a slew of false testimonies.

FBI Agent Kenneth Lanning was consulted on the McMartin case in the 1980s, and saw panic spread. In a video produced by our partner The New York Times, Lanning said, “What happens then is the parents start to talk to their kids, then they start to talk to each other, then they start to compare notes, and pretty soon, emotionally involved parents are engaging in leading and suggestive questioning of their child."

But when the case came to trial, there was little evidence that could stand up.

"'We believe the children' became a real mantra for prosecutors and for parents because that was the whole substance of the case," says Beck. 

The consequences for both the accused and the children were devastating. Beck says more than 80 people were convicted and charged with crimes. Some children were taken away from parents, accused of facilitating abuse. The trial precipitated an overhaul of psychiatric research and protocols.