Demarees to Wal-Mart: Get Ready for Your Bath

A year ago A.J. and Lisa Demaree of Peoria, Ariz. thought they were taking pictures of their daughters taking a bath, but to a Wal-Mart employee, the Demarees were committing “child erotica” and “sex exploitation.”

I didn’t realize that child pornographers were in the habit of schlepping their images over to Wal-Mart, but what do I know?

Child Protective Services took custody of the kids for a month, and the couple, who were never charged, spent $75,000 on legal fees. Now the Demarees are suing both the state of Arizona and Wal-Mart.

The Demarees’ lawyer released a photo, available at the San Francisco Chronicle Web site.

It’s beginning to look like we’ve learned nothing from the disastrous day-care sex abuse hysteria of the 1980s.

If the Demarees had been wrongly convicted, as so many unlucky people were two decades ago, they might have gone to jail. And to add insult to injury, upon their release they might have been required to register as sex offenders.

The first prominent case happened in Kern County, Calif. In 1982 Alvin and Debbie McCuan were accused of sexually abusing their children in satanic rituals. The accuser was a step-grandparent with a history of mental illness, but even so the case grew to 60 children testifying and convictions of 36 people, who spent years in prison before 34 of the cases were overturned on appeal.

One of the most infamous cases involved the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif., in 1983. Again, accusations of sexually abusive satanic rituals were levied, and again the accuser was mentally ill. An “acute paranoid schizophrenic,” to be exact. She died in 1986 of chronic alcoholism.

But that little detail didn’t trouble prosecutors. The trial lasted seven years and cost taxpayers $15 million. Convictions – zero. Nevertheless, one of the accused spent five years in jail.

In 1985 a 23-year-old aspiring actress named Margaret Kelly Michaels was making ends meet by working at Wee Care Nursery School in Maplewood, N.J. Soon she found herself accused of “playing naked games, probing their bodies with knives and forks and forcing them to eat feces and defecate on her.” This in a busy child care center in which people were coming and going all day.

After a $3 million, 11-month trial, in 1988 Michaels was convicted of 115 counts of abuse and sentenced to 47 years in prison.

Two journalists – Debbie Nathan and Dorothy Rabinowitz – took note and wrote stories that were shunned by several media outlets that didn’t want to touch a story suggesting that a pedophile might actually be completely innocent.

Nathan’s article in Village Voice and Rabinowitz’s article in Harper’s got the attention of a prominent attorney and eventually the conviction was overturned. After spending five years in prison, Kelly Michaels was released on bail to await a new trial. Later the case was dropped.

This story, at least, has a happy ending. Shortly after her release from prison, Michaels agreed to give an interview to a freelance journalist who was also a lawyer. According to Lona Manning of crimemagazine.com, after a while the journalist turned off his tape recorder. He believed Michaels. (And, I suppose, his objectivity could have been called into question since he soon asked her out on a date.) The two are now married and have four children.

Make that five.

The day care center sex abuse hysteria of the 1980s remains a black mark on our society and our justice system. Why did all this happen? And why in the 1980s? Manning offers an explanation:

Historians . . . have pointed to several factors that led to the panic: the mass exodus of mothers from the home to the workplace in the ’70s and ’80s, which gave rise to a lot of stress and free-floating guilt and, in some quarters, condemnation; then there were the pioneering child-protection crusaders, flush with new federal dollars to ferret out abuse; and the vulnerability of minimum-wage child-care providers who found themselves cast in the role of the bogeyman in the closet.

Rabinowitz, writing for Harper’s, saw parallels to witch hunts and McCarthyism:

We are a society that, every fifty years or so, is afflicted by some paroxysm of virtue – an orgy of self-cleansing through which evil of one kind or another is cast out. From the witch-hunts of Salem to the communist hunts of the McCarthy era to the current shrill fixation on child abuse, there runs a common thread of moral hysteria. After the McCarthy era, people would ask: But how could it have happened? How could the presumption of innocence have been abandoned wholesale?

But it happened.

On a personal note, in the late 1970s I taught at a day-care center. The work was exhausting, the pay was low and for 18 months straight I caught every flu and cold bug in town.

And, although I didn’t know it at the time, when I walked through the door, I gave up my constitutional right to the presumption of innocence.

I still miss working with kids. But I’ll never go back.

Children are more protected from sexual abuse now than ever before, and that’s progress. There were no hotlines when I was growing up, and I know people who suffered because of that. But let’s remember that the Constitution is just as important as our children. In fact, it’s our legacy to them.

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2009]

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About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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