Robert Todd Carroll
Of course there are patients who have really suffered as children at the hands of their parents. Most of them remember being beaten, raped or tortured, and therapists properly connect the abuse with psychological effects. It is also true that the mind sometimes represses the memory of painful experiences. But it is a very long way from these facts to the kind of therapy being advocated by the pseudoscientific mythmakers of child abuse such as Ellen Bass, Laura Davis, Wendy Maltz, Beverly Holman, Beverly Engel, Mary Jane Williams and E. Sue Blume.
Therapists who believe a priori that most of the people who come to them seeking help are having whatever problems they are having due to repressed memories of childhood sexual trauma are pseudo-therapists. These pseudo-therapists are at their worst then they evaluate children who aren't having any problems. Their methods of treatment are all geared to lead their clients to a sexual trauma that is presupposed by the therapist to have occurred. Common are the use of leading questions, hypnosis, suggestion, encouragement to search the alleged "unconscious mind" or to interpret dreams in ways that lead the patient to believe that the confabulations and fantasies which emerge in therapy are memories of repressed realities. Their patients are adults who are in distress or children who will be caused distress by the therapist. The therapists encourage dependency of their vulnerable and suggestible patients. They will not be cured or released until the patient sees what the therapist wants them to see. This is a form of psychological brainwashing that goes under the name of treatment.
"Rather than help the patient separate truth from fantasy," say psychologist Joseph de Rivera, "the therapist encourages the patient to `remember' more about the alleged trauma. And when the patient has an image--a dream or a feeling that something may have happened--the therapist is encouraged, praises the patient's efforts and assures him or her that it really did happen."* This kind of therapy, he says, "confuses the differences between real and fantasized abuse and encourages destruction of families." He notes that the American Psychological Association (APA) has established a committee to investigate the issue of childhood memories of abuse.
It is impossible to say what effect the APA's investigation will have, but there is a need for someone to stand up and defend the adults who are being abused by "witch hunters," i.e., those who are predisposed to find child abuse. The reason few will stand up to the witch hunters is obvious: there is good reason to believe that one will be seen as a friend of child abuse and an enemy of children. The United States Supreme Court, for example, has recently (Nov. 1994) refused to hear an appeal of Bill and Kathy Swan who have spent 50 months in prison and had their daughter taken away from them based on the hearsay testimony of day-care workers. The children did not testify and there was no physical evidence of abuse. The court did not comment on their refusal to hear the appeal but in 1990 they ruled that defendants can be convicted of child abuse without confronting their accusers when there is assurance of the reliability of the hearsay testimony. Such a broad ruling opens the door to abuse by overzealous prosecutors and other alleged defenders of children. Professor Charles Nesson of Harvard, an expert on the law of evidence who submitted a brief supporting the appeal, called the Court's refusal to hear the appeal "the most extreme example of erosion [of the constitutional guarantee that criminal defendants have a right to confront witnesses against them] of which I am aware. It seems that the Court is saying that people can be convicted of child abuse without making a reasonable effort to discover whether or not the abuse even happened. Hearsay evidence from a "reliable source" is all that is needed. The emotional nature of this issue probably guarantees that clear thinking and fairness will be subordinated to the desire to defend innocent children.
The Supreme Court ruling also opens the door for overzealous prosecutors and law enforcement who are prone to the same kinds of misguided abuses as the trauma-search therapists. These trauma- search cops have destroyed more than one community, including pastoral Wenatchee in rural Washington state. There, a local group has formed to fight back against trauma-search cops and therapists. The group calls itself Concerned Citizens for Legal Accountability, but it is much more than that. It is a kind of WWW clearinghouse for stories of legal and psychological abuse by police, child protective services and therapists. The people of Wenatchee realize that what happened to their community could happen anywhere in America. All it takes is one zealous cop--in this case Detective Bob Perez--to get things started and he can turn a troubled youth's lies and fantasies into a sex ring involving 30 to 50 children led in orgies in church by a local Pentecostal pastor and his wife. It is good news that Pastor Robert Roberson and his wife, Connie, were found innocent of all charges in December 1995. The bad news is that their lives and the lives of many children have been damaged by a crusading cop and his accomplices in Child Protective Services and the District Attorney's office. Perez and Gary Riesen, prosecuting attorney, have charged more than 80 adults with having weekly orgies with children. More than 25 have pleaded guilty to various offenses, though some, like the Rev. Roberson and his wife, have fought the charges, risking imprisonment and loss of their children. Eleven people have been convicted after trials; fifteen plea bargained, though most of them have since recanted. Many of those charged are illiterate and on welfare. Five are developmentally disabled, two have severe emotional problems, two have physical disabilities and two others are mentally ill. "These conditions don't exclude the possibility that all are guilty of child abuse, but they certainly underscore the fact that Perez and his cohorts have been prosecuting some vulnerable people." [Brott, Bee]
Unlike the Swans, who lost their daughter and have been imprisoned for more than four years, the Wenatchee witchhunt did not begin with charges from a mentally ill day care worker. In Wenatchee they began with charges from a 15-year old girl with an IQ of 60 who tried to kill her foster father because he wouldn't let her have sex with her boyfriend in the house. By the time Perez finished interrogating the troubled teen, she had accused her foster father of years of sexual abuse. She later recanted her charges. Then Perez went after her 10-year old foster sister and by the time he was finished interrogating her she had identified 22 places where she said she'd been molested, including Pastor Roberson's church. Roberson made the mistake of speaking publicly about Perez and his methods of interrogation. Five days after his public denunciation of the detective's tactics, Roberson and his wife were in jail on charges of running weekly orgies in their church.
One would think that with all those convictions, there must be some truth to Perez's accusations. However, besides his word for it and the testimony of children who been interrogated by Perez, the evidence for a child abuse ring is non-existent. Perez keeps no notes and has no audio or video tapes of any of his interrogations. Perhaps he learned from the McMartin trials that such tapes can be damaging as they are likely to show zealous cops and therapists leading on and coercing children into tales of abuse. Plus, there is the testimony of the children who have refused to go along with him. One says he threatened to arrest her mother if the child didn't admit she'd been abused. Another claims that he made her lie. Another was tracked down in California by Perez himself, brought back to Washington and placed in a mental facility in Idaho where she was given "treatment" because she wouldn't testify that her parents had abused her. When she kept denying that she'd been abused she was told by the "counselors" that she was in denial and that she'd "come around soon." [Brott, Bee]
Prosecutor Riesen notes: "look at the convictions we've got. If Perez wasn't going by the book, the courts would have had something to say about it." [Brott, Bee] The courts may have something to say about it eventually, but I wouldn't count on it being right. No judge wants to appear to be a friend of child abusers. Few crimes are more repulsive than child abuse. I'm sure Perez and Riesen come off as saintly guardians of children battling the evil abusers because they really believe that is what they are. And they are not alone in their delusion: they are joined by physicians, nurses, day care workers, social workers, judges and juries. Evidence doesn't matter here. The children are what matter. And, yes, it is the children who are being abused here, but they are not the only ones. It should terrify anyone in this society to realize that they could be next in line to be guilty even if proven innocent and that they and their children might be next to be abused by a legal system gone crazy.
* "`Trauma searches' plant the seed of imagined misery," Joseph de Rivera, The Sacramento Bee, May 18, 1993. De Rivera gave the label trauma-search therapy to the type of pseudoscientific treatment described here. He is a professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and is a consultant to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
"Who is abusing the children of Wenatchee?" by Armin Brott (Knight-Ridder News Service Columnist) in The Sacramento Bee, Forum, October 8, 1995.
Eberle, Paul and Shirely Eberle, The Abuse of Innocence: The McMartin Preschool Trial, Prometheus Books, Buffalo N.Y., 1993.
Loftus, Elizabeth F. and Katherine Ketcham, The Myth of Repressed Memory : False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse (New York : St. Martin's Press, 1994).
Robert Todd Carroll