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Witch Hunt

November 19, 2011 permalink

The sex abuse scandal at Penn State is causing a new witch hunt, similar to what happened at daycare centres in the 1980s. Richard Wexler has some good insights:



Child abuse at Penn State: The ugly road from Happy Valley, part one




  • The myth that “children don’t lie” is back
  • The hype is back: One “expert” suggests that two-thirds of Americans either were victims of child sexual abuse – or have a sibling who was.
  • The 1980s witchhunt mentality may be making a comeback, too – and it’s children who really have been abused who are going to suffer most.

As I listened to the end of a segment of NPR’s Tell Me More fixcas copy (mp3) on Tuesday, I felt as though I’d been transported back in time. Suddenly it was the 1980s again, when a bizarre, hyperbolic, myth-fueled reaction to the serious and real problem of child sexual abuse led to a whole series of tragedies of its own. In the wake of the Penn State horrors, it looks like those myths are making a comeback.

Anchor Michel Norris was leading a discussion of “ how to teach children to be alert to potentially abusive behavior and how to get them to speak up …”

At the very end, Norris raised an issue that, as far as I know, no other journalist has had the courage even to mention since the Penn State story broke:

There is an awful other side to this and there have been examples of false accusations … a group of girls were angry at a gym teacher because he had punished them for passing notes or talking and so they made up an accusation which turned out to be false. So how do you recommend that parents navigate such a thing?

This is where the trip through time began, led by Dr. Leslie Walker of Seattle Children's Hospital.

It was 1980s mythology all over again as Walker declared:

I think you have to remember that one in three girls under the age of 18 do get sexually abused. And it's no different, it's the same number of boys under, before puberty. So when someone says that they have been abused you have to assume that it happened immediately … One in three people have been abused …”

The one-in-three number is utter nonsense, and I’ll deal with it in a post on Monday.

For now, consider the fact that, though she didn’t use the exact words, Walker was leading us back to the era of those 1980s catchphrases “children don’t lie” and “believe the children.”

It’s been such a long time since those phrases were all the rage, and such a long time since the hyped numbers were in vogue, that I had to go back to the book I wrote in 1990, Wounded Innocents (Prometheus Books, 1990, 1995) to review what happened and how much harm was done to children.


The issue of the truth of claims attributed to children wasn’t simple then, and it’s not simple now.

Of course, it is extremely unlikely that a very young child would make up out of whole cloth a story of being sexually assaulted.

In other cases, there is strong evidence that the children are not only telling the truth, but showing extraordinary courage in coming forward – courage for which they deserve wholehearted support. I would put the Penn State cases in that category.

But many allegations of sexual abuse involve situations that are far less clear-cut. So, for example, in Upstate New York, authorities concluded that children who had heard one of the now-ubiquitous “good touch / bad touch” lectures that supposedly prevent sexual abuse wound up falsely accusing their substitute teacher. But the children weren’t lying. They had confused normal affection with “bad touching.”

In addition, young children aren’t the ones who pick up the phone and call child abuse hotlines. Adults do that. And by that time the child might have been questioned repeatedly by a concerned parent or a therapist, or someone else who asked so many leading questions that what gets phoned into the hotline may bear little resemblance to what the child actually said.

Or the children are rewarded with praise for “disclosing” abuse and badgered if they don’t – a common problem in the “mass molestation” nightmare cases of the 1980s – cases that produced some remarkable allegations.

  • If children don’t lie about abuse, then Bakersfield California was a hotbed of cannibalism.
  • If children don’t lie about abuse there was a secret underground amusement park near Fort Bragg, California. You got in from the ocean by submarine.
  • If children don’t lie about abuse, then they were being flown from day care centers all over the country in planes to be molested, then returned in time to be picked up by their parents. Some of the molesters didn’t need a plane. They could fly through the air all by themselves.
  • If children don’t lie about abuse, some children in El Paso Texas had their eyes removed – and then put back,

Or the allegation may not come from a child at all. Consider this actual report to a child abuse hotline in Rochester, New York, about a young girl in the 1980s:

The victim and the suspect have been seen holding hands and walking while the suspect had his arm around the victim. The source also stated suspect used to live with the victim’s mother and the victim. He had moved out in the recent past but visits the home every day. The source also stated the victim goes away with the suspect for long periods of time. Source stated victim wears dresses, tights, and shoes. Source said it is rumored by children that the victim may be sleeping with suspect. No other information is available…

That was enough to prompt both Child Protective Services and the police to investigate. Here’s what they found out:

  • A doctor found no evidence of sexual abuse.
  • The man was a friend of the family.
  • According to both mother and child, when he slept over he slept on the couch.

Why was the little girl so nicely dressed when the man took her out? Because he was taking her to church.

And of course, older children may, in fact, have all sorts of reasons to lie, as in the case cited by Michel Norris (and notice how Walker simply ignored the case in her “answer.”)

Another key element of the “children don’t lie” myth was the claim, made with equal certainly, that in one situation children are always lying: when they recant. Any notion that a child could recant because the allegation was not, in fact, true – perhaps it had been the result of a coercive interrogation – is dismissed out of hand. Children only recant, it was said, to cover up for the abuser.

And sure enough, Walker revived that claim as well. Walker claimed she never, ever had a child claim abuse when it wasn’t true. But, she said,

I have seen kids recant, though. And kids back down from what really happened a lot of times because they feel like they're breaking up the family. They feel guilty. They feel that it's overwhelming and the community and people are all coming against them and they recant, but it doesn't mean that it didn't happen. I would always err on the idea that it did happen.

Too bad it’s the children themselves who often pay for that kind of error.

On Monday: Phony claims bolstered by phony numbers, and how it all hurts children

Source: Richard Wexler

Child abuse at Penn State: The ugly road from Happy Valley, part two:

Too little skepticism, and too much, both can hurt children.

In the previous post to this blog, I wrote about how the Penn State horrors threaten to spark a revival of the witchhunt mentality that dominated child welfare during the 1980s. Today’s “child savers” to use the term their 19th Century counterparts gave themselves, are reviving a series of myths about child abuse that hurt huge numbers of children more than two decades ago.

Because so much time has passed, many people have forgotten the lessons of that era, or never knew them. There was a time when I could use simple shorthand to remind reporters – I could just say “McMartin.” But there are reporters on the job today who hadn’t been born when the lurid allegations about mass molestation at the McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles first made headlines. So it’s well worth reviewing the lessons from that era.


One of those lessons has to do with phony numbers that nobody bothers to check – absurd claims about the prevalence of child sexual abuse that appear to have been pulled from thin air.

By 1990, there were studies attempting to estimate the percentage of people sexually abused during childhood that had come up with results ranging from one percent to 62 percent. The studies used widely varying definitions of abuse, some of them breathtakingly broad, and usually included abuse by anyone, not just cases subject to the jurisdiction of child protective services. But because large numbers attract more attention than small numbers, all through the 80s it was claimed, repeatedly that "one out of three girls and one out of ten boys will be sexually abused" during childhood.

Most of those claims, at least for the girls, could be traced back to a single, highly-publicized study which used extremely broad, vague definitions. But at least there was one study.

In the wake of Penn State, one news account after another claims that one out of four (or sometimes one out of three) girls and one out of six boys will be victims of child sexual abuse during their childhoods.

Typically the figure appears with no attribution at all, except some vague reference to “experts say” or “most experts believe.” I have yet to find a news account that cites an actual study of any kind, let alone a valid one. Instead there are quotes about how these crimes are so awful that we desperately want to “turn away” and refuse to face up to how widespread they are. In other words: if you try to check facts, you’re “in denial.”

Then, a segment of NPR’s Tell Me More last week, Dr. Leslie Walker of Seattle Children’s Hospital took things a step further, declaring:

I think you have to remember that one in three girls under the age of 18 do get sexually abused. And it's no different, it's the same number of boys under, before puberty. So when someone says that they have been abused you have to assume that it happened immediately … One in three people have been abused …”

Could we stop and think about that for a second? Most of us have at least one sibling. So if Walker’s number is correct, at least two-thirds of American adults either were sexually abused as children, or are siblings of a child sexual abuse victim.

If there are that many victims the number of perpetrators must be astronomical as well. Then you must add all the parents and others who are guilty of “neglect” because they should have known it was happening and “failed to protect” their children.

So if nothing else, if these claims were true the entire American child welfare system would have to be dismantled immediately – because if there are that many child molesters out there, the odds that children taken from their parents and placed in foster care will be molested are so staggering that foster care is way too dangerous an option. (As it happens, there is solid research indicating that there is child abuse in one-quarter to one third of foster homes, with an even worse record for group homes and institutions. Jerry Sandusky, who stands accused in the Penn State cases, was a foster parent and his charity began as a group home.)


The best evidence we have concerning the true prevalence of child sexual abuse comes from two comprehensive reviews of the scholarly literature.

The first is a review of 20 different studies conducted by seven Canadian researchers, published in 1991. They found that the studies with the best methodology consistently indicated that between 10 and 12 percent of girls under age 14 are sexually abused by someone during their childhoods. The 1980s study that produced the "one out of three" claim was singled out for criticism by these researchers.

A decade later, another comprehensive review of the literature put the actual figure at 9 to 11 percent for girls and 5 to 6 percent for boys. The review found that studies which met two fundamental tenets of good research, high response rates and large sample size, tended to find lower rates of abuse than the smaller, less representative studies.

Odds are the figure is lower today, since, as the Associated Press reports, there is strong evidence that the rate of child sexual abuse has declined significantly in recent years.

Those figures, like all of the best evidence concerning the true extent of child abuse in America, are cause for concern and action. The real numbers are bad enough. Exaggeration serves only to panic us into seeking "solutions" that hurt the children they are intended to help.

Right now, this kind of exaggeration and fear mongering can do even more harm.


In the 1980s, the rhetoric about “children don’t lie,” discussed in the previous post to this blog, and the absurd numbers made it easy for people to suspend reasonable skepticism when “child savers” started talking about satanic cults operating out of day care centers.

All those claims in the previous post about secret tunnels and child molesters with wings grew out of the way children were interrogated about allegations of sexual abuse in their day care centers or at the hands of their own parents. The result was a series of witchhunts across the country lasting all the way into the 1990s. The McMartin Preschool was only the most notorious. There were witchhunts that tore apart communities in Massachusetts, New Jersey, San Diego, Kern County, California, Jodan, Minnesota, and Wenatchee Washington, among others.

Hundreds of innocent people had their lives ruined, many were jailed. In the end, in almost every case, almost everyone accused was exonerated.

But they were not the ones who suffered most. As usual, the best efforts of the child savers backfired against the children. There were the children who suffered when they were separated from their jailed parents. There were the children who suffered when, at a very young age, they actually were persuaded by caseworkers and therapists that they’d been abused when they hadn’t. Some believe it to this day.

But children also suffered as a result of the climate and fear and paranoia spread by the child savers. Teachers and day care workers became afraid to hug their students – sometimes actually telling them to “give yourselves a pat on the back.” (Among the potential side effects: Children denied normal affection are easier prey for actual child molesters.) Men were largely driven out of pre-school teaching. Children were taught not simply to be prudent in dealings with adults but to be constantly fearful and on guard.

That seems to be making a comeback, too. One post-Penn State news story after another warns parents to never, ever let their children be alone with any other adult. (That’s going to make it rather difficult for teachers to meet with students having trouble with their homework or for guidance counselors to help them with personal problems, or for mentors to help kids with school projects.)

A Washington Times columnist warns that “ sports are the perfect hunting ground for perverts, pedophiles and other assorted monsters.”

Some go further. One Huffington Post blogger raged against “ how we encourage our kids to abandon their sense of self-trust -- their instinct and intuition -- in order to be polite through showing physical affection to adults.” He is referring to parents who, at holiday gatherings “pressure” the kids to “give your uncle a hug and kiss."

This blogger seems to suggest a child reluctant to do this, knows by “instinct and intuition” that uncle is a child molester. The possibility that uncle may just have bad breath or a scratchy beard does not seem to occur to him.

There was plenty of paranoia before Penn State (check out this list of absurdities, which I first discovered thanks to Lenore Skenazy at her Free-Range Kids blog. This one is my favorite). So it would be understandable if adults now hesitated to so much as smile at a child for fear of being accused of “grooming” that child into a sexual abuse victim. In fact, if this story from Florida is any indication, the paranoia is back, with a vengeance.

But there’s another way all this hurts children.

After the hysteria of the 80s came the skepticism of the 90s. There are children who almost certainly suffered because some people may have become too skeptical. In the wake of the collapse of the mass molestation cases there are bound to have been children who really were abused, but were not believed. Given how far back the allegations go, some of the Penn State victims may even be among them. As I wrote in my book, Wounded Innocents, in 1990: If so, the blame rests squarely with the child savers. They have managed to find one more way to destroy children in order to save them.

Ultimately, the Los Angeles Times would win a Pulitzer Prize for some of its writing about the McMartin case. But not for coverage of the case itself. Rather, the late David Shaw, the paper’s media critic, won it for a series asking why the media accepted all the wild claims from the child savers so easily. The headline in the first installment summed it up: “Where was skepticism in media?” it said.

Is it too much to ask for a little more skepticism this time, before it’s too late.

Source: Richard Wexler

Over the next few months, expect a large influx of new laws and regulations granting more power to child protection agencies. And even without any new laws, expect a surge in apprehensions, children taken from parents for their "protection".

There is much more on the 1980's witch hunts. People who prefer print can read Satan's Silence by Michael Snedeker and Debbie Nathan. Those who prefer movies can watch Witch Hunt narrated by Sean Penn. magnet link.

Addendum: A remarkable exchange shows that even the most ardent advocate of mandatory reporting is turning against it.



Will more laws help children?

High-profile crimes can generate watershed changes in policy and practice. The publicity surrounding the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson helped lead to passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. The abduction of Adam Walsh prompted enactment of the Missing Children Act of 1982.

Today, the Penn State sexual-abuse case has lawmakers scurrying to pass legislation to protect children. The general sentiment is that state and federal laws requiring suspicions of child abuse to be reported should be expanded and strengthened.

I'm not sure, however, whether that kind of legislation will protect more children from abuse. While there is a possibility that the current debate will improve laws and close the cracks in the system, we should not rush to expand mandatory reporting laws without care and deliberation.

In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, government agencies throughout the country received 3.3 million reports of suspected child abuse and neglect, involving some five million children. The agencies investigated two million of these reports, leaving about a million uninvestigated, primarily because they didn't include necessary information (e.g., the name or address of the victim or offender) or because they didn't meet the state's definition of child abuse or neglect. These two million investigations found that 442,000 children were actually abused or neglected, leaving 1.6 million reports for which the investigators were unable to uncover sufficient evidence that abuse or neglect had occurred.

So, in the end, slightly more than one in five investigated reports of suspected child abuse and neglect are confirmed. This share, which is referred to as the "substantiation rate," hasn't changed much in the last 30 years.

If the allegation that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing boys had been reported and investigated, the substantiation rate suggests a 22 percent chance that an investigator would have determined that abuse probably took place. Had the report been made anonymously, the likelihood of substantiation would have been much lower; had it come from head coach Joe Paterno or a Penn State administrator, the likelihood of substantiation would have been greater.

Unlike many Pennsylvania counties, Centre County, which encompasses Penn State, does not have a child advocacy center, an agency specially equipped to handle child-abuse investigations. That makes it more likely that an investigator assigned to the case would have been unable to substantiate the claims that Sandusky was sexually molesting boys. Why am I so pessimistic? Because Sandusky had already been evaluated and cleared to become a foster parent and an adoptive parent.

So what would happen if new laws forced more citizens to report suspicions of child abuse or else face stiff punishments? In all likelihood, the number of reports would increase (which is probably already happening in Pennsylvania). The staffs of the agencies that investigate those reports would also have to increase. But they would likely be using the same tools they use today to determine whether abuse occurred, and the increased reports would probably cause the substantiation rate to decline.

With more money going to investigations, meanwhile, there would be even less funding for child advocacy centers and other such services. And child-welfare agencies would turn more of their focus to investigations rather than protection from abuse.

While I would like to believe that investigations alone increase the protection of children, I know otherwise. Forty years after the first federal mandatory reporting law was enacted, there isn't a single study showing that investigations alone increase the safety of children. Investigations without services do not prevent abuse.

So what should we do with this watershed moment, which will pass all too quickly? Instead of trying to expand mandatory reporting laws, let's ask a more fundamental question: What do we need to do to increase the safety and well-being of vulnerable children?

In the past, no one has been more fanatical about wanting states to do more barging into families and taking away children than Richard Gelles – (and he wrote the column, not the business columnist with the same name). His influence probably helps explain why Philadelphia tears apart proportionately more families than any other big city.

Some of us have long known that more and more mandatory reporting only backfires, further overloading workers for agencies like DHS so they have less time to find children in real danger, even as it subjects more children to the needless trauma of a child abuse investigation But for Gelles finally to realize this is like Newt Gingrich joining an Occupy Wall Street protest.

Perhaps it was the story from Florida, about the assistant principal, a mandated reporter, who called in a report about “a possible sex crime” – two 12-year-olds kissing – that was the last straw for Gelles. Whatever the reason, if even he thinks it’s a bad idea, then it’s time to stop the make-anyone-and-everyone-report-anything-and-everything bandwagon.

There is much more about why more mandatory reporting is a bad idea on our Child Welfare Blog here: And there’s more on our blog about post-Penn State paranoia at

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News

Addendum: LK, in his bawdy style, links to 44 articles in the hysterical witch hunt. The rush to snatch a lot more children is underway.



How To Train A CPS Rat

The Child Protective Industry Loves Rats

Advocates say state's sex abuse reporting law should be broadened

Rats are all of those wonderful holier than thou concerned citizens who make all of those baseless calls to the Child Abuse Hotline.

All in Kentucky, Indiana must report abuse

And since they want more kids, they obviously need more rats to report them.

Advocates renew push for bill to reform child-sex-abuse laws

Really, they don't care if the calls they get have any merit.

Amidst Penn State Scandal Senate Committee to Examine Child Abuse Law

They just want the calls so that they can get into your house.

Bills to target child abuse reporting laws

So all they have to do...

Children's advocates call for changes in Pa. laws

Is find one high profile case...

Coast child abuse reports soar

Where some famous sicko gets arrested...

Child abuse reports spike after Sandusky arrest

Team up with their friends at the newspaper or television station who are always looking for a good juicy story to satisfy the blood lust of the emotion junkies...

Creating 'culture of consciousness' seen as way to protect all children

Talk about it over and over again so that everybody believes that every child is in danger...

Calif. bills to target child abuse reporting laws

So that it always stays fresh in the simple minds of the sheep...

ChildLine, Pennsylvania's child abuse hotline, flooded with calls after Penn State scandal

And the hotline starts lighting up with baseless child abuse reports.

Child Sexual Abuse Does Happen Here

Now, please understand that I am not against protecting children from sexual abuse. I am only pointing out that these idiots are going way off the deep end with this.

Senate committee to review federal child abuse protections

So they tell everybody to report child abuse.

Senate panel schedules hearing on child sex abuse

They preach it over and over again.

Senate to examine child abuse laws in wake of Penn State scandal

Because if you tell a big enough lie enough times, the people will believe it.

Scandal focuses on reporting of abuse

And they will act upon it.

State Lawmaker Demands Mandatory Reporting Of Sex Abuse Claims

And many innocent men and women will be falsely accused.

State lawmakers propose tougher child abuse laws in wake of Penn State scandal

But it's okay, because now the kids are safe.

Sex abuse damage can last lifetime

So now that they've convinced the simpletons of the USA that every child is in danger from perverts like Jerry Sandusky.

Since Jerry Sandusky, Penn State scandal, child abuse hotlines are lighting up

They'll remind you that you should call them to report everything.

Lessons from Penn State – Revisiting NYS Child Abuse Reporting Laws

They'll say that they need to strengthen the laws, and the politicians will bite because it positions them as champions for children.

Moral Obligations Were Shirked in Sandusky Case

And our kids teachers, doctors, daycare providers, etc all have to report every little scratch to avoid criminal prosecution.

Murphy: How to prevent another Penn State

Ut oh, this kid has a boo boo.  Report it.

Mandate reports of child abuse

This kid has a woodie... Report it.

Penn State scandal prompts California abuse bill

Don't forget to call them.  It's the law.

Penn State scandal draws attention to child abuse

It's your moral obligation.

Pa. welfare officials see spike in abuse reports

And it works.

Pennsylvania child agency opens two cases vs Sandusky: report

So call the child abuse hotline.

Parkland Says it Takes Abuse Reporting Seriously

Call the child abuse hotline.

What if the Penn State Scandal Occurred in Florida? What are the Reporting Rules for Child Abuse in Florida? :: Whittel & Melton Florida Sex Crimes Lawyers

Call the child abuse hotline.

Community Voice: We must not look the other way if we hope to break cycle of child abuse

Call the child abuse hotline.

Walker signs bills he says will help protect children

Call the child abuse hotline.

Will more laws help children?

Call the child abuse hotline.

Abuse Claims Less Likely to Be Ignored

Call the child abuse hotline.

Reporting Child Abuse, in Pennsylvania and Around the Nation

Call the child abuse hotline.

Report child abuse

Call the child abuse hotline.

Report Child Abuse. It's The Law.

Call the child abuse hotline.

Reporting child abuse mandatory in Texas

Call the child abuse hotline.

Rise in child abuse reports in Pa., N.Y., N.J. amid Penn State scandal

Call the child abuse hotline.

To protect the children, we have to look closer

Call the child abuse hotline.

The Penn State Scandal and Florida's Child Abuse Reporting Laws

Call the child abuse hotline.

OU president reminds campus of mandate to report child abuse

Call the child abuse hotline.

In Ky., unlike Pa., anyone suspecting child abuse or neglect must report to authorities

Call the child abuse hotline.

You are not someone super fabulous because you're a mandated reporter

Did you call?

Do you feel better?

Source: Legally Kidnapped

Addendum: The grand jury report on Jerry Sandusky (pdf).

Satan's Silence cover