Case # 1

This case began when a woman asked a coworker for a day care recommendation for her two-year-old daughter. The coworker recommended Edna Sherman's home day care. The woman then left her daughter there for one day but became suspicious of sexual abuse when she was changing the diaper that evening and discovered that the child's genitals were red and swollen. She took the child to the family doctor who saw nothing remarkable. Nevertheless, the next day she called the police and said that she believed her daughter had been sexually assaulted. At work, she told the coworker who had recommended the day care and another coworker about the alleged abuse. Both of the women also had daughters who attended the day care and each also called child protection.

A police investigator and a child protection worker interviewed the children of the coworkers. (The original child was not interviewed because she was preverbal.) There were no statements supporting abuse but the social worker believed it had happened. The social worker then called all of the parents who had had children at the day care and told them that there had been allegations made by different children. The suspicions were against Edna Sherman's husband, George, who had a history of alcohol problems, had recently lost his job, and therefore was at home during the day.

The social worker arranged for interviews with all of the children who had attended the day care center over the last few years. When she interviewed a child and didn't get a disclosure, she told the parent to keep questioning the child. This is clear not only from her log of the case but can be heard at the end of one of the two interviews that were videotaped.

It is unfortunate that more of the interviews were not videotaped. However, the two we have are extremely leading. In one, despite repeated pressure and coercion the child didn't say anything for some time and then only came up with statements about abuse after a series of "what else" questions. This was the fourth interview (not counting the times her mother talked to her); we expect the other ones were even more suggestive. The interview of another child, who said nothing about abuse, was also leading and suggestive. The presence of three adults in this interview contributed to the pressure. Despite leading and suggestive interviews, the social worker's and police investigator's accounts indicate that often the children didn't repeat to them what they had supposedly told their parents.

This was a small town and rumors about the abuse spread rapidly. People began taking sides. Some parents maintained that nothing had happened, while others believed their children were abused. In a few days the day care was shut down. Most of the initial disclosures were made to the parents who questioned their children after hearing the rumors of abuse at the day care.

Several of the children were placed into therapy based on the assumption they had been abused. The documents show that child protection, the police investigator, the therapists, and several parents decided immediately that sexual abuse was taking place at the Sherman day care. By the time of the first therapy session, the children had been talked to several times about the alleged abuse. The children involved were two, three, or four years old when the allegations started.

The two therapists for whom we have records believed from the beginning that the abuse was real. One therapist was certain of this after the first session, even though the child said nothing about abuse. The entire course of therapy was focused on encouraging disclosure of abuse.

Over the next weeks the children were interviewed repeatedly by the social worker, the police investigator, the therapists and the parents. The parents who believed their children had been abused remained in contact, even though the police investigator discouraged this because he feared it would hamper the criminal prosecution. Several hired attorneys for a civil suit against the day care and had at least one documented meeting together in which they discussed their children's symptoms and disclosures and the civil and criminal law suits. The two main therapists each saw two children and were in contact with each other. There were articles about the allegations and the progress of the case in the newspapers.

The documents indicate that the parents talked to their children constantly about the alleged events and regularly wrote and talked to the police, social worker, and therapists about what their children supposedly said. The parents were attending to all of their children's play, statements, and behaviors that could indicate abuse and the documents show how the children responded to this attention and attention and reinforcement.

The therapy notes indicate the major role the therapy played in the growth of the allegations. One therapist described what she did as art therapy. Play, drawings, dreams, and fantasy were confused with reality. The colors and shapes in the drawings, many of which were uninterpretable scribbles, were used as proof of abuse and the file contained several inches of "significant" drawings. Play in therapy sessions was used to determine what had actually happened by interpreting play behavior as representing and symbolizing historical events. The therapist claimed that she was able to tell whether events actually happened or didn't happen by observing such things as white faces and dark eyes when the child was talking.

Through the course of therapy the allegations gradually grew and became more bizarre until they developed into accounts of monsters, urine and feces, ritually murdered animals, cannibalized babies, and other descriptions of satanic, ritual abuse. Not only Edna and George Sherman, but various other adults were said to have participated. Tales were told of being taken to a barn where the children were forced to eat feces and drink urine. Babies were cut up and eaten by monsters and then buried in a barn. The day care center contained a "black hole" in the basement where George Sherman killed people. One child was put in a bathtub filled with blood from a baby goat killed by Edna; the slaughtered goat was then added to the bathtub with the child. The therapist became a strong advocate for the belief that these children were ritualistically abused and even went on automobile trips with the child and parents to search for the barn where the events had supposedly taken place.

The behavior of the children deteriorated after several weeks of therapy. This is not surprising given the iatrogenic nature of the therapy sessions and the reinforcement given by the parents to the problems behaviors such as fears and nightmares. The therapists believed everything until it became absolutely impossible (i.e., allegations that one child's father was chain sawed in half), when the statement was interpreted as a nightmare. Eventually, the children were given diagnoses such as multiple personality and post traumatic stress disorder.

The investigators found no physical signs of dead animals, masks and costumes, dead babies, skeletons and monsters, blood and feces, or other evidence of satanic rituals, either in the Sherman's house or in barns they searched in the countryside. After several months the prosecution decided not to pursue the criminal case because it was feared that the children would not be credible nor competent witnesses. However, the civil cases continued.

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