SACRAMENTO — The McMartin case: a black eye for the entire child-care community, a political weapon for those who view child care as a socialist plot or the impetus for an overdue scrutiny of violence to children and its root causes?
It's all of these, in the perception of some of the child-care professionals who spoke here Wednesday to 1,200 conferees at a daylong legislative symposium sponsored by the California Assn. for the Education of Young Children.
There is "paranoia," child-care professionals agree, and fallout from the McMartin case, in which seven former teachers at the now-closed Manhattan Beach nursery school are accused of 208 counts of molestation and conspiracy involving 31 children. The climate is such, one speaker related, that a report circulated that "one 3-year-old was sexually abusing another."
Patti Siegal, director of the San Francisco-based California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, put it another way: "We fought very hard to make child care a nurturing, warm and loving environment" but now child-care workers are "moderating their affectionate responses toward children, which is heartbreaking."
She added, "I put kids on my lap all the time but I'm not a molester."
One of the messages heard here was that child abuse is neither a new phenomenon nor is it rampant in places where children are cared for in groups. Again and again, speakers said, day care is not the problem, but good day care is the solution. Vivian Weinstein, associate director of the Child Development Division, Drew Medical Center, Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in Los Angeles, who assisted in preparation of the county's case against McMartin Preschool, pointed out that, beginning in antiquity, children have been victims of infanticide, abandonment, brutal toilet training, battering and sexual abuse.
But, Weinstein said, a small fraction of abuse is at the hands of child-care providers. "The real source of sexual abuse of children is in the family--relatives, friends," she said.
At home, she said, "some measure of violence is patterned into the child-rearing philosophy and practice of all Americans. We are ambivalent as to how to rear and socialize our children without violence and fear. This helps provide the environment for abuse."
And abuse extends beyond physical or mental brutality, Weinstein said, to include hunger and lack of health care. While legislators talk loudly about protecting children, she said, they are "helping to increase the very conditions that create family tensions and stress that breed abuse. . . . All programs that assist children and support families are child-abuse prevention programs."
As a result of the McMartin case and others widely publicized, Weinstein said that "the crimes against children are no longer hidden. Now that everyone knows, the process of preventing violence against children can begin."
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr. (D-San Francisco), in his keynote speech to delegates on the west steps of the Capitol, pointed to the political nuances of proposed child-care legislation:
"My conservative friends in the Legislature will tell you that child care is breaking up the family," he said, and there are some on both the Democratic and Republican sides who are concerned that the mother using child care "may be in a position to compete even more with the males in this system. You've got to understand that there are some people who are withholding their votes because of that."
'Baby Bill' Author
Brown is author of AB 55, the so-called "baby bill" that would earmark $50 million for child-care programs, including programs for migrant families and for teen-age mothers, plus child centers on college campuses. The lion's share, $30 million, would fund child-care centers for youngsters 1 to 3 years old.
In support of his bill, which is scheduled for a hearing before the Assembly Human Services Committee on Tuesday, Brown is being inundated with baby pictures being sent in by members of the association that sponsored the conference and by other child-care advocates. He noted that he now has more than 1,000 baby pictures on his office wall.
The Brown bill is considered a major piece of child-care legislation, together with the latchkey bill by state Sen. David Roberti (D-Los Angeles), reintroduced this year after a veto by Gov. George Deukmejian.
It would provide $100 million for state-subsidized after-school care for some of California's estimated 800,000 to 1 million children who now come home to empty houses.
What care exists now may have been influenced in a positive way by the McMartin case, Sacramento Municipal Court Judge Barry Loncke told the conference. "Without intense scrutiny of the industry, there would be unbearable pressure on the market to supply any kind of day care--and you know what? Chances are that the . . . facilities (would be) full to the brim," he said.