Day-care operator Peggy McMartin Buckey and her family became the closest things to witches that Southern California had in the 1980s.
For years, Buckey had led a quiet existence, helping her family operate the McMartin Pre-School in the seemingly idyllic seaside community of Manhattan Beach. Then, in 1983, she suddenly found herself plucked from obscurity and vilified as an embodiment of evil--accused, with other family members, of molesting toddlers in her care.
Her acquittal on the charges, after the longest trial in the nation's history, provoked searing questions about how to protect children and to guard against the kind of sex-abuse hysteria that can lead to false accusations against caregivers.
Authorities are still groping toward answers for these fundamental questions, which have now outlived Buckey, pronounced dead Friday at age 74 at a Torrance hospital after paramedics found her unconscious in her home.
But her case, and several like it across the country, have left a legacy. They have changed the ways in which alleged victims are interviewed by authorities and the ways in which teachers and day-care providers interact with their young charges.
The case against Buckey and her family was the first in a series of high-profile nursery school sex abuse prosecutions in the 1980s and early 1990s that collapsed for lack of persuasive evidence.
The cases were not typical of sex crime prosecutions involving child victims, experts said, since those usually involved family members and took place in the home. But their breadth guaranteed immense attention.
After the collapse of a case in San Diego, in which a church baby-sitter was accused of molesting his charges, that county's grand jury offered an analysis of why so many such cases cropped up at the same time.
The grand jury blamed fallout from a well-intentioned federal effort to bring child abuse out of the closet. A federal law in the 1970s had given states a financial incentive to require teachers, doctors, nurses and police to report suspected child abuse or face punishment. The states had obliged and such reports had quintupled. One result, the grand jury found, was the creation of "a child abuse establishment" whose economic interests had "fuel[ed] a certain amount of sex-abuse hysteria in which an accused individual's constitutional due process protections are commonly ignored."
'We Were Ignoring Potentially Good Cases'
Victor Vieth, director of the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, a nonprofit affiliate of the National District Attorneys Assn., said Sunday that the collapse of those cases left child abuse prosecutors "gunshy" for a while. "We realized we were getting beaten up because we didn't know what we were doing," he said.
One result: "We were ignoring potentially good cases because we didn't want to end up on '60 Minutes' or in the Los Angeles Times or other journals being criticized for the way we talked to kids."
A key problem in the McMartin case was the suggestive way in which children were questioned.
Social workers interviewed 384 children who had attended the preschool and 349 of them ultimately confided what the social workers called "yucky secrets."
This, for example, from a tape-recorded interview with an 8-year-old girl--Child No. 184:
"We also need to remember that all the mommies and daddies got tricked," said the social worker.
"You know how they got tricked?"
"How?" asked the girl.
"They thought it was a really good preschool," said the social worker. "They didn't know about that yucky stuff. So the mommies and daddies got tricked too, just like the kids. Remember I told you 183 kids?"
"183," repeated the girl.
"183 and they all got tricked," said the social worker.
Vieth's agency now trains prosecutors and investigators across the country to avoid suggesting to children the answers they hope to elicit and to learn how to corroborate their accounts in the absence of physical evidence. The vast majority of molestations do not involve penetrations, he said. But corroboration of peripheral information, such as the color of a room in which an alleged molestation took place, often gives detectives the upper hand in an interrogation of a suspect and leads to admissions. Nine out of 10 accused molesters plead guilty, Vieth said.
In the aftermath of the failed nursery school prosecutions, psychologists demonstrated the high degree to which small children, in particular, are susceptible to incorporating others' suggestions.
Elizabeth Loftus, a University of Washington psychology professor and leading memory expert, said Sunday that "the 1990s were full of concerted efforts on the part of psychological scientists to find out how far you can go with kids without contaminating them."
She said she co-authored several studies "showing that you could get kids to [falsely] believe that they got their hand caught in a mousetrap and had to go to the hospital to get it removed, or that when they were younger they fell off a tricycle and had to get stitches in their leg. All it took was some suggestive interviewing."
Perhaps the most far-reaching consequence of the prosecutions was in the alarm they conveyed and the changes they promoted among teachers and in the child-care industry.
Many teachers have adopted no-touch policies--worried that an innocent hug could be interpreted as a sexual embrace.
Writer Margaret Talbot observed last year in The New Republic that workers at many day-care centers are now required to change diapers only when accompanied by another adult and are discouraged from holding toddlers.
"Our preoccupation with people who do assault children," she wrote, "has made us wary of people who would never assault them. These days we are all suspects."