'We Believe the Children': Child abuse hysteria in the 1980s

'We Believe the Children' by Richard Beck
'We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s' by Richard Beck
Courtesy of PublicAffairs

In the 1980s, hundreds of daycare workers across the country were questioned and investigated on suspicions of child abuse. Many were tried and convicted for horrible sex crimes involving the children in their care.

It was a wave of abuse unlike any the media had every covered; stories about the dangers of daycare and babysitters were splashed across newspapers, TV and the radio.

Then, the cases started to unravel. The prosecutions, Richard Beck writes, "were the product of a decade-long outbreak of collective hysteria on par with the Salem witch trials." The confessions of children across the country turned out to be the product of coercive interviews; scared, young witnesses; and overzealous investigators.

Beck's new book "We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s" explores the factors that spurred the wild allegations and investigations. He shows how lawyers, doctors, parents and legislators — all with the best of intentions — started and spread the hysteria.

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Beck joined MPR News' Tom Weber to discuss his book and its ties to Minnesota.

One of the cases Beck examines unfolded in Scott County. When a child came forward with allegations against a garbage collector, it kicked off an investigation that ended with 24 residents of Jordan, Minn., accused of abusing 37 children.

Scott County prosecutor Kathleen Morris led the charge. The children's allegations were violent and horrific. They reported seeing multiple children murdered, mutilated and abused. In Jordan, Beck said, investigators dressed up as fishermen to dredge the river, looking for the bodies the young witnesses said had been dumped there.

The wild extent of the children's recollections is one of the things that led to cases nationwide falling apart, Beck noted. In a case in Los Angeles, one child identified Chuck Norris as having been present during the abuse — an example of how impressionable the witnesses were.

Years later, some of the witnesses described being questioned for hours and separated from their parents, stressors which made them "just start making stuff up," Beck said.

Morris' aggressive prosecution caught the attention of Skip Humphrey, Minnesota's attorney general at the time. The office of the attorney general began its own investigation, and issued a scathing report of how the Jordan abuse allegations had been handled. Similar critical investigations took hold around the country. Many charges were dropped. The hysteria began to be exposed as just that: hysteria. In Jordan, it was determined that the investigation had been so mishandled, it was impossible to tell what had really occurred.

The biggest ramification, Beck said, of the 1980s panic, is the "fairly omnipresent feeling that people have that children are in danger, specifically sexual danger, especially when they're out in public alone."

Children are actually safer today than they have been in decades, Beck said, but the wave of accusations and prosecutions helped convince the nation otherwise.