Psychiatrist’s theory bolstered day-care prosecutions

Feb. 2, 2019

First of two parts

The name of Dr. Roland Summit, key supporter of the McMartin Preschool prosecution, no longer resonates in psychiatry, but the “child sexual abuse syndrome” he conjured up did a lifetime’s worth of damage to its countless victims.

Dr. Roland Summit

As described by Debbie Nathan (Village Voice, Jan. 12, 1990), “[Summit’s] theory about incest… argues that if there is evidence of sex abuse and a child denies it, this is only further proof that it happened and a therapist should use any means necessary to help the child talk…. If they later recant, that means they are under family pressure to protect the father and their turnabout is further proof of the crime.

“So no matter how much coercion was used to get an accusation and no matter if a child later retracted it, once Summit’s incest theory was applied, a charge of abuse became irrefutable. Child protection workers ignored the fact that this logic had little to do with day care. After all, why would children staunchly defend abuse to protect an adult who wasn’t part of the family? And if they had been so brutally attacked at school, why wouldn’t they tell their parents?

“Therapists and investigators came up with all sorts of rationales. One was the teachers threatened them by slaughtering animals and warning that the same thing would happen to their parents if they told….”

Summit wasn’t among the expert witnesses in the Little Rascals Day Care case, but his supposed syndrome warped therapists’ interpretation of every child-witness interview. And those imaginary “threatened parents” showed up in this 1995 open letter from Little Rascals parents: “Many [children are now] old enough to realize that Bob Kelly can’t work his threatened evil to kill their families.”

Next: Collusion by psychiatrist and patient



Expert on day-care panic adds papers to Duke Law archive


Jan. 11, 2019

The Little Rascals Day Care Case archive at Duke Law School is about to get some impressive company. Mary deYoung, perhaps the most prolific researcher and chronicler of the “satanic ritual abuse” era, has agreed to place her own voluminous papers at Duke.

The author of both “The Day Care Ritual Abuse Moral Panic” (2004) and “The Ritual Abuse Controversy: An Annotated Bibliography” (2002), she is now emerita professor of sociology at Grand Valley State University. I asked Dr. deYoung to describe what she will be sending Duke’s way….

“My papers include 40 binders on American, European and Australasian cases. For many of the cases, I traveled to the site of the moral panic and collected local material that is not generally available by internet searches. I also have a file box of ephemera – symptom lists, descriptions of rituals, etc. – that were widely circulated at the endless training sessions that recruited so many social workers, police officers, medical and legal professionals to the idea that day care providers were engaged in a satanic conspiracy to abuse children. I have a few books, written by apologists, that probably should have been burned long ago, but they are testimony to the mainstreaming of these ridiculous ideas….

“The prospect that lessons can be learned from this dark decade is very satisfying…. While day care centers are no longer the site of the panic, the ridiculous assertions, unfounded complaints and pseudoscience that resulted in so many miscarriages of justice still occur in recovered memory and other types of cases around the Western world.”



Memphis paper first to link ‘satanic ritual abuse’ cases

Jan. 4, 2019

In January 1988 the Memphis Commercial Appeal published a 36-page special section recapping its recent series, “Justice Abused: A 1980s Witch Hunt” by Tom Charlier and Shirley Downing.

“Justice Abused” was the first major news coverage to link “satanic ritual abuse” cases across the country and to
characterize them as a witch hunt.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning criticism of how the news media so often mishandled cases such as McMartin Preschool, David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times credited Charlier and Downing with pointing out “among many other things, the large number of child molestation cases that had resulted in dismissals, acquittals and dropped charges and the startling number of similarities among many of the cases.

Children in both the Memphis and McMartin cases, for example, told of druggings, of animal mutilations, of trips in vans, of bloody rituals, of sacrifices of babies and of being taken on airplanes that resembled those of Federal Express.”

Until now this historically important series has not been available digitally. It is archived in two pieces here and here on our Bookshelf.



Therapists, don’t commingle your forensic, therapeutic roles


June 18, 2018

“Ted Cross, a senior research specialist at the University of Illinois School of Social Work, [said] separation of the two interventions – forensic and therapeutic – is critical for the child, but is also important for practical reasons: ‘You don’t want the therapeutic work to taint a criminal investigation. If a child is in therapy at the same time that the forensic interview takes place, the attorney representing the offender can say the therapist planted the idea of abuse in the child’s head.’.

“This point is of particular importance in the wake of high-profile cases such as the McMartin Preschool trial during the 1980s, in which therapists’ interviewing techniques were so suggestive that the children falsely accused their teachers of abuse….”

– From “How to Build a Space to Support Abused Children” by Mimi Kirk at Atlantic Cities (March 29)

Did the Little Rascals therapists offer children any therapy at all? What do you think?


Moral panics, strange to begin with, also make strange bedfellows


June 14, 2018

“America has a long history of episodic moral panics in which self-styled experts, sensationalistic journalists and public officials used emotionally charged language and a barrage of (often distorted) statistics to portray a particular social problem as widespread and urgent….

“The 1980s brought [a] moral panic precipitated by unease about double-income families and the supervision of children by strangers at day-care centers….

“All these scares produced unexpected political alliances. Conservatives concerned with moral purity, law-and-order and Christian values joined forces with feminists worried about victims of sexual trauma and liberals in favor of strong government regulation. When forces from the right and left converge in a moral panic, their causes possess greater appeal to the public. We see this today as women’s rights advocates join the sex-trafficking fight along with the religious right. The result is a runaway train with no real political force left in opposition….”

– From “President Trump signed a new law that aims to fight online sex trafficking. Here’s why that’s bad.” by Sascha Cohen in the Washington Post (April 12)


Convicting an innocent man sure works up an appetite


May 26, 2018

“It’s one of the most telling shots in Ofra Bikel’s painstaking investigation into the Little Rascals child-abuse scandal in small-town North Carolina: As a convicted perpetrator [Bob Kelly] is taken away in a police car, children frolic nearby and chant, ‘I hate you, I hate you’, as their parents applaud and one adult says, ‘Let’s go get something to eat.’ ”

– From “Justice Abuse? `Frontline’ Documentary Takes Hard Look At A Small-town Scandal” by Bart Mills in the Chicago Tribune (July 20, 1993)


It’s not mistakes that obstruct justice. It’s the refusal to admit them.

May 21, 2018

“Cops, district attorneys, defense attorneys, and judges make mistakes all the time. Mistakes don’t obstruct justice. Justice is obstructed by refusing to acknowledge and rectify mistakes, and instead doubling down on and repeating them….”

– From “For a small, blue state, Massachusetts wrongfully convicts a lot of people”  by George Bullen at 50 States of Blue (Jan. 30)

The prosecution of the Edenton Seven blew through one red light after another, willfully blind to the enormous mistakes it had made and hell-bent on making even more.


McMartin Preschool acquittal did little to stem spread of hysteria


May 18, 2018

“Despite the acquittal in [the McMartin Preschool case], the hysteria kept raging there and nationally; mainstream news still gave it credence, police still made arrests, prosecutors still prosecuted, and true believers among psychologists and psychiatrists (and their clients) still believed and proselytized, often with a government imprimatur….

“In a small town in Tidewater North Carolina, children testified that a satanic cult operating a day care center had ritually abused them – and taken them in hot-air balloons to outer space and on a boat into the Atlantic where newborns were fed to sharks; several people were sentenced to long prison terms and served time before their convictions were overturned or charges dismissed.”

– From “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History” by Kurt Andersen (2017)

The ripples from McMartin were even more pronounced in Edenton, after prosecutors brought back from California a crucial lesson: Conceal, obscure or destroy the therapists’ notes that would reveal how relentlessly the child-witnesses had been manipulated.


Where do you stand, Edenton, on the Little Rascals case?

May 17, 2018

In recent years the Little Rascals Day Care case, probably the most significant event in Edenton in the 20th century, seems to have been a taboo subject in the local Chowan Herald and in the Daily Advance of Elizabeth City. I’m grateful that the Herald has published my letter to the editor in this week’s edition:

“In the 1990s the town of Edenton was torn apart by the Little Rascals Day Care case, in which seven local people were accused of ‘satanic ritual abuse’ of dozens of children. The case attracted reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post and received eight hours of documentary coverage on PBS’s “Frontline” series. Co-owner Bob Kelly’s trial was the longest and costliest in North Carolina history. After Kelly served six years in prison and cook Dawn Wilson three, their convictions were overturned.

“The Duke University Law School Library recently opened to researchers an exhibit and archive on the Little Rascals case, including the transcript of Bob Kelly’s trial and numerous other documents. ‘The case is one example of the preoccupation with perceived abuse taking place at daycares and preschools in the 1980s and 1990s,’ Duke wrote in its announcement. ‘Often, these cases also involved allegations of Satanism or devil worship. Like the Little Rascals case, most of these daycare abuse accusations turned out to be false.

“Today no reputable psychologist, social scientist or legal expert will argue otherwise. From Wikipedia to the National Registry of Exonerations, the defendants in cases such as Little Rascals are recognized as innocent victims of a bizarre ‘moral panic’ that bore striking similarities to the Salem witch hunts 300 years earlier.

“During the years-long prosecution of the Edenton Seven, townspeople were divided family vs. family, friends vs. friends. Today the former Little Rascals Day Care Center is being converted into housing – is that what would happen if townspeople believed it was the site of mass molestation of their children? So where now does Edenton stand?”


Today’s anonymous fan mail: ‘You should be investigated yourself’

May 4, 2018

“Only a pedophile would attempt to justify other pedophiles. If you didn’t follow the case in the news at the time or attend the trial,
how do you know they’re innocent? The fact is you don’t and are just saying they are to brush the incident under the rug.
“You should be investigated yourself.”