The Little Rascals Case: A Case for Regulating Children’s Testimony

By Anna TwiddyHumanities, Cycle 7, 2016



Ultimately, the Little Rascals case serves as clear proof that the use of children’s testimony in criminal cases must be heavily monitored and regulated, ideally through legislation, which would provide a uniform framework for handling such controversial cases. In the Little Rascals case, not only did the four therapists caring for the children use improper methods to advance the prosecution’s case, but their involvement went virtually unregulated due to other mishandlings of the case by the police, prosecution, and parents.

In early 1989, in the quiet town of Edenton, North Carolina, mother Jane Mabry became concerned when her young son Joel reported to her that local daycare owner Bob Kelly had struck him. When Mabry went to her son’s daycare, Little Rascals, and confronted Kelly, the discussion quickly spiraled out of control. Within months, rumors began to circulate that Bob Kelly, along with his wife Betsy and his daycare employees, physically and sexually abused the children in their care, possibly motivated by a twisted devotion to Satanism. The allegations led to a series of arrests, and the proceedings that followed became one of the longest and costliest criminal cases handled in North Carolina. Suspects Bob Kelly, Betsy Kelly, and Dawn Wilson were initially found to be guilty; however, their convictions were eventually overturned in 1997. The key evidence, presented at the trial by child witnesses, was eventually deemed unreliable by the court. Ultimately, the case serves as clear proof that the use of children’s testimony in criminal cases must be heavily monitored and regulated, ideally through legislation, which would provide a uniform framework for handling such controversial cases. In the Little Rascals case, not only did the four therapists caring for the children use improper methods to advance the prosecution’s case, but their involvement went virtually unregulated due to other mishandlings of the case by the police, prosecution, and parents.

To begin, the cultural phenomenon that led to cases such as Little Rascals was an international moral panic known as Satanic Ritual Abuse. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a number of individuals and organizations, especially daycares, were accused of abusing children as a part of satanic rituals. One of the first and most influential of these cases, the McMartin Preschool trial, featured a number of unusual attributes that would later become common characteristics of other daycare cases. The initial accuser was a parent, Judy Johnson, who in 1983 accused the owners and employees of McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, of sodomizing her son after he began complaining of digestive issues. As the proceedings of the case progressed, approximately 360 children were eventually named as victims, and were extensively interviewed by therapists and law enforcement. In what would later become a trademark attribute of daycare cases, they began to offer up extremely bizarre allegations of abuse, including that they had been abused in secret underground tunnels as well as on occasional hot air balloon rides, that some of the alleged abusers could fly, and that they had flushed children down a toilet. Despite the huge number of alleged victims and seemingly impossible allegations, nearly all sympathy in media coverage of the case lay with the prosecution, and the public overwhelmingly believed what the children were saying, regardless of how implausible it was (DeYoung 9-11). All of these elements figured strongly into the Little Rascals case, as well as others. This element of unquestionable belief in the allegations was especially influenced by the prevalence of moral panic, according to sociologist Mary DeYoung, both in regards to McMartin and later daycare cases.

Throughout her works, DeYoung emphasizes the fact that the Little Rascals case was not an isolated one. Rather, it was only one of many sexual abuse allegations which targeted several daycares throughout the late 1980s and 1990s—after McMartin, DeYoung names a number of other cases that took place at daycares or other childcare facilities within the following decade, including the 1985 Country Walk Babysitting case of Miami, Florida, the 1984 Fells Acre Daycare case of Malden, Massachusetts, the 1987 Gallup Christian case of Roseburg, Ohio, and the 1991 First Presbyterian case of Mansfield, Ohio. The unifying factor in the panic surrounding these cases, according to DeYoung, was that it was first and foremost a moral one: it was unquestionable that in cases with such grisly allegations, it would be imperative to support the victimized children at all costs—this translated into believing them without any regard for other factors that might be at play in the case. What resulted was a “master-narrative” that left little room for nuance: “The alleged offender was depicted not just as a person who intends harm, but as evil; the alleged victim was seen not just as naive, but as innocent and thoroughly traumatized, and thus worthy of more than just sympathy and support, but of rescue and protection” (DeYoung 10).

This “master-narrative” did not sprout exclusively from the cases themselves—there were other factors that influenced it. Popular literature at the time, DeYoung argues, helped in part to set the stage for the spread of hysteria surrounding Satanic Ritual Abuse. She cites in particular the extremely popular (and later debunked as fiction) 1980 memoir Michelle Remembers, in which a young woman, Michelle Smith, recounts to her therapist, author Lawrence Pazder, experiences of being abused as a child by her mother, a Satanist, and other members of her secret Satanic cult in Victoria, British Columbia, in the 1950s. Pazder wrote that Smith repressed the memories of these incidents, only remembering them after extensive therapy and intense sessions of hypnosis. The book was initially well-received, and treated as purely factual—Pazder was hailed as an expert on Satanic Ritual Abuse, appearing on talk shows and even serving as a consultant during the proceedings of the McMartin Preschool case. The media coverage of the McMartin case itself also played a significant role, as the publicizing of its strange details and allegations seemed only to prove that the underground world of ritualistic abuse that Pazder brought forth in his book not only existed, but was still terrifyingly active (DeYoung, 237-8). Additionally, psychoanalyst Moisy Shopper, who worked particularly with the Little Rascals case as a consultant for the defense, cites the phenomenon of moral panic surrounding Satanic Ritual Abuse as both influencing and playing a major role in the case, likening it to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. He writes that none of the other issues with the case would have come about if mass hysteria was not already firmly in place when the case began. Because this hysteria existed, he argues, therapists were pressured to find evidence at any cost, leading to a myriad of issues unfolding in the case (Shopper 523-4). Shopper compares this consequence of panic in particular to the link between torture and moral panic in the Middle Ages, writing:

The popular belief was that God would protect the innocent, and that torture was a test that would determine a person’s innocence or guilt. In Edenton, the preschoolers’ symptoms developed as a result of the traumatic impact of the inquisitorial process, which could not be distinguished from the symptoms of child sexual abuse (Shopper 524).

The mass hysteria of Satanic Ritual Abuse was thus essential in formulating the Little Rascals case in the first place: a number of other daycare cases had already unfolded, including the widely publicized McMartin case, the lurid details of which had spread wildly through sensational media coverage. The public was therefore primed to be receptive towards ritualistic abuse allegations, through this media coverage as well as through popular, allegedly true publications like Michelle Remembers. Acting identically to those enveloped in other moral panics of the past, the citizens of Edenton were ready, whether they were conscious of it or not, to believe their children regardless of the circumstances surrounding their evidence and testimony.

The eagerness of the public to accept the allegations of the Little Rascals case as fact caused a number of mishandlings throughout the case to be overlooked. Most of these errors can be attributed to the practices of the four therapists assigned to the case, Betty Robertson, Judy Abbott, Susan Childers, and Michelle Zimmerman, whose methods not only impeded the truth from being uncovered in the proceedings of the case but also potentially harmed the children psychologically, where before they often experienced no signs of trauma. Today, most child psychoanalysts and psychologists have concurred that gathering children’s evidence through therapy should be an extremely delicate process due to a young child’s fragile grasp on reality, an agreement based in no small part on the outcomes of daycare abuse cases like the Little Rascals case.

Moisy Shopper, in his study of the Little Rascals case, emphasizes the fact that a child’s reality often is dictated by a what a parent or trusted adult says is true – thus, reality for the child can be conditioned and solidified by anything an adult says, whether true or not, and regardless of whether the adult is consciously attempting to alter the child’s belief or is simply stating a belief of his own (Shopper 516). Parents, whether conscious of this fact or not, often employ it when raising their children – even saying something as simple as “your brother loves you” or “it’s important to eat your vegetables” invokes this truth. If parents want their child to believe something, all they generally have to do is say it as a fact and the child will usually accept it as such. This process occurred when the four therapists working on the case treated the alleged victims – 85% of the children met these same four therapists, so this conditioning took place on a massive scale (Innocence Lost). The therapists, wanting to gather evidence that would serve the prosecution, simply acted under the assumption that abuse had taken place when they treated the children. Because they acted as though the occurrence of abuse was an indisputable fact from the beginning, the children themselves began to believe that abuse had unquestionably taken place as well, thus forming strong confabulations about what allegedly had occurred at the daycare.

In addition to this basic conditioning, Shopper further noted the prevalence of what he refers to as “honest liar syndrome” (Shopper 520) when reviewing the therapists’ notes. This term refers to the psychological phenomenon in which a person, after experiencing a certain event, is told something that allegedly occurred during the event, something that the person did not in fact witness. With multiple studies, Shopper explains that in many cases the person accepts the false information as fact, even though they witnessed something contrary. Most of these studies, according to Shopper, were conducted on adults – he remarks that the prevalence of this “honest liar” phenomenon would only increase among child witnesses, whose cognitive abilities are not fully developed (Shopper 521). As such, children create pseudomemories, which can be extremely vivid and detailed. In the case of Little Rascals, as in many other cases where the “honest liar” phenomenon has made an appearance, these pseudomemories were achieved through lengthy hypnosis, in which brief instructions and suggestions were given by therapists to encourage a child into divulging truths they might be repressing due to trauma. Shopper notes that in the Little Rascals case, these suggestions were likely more detailed than what is recommended by psychoanalysts, and were intended explicitly to draw out recollections of abuse. The children, therefore, easily confused these suggestions with their own memories, creating a pseudomemory that felt genuine to the child and seemed to be recovered through a legitimate use of hypnosis, when in fact the memory was false and had been conditioned through a distorted practice of hypnosis, one that was far too leading in its application of suggestion (Shopper 521).

While Shopper mainly notes psychological concepts not taken into account during the events of the case, the therapists also utilized a number of other psychological concepts that were not in fact appropriate for the case. Martin Gardener of The Skeptical Inquirer notes the therapists’ reliance on the theory of repressed memory, popular at the time among both psychologists and the general public, thanks to now-outdated psychological studies and sensationalist media and literature, such as the previously-mentioned Michelle Remembers. They believed that the children showed no signs of trauma and denied the abuse because they had repressed the memory of it, and only through prolonged therapy and hypnosis would the evidence present itself. This practice of the therapists, and their relentless application of it, Gardener writes, ultimately caused the children to believe something that they had not before (Gardener 469-70). Gardener refers to it as a “false memory,” a concept similar to Shopper’s notions of the “honest liar” and pseudomemories.

Therapists also made additional errors when treating the children. In particular, their bias towards the prosecution of the case, as well as their preoccupation with case events in general, caused them to neglect their obligation to treat any other emotional issues the children might be going through. Worse still, any sign of emotional trouble was immediately attributed to the alleged abuse at the daycare – therapists did not pause to consider that perhaps some of the children’s issues might come from some other source, even if the child brought up an issue not related to the daycare that was bothering them. For example, Shopper notes in one instance how a therapist responded to a child concerned over his terminally-ill grandmother. Summarizing his review of the therapist’s note (having worked with the defense, he had access to the data collected by the therapists):

R. said that she would feel sad when her Grandma dies. In response, the therapist tells her to love her grandmother now and tell her grandmother how much R. loves her, so they can enjoy the time they have together. The therapist then introduces a new line of interrogation, asking whether Miss Shelly and Miss Robin (two of the accused daycare workers) ever had friends visiting the daycare center. R.’s repeated replies were, “I don’t know.” (Shopper 520)

By offering only a brief and overly simple solution to the child’s stated problem, and then immediately changing the subject back to the daycare, Shopper shows that the therapists were transparent in their agenda, and failed to show adequate concern for the children’s actual emotional needs. Another brief example offered by Shopper details an instance in which a child expresses anger at both her mother and her sister, another alleged victim. In this session, Shopper notes that the therapist immediately tells the child that her mother and sister love her, and then quickly asks about one of the defendants allegedly injuring her sister. Not only was the therapist again overtly displaying her agenda, but also was conditioning the child further by outright claiming the child’s family to be good and immediately assigning the defendants to the designation of being bad. Again, the therapist is also neglecting the child’s anger explicitly stated to be toward her mother, instead attributing it to trauma caused at the daycare (Shopper 520). Through this clear neglect of children’s emotional issues, as well as their conditioning of the children through improper therapeutic methods and the overall distortion of the children’s beliefs, the therapists and their practices made up one of the case’s most major flaws.

The therapists’ methods and the overall climate of moral panic are not only major issues with the case, however. The therapists had far too much leeway in the case; they were implicitly trusted and thus, their harmful practices were not called into question. Law enforcement and the prosecution as well as parents all contributed to upholding the therapists’ findings at all costs, making sure that their cause (and, by extension, the prosecution’s cause) remained dominant over the defense’s case. As stated before, 85% of the 90 alleged victims were treated by the same four therapists, as revealed by director Ofra Bikel in her documentary series Innocence Lost, which covered the case as it occurred. Shopper notes this fact as a major flaw of the case – if the children were treated by a wide variety of therapists, he writes, then much of the psychological conditioning that occurred would likely not have happened. Bikel, in her documentary, goes on to explain that many parents who sought a second opinion from other therapists beyond the main four were often highly discouraged from doing so, with the therapists, police, and legal staff claiming that doing so would only result in further trauma and confusion for the child (Innocence Lost). In fact, questioning in general of the therapists and their methods was heavily condemned. Parent Betty Ann Phillips explains in the documentary Innocence Lost that when she went to the Edenton police to express her concerns about the therapists’ practices, she was advised not to openly express her opinion to others. The police told her that some of the children had recently named her as a lookout for the alleged perpetrators, despite the fact that she had no connection to the daycare other than sending her child to it. Phillips interpreted these statements as threats against speaking out about the therapists’ practices (Innocence Lost). Bikel also interviews another mother who initially sent her child to one of the assigned therapists, but found her methods questionable: “If the way my son was questioned and badgered is an indication of how the other kids were interviewed, I don’t find it difficult to believe these kids are now believing something happened that didn’t” (Innocence Lost). The mother later says she was given no other option other than to send her child to another therapist, despite her qualms. Only after she moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, with her son was she able to find another psychologist for her son (who, incidentally, found him to be without trauma). When asked about Phillips’ issues with the police, the mother expresses her belief that she would be facing similar threats, had she not already been planning to move to Charlotte (Innocence Lost).

The prosecution and police worked together not only to ensure that the therapists remained without question, but also to hamper the defense’s case whenever possible. An egregious example of this practice occurred when Chris Bean, a reputable attorney in Edenton, was hired to defend Bob Kelly. On 25 April 1989, minutes before Bean was to enter the courtroom for the initial probable cause hearing of the case, the district attorney and a police officer confronted Bean with the knowledge that his young son had been named as an alleged victim in the case. Bean was understandably caught off guard, and, when interviewed by Bikel, indicated that he did not know what to think of this information, and the way it was given to him. Later in the interview, he says:

I understand that they had this information from January that my son had been abused. But they had not told me in that three month period of time. They had all that opportunity, and yet they were telling me minutes before we walked into the courtroom. And so I didn’t know what to think. (Innocence Lost)

Bean later withdrew from the case, knowing that he could not adequately or fairly represent Kelly while the allegation directed toward his son stood. Finally, the prosecution itself erred in the case by further enforcing the mental conditioning placed on the children. They held what was referred to as a “court school” for children intended to testify. While the stated purpose of the school was to simply acquaint children with courtroom practices, in reality they only served to promote what the therapists had been pressuring them to believe – Shopper refers to it as being a “booster” for the therapists’ practices (Shopper 521). Because children were strongly encouraged to be “police helpers”—that is, to assist the police, who were strongly biased towards the flawed findings of the therapists, the school primarily trained the children to advance the cause of the prosecution (Shopper 517).

Finally, parents contributed to the various errors of the case not only by being influenced by the mass moral panic, as discussed, but also, while in that state of moral panic, unquestionably following poor instructions given to them by the therapists. Mainly, they continued to invasively and suggestively question their children outside of therapy sessions, putting more harmful pressure on the children, not only causing them additional emotional issues but also further conditioning them to offer up “evidence” against the defendants. Parents would also incorporate discussion of the daycare into other daily activities, such as reading stories at bedtime – therapists instructed several parents to read particular children’s stories that stressed the moral of “the truth will set you free” and similar messages, thus only applying further pressure (Shopper 522). Finally, parents, along with therapists, would routinely tell the children white lies in attempts to calm them, a practice Shopper says is condemned by most psychologists, as it offers only a temporary and unsustainable solution for trauma (Shopper 519). Overall, these various actions taken by law enforcement, the prosecution, and parents were highly inappropriate. Not only did they uphold the improper methods of the therapists, but they also created further issues in the case by promoting only the cause of the prosecution.

By thoroughly analyzing the wide variety of errors committed in the Little Rascals case, it is plain to see that it serves as strong proof that the gathering of children’s testimony, especially in emotionally-charged cases, ought to be a closely-guarded and delicate process. From its start, the case was strongly affected by the prominence of moral panic surrounding the Satanic Ritual Abuse phenomenon, due to the emotional stakes of the case, and its influence caused the case to be riddled with flaws. Among its most egregious flaws were the ill-advised and harmful approaches of the four main therapists, whose methods were highly coercive and likely conditioned children into believing something that they did not in fact experience. Additionally, the actions of the therapists were allowed to go unchecked, thanks to their enabling by the local police, prosecution, and parents (all of whom were likely under the influence of the widespread moral hysteria), who also greatly swung the case in the prosecution’s favor by suppressing positive sentiments for the defense whenever possible. Based on the flaws of the Little Rascals case, as well as other daycare abuse cases of the period, action must be taken to avoid these major issues in future cases. The usage of children’s testimony, however crucial it might be to a given case, must be closely regulated and monitored, through the employment of legislation or some other regulatory criteria. Such legislation should emphasize the importance of confidentiality agreements with initial accusers, in order to avoid mass hysteria from taking hold, as well as multiple second opinions from outside resources, in order to prevent a situation where all the experts in a given case are in unanimous collaboration with each other. Additionally, those involved in such a case must approach it from a logical, emotionally uncompromised position—assistance and input from experts not personally attached to the specific case should be prioritized. These measures must be taken to avoid the results of the Little Rascals case: consequences such as children being harmfully affected by poor therapeutic methods, innocent people being wrongly convicted, and proceedings that last numerous years, only to end aimlessly, wasting valuable resources and finances of the state. All of these issues occurred as a direct result of the errors in the case, which demonstrates precisely what actions and measures should be avoided when an emotional criminal case hinges on the testimony of children.



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Anna Twiddy

English & Classics

Anna Twiddy

English & Classics