To the editors:

I am writing in response to “The Mouths of Babes” by David Futrelle (March 15). The article presents Believe the Children and a member of our advisory board in a false light by omitting and misinterpreting important facts.

Futrelle states as fact that Believe the Children “treats even the smallest signs of skepticism on the question of alleged satanic abuse as evidence of a “backlash.”‘ In fact, we recognize that there are two sides to the ritual child abuse controversy, and we do not object to balanced debates or media coverage presenting both arguments. However, articles written by journalists who present only one side of this controversial issue do contribute to the backlash against child abuse victims.

According to the Associated Press standard code of journalistic ethics, an honest and vigorous effort must be made to include reasonable opposing views in matters of significant controversy. The code also specifies that safeguards to avoid error should include systematic verification of facts and corroboration of critical information. Mr. Futrelle never contacted Believe the Children to verify the “facts” as he presented them, nor did he make an effort to present opposing views in his article.

In reference to our newsletter article (“Ritual Child Abuse in Day Care: What Parents Should Know,” winter 1995), Futrelle stated that “many of the alleged symptoms are simply examples of normal childhood behavior . . . ” In his haste to vilify Believe the Children, he overlooked the fact that our article also cautioned parents against overreacting to childhood behaviors:

“Children may experience behavior problems for a variety of reasons. The presence of one or more symptoms does not necessarily mean a child has been abused. . . . The degree and intensity, as well as the combination of behaviors, are important factors when interpreting symptoms. When a number of symptoms are present, forming a disturbing pattern, or when behavior problems escalate or intensify over time, parents should arrange to have the child evaluated by a therapist who specializes in treating children who have been victims of trauma.”

By omitting our cautionary statement, Futrelle creates a false impression that Believe the Children encourages parents to reach a premature conclusion of abuse based on the child’s behavior problems. On the contrary, we advise parents to seek professional advice if they have concerns about a child’s behavior, which may or may not be related to abuse.

Futrelle referred to our recommendation that parents take note of the artwork displayed in day care centers as evidence that “the danger signs get stranger.” In fact, experts on child abuse prevention in out-of-home settings advise that the children’s artwork should reflect the current season of the year, that “snowflakes in June” could be an indicator that artwork is not being produced, which could be an indicator of abuse or neglect. Our recommendation was presented for the benefit of parents screening day care centers and was never intended to be used as a diagnostic or forensic tool.

By enclosing the word expert in quotes (“expert”) in reference to Dr. Kathleen Coulborn Faller, Futrelle suggests that Dr. Faller lacks professional credentials. Dr. Faller is the director of the Family Assessment Clinic, a multidisciplinary team that evaluates child maltreatment cases, and codirector of the Interdisciplinary Project on Child Abuse and Neglect, both at the University of Michigan. Professor Faller is involved in teaching, training, clinical work, research, and writing in the area of child sexual abuse. She is the author of Social Work With Abused and Neglected Children (Free Press, 1981), Child Sexual Abuse: An Interdisciplinary Manual for Diagnosis, Case Management and Treatment (Columbia University Press, 1988), and Understanding Child Sexual Maltreatment (Sage Publications, 1990), as well as a number of clinical articles on child abuse issues.

Futrelle apparently misinterpreted Dr. Faller’s joke about a microphone failure at our First National Conference in 1993. Dr. Faller jokingly attributed the microphone failure to a “ritual conspiracy.” Although Futrelle states that Dr. Faller “continues to support the most extreme allegations of abuse,” her joke about the microphone indicates otherwise. To my knowledge, Dr. Faller has never expressed a belief in “ritual conspiracy.” It is possible to believe children have been ritually abused without also believing in a worldwide satanic conspiracy. That is one fact Dr. Faller presented in her lecture–a fact Futrelle chose to ignore.

Apparently, Futrelle had drawn a conclusion before writing this story, and presented only those examples, quotes, and arguments that supported his point of view. Of course, Futrelle is entitled to his opinion, but he should not have presented his opinions as fact, especially when he did not bother to interview those he maligned. This kind of “cut and paste” journalism may make sensational headlines but does nothing to further the public’s understanding of child abuse.

Beth Vargo

Executive Director

Believe the Children