Learning From the McMartin Hoax
ABSTRACT: An analysis of the videotapes in the
McMartin preschool sex abuse case shows a strong pattern of pressure,
coercion and manipulation aimed at getting the children to make
statements about abuse. The tapes from this case should be widely
studied in that they are the key to understanding how the children could
come to sincerely believe things that never happened.
Slowly, begrudgingly, more and more people are
beginning to recognize that the charges against the McMartin preschool
are without foundation. Even more important, the cause of this tragedy
is also being acknowledged in some circles. Others, however, despite
being in a position to see how the hoax developed, refuse to face up to
If the allegations are not true, why would the
children say they have not only been sexually abused, but have also been
exposed to rituals involving animal slaughter and even murder? The
answer is both simple and terrible. They were trained. Trained first by
the "experts" our law enforcement agencies trustingly allowed
to "evaluate" the children and then by therapists hired to
Most influential among those defending the way in
which the children were interviewed is psychiatrist Roland Summit.
Summit (1986) has written in a Los Angeles Times editorial that the
McMartin children were the victims of sexual abuse, that the social
worker, Kee MacFarlane, and the Children's institute International
used proper, up-to-the-minute techniques to interview the children, and that the crumbling of the prosecution
merely points to weaknesses in the criminal justice system.
Summit argued that "there was both reason and
precedent for the methods used in the initial interviews with the
children." MacFarlane, we are told, practiced "state of the
art ... highly evolved, intensely specific and largely unknown outside
the fledgling specialty of child abuse diagnosis." This new art
form, Summit continued, was "an amalgam of several roles ... the
knowledge of a child development specialist to understand and translate
toddler language, a therapist to guide and interpret interactive play, a
police interrogator to develop evidentiary confirmation and a child
abuse specialist to recognize the distinctive and pathetic patterns of
sexual victimization." We evidently need such artists to assist
police investigators because their "specialist understanding is
both unexpected and counterintuitive" (Summit, 1986, p.1).
Summit doesn't tell us whether he has viewed any of
the videotaped interviews done by MacFarlane and her protégés, but
either way his defense of the techniques used is itself indefensible.
don't know which is worse — defending interviews which he has studied and
which so clearly show that the children were trained by the interviewers
to believe they were molested, or defending interviews which he has not
Based on my own viewing of videotapes of 46 children
in the McMartin case, I can state categorically that the children were
in every single session outrageously manipulated by their interviewers.
During the past five years, I have studied about 700 hours of audio- or
videotapes in cases of alleged child sexual abuse. All too many show a
pattern of interviewing techniques aimed at getting a child to admit
abuse rather than to find out if any has occurred.
None, however, were as systematically manipulative as
those done in the McMartin case. In each and every session a pattern
emerges in which the children are alternately prodded and charmed,
cajoled and tricked, until they finally give the interviewer what he or
she wants, some "yucky secrets."
Because those who have viewed these tapes are under
court order not to release any portion of them, I am unable to use
transcripts of these interviews to illustrate how the children were
trained. One example, however, was published in the Washington Post (Goreny,
1988) after a tape was played for a jury in the preliminary hearing.
involved an eight-year-old boy who was four years old when he attended
the preschool, and Kee McFarlane, an unlicensed social worker who was
(and is) the director of the diagnostic clinic of the Children's
Institute International. Having seen so many other sessions done by
MacFarlane and those she trained, I can attest to the fact that this
example is not an unusual one.
As we come to this excerpt, the boy is holding a
Pac-man puppet on his hand.
Having seen similar examples over and over in the
McMartin tapes, only one conclusion is reasonable: MacFarlane and her
trainees had decided before the first interview that children were
molested at the McMartin preschool. However they now try to rationalize
their interview techniques, their behavior with the children looks like
an attempt to squeeze from the children evidence of what the
interviewers were convinced must have taken place.
By now all charges have been dropped on five of the
seven original McMartin defendants. Virtually everyone close to the case
has recognized that only political considerations mandated a trial of
the remaining two, given the complete lack of evidence other than the
statements wrenched from the children by techniques like those
illustrated above. Even what was alleged to be physical evidence seen on
medical examinations of the children is now being shown to be unreliable
(Coleman, in press).
Los Angeles County District Attorney Ira Reiner, who
inherited the case from his predecessor, has publicly admitted as much.
Interviewed by Mike Wallace for the 60 Minutes program, Reiner admitted,
"When I took office I assumed, I suppose like almost everyone else
that these defendants all of them were guilty ...
After the case was reevaluated, Reiner states,
"One of the things at that time that struck me was the total lack of
corroboration ... hundreds and hundreds
of charges and no corroboration, that is obviously disquieting.
Reiner went on to identify the correct source of the
problem. "The entire case was turned over by the district attorney
... to a group of social workers ... now these people are absolutely unqualified to
handle a criminal investigation ... they start from a premise ... that no child is capable of fabricating
stories about sexual molestation. To do so would require them to talk of
a thing which they have no understanding or knowledge. And so we can
always rely upon a child talking about being sexually molested. ...
But what we had here were these social workers questioning the children,
asking very leading and very suggestive questions ..."
Reiner even provides an example. "They'd have
little Bobby sitting there, and they'd say to Bobby, 'Did the bad
teacher touch you in a yucky way in this place right here?', and Bobby
would say, 'No.' Then they'd say, 'Wait a minute, Johnny has already
told us that this happened. Now, you're just as smart as Johnny, aren't
you?' And after a little bit of this, then maybe Bobby would say,
'Okay,' he'd nod his head, 'Yeah, it happened that way. ..., And then
once they get the child to say that, that's the end of the interview as
far as they're concerned. They go on to another subject. ..."
Finally, Reiner made a staggering admission. Asked by
Wallace how many of the 200 hours of videotapes of the children had been
viewed by his office prior to sending the case to the grand jury for
indictment, Reiner said, "In round figures, zero."
While such irresponsibility can hardly be
exaggerated, I find even more disturbing the fact that leading lights in
the field of child sexual abuse continue to insist that what MacFarlane
did was proper. What this tells us is that children all over the country
will continue to be interviewed in this manner for years to come.
We even have books like Finkelhor and Williams's Nursery Crimes: Sexual Abuse in Day Care (1988) which purports to study
the terrible abuses in cases like McMartin, completely ignoring the
massive evidence that few, if any, of the wild allegations across the
country are based on reality (Charlier & Downing, 1988).
Returning to his defense of MacFarlane's interviews,
Summit (1986, p. 1) writes, "If a child suspected of being abused
is unable to volunteer information, it must be elicited with warm
reassurance and specific, potentially leading questions."
This assumes, of course, that a molestation has taken
place, despite the fact that the interview is supposed to discover
whether molestation has occurred. Tragically, this assumption of sexual abuse
is precisely the attitude that Summit, MacFarlane and other experts in
child sexual abuse have promoted, through countless workshops for
police, protective service workers, mental health professionals, and
district attorneys. It is this belief that if an allegation is raised,
regardless of the circumstances, it must be true because "Children
don't lie about sexual abuse," which explains the irresponsible
investigations in the McMartin case, and the hundreds of other false
allegations throughout the country.
This raises other serious questions. Where does the
claim that "Children don't lie about sexual abuse" come from?
Are there only two choices, that the child is either lying or telling
the truth? Does this ignore the possibility that a child may be
manipulated into an accusation, and with sufficient training eventually
come to sincerely believe in things which never took place?
With the answers to these questions comes the
recognition that in defending Kee MacFarlane and the Children's
Institute International, Summit (1986) is defending himself and the
other leaders of what he refers to as the "fledgling
specialty" of child sexual abuse.
In a highly influential article, Summit has written,
"It has become a maxim among child sexual abuse intervention
counselors and investigators that children never fabricate the kinds of
explicit sexual manipulations they divulge in complaints and
interrogations" (1983, pp. 190-191). Unaided by adults with axes to
grind, this is probably true most of the time. But the evidence is now
overwhelming that children may be coaxed, prodded, and trained until
they tell not only of sexual abuse which never took place, but about
virtually any fantasy imaginable (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988).
Ideas which children would never imagine on their own
come forth as they try to figure out what are the terrible things which
the interviewer insists on hearing about. Take, for example, the child
repeatedly interviewed as part of the string of cases in Bakersfield,
California. These cases have been found by California's Attorney General
to be based on the same irresponsible interview techniques that were
used on the McMartin children (Van de Kamp, 1986). In one of the cases,
a child told how a mother and father had sexually abused and then
murdered their two-year-old son. I am happy to report that the
"murdered" child is alive and well. Another child in this same
case, subjected to the same indoctrination techniques, added the
district attorney, the sheriff, and the child protection worker to the
long list of child molesters.
The Minnesota Attorney General investigated the sex
abuse hoax in Scott County, where children told of sex rings and
murders, and accused their own parents of these heinous acts (Humphrey,
1985). A major conclusion of the investigation was that " ...
prolonged interrogation of children may result in confusion between fact
and fantasy" (p.11).
To ignore such evidence is irresponsible. It seems
that rather than face up to the nightmare which the experts have
promoted by their aggressive and manipulative techniques, they are
determined to confuse the issues by claiming that (quoting Summit)
"If there is a danger out there ... we must look to sources apart
from the criminal justice system to show us the danger. ... Rather
than discredit MacFarlane, the criminal justice system needs to better
understand the problems of child sexual abuse and make accommodations to
new sources of evidence" (Summit, 1986, p.1).
This means more puppets, more anatomically correct
dolls, more testimony from three, four, or five year olds who have been
badly manipulated by interviewers that they can no longer differentiate
what they remember from what has been suggested to them.
Recently we learned that hundreds of thousands of
federal and state dollars are currently funding a U.C.L.A. study on the
impact of sexual abuse on the McMartin children. The lead investigator
is psychologist Jill Watermann who co-authored a book with Kee
MacFarlane on how to investigate child sexual abuse.
Dr. Summit has made one worthwhile recommendation. He
has urged that the videotapes of the McMartin interviews be carefully
studied no matter what happens in the criminal case. This is precisely
what needs to happen, once they are edited to protect the children's
identities. The hundreds of hours of videotaped interviews are indeed
the key to understanding how the children could come to sincerely
believe things that never happened. These tapes must not be allowed to
gather dust merely because the district attorney's office finally
admitted it was a terrible mistake to trust MacFarlane and the
Children's Institute International.
These tapes are a key not only to understanding the
McMartin hoax but the thousands of smaller but otherwise similar
debacles unfolding throughout the country. If, as I have seen from my
own viewing of the McMartin tapes and listening to 700 hours of audio-
and videotapes in other cases, the best and the brightest have created
the current mess in investigations of alleged child sexual abuse, then
some basic lessons emerge:
First, we have once again made a terrible mistake by
turning to mental health professionals for advice in delicate and
difficult issues of law and social policy. Mental health professionals
are no more qualified to investigate whether a child has been sexually
molested than to determine if a murderer knows right from wrong or
predict if a prisoner is safe for release (Coleman, 1984).
Second, police and child protection workers
throughout the country will need to be retrained. The ideas and methods
of Summit, MacFarlane, and their closest colleagues which now pervade
child sexual abuse investigations will need to be exposed and discarded
in favor of careful and responsible investigations which do not turn to
"experts" for insights which we mistakenly assume they can
provide. We will do far better without them.
I join hands with Dr. Summit in calling for the most
thorough study of the McMartin tapes by the widest possible audience.
Let transcriptions go forth across the land. Once the public learns what
is being done to our children in the name of protecting them, experts
will not be needed to tell us where the "secrets" came from
and who is to blame.
Charlier, T. & Downing, 5. (1988, January 17-21).
A series of articles in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
Coleman, L. (1984). The Reign of Error: Psychiatry. Authority &
Law ()(). Boston:
Coleman, L. (in press). Medical Examinations for Sexual Abuse: Are
We Being Told the Truth? Minneapolis, MN: Family
Finkelhor, D., & Williams, L. M. (198). Nursery Crimes: Sexual
Abuse in Day Care (). Beverly Hills, CA:
Gorney, C. (1988, May 18). The community of fear, Washington Post, p.
Humphrey, H. H. (1985, February 12). Report on Scott
County investigations. St. Paul, MN: Attorney General's
Summit, R. (1983) The child sexual abuse
Child Abuse & Neglect, 7, 177-193.
Summit, R. (1986, February 5). No one invented
McMartin 'secret,' Part II. Los Angeles Times
Van de Kamp, J. (1986, September). Report on the Kern County investigation. Sacramento, CA:
Office of the Attorney General, Division of Law Enforcement, Bureau
Wakefield, H. & Underwager, R. (1988).
Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse ()(). Springfield, IL:
Coleman is a psychiatrist and can be contacted at 1889 Yosemite Road, Berkley, California 94707.