Peggy Buckey’s acquittal and the acquittal of her son Raymond Buckey on 52 counts of child molestation brought an end to a highly publicized and exhausting criminal trial. Less noticed, perhaps, were postmortems on the case by jury members, who described the excesses and strange ironies of a governmental crusade “to save our children.”

The saga began in August 1983, when the mother of a child at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, called police claiming that her two-year-old son had been sexually molested by Mr. Buckey. Over the next eight months, prosecutors and allied social workers interviewed 400 children, eventually listing 41 as victims. Children told stories that ranged from watching a rabbit being sacrificed on a church altar to being molested in a car-wash bathroom. The Buckeys were jailed, without bail, in March 1984, and the trial began in April 1987, ending only this January.

The “crusade” atmosphere surrounding the trial reflected mounting public attention to child abuse. This surge in interest began in the early 1960’s, when physicians first coined the phrase, “battered child syndrome.” Popular magazines such as Life, Good Housekeeping, and The Saturday Evening Post soon began thumping the drums about “Parents Who Beat Children.” In quick succession, all 50 states adopted “reporting laws” that required physicians, teachers, and social workers to report suspected child abuse cases.

In the effort to protect children, these laws also circumscribed a variety of ancient legal protections. They commonly denied physician-patient and husband-wife privileges under the rules of evidence, and gave immunity from civil or criminal liability to those reporting suspected abusers. More ominously, these laws carried a presumption of parental guilt (often involving the seizure of children) until parents could establish their innocence.

Propaganda campaigns by the federal government, state child-protection agencies, and interested professional associations (e.g., National Association of Social Workers) stressed that “all children are at risk.” Television docudramas gave particular attention to the crimes of natural parents in traditional families. Reports of abuse mushroomed, climbing to well over one million each year. Some media estimates stated that six million children are abused annually.

Prosecutors quickly discovered that political reputations could be made by jailing suspected child abusers. Therapists found a lucrative new field ($1,000 a day and up) and noted that, under sufficient pressure, children would tell all kinds of stories about their parents. Social workers introduced anatomically correct dolls, to help children break through their inhibitions and “role-play.” At other times, children were told that if they revealed the “truth” about their parents, the families might be reunited.

Lost in the self-serving hysteria over the crimes of traditional families were certain truths about child abuse. Honest research showed that stepchildren and the offspring of “female-headed families” were the children truly at risk. Indeed, an article in The Journal of Ethology and Sociobiology concluded that “preschoolers living with one natural [parent] and one stepparent were 40 times more likely to become child abuse cases than were like-aged children living with two natural parents.” Another study showed a remarkably high correlation between maternal employment and child homocide.

Also lost was attention to the prevalence of child abuse in the burgeoning daycare industry. “Youth work” has always attracted the pedophiles, and daycare is surely no exception. Indeed, it offers the pedophilic minority up to ten hours a day, five days a week to exercise their charm and control. Even in California, from 200 to 300 daycare centers are regularly under investigation, primarily for allegations of sexual abuse. However, most of these cases have been kept out of the newspapers, because political elites are pressing for a national daycare system.

The exception proving the rule was the McMartin case, where two trendy crusades (“the critical need for more daycare” and “get the child abusers”) collided.

In explaining their reasons for acquittal, the jurors who would talk agreed that the crimes had been committed. One said that the children involved had been molested “in some sense, by someone.” Another reported: “I believe in my heart” that the children were molested.

However, the jurors also expressed strong criticism of the techniques used by social workers to wring information out of the children. As one explained: “the interviewers asked leading questions in such a manner that we never got the children’s stories in their own words.” Others complained about the use of anatomically complete dolls, and cited the bizarre tales spun by children unable to separate facts from fantasy.

Predictably, the leading pundits have used the results of the McMartin case to call for the tighter regulation of daycare centers, greater state funding, and new restrictions on the legal rights of the accused (such as child testimony via remote television). As before, the disarray caused by prior state intervention is used to justify more government.

The proper response is to recognize that children are best protected from physical and sexual abuse in intact, traditional homes. If politicians are serious about preventing child abuse, they will do whatever they can to support such homes. Possibilities include substantial tax cuts targeted for families with children and toughened marriage laws that reverse that other legal disaster inherited from the 1960’s: no-fault divorce.

Child-protection laws, meanwhile, should be brought back in line with common law precepts: providing precise legal definitions of neglect and abuse; guaranteeing legal representation, rules-of-evidence, and due process in child-removal situations; recognizing the protective environment of intact homes; and protecting children from abuse by government-paid therapists and social workers.

The state, in truth, always has an interest in disrupting and displacing the family. The “child abuse crisis” merely represents another splendid opportunity for this sort of mischief If the farce of the McMartin trial can be seen as the logical consequence of statism run amok, some good may yet come from it.