Identifying and Dealing with "Child
Thomas D. Oellerich*
ABSTRACT: Child sexual abuse is immoral and should be condemned.
However, equally immoral is the activity perpetrated by "child
savers." These are professionals who, in their zeal to protect
alleged child and adult victims of child sexual abuse, adversely impact
the lives of individuals and families. The primary purpose of this paper
is to provide a set of indicators which should alert practitioners that
they are in the presence of these professionals. A second purpose is to
recommend alternative ways for social workers and the profession to deal
with child savers.
The recent allegations of sexual abuse in Wenatchee, Washington
suggest that the zealotry that marked such cases as the McMartin
Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, the Wee Care Day Care Center
in New Jersey, the Little Rascals Day Care Center in North Carolina, and
Faith Chapel in San Diego persists. These cases represent a
twentieth-century witch hunt. Child sexual abuse is immoral and illegal.
Some children need protection. But, as indicated by these and other
cases (Nathan & Snedeker, 1995), they and their families need
protection as well from present day "child savers" (Wexler,
1995). These are the descendants of the child saving and child rescue
movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Costin, 1985;
Wexler, 1995). They are the professionals-social workers, therapists,
physicians, law enforcement personnel, prosecutors-who, in their zeal to
protect children, instead harm them and devastate the lives of families
(Freyd, et al., 1993; Tavris, 1993; Wexler, 1995; & the newsletters
of the FMS Foundation).
The purpose of this paper is twofold: 1) to identify those indicators
that should lead one to suspect a professional is a child saver, and, 2)
to make recommendations to social work practitioners and the profession
to deal with this category of professionals.
The Indicators for Child Savers
A review of the literature suggests that child savers manifest
certain beliefs concerning the problem of child sexual abuse. These
beliefs, in turn, can serve as indicators for suspecting a professional
may be a child saver.
The first indicator that a professional may be a child saver is when
he or she becomes a proselytizer. This professional spreads the gospel
of satanic ritual abuse, despite the absence of corroborative evidence
for such allegations. Lanning (1991) reported that, despite intensive
investigations over an eight-year period, law enforcement officials had
found no credible evidence supporting allegations of ritual abuse.
five-year governmentally-funded study, conducted by Goodman, Qin,
Bottoms, and Shaver (1994), concluded that hard evidence for satanic
ritual abuse "was scant to nonexistent" (p. 6). And, more
recently, Bottoms and Davis (1997) observed that there never were highly
organized satanic ritual abuse cults in this country. They based this
conclusion on their own surveys, the fact that the police and FBI agents
have never found evidence of satanic ritual abuse, and the discrediting
of and the recantations by alleged victims.
But the child savers firmly believe the claims of ritualistic abuse and
continue to promulgate this notion (Goodman et al., 1994; Bottoms &
Davis, 1997; Bottoms, Shaver, & Goodman, 1996). They reject reports
as biased that do not corroborate the existence of satanic ritual abuse.
The evidence, however, confirms the conclusion of the San Diego Grand
Jury (1992, June), which investigated that county's child protective
system and concluded that:
the existence of satanic ritual abuse is a contemporary myth
perpetuated by a small number of social workers, therapists, and law
enforcement members who ... cannot be dissuaded by a lack of physical
evidence (p. 18).
This contemporary myth is far from benign. As Bottoms and Davis
(1997) point out, those who become involved with these professionals may
live the rest of their lives with a false, painful belief. And they may
act on this belief with untold harm to innocent individuals. These are
often parents who are subjected to misguided lawsuits and imprisonment
for crimes they did not commit.
Second, child savers are those professional interveners who should
remain objective but do not. They act as validators (Gardner, 1991).
These professionals have as their purpose to "validate" even
the most bizarre of allegations. The investigation of the Alicia Wade
case by the San Diego Grand Jury (1992, June) revealed that county's
child protective system to be inherently biased and unable to detect or
correct its errors. In this system, social workers, therapists,
investigators, and prosecutors operated on the presumption that an
allegation of child sexual abuse meant that the abuse had in fact
occurred. Evidence to the contrary was routinely ignored.
Indeed, the Grand Jury (1992, February) reported that some social
workers may well have committed perjury in order to gain convictions.
Lorandos (1995) also reports social workers withholding or falsifying
information in civil proceedings in order to secure a judgment they
deemed "in the best interests of the child."
Third, child savers are those professionals who disseminate
exaggerated claims of the prevalence of child sexual abuse in this
country. For example, they refer to the work of Russell (1983) or Wyatt
(1985). Russell reported that more than half (54%) of all women
experienced some form of intra- and extrafamilial sexual abuse prior to
age 18; Wyatt, that more than three-fifths (62%) of women had. As noted
by Okami (1990), these prevalence rates far exceed the rates reported in
virtually all other major studies.
These high rates, according to Okami, are the result of using moral
and political criteria to define abuse. In this context, Okami points
out that Russell's study was severely compromised by her selection and training of her interviewers.
Moreover, both studies dismissed
self-reports of inconsequential or of loving, noncoercive adult/nonadult
sexual interactions as invalid interpretations of their experiences.
In point of fact, the actual prevalence of child sexual abuse is not
known. Reports of prevalence from different surveys range from 6% to 62%
for females and from 3% to 30% for males (Geffner, 1992; Peters, Wyatt,
& Finkelhor, 1986). Such a range of numbers hardly instills
confidence about what is really known about the prevalence of child
Estimates of the prevalence of child sexual abuse are complicated by
variations in the definitions of sexual abuse, as Levitt and Pinnell
(1995) note in their review of the literature. Definitions vary with
respect to the types of behavior that is to be included, the age
differences between those involved, and the presence or absence of
coercion and/or force (Browne & Finkelhor, 1986). Thus, some studies
define sexual abuse as including everything from exhibitionism to rape
to incestuous intercourse. Others use more narrow criteria. As a result,
Levitt and Pinnell conclude that it is impossible to determine the true
prevalence of child sexual abuse.
In a similar fashion, the child savers prefer referring to the
numbers of reported cases of child sexual abuse. They ignore the fact
that considerably less than half of reported cases are substantiated
(Lorandos & Campbell, 1995).
Additionally, child savers claim that the increased rate of reported
cases reflects a real increase in prevalence. Thus, they assert there is
an epidemic of child sexual abuse (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994). But the
evidence does not support this claim. Feldman, et al. (1991) compared
data obtained in the 1970s and 1980s with data from the 1940s and found
that the prevalence rates were similar. Kilpatrick (1992), in her study
of 501 women from Florida and Georgia, found, when her data were
analyzed by different age groups, a definite trend toward decreasing
sexual activity among those 14 and under over the past 60 years, while
the trend for adolescents had remained constant over that same period of
The child savers, however, prefer the larger numbers, as these provide
them with what Gilbert (1991) refers to as "advocacy numbers"
as opposed to legitimate numbers. Advocacy numbers are figures that are
used to persuade public opinion that a problem is significantly greater
than is generally recognized, rather than attempting to foster
The Trauma Ideologist
Fourth, child savers are purveyors of what Schultz (1980) refers to
as trauma ideology. Trauma ideologists regard every incident of sexual
abuse as inevitably psychologically harmful, even devastating (Cole,
1982). That sexual contacts of a minor with an adult might be
experienced without harm or even positively, is, to the child savers,
heresy. For example, Kilpatrick (1992) concluded that early child and
adolescent sexual experiences, unless there was force or high pressure
involved, had no influence on later adult functioning regardless of the
type of partner involved (i.e., relative or non-relative) or the age
differences. She reported that, when she discussed her findings with
professionals, they closed their ears to them. They were most closed to
those findings that indicated positive reactions to these early sexual
experiences and to those findings that indicated that incestuous
experiences did not cause irreparable harm (p. xviii).
The evidence suggests that, although child sexual abuse is
potentially psychologically damaging, this is not always the case.
review of 45 studies by Kendall-Tackett, Williams, and Finkelhor (1993)
concludes that up to 49% of the sexually abused children suffered no
psychological harm. Thus, Kendall-Tackett, et al. concluded that a lack
of symptoms could not be used to rule out sexual abuse since "there
are too many sexually abused children who are apparently
asymptomatic" (p. 175).
Among those with psychological harm, Kendall-Tackett, et al. report
that some become worse. However, the majority of studies in this review
indicated that, when the sexually abused children in treatment were
compared with nonabused children in treatment, the sexually abused were
less symptomatic than their nonabused clinical counterparts. In
addition, the majority of those showing psychological harm improved
markedly within 12 to 18 months with or without treatment.
In an earlier review of 28 studies, Browne and Finkelhor (1986)
concluded that, when studied as adults, less than 20% of those who had
been sexually abused as children had serious psychopathology as adults.
Browne and Finkelhor observed that these findings should provide comfort
to victims since severe long-term effects were not inevitable. They note
with concern the efforts of child advocates to exaggerate the harmful
effects for political purposes because of its potential to harm the
victims and their families.
That the claims of harm are exaggerated and, indeed, may well be
inaccurate is substantiated in a landmark study by Rind and Tromovitch
(1997). These researchers noted that most of the prior reviews had drawn
upon clinical and legal samples, which are not representative of the
general population. They conducted a meta-analysis of seven studies that
used national probability samples, which are more appropriate for making
population relevant inferences. The studies included four from the
United States, and one each from Great Britain, Canada, and Spain.
findings indicated that harm from child sexual abuse is not pervasive
among those who experienced early sexual experiences. Further, the harm,
when it occurs, is not serious.
These findings confirm the earlier findings of Kinsey and his
associates (1953) who found that, among those participants (24%) who had
had sexual contact with adults in their childhood, 80% recalled being
emotionally upset by these contacts. However, in all but a few cases,
the negative effect was "nearer the level that children will show
when they see insects, spiders, or other objects against which they have
been adversely conditioned" (p. 121).
Moreover, Rind and Tromovitch's meta-analysis supports the view that
the behaviors and attitudes exhibited by the sexually abused are
unlikely to be the effects of the sexual abuse. They may be the result,
instead, of preexisting problems, or even of professional and community
intervention, as earlier reported by Constantine (1981).
Further, there is no sound research supporting the stereotypical
linkage of child sexual abuse and later adult psychopathology. Existing
research in this regard is so seriously methodologically flawed that it
is virtually valueless, according to Pope and Hudson (1995). A similar
conclusion was arrived at by staff of the False Memory Foundation
(Staff, 1996, September) who, with the help of members of the
Foundation's Scientific Advisory Committee, analyzed the research in
this area. They identified the assumption that childhood sexual abuse
results in the development of psychiatric disorders in adulthood as a
leading candidate to join the ranks of other mental health myths. They
to question the pathogenic effects of childhood sexual abuse is
often considered heretical-just as it would have been scandalous, a
generation ago, to question whether bad mothering could turn children
into schizophrenics (p. 3).
It is, in fact, far from proven that childhood sexual abuse has any
significant influence upon the adult personality. As noted by Seligman
(1994), adults are not prisoners of their past, even a past marked by
That child sexual abuse may not be harmful is not to condone it or to
suggest that it should not be considered either immoral or illegal or
both. Conte (1985) has pointed out that decisions concerning the
appropriateness of adult/nonadult sexual interactions involve ethical,
legal, and religious principles. By way of example, robbery is unlawful
not because it results in psychological harm but because society has
decided that people have a right to their own property. Put another way,
the question of the effects of child sexual abuse should not be confused
with the moral and/or legal issue of dealing with this behavior.
The Therapy Marketeer
The final indicator suggesting a professional may be a child saver is
when the professional acts as a therapy marketeer, exaggerating the need
for therapy for the victims of sexual abuse. From 44% to 73% of victims
are likely to receive some form of psychotherapy (Finkelhor &
Berliner, 1995; Miller, Cohen, & Wiersema, 1996). This, of course,
is in line with a belief in the trauma ideology.
Many children, however, are referred to therapy who do not need to be.
The fact that significant numbers of the sexually abused are not
psychologically harmed and those who are improve within a year or two
without any treatment attests to the minimal need, if any, for therapy.
Thus, the concern expressed by the San Diego Grand Jury (1992, February)
that referrals to therapists were simply "feeding another
subindustry of the System" (p. 37) is well founded. The approach of
the psychotherapeutic community to child sexual abuse reflects a mental
health industry searching for a new disease which offers it new
opportunities for economic growth (Costin, Karger, & Stoesz 1996).
Further, there is no sound research evidence indicating that therapy
for the sexually abused is effective (Berliner, 1995; Berliner &
Elliott, 1996; Reid, 1996). Holenberg and Ragan (1991) reported in their
synthesis of selected research projects funded by the National Center on
Child Abuse and Neglect that most of the information on treatment
efficacy was based on anecdotal case studies or descriptions of
Most treatment programs are either atheoretical or based on untested
theoretical assumptions (Friedrich, 1996). And this is to the
everlasting harm of some (Campbell, 1994). For example, in the Alicia
Wade case, it was as a result of her therapist's brainwashing in over of
year of so-called therapy involving twice weekly visits that Alicia
finally "disclosed" that her father had raped her (San Diego
Grand Jury, 1992, June 23). In fact, as Alicia had previously
maintained, she had been raped by a stranger and it turned out he was
a serial rapist!
Lest this be seen as idiosyncratic, a recently completed evaluation
of repressed memory claims with the State of Washington's Crime Victims
Compensation Program (Loftus, 1997; Parr, 1996) clearly indicates the
potential for the harm that can be inflicted by therapy. Some therapists
believe that childhood sexual abuse is a central experience in the lives
of their clients (Campbell, 1994). They contend that the trauma of child
sexual abuse motivates the patients to repress this experience. Given
the centrality of this experience, these therapists assume it is
necessary for their patients to recover previously repressed memories of
their sexual abuse if they are to heal.
But quite the opposite can occur, as indicated by Parr's (1996)
study. She reported that patients involved in repressed memory therapy
an unusually high rate of mental and emotional problems which
manifest during therapy and are proliferated as therapy continues.
Repressed memory patients tend to be in therapy significantly longer
than other mental health clients but with little improvement in their
conditions even after years of therapy. Indeed, it appears that the
longer the patient is [in] treatment, the more disabled s(he) will
become. Of significant concern is that over the course of time,
repressed memory patients often become isolated from their families
and communities, suffer employment and financial losses and
demonstrate devastating mental problems which diminishes their
capacity to form or maintain meaningful relationships or enjoy life
(Parr, pp. 1-2).
Moreover, anecdotal case studies show that therapists have implanted
memories of childhood sexual abuse that never occurred (Loftus &
Ketcham, 1994; Ofshe & Watters, 1994; the newsletters of the FMS
Additionally, there is growing evidence that the recent epidemic of
Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) is an artifact of therapy. It is a
therapist induced disorder rather than an effect of child sexual abuse
(McHugh, 1993; Ofshe & Watters, 1994; Sarbin, 1997). Parr (1996)
reported that the primary diagnosis in most repressed memory claims to
the Crime Victims Compensation Program was MPD and that it was not
unusual for the claimant to have dozens or even hundreds of
personalities one claim involved over 700 alter states and another over
3000. Parr's findings buttress the conclusion of Ofshe and Watters:
Examining the fad diagnosis of MPD, the cruelty of recovered memory
therapy becomes particularly clear. Thousands of clients have learned
to display the often-debilitating symptoms of a disorder that they
never had. They become less capable of living normal lives, more
dependent on therapy, and inevitably more troubled (p. 223).
Lastly, there is no evidence that reliving the abuse experience has
any positive effects. Seligman (1994) notes that, although catharsis has
a long history as a therapeutic technique, there is no evidence that it
works. He adds that efforts by parents and well-meaning therapists and
courts of law often magnify the trauma in the child's mind by repeatedly
tearing off the protective scar tissue of the wound. Thus, these
well-intentioned people are actually interfering with the natural
In brief, child savers are those professionals who purport to protect
victims of child sexual abuse but who instead harm them and devastate
the lives of families. They have certain beliefs which are red flags for
identifying them: 1) a proselytizer who spreads the false gospel of
satanic ritual abuse; 2) a validator who confirms uncorroborated
allegations of sexual abuse no matter how bizarre; 3) an exaggerator or
user of advocacy numbers; 4) a trauma ideologist; and 5) a therapy
How should social workers and the profession protect the community
from the harm caused by child saving and how should these perpetrators
be dealt with? Nathan and Snedeker (1995) note that "the
demonization of child sexual abuse as society's ultimate evil has
rendered it so holy as to be virtually immune to reasoned analysis"
(p. 252). It is this atmosphere of hysteria which breeds and sustains
the child saver. Social workers and the profession can and must do a
number of things to minimize, if not eliminate, this atmosphere of
hysteria and mitigate the impact of the child savers. These include:
1. Social workers and the profession need to rid themselves of the
socio-political and legalistic biases contained in the use of such
terms as "victims" and "perpetrators." As
recommended by Nelson and Meller (1994), until damage has been
established, such terms as "participant" or
"partner" would be better to use.
Further, professionals should reserve the use of condemnatory terms to
those situations where damage is clearly established. Nelson and
Meller recommended that the terms, "molestation" and
"rape," should be used only when it has been determined that
coercion was indeed present. To define experiences as abusive which
are described by the allegedly abused as loving, caring, or
noncoercive is a contradiction in terms (Okami, 1994). Hence, the
term, "abuse," should be replaced by such terms as
"experience" or "incident" until it is determined
that the episode was, in fact, harmful.
2. Kilpatrick (1992) noted there is an assumption that children who
have sexual experiences with or propositions from persons who are 5 or
more years older than they, "are automatically victimized, and
harm is done" (p. 115). This notion is derived from what Okami
(1994) referred to as the sex-political principle. This principle
assumes that the differential degrees of social power accorded older
persons and younger persons automatically define any sexual contact
between such persons as abusive. Kilpatrick's findings repudiate this
assumption. She found that the relative age of the woman's partner in
her early sexual experience(s) was not related to her adult
functioning. Accordingly, practitioners should not assume an abusive
situation until it has been established the situation entailed
coercion and/or was in fact harmful.
3. Social work practitioners and the profession must educate the
community and, most especially, the courts about the myths that
surround the problem of child sexual abuse. It is these myths that
fuel the hysteria surrounding considerations of childhood sexuality
(Okami, 1994). First, professionals need to rebut the myth that early
sexual experiences are necessarily and inevitably psychologically
harmful. It is not the function of professionals or the profession to
provide a psychological justification for the fact that such
experiences are and/or should be illegal and/or immoral. This is a
lesson that mental health professionals should have learned from the
controversy over homosexuality.
Next, the profession and professionals must inform the community
that therapy is most often unnecessary and is contraindicated in most
cases of early sexual experiences. Indeed, professionals must make the
community aware that therapy is potentially harmful and that it may
well interfere with the natural healing processes. Seligman (1994), in
writing of his early experiences with what today would be labeled
child sexual abuse, asserted these experiences had no negative impact
on his later psychological adjustment. He attributed this to his
having been spared the overreaction of parents and police, and early
therapeutic intervention to undo his "denial," and later
therapeutic intervention to recover his "repressed" memory
and then reliving the experience to heal his current problems. Parents
and the community should be advised to follow Seligman's
recommendation "to turn the volume down as soon as possible"
4. Tavris (1993) denounced the "incest-survivor machine"
as a multi-million dollar industry built around the concept of child
sexual abuse. The average cost associated with repressed memory claims
in the state of Washington's Crime Victims Compensation Program was
approximately four times the average claim in other mental health
claims (Parr, 1996). The average cost of nonrepressed memory claim was
less than $3,000; that of repressed memory claims, more than $12,000,
with one claim exceeding $50,000. In just over four years, the
citizens of Washington paid out over 2.5 million dollars for 325
repressed memory claims. Most of the diagnoses in this program
Parr's study confirms Piper's (1994) contention that psychotherapy for
this condition is far from being cost effective. It is, however,
highly lucrative for the therapists. In a similar vein, a recent
report of the National Institute of Justice found that up to 50% and
more of the child sexual abuse victims receive mental health care at
an average cost of $5,800 (Miller, et al., 1996). This contrasts with
a usage rate of no more than 4% for victims of other crimes with an
average cost of less than $100.
Given the absence of sound research evidence demonstrating the
efficacy of therapy and its potential for harm, the profession and
practitioners should support private health insurance companies and
government health care programs to follow the lead of the state of
Washington and not reimburse for any treatments deemed experimental,
such as those aimed at the recovery of memories of sexual abuse
(Staff, 1997 March; 1997 April).
Or, at the very least, as recommended by Parr (1996), treatment
should follow managed care restrictions for short-term, limited
intervention. Thus, the financial incentives of therapists to operate
what Campbell (1994) refers to as "rent-a-friend" agencies
with long-term leases will be undermined. These serve the therapists'
interests but not those of their clients.
5. The profession and practitioners must work toward the passage of
informed consent laws in the provision of psychotherapy. Indiana is
the first state to pass such legislation (Freyd, 1997, June). Given
the harm that can occur as a result of treatment, patients have an
ethical right and must have a legal right to be informed of the risks
as well as the potential benefits of therapy. The risks include
suicidal ideation, self-mutilation, and mental decompensation
necessitating inpatient hospitalization (Ofshe & Watters, 1994;
Parr, 1996). With this information, prospective patients can make an
informed decision as to whether to subject themselves or their
children to the risks associated with treatment.
Additionally, the patient's spouse or partner, and other family
members need also to be advised of the side effects of therapy. They
need to be prepared for the new and often bizarre behavior that the
patient may exhibit. They need to know how they are to cope with these
6. In light of the harm that can and does occur to patients, social
work practitioners must act to support patients in their efforts to
sue their therapists. Practitioners need to have available a list of
attorneys to whom they can refer their clients to pursue such
Successful lawsuits have been brought against therapists. For example,
most recently, Patricia Burgus won an out-of-court settlement of $10.6
million against the Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's
Hospital, and Drs.
Poznanski and Braun for having implanted false memories of sexual
abuse (Belluck, 1997). Earlier, the Wade family lawsuit against San
Diego County and the professionals who brought about their tragedy was
settled for $3.7 (Hagen, 1997). Two former patients of Dr. Diane
Humenansky in Minnesota won multimillion dollar judgments against her
for implanting false memories of sexual abuse (Staff, 1996, March).
San Diego jury ordered Dr. Virginia Humphrey to pay $1.9 million in a
malpractice suit brought by a father on behalf of his minor daughter
who had been misdiagnosed as having been sexually abused (Staff, 1996,
October). This led the child to bring allegations of sexual abuse
against her father. And, also in San Diego, church day care volunteer,
Dale Akiki, acquitted of charges of ritual abuse, settled out-of-court
for an estimated $800,000 (Nathan & Snedeker, 1995).
7. Social workers and the profession must also support efforts to
pass legislation to allow lawsuits by third parties. Third parties can
suffer considerable psychological harm at the hands of therapists who
practice scientifically unproven and dangerous therapy or who
negligently administer traditional therapy. Recently, two state
appellate courts ruled that therapists owe a duty to the person that
their patient falsely accuses of sexual abuse as a result of the
therapist's misdiagnosis (Staff, 1998, May).
8. The profession should seek passage of legislation to assure that
therapists who abuse their clients are subject to criminal prosecution
and the same penalties as is any "perpetrator" of abuse.
9. The profession should establish as a standard of practice that
those who have a history of having been sexually abused should not
practice in the area of sexual abuse. As pointed out by Gardner
(1991), many professionals are attracted to the field because they
themselves were molested. And many then become validators.
underscored by Kenneth Lanning, the FBI expert, who noted that these
professionals often have a hidden agenda, which is to recruit the
children they question "to the brotherhood and sisterhood of the
sexually abused" (as quoted in Wexler, 1995, p. 157).
10. Social workers and the profession must seek the passage of
legislation which denies absolute immunity to sexual abuse
investigators who conduct an incompetent investigation. Most
especially, validators must be denied absolute immunity.
11. Those professionals who falsify information or perjure
themselves must be subject to criminal prosecution. A first step in
this direction was taken in Texas. Here a federal grand jury handed
down criminal indictments against two psychiatrists, a psychologist, a
social worker, and a hospital administrator for fraud related to the
practice of memory techniques (Freyd, 1997, December).
In conclusion, child sexual abuse is both immoral and illegal and
should be condemned. But there is another form of abuse-this is the
abuse perpetrated by the child savers. This abuse devastates the lives
of individuals and families. It too must be condemned.