Satanic Day Care: The McMartin Pre-School Story

Readers — While we’re thinking back on news stories that changed childhood (see the post below this one, on Kitty Genovese), take a look at this video just released by the New York Times chronicling the McMartin pre-school Santanic panic. If this intrigues or outrages you (it will), I’d also recommend the incredibly gripping James Woods’ movie about the case, “Indictment,” as well as Debbie Nathan‘s book, Satan’s Silence: Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt. Debbie is in the Times’ video, too.  –  L

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27 Responses to Satanic Day Care: The McMartin Pre-School Story

  1. SKL March 13, 2014 at 2:38 pm #

    I wish everyone could see this. There are still parents whose first thought about preschool is “how will I prevent sexual abuse?”

  2. anonymous this time March 13, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    So maddening. Humans can invent the most fantastic stories to “fill in the voids” that they see wherever they look. Then they start assuming that their stories are the Truth. Whatever they imagine COULD happen becomes something they assume WILL happen, and then the real fun begins: coming up with all of the ways to PREVENT those fantastic things from happening.

    Meanwhile, it is utterly ignored that there was never an emergency in the first place, yet everyone continues with the fire drill incessantly, interrupting the real stuff and beauty of life. So many lives damaged in the process.

    Tragic, all around.

  3. Papilio March 13, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

    Tell me this was actually about some stupid B-movie. Please?

  4. Ravana March 13, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

    A whole publishing craze happened because of that insanity. This is just one of the books that came out: http://awfullibrarybooks.net/satan-for-kids/

  5. Gina March 13, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    As a first-time parent living in LA during this trial, I was, for a moment, horrified that people could do such things to children.
    Of course, that moment passed. The accusations made were ludicrous (children were flushed down the toilet to abuse sites, Ray McMartin could fly, abuse occurred in airports, secret tunnels, bowling alleys!) and the original accuser was an alcoholic schizophrenic mother who based her belief of abuse on her little boy’s painful bowel movements.
    So many lives were destroyed by this case. Children were forced to “recall” horrible things that never happened. The McMartin family lost their three-generation business.
    To this day, people worry irrationally about sexual abuse in schools. My son, 27, is a preschool teacher and when I worked with him, I was actually asked by certain parents that he not be allowed to change diapers of little girls. I fear for him being accused falsely. No matter the outcome, it will tarnish him for life. My daughter teaches first grade; what if a parent sees a hug and decides it is inappropriate? Do we all just stop touching children?

  6. SKL March 13, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

    I was in a discussion the other day about how to deal with a 6yo who was having trouble with behavior in school. One of the btdt moms/teachers suggested “heavy hugs” or something like that. It is a sensory technique that helps kids to calm down and get their wits about them so they can get through the next hour or half-day or whatever. (And yes, it’s what it sounds like – a big bear hug.) They even sometimes got the whole class involved in the hug. Every time I saw “hug” mentioned, I thought, well great, IF that is allowed in that school and IF the teacher isn’t afraid to do it. But I kept quiet, because I didn’t want to plant more fears.

  7. Maggie March 13, 2014 at 5:20 pm #

    The insanity of it all…. It’s astonishing.

  8. anonymous mom March 13, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

    I cannot recommend Debbie Nathan’s book enough. It is fabulous, and it’s also very prescient about things that have happened in the two decades since she wrote it, such as the country cracking down HARD on guys in their 20s who have teenage girlfriends, and much of the panic transferring to teens having sex with young adults within a decade of their age.

    I don’t think we can underestimate how much the abuse scares of the 80s/90s shaped the way we think. It also shaped how teachers teach. My mother was a preschool teacher for 25 years. The last half of her career, things changed. You couldn’t let kids sit in your lap. You couldn’t give hugs. You couldn’t help a child go to the bathroom, or ever take a child to the bathroom alone. You had to think carefully about every interaction you had with a child, and even then, there was constant worry that *something* you did would be seen as inappropriate. Just last year, I helped to start a church Sunday school program. The materials I was given were less about anything to do with religious ed and more to do with avoiding lawsuits. The advice included never letting any adult be alone with any child or children, never having just one adult in a room with kids, and only touching children on “bony” places (shoulders, elbows, and tops of heads).

    I also feel like it’s given kids a scary amount of power, not the kind of healthy power kids should have, but a power based on fear and manipulation. I know people whose kids have threatened to make abuse allegations if they didn’t get their way, as well as kids who have made abuse allegations when angry at a teacher or parent.

  9. Lynda March 13, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

    I often wonder if this is what happened with Michael Jackson. Combine the parental hysteria with a possible lawsuit payout…

  10. Warren March 13, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

    I will bet you there are many that still believe that everything did take place. That they are all guilty.

    How many lives were eventually ruined? How many kids were scarred by the interviews?

  11. Papilio March 13, 2014 at 6:16 pm #

    Speaking of satanic rituals (that child’s book was so over the top idiotic it made me laugh), that reminds me of some website that listed 20 signs that you’re a helicopter parent, and #6 was: “You own a voodoo doll that looks suspiciously like Lenore Skenazy” 😀

    “the original accuser was an alcoholic schizophrenic mother who based her belief of abuse on her little boy’s painful bowel movements”

    So… some more whole-grain bread and fruit in his diet and none of this would have happened??

  12. E. Simms March 13, 2014 at 6:24 pm #

    It’s really sad that the prosecution has never apologized or acknowledged that they did anything wrong. Hell, even the instigators of the original Salem witch trials publicly apologized and the convictions were reversed.

  13. John March 13, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    As a Christian, I do believe that a personal devil (Satan) does exist. But a belief in that alone should not declare a person crazy. The basic theology and doctrine of the Catholic church and all major Protestant denominations include belief in Satan. BUT putting it into perspective, large asteroids also exist and to some degree threaten the earth; however, if I were to live my life in fear of an asteroid impacting my house, I think people would rightly think that I was crazy. If I were to tell everybody that asteroid impacts were destroying homes and cities all over the world, people would declare me as nuts, especially when there is not one tinch of evidence to back up that claim.

    The belief that Satanic ritual abuse of children happens in day care centers and elsewhere is a similar crazy belief. It’s a sensational story but there isn’t any credible evidence to suggest that it happened even one time. But we Americans love believing in creepy stories and you can’t get any creepier than Satanic ritual abuse of children in day care centers! This is the reason why the Snopes website exists. To dispel many of those creepy urban legends that Americans LOVE to believe and to spread! It’s just a shame that people have suffered because of this particular urban legend.

  14. Elizabeth March 13, 2014 at 6:49 pm #

    There was a case near where I live in Massachusetts very recently where an unlicensed day care owner was convicted, and pled guilty to sexually abusing all of the children in his care. There was a lot of video and photographic evidence. He just committed suicide in prison this week. While it has been a local news story, it hasn’t turned into this kind of witch hunt. Interesting how there was such a different outcome.
    I volunteered in an after school program for very poor children in Peru for a few months. Many of the children had little or no affection from family, and the physical contact they did have was often abusive. The program director was constantly trying to get the volunteers to hug the children, have them sit on our laps and provide some sort of affection and positive physical contact for them. It was a real struggle for most of the American volunteers, but less so for the other Latinos and Europeans. It made the Americans seem very cold and uncaring because we were all coming from a place of being accused of inappropriate contact. Very sad.

  15. keith March 13, 2014 at 8:36 pm #

    I strongly recommend this article on the subject of moral panics:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2008/09/08/false-witnesses/

    As it turns out, the motivations of the people who buy into fantastic stories of abuse probably have very selfish motives.

  16. Warren March 13, 2014 at 9:19 pm #

    Wasn’t this around the time they started the coached recovered memories as well?

  17. Reziac March 13, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

    Possibly the best account of the whole sordid mess:

    http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mcmartin/mcmartin.html

    Please visit all the links on the side menu as well.

  18. anonymous this time March 13, 2014 at 11:31 pm #

    Oh, gadzooks, Warren, I went to a counsellor once in the 80’s or early 90’s because I had a habit of chewing the insides of my cheeks, and I wanted to stop it. The counsellor said the only reason I would do such a thing was if I had been sexually abused as a child. When I insisted I had not been, she insisted that my memories of it were all “repressed.”

    Had I been more willing to accept the authority of someone with a framed diploma on her wall, I might have then had my entire family blown apart by her “therapy.” Instead, I nodded politely and informed her I would not be seeing her again.

    Wish I had told her a few other things, too.

    So many lives ruined by this idea that if you can’t remember something, that only PROVES that it happened, and you’re so traumatized by it, you can’t recall it. I suppose there are some valid cases of that happening, but as a first assumption in the face of no other evidence? Ridiculous.

  19. ebohlman March 13, 2014 at 11:53 pm #

    Warren: The answer to both of your questions is “yes”. The Satanic Panic and the recovered memory movement were intimately connnected (in fact the whole notion of traumatically repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse formed the theoretical basis for both the interrogation techniques used to get “disclosures” out of the kids and the assumption that fantastic reports should be taken literally).

    And yes, there’s a considerable group of people who believe that all the stories were true, and worse. Some of the are still prominent in the field of therapy for abuse survivors (Roland Summit and Randy Noblitt are examples). There are still occasional prosecutions based on the Satanic Panic assumptions (practically everybody, even Debbie Nathan, thought they had mostly stopped after Dale Akiki was acquitted in 1994, but then she learned about the San Antonio Four prosecution that took place in 1999. She recently said that we may never know how many such cases there were or when the stopped.

    Apparently several clients of an eating-disorders treatment center in the St. Louis area have come to believe they were subjected to Satanic Ritual Abuse as kids, and there have been some lawsuits, but they’ve mostly been settled.

    A good way to tell if a therapist is into this sort of quackery is to ask them if they think Lauren Stratford’s book Satan’s Underground describes a real-life story (it doesn’t; a thorough journalistic investigation revealed that almost none of Stratford’s details of even the simplest aspects of her childhood were correct. Stratford subsequently restyled herself as “Laura Grabowski”, a supposed Holocaust survivor, and actually collected several thousand dollars of funds intended for real survivors). True Believer therapists still insist that it (along with Sybil and Michelle Remembers are true in every word. If they deny that those writings have been debunked, do not under any circumstances allow them to provide therapy to you or your child.

  20. Nanci March 14, 2014 at 12:19 am #

    This story brings back memories! I was 7 in 1984. I remember clearly my mom telling me about this horrible daycare where the workers did terrible things to the kids. I was so sad for those poor children. One day, some time later, we were leaving our subdivision and I was thinking about this place. I asked my mom if the daycare was still open. Of course she had no idea I was thinking of that particular daycare and I’m sure just assumed I was talking about the one at the entrance to our subdivision. She said, yes, that it was still open. I decided that when I grew up I was going to shut it down and save all those poor children and animals that were being killed. I guess as time went on I forgot about it. Reading this today I realize this story is obviously what she was talking about. Glad to know it was never really true. I remember my parents teaching me that what was on TV was fake, except for the news, the news was real and true. I guess if enough reporters report it the masses will believe it’s true, that’s scary!

  21. J.T. Wenting March 14, 2014 at 1:17 am #

    “I often wonder if this is what happened with Michael Jackson. Combine the parental hysteria with a possible lawsuit payout…”

    It’s exactly what happened there, yes.
    That’s why the case was thrown out, the accusers were recognised as being well known for such shenanigans, wasn’t the first time they’d tried it.

    “It’s really sad that the prosecution has never apologized or acknowledged that they did anything wrong.”

    WHAT? The government admitting it isn’t perfect?

    Here it’s pool attendants and swimming teachers. Males only of course.
    It’s got to the point where if you ever were one in your life you can almost wait for the police to come around and arrest you for being a pedophile.
    Grab a drowning child and get him/her out of the water? Clearly sexual abuse.
    That’s how far it’s come by now, that such “cases” are in the papers nearly every week, and most of them get convicted based on “memories of abuse” decades old that suddenly surface in a police interview despite the person never having remembered it before in years or decades, and never talked to their parents or anyone else at the time.
    When I was a child, we’d talk to eachother about “creeps”, and that was just people looking at us “weird”. You can be sure we’d talk about being abused with friends and parents, and teachers. But somehow that never happened in these cases.

  22. J.T. Wenting March 14, 2014 at 8:00 am #

    “Tell me this was actually about some stupid B-movie. Please?”

    sadly no. It happened and still happens to this day.

    And worse, the people involved, the investigators, the prosecutors, and some of the “children” who had false memories implanted in them by those investigators and prosecutors still hold that they were right, that there was a massive amount of abuse going on and that it was covered up.
    The falsely accused still have to deal with being stigmatised as child molestors and satanists every day, being denied jobs, chased out of the towns they want to live in peacefully by mobs wanting “to get rid of the pedophile”, sometimes targeted for murder by vigilantes.
    A lot of them end up suicides or spend their entire savings to change their name and appearance, often moving to other countries in the hope they’ll be anonymous there and left alone only to have the vigilantes track them down after a few years, at which point they have more “evidence” because “why would he change his name and run away if he were innocent?”.

  23. Tsu Dho Nimh March 14, 2014 at 10:19 am #

    You have to be VERY careful when asking for information to avoid contaminating the account.

    I spent a lot of time in the LA area during the investigation and trial – even my devoutly fundamentalist evangelical Christian sister found it impossible to believe the supposed abuse activities.

    The logistics were impossible –

    Like you can get a class of 3-year olds ALL undressed, abuse them, scrub them up and get them dressed again in time for their parents to pick them up? It’s hard enough getting them in and out of coats and overshoes!

    Have dozens of children go through this and none of them comes home and says, “Mom we went to the airport and flied and then they covered us in hot sauce and licked it off!” Not a peep out of any child?

  24. Jake March 14, 2014 at 10:19 am #

    I wonder what Richard Jewell would say about this?

    I am an American. I believe, deeply, in the First Amendment. I believe that a free press is the first line in defense against tyranny.

    BUT

    I think about this, the 1996 Olympic Bombing, Michael Jackson, and so many others, and wonder if there shouldn’t be a new set of laws that govern sensational reporting. Above and beyond normal libel and slander. When you have broadcasters like Dan Rather and Nancy Grace just lying on camera, unconfirmed information paraded like fact, when people’s lives are destroyed by “trial by media” maybe, just maybe, some reporters disserve jail time.

  25. MichaelF March 14, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

    We had some of this around the same time in Massachusetts, during the whole “repressed memories” craze. The leading questioning, and the accusations were just insane at the time and while I originally thought the people doing this were sick it soon became apparent to anyone outside of the court room that there was a modern day witch hunt going on. I still have no idea who to blame for this, over zealous prosecutors or parents with no sense of reality but a lot of lives were ruined over all this. I hope it’s not an episode that is repeated.

  26. parallel March 15, 2014 at 3:17 am #

    There are plenty of people who STILL firmly believe satanic ritual abuse is a real thing still being practiced. It’s very easy to find supposed ‘survivors’ on sites like tumblr, and asking for any evidence is considered outright evil. These people will claim they repeatedly had fetuses cut out of them for sacrifice, yet post pictures that clearly show there are no scars (or, in one case, hilariously bad Photoshopped scars.)

    Seriously, people do honestly believe in this stuff. Just a few weeks ago there was a post on a site I frequent about a supposed case where a preacher confessed to molesting children and indicated there was a wide group involved…basically half the town. The police confiscated ‘mountains’ of evidence from home computers. To the people on the site, this was a confirmed case of ritual abuse. Yet when I bothered to look up what happened AFTER the initial news report, only the preacher was charged with anything. That suggests to me that he was mentally ill and made up the rest of the story, and the police found no evidence against anyone else.

  27. RedGingerGoo March 20, 2014 at 5:31 am #

    The Church of Satan never did abuse children or sacrifice fetuses! Now, show of hands, … anybody have the BALLS to actually “join” the Church of Satan!??! … NOT ME!!!