Who Abused Jane Doe Essay

Who Abused Jane Doe?

Elizabeth F. Loftus & Melvin J. Guyer


Case histories make contributions to science and practice, but they can also be highly misleading. We illustrate with our re-examination of the case of Jane Doe; she was videotaped twice, once when she was six years old and then eleven years later when she was seventeen. During the first interview she reported sexual abuse by her mother. During the second interview she apparently forgot and then remembered the sexual abuse. Jane's case has been hailed by some as the new proof of recovery of repressed or dissociated traumatic memories, and even as proof of the reliability of recovered memories of repeated abuse. Numerous pieces of "supporting evidence" were given in the original article for believing that the abuse occurred. Upon closer scrutiny, however, there are reasons to doubt not only the "supporting evidence," but also that the sexual abuse ever happened in the first place. Our analysis raises several general questions about the use of case histories in science, medicine, and mental health. There is a cautionary tale not only for those professionals who advance the case history, but also for those who base their theories on it or would readily accept it as proof.
-The Authors


Case histories have a long and cherished tradition in science. They are compelling anecdotes, often powerful enough to generate entire theories of behavior. Freud built the edifice of psychoanalytic theory on the very few cases he saw in therapy. Bruno Bettelheim used a few cases of autistic children to conclude that autism is caused by "refrigerator" mothers (Pollak 1997). Psychiatrist Cornelia Wilbur's account of her patient, "Sybil," captivated millions of people who believed the story of Sybil's "multiple personalities" (Schreiber 1973). The case of Genie, the girl who spent the first thirteen years of her life locked in a bedroom alone, strapped to a potty chair, with minimal stimulation apart from being continually beaten, was thought to tell us a great deal about language acquisition (Curtiss 1977). John Money told the world of a boy who lost his penis at the age of seven months, and who then received plastic surgery at twenty-one months to reassign him as a girl. Money followed this girl until the age of nine; although she had many "tomboyish" behaviors, she also had a female gender identity. Money concluded from this case study and from his research with more than 100 other 'intersex' children that sexual identity is more strongly influenced by socialization than by biology.

Some case studies offer a window into human nature and physiology that would otherwise be shut. Oliver Sacks's stories of his patients' rare medical conditions reveal not only the mysteries of the brain but also those of personality (Sacks 1990). Case studies have identified some of the complex specialties of cells in the visual system: For example, one man with localized brain damage was able to recognize a face made up entirely of vegetables, but he could not recognize the component vegetables themselves (Moscovitch, Winocur, and Behrmann 1997). The sad case of the man known only as H.M., much of whose hippocampus and adjacent cortex were surgically removed in 1953, taught his investigators a great deal about the physiology of memory, for H.M. could not form new memories of events that happened to him after his operation (Ogden and Corkin, 1991). Similarly, case studies in clinical psychology can refute misguided generalizations, such as that mentally retarded people lack the cognitive ability to develop obsessive-compulsive disorder, or that taijin-kyofu-sho (fear of other people, abbreviated TKS) is a culture-bound disorder confined to Japan (McNally and Calamari 1989; McNally, Cassiday, and Calamari 1990). Case studies like these can provide compelling refutations to assumptions about "universal" aspects of human behavior.

But case studies, by definition, are bounded by the perceptions and interpretations of the storyteller. If they are well told-and Freud, Bettelheim, Wilbur, and Money could tell a story well-readers often find them far more persuasive and compelling than the stodgy numbers and cautions of science. Why would anyone question Cornelia Wilbur's account of Sybil? It was years before independent investigators learned that Wilbur's publisher thought that making Sybil a multiple personality would be more interesting-and sell more books-than telling the story of her real mental disorder, which was probably some form of hysteria (Borch-Jacobsen 1997). How many readers would ask whether the case of the boy raised as a girl was actually well adjusted, or whether the case was typical or anomalous of the many children who have had sex reassignment for various medical reasons? Subsequent investigation revealed that the particular boy, David Reimer, never adjusted well and reverted to life as a male (Colapinto 2000). But neither version of his case gives the full story because Reimer was not necessarily representative. Other case histories involving sex reassignment after ablatio penis (e.g., Bradley et al. 1998) reveal more successful adaptation. So, is it socialization or biology?

Who, at the time, dared criticize the famous Bruno Bettelheim or ask him pesky questions, such as where his control groups were (Pollak 1997)? When researchers finally did ask, they learned that parents of autistic children were no different psychologically from parents of healthy children (Markin 1997). As for Genie, there would come to pass a snarl of contradictions in reports about her, and serious questions raised about the competence of many of the scholars who wrote about her (Rymer 1993). Why did it take decades before critics were willing to expose Freud's biases in his case stories-the information he left out, the distortions of what his patients really said, his failure to consider other explanations of their symptoms and problems? (Cioffi 1998; Crews 1998; Powell and Boer 1995; Sulloway 1992; Webster 1995).

Case studies therefore illuminate, but can also obscure, the truth. In many cases, they are inherently limited by what their reporter sees, and what their reporter leaves out. This is especially true if the writer is untrained in the scientific method, and thus unaware of the confirmation bias, the importance of considering competing explanations before making a diagnosis, and so forth. To the scientist, therefore, most case studies are useful largely to generate hypotheses to be tested, not as answers to questions. When they are offered as answers, readers should be wary. What follows is a case study of a case study-a cautionary tale.


The Memory Wars

For more than a decade, psychological researchers and clinicians have been at war over the nature of memory. Many clinicians believe that traumatic experiences, particularly of repeated sexual brutalization, are so upsetting that they are likely to be "repressed," and can be recovered, accurately, years later-through therapy, hypnosis, dream analysis, and so forth. The extent of banishment from consciousness assumed in some definitions of repression was virtually total, as evidenced by the use of terms such as "massive repression" (Herman and Schatzow 1987, 12) or "fiercely repressed" (Courtois 1992, 23) or "total repression" (Briere 1992). (Later the term repression went out of fashion, and some clinicians began claiming that traumatic experiences caused dissociation, a split in consciousness, but they still mean that the trauma is completely banished from conscious awareness.)

Many academic researchers who study memory (and quite a few clinicians) have been skeptical about these notions of massive repression/dissociation. They have demonstrated repeatedly in laboratory experiments that these suggestible methods increase memory "confabulations" and errors, for example by causing people to confuse what they imagine with what actually happened. They see a lack of credible scientific support for the notion that massive repression/dissociation of repeated brutalization routinely, if ever, occurs. On the contrary, people who have survived concentration camps, systematic torture by despotic political regimes, and repeated rapes-from the victims of Serbian "ethnic cleansing" to the Korean "comfort women" of World War II-do not forget. They remember, painfully, to this day. Therefore the burden of proof has been on therapists to demonstrate the existence of this kind of repression/dissociation and confirm their belief that such traumatic memories can eventually be reliably recovered.

In 1997, psychiatrist David Corwin and his collaborator Erna Olafson published a case study that they believed provided such proof (Corwin and Olafson 1997). They told the story of a young woman they called Jane Doe, whom Corwin had first interviewed in 1984, when Jane was six years old. At the time, her biological and divorced parents were going through a tumultuous, protracted, and vicious custody dispute, and Jane was living with her mother. Jane's father and stepmother claimed that Jane's mother was sexually and physically abusing the child, and Corwin was brought in to evaluate these allegations.

From the article itself, we learn that Corwin interviewed Jane three times as a child, videotaping the interviews. In her final Corwin interview as a child, Jane told Corwin that her mother "rubs her finger up my vagina" in the bathtub, that it happened "more than twenty times . . . probably ninety-nine times." Jane also told Corwin that her mother had physically harmed her by burning her feet (which Corwin presumed was on a stove).

Corwin concluded that Jane's mother was molesting her daughter. In addition to the child's statements, he was persuaded of the abuse because Jane seemed to him to be more relaxed with her father than with her mother. The father seemed a more reliable informant to Corwin. This was so because when the mother alleged that the father had committed tax fraud, the father proved to Corwin's satisfaction that the charge was false. However, the mother, Corwin reported, had been "convicted and jailed for fraud." Corwin thought the mother unstable, because, with three previous marriages, he wrote, the mother "had a more extensive history of marital instability than the father, who had had a long-term marriage prior to marrying Jane's mother." And, he said, Jane was consistent, in the three forensic interviews, regarding the identity of her abuser and the nature of the abuse. Her account included persuasive sensory details of what the abuse felt like; and Jane reported that her mother threatened her not to talk.

Corwin had also been persuaded that Jane had been sexually abused because of the report of a social worker who saw Jane early in 1984, after Jane allegedly told her stepmother that her mother had sexually molested her. The social worker said that Jane reported that her mother "puts her finger up my vagina in the bathtub. I don't like that. She says she can do anything she wants to me. She puts cream on my vagina. It hurts." Jane complained about being fed "cracker soup," and about nightmares. The social worker found Jane's exaggerated startle response and other symptoms to be consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.

After Corwin's consultation and conclusion, the court ruled in the father's favor, and Jane's father and stepmother assumed custody of six-year-old Jane. The mother even lost rights of visitation.

Eleven years went by, during which Corwin continued to discuss Jane's case at conferences on memory and child abuse. In 1995, wondering what, if anything, Jane herself remembered about her experiences, he contacted Jane, now age seventeen, and she agreed to be reinterviewed on videotape. Would she have repressed the memories of her mother's abuse?

According to Corwin, she had. When asked about the past, Jane recalled: "I told the court that my mom abused me, that she burned my feet on a stove, I don't, that's really the most serious accusation against her that I remember." When Corwin asked Jane whether she remembered anything about possible sexual abuse, she said, "No. I mean, I remember that was part of the accusation, but I don't remember anything-wait a minute, yeah, I do."


Corwin: What do you remember?

Jane: Oh my gosh, that's really really weird. I accused her of taking pictures [starts to cry] of me and my brother and selling them and I accused her of-when she was bathing me or whatever, hurting me, and that's-


Jane went on to recount the sexual abuse:


Jane: We were in the bathtub, and I don't have any memory, except for . . . I felt that pain. And then I remember, you know. And then it's like I took a picture, like a few seconds long, a picture of the pain, and what was inflicting the pain and then-you know, that's all the memory consists of.


Corwin regards Jane's response of remembering the pain as a "somatosensory fragment" of the sexual abuse she endured. He then showed Jane the videotapes of his interviews with her when she was six, all 2.5 hours worth. After watching the tapes, Jane said, "The little girl that I see in those videotapes I don't see as [having] made up those things, and it doesn't make sense to me that knowing the truth I would out-and-out lie like that. I have to believe that to some extent my mom did hurt me. . . ."

And so, watching the videotapes, Jane Doe wept, and came to remember how her mother had sexually abused her - memories, according to Corwin, that she had repressed for eleven years, a clear example of "traumatic amnesia." Although he noted some inconsistencies in Jane's version of events at age six and age seventeen, he said, "this sudden memory discovery appears to be accurate when compared to Jane's descriptions at age six of her mother's vaginal penetration of her."

For Corwin, this case supports the clinical assumption that traumatic memories and ordinary memories are encoded differently: "The tears and evident strong feeling this memory discovery caused Jane were not similar, say, to suddenly remembering where one has put the car keys."


Reactions to the Case

Corwin, a member of the editorial board of the journal Child Maltreatment, then invited several researchers and clinicians to comment on Jane's case for an article he was preparing to publish in the journal. Some of the commentators had seen the actual videotapes of Jane at six, talking about what her mother had apparently done to her, and also at seventeen, "recovering" this memory, at conferences where Corwin told his story. Others responded to Corwin's written account, which included excerpts from the videotape transcripts of Jane at both ages.

Most of the professionals who read about this case were persuaded that it was a full and accurate account of the story. Virtually all who saw the videotapes were deeply affected by them. Paul Ekman (1997), an eminent psychologist and expert in the field of emotion research-indeed, he is a leading expert in detecting deception from facial expressions of emotion-believed Jane's early reports of abuse: "The usually spontaneous, very rapid replies which burst forth from the six-year-old Jane," he wrote, "allow us to have confidence in the truthfulness of Jane's statements in the first interview." Ekman was also impressed by Jane's emotional expression: "Jane's emotions are genuine and expressed poignantly. Those who see the videotape are moved emotionally. I have yet to see anyone who does not have a tear in his or her eye when Jane first remembers part of what happened to her and begins to cry" (115). Ekman said he found this case to be "of extraordinary importance" (116) and urged the pursuit of other similar cases, following up children who were abused and who are now adolescents and adults.

Frank Putnam (1997), a psychiatrist, was impressed that Corwin's awareness of the risks of leading questions "permits us to accept Jane Doe's reports as truthful rather than suggested or coerced" (117). He found Jane to be "genuine and believable." Like Corwin, Putnam was impressed with the somatic components of Jane's memory of the pain, which he said is "typical of recalled traumatic moments" (118). He emphasized the "high degree of similarity" between what Jane Doe said at age six and her delayed recall at age seventeen, and felt the case "provides concrete evidence that delayed recall of traumatic childhood events does occur" (120).

Jonathan Schooler (1997), an experimental psychologist, agreed that this case supported Corwin's conclusion that "Jane's mother did in fact engage in inappropriate sexual behavior that was both invasive and painful" (126). Schooler was persuaded by the "strikingly consistent characterization of Jane's allegations across interviews with two psychological evaluators, one police investigator, her therapist, and in the three interviews with Corwin" (127). Schooler was also influenced by the "persuasive manner" in which Jane described the abuse, her "earnestness" when she described her mother's threats and abusive behavior, and "the sincerity with which she gave the Brownie Oath that she was telling the truth" (127). Schooler expressed his hope that skeptics would be persuaded by this case that individuals really can have repressed memories of "authentic incidents of abuse."

Stephen Lindsay (1997), an experimental psychologist who studies memory and children's testimony, said that the case of Jane Doe is "destined to be an extraordinarily important article." He applauded the article for being balanced and constructive. Lindsay did note that "the important question of whether Jane's childhood reports of the bathtub molestations were accurate" is something we are not in a position to know for sure. But he added that "The recollection of being digitally penetrated in the bathtub converges in its core content with the original allegations . . . is consistent with Jane's prior knowledge and beliefs, was remembered quickly and easily, and appears to have been clear and intense, all of which are consistent with the hypothesis that the recollection is essentially accurate" (189). Although Lindsay acknowledged that Jane might have been remembering the prior allegations rather than actual events, and reminded readers to maintain some uncertainty about the accuracy of the memory, he said he was inclined to believe that Jane's mother did "push her finger up Jane's vagina in a sexually abusive way." The foundation for his belief in the bathtub molestation was "somewhat shaky," he said, but he just got "the feeling that Jane experienced a powerful and essentially accurate recovered memory" (190).

Only one memory researcher, the cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser, maintained strong skepticism. He observed that Jane's recovered memories-one of accusations that her mother took pornographic photos of her and her brother, and one of her mother's molesting her in the bathtub-were far from accurate. The memory of the photos was "entirely false." The second had changed dramatically. The six-year-old Jane claimed that her mother molested her while bathing her, putting her fingers into Jane's vagina and asking, 'That feel good?' many times. But the seventeen-year-old Jane remembered a quite different event-the picture now in her mind "is of a single, deep vaginal intrusion, several seconds in duration and extremely painful" (124). Neisser wrote that perhaps the single dramatic event in Jane's age-seventeen memory misrepresents a long series of "unpleasant but relatively pedestrian childhood experiences"-being bathed by her mother. Still, he later referred to them as "irritating and unpleasant bathtub episodes, clear examples of abusive behavior on her mother's part." After reminding readers that discovered memories that return can be entirely false, partly false, somewhat distorted, or also accurate, Neisser nonetheless expressed his gratitude to those who made the videotapes available.

Once in the literature, Corwin's case history was embraced by many. One group of pro-dissociation writers described it in detail, and then commented that the case was a "good example of substantial forgetting and later recovery of a corroborated childhood sexual abuse memory" (Brown, Scheflin, and Whitfield 1999, 65). Lawyers presented the case at conferences, assuming it was authentic (e.g., P. Brown, 1999). Expert witnesses began presenting the case in court as concrete proof of the validity of repressed memories (State of Rhode Island v. Quattrocchi 1998). Professors began teaching the case in their university courses (Steve Clark, personal communication 8/16/01).

Thus Corwin's case study was vivid and compelling. Leading scientists were persuaded by it; indeed, emotionally moved by it. Few considered any other possible explanations of Jane's behavior at six or at seventeen. Few were skeptical that Jane really had been abused by her mother before age six, that her retrieved memories were accurate, or that "repression" accounted for her forgetting what her mother supposedly had done to her.

But we were. In 1984, when Corwin was called in to assess this case, Jane's parents had already been battling over her custody for five years. (They separated for the first time when Jane was only 8 months old.) In those days, few experts were aware of the way children's memories can be tainted by interviewers who are on a mission to find evidence of sexual abuse. Few knew how to interview children in nonsuggestive, noncoercive ways. Many social workers and clinicians believed that children don't utter falsehoods about sexual abuse-a premise that has long been shown to be wrong. Like adults, children can tell the truth, and they can also be influenced and manipulated into saying things that are not so (Ceci and Bruck 1993). Psychological science has contributed a great deal, especially since the early 1980s, to our understanding of the malleability of memory of adults and children.

In the last two decades, the two of us have conducted research on these issues and testified in court cases, out of our concern about false allegations of abuse-allegations that are especially likely to occur in emotionally fraught custody battles. So, just as Corwin had a vested interest in persuading others that his initial judgment about Jane was correct-that the mother had indeed molested her-and that some repression-like process is indeed the mechanism that prevents children from remembering such trauma, we had a vested interest in learning if he had provided the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

And so we set out on an odyssey to learn more about the case. Our investigation produced much valuable information that should assist scholars in making their own decisions about whether Jane was abused, and if so, by whom.


Our Search for the Full Story

Corwin disguised the case-using names like Jane Doe and John Doe, Momstown, Dadstown. But he showed the tapes at a number of professional meetings, and the tapes mention Jane's real first name and the city where some of her childhood activities took place. We searched legal databases with a handful of key words, and found an appellate court case involving Jane.

From the case we learned that Jane's father, whom we will call "Dad," had been found in contempt of court for failing to comply with visitation orders on three separate occasions. He was sentenced to fifteen days in jail for refusing to allow Jane's mother and grandmother their court-ordered visitations with Jane. This was interesting; why did Corwin mention the mother's jailing but not tell us about the father's? Corwin had made a point of the mother's jailing for "fraud" in comparing her credibility to the father's; we learned that she had been incarcerated for misdemeanor welfare fraud, during which time Dad was given temporary custody of Jane. Upon her release, Mom sought custody. The court, however, based on Dad's accusations that Mom had physically abused Jane by "burning" her feet on the stove, ordered joint custody to the parents and physical custody to the father. The custody war escalated, eventually involving allegations by Dad that Mom abused Jane not only physically, but sexually.

When Child Protection Services (CPS) in the mother's home county investigated these allegations, however, they turned up nothing, and CPS recommended that no action be taken. The father then went to another county, eighty miles away, to repeat in another court his allegations that the mother was sexually abusing Jane and had burned her feet "months and years before" (according to the published court case). This involvement of a second court, one which challenged the jurisdiction of the first court, led to the appellate case that resolved the jurisdictional dispute over which court had primary control when child abuse was alleged. One appellate judge, writing in that opinion, explicitly criticized the father for this "blatant forum shopping for the sole purpose of avoiding what he anticipated would be adverse rulings by the (Mom's county) court on the various custody and visitation motions then pending in that court." Why did Corwin not tell us that the mother's county CPS had thoroughly investigated the father's charges and recommended that no action be taken? Of course, this doesn't mean that no abuse occurred, but the information is surely relevant.

From this appellate court case we now knew Dad's first name and the first letter of his last name, but the rest of his identity was not revealed. We knew only, from Corwin's article, that he had died in November 1994. After a long and tedious search of the social security death records and newspaper obituaries, we found out who he was, and from there we uncovered the full history of the custody dispute and the abuse allegations.

Corwin informs readers of the report of the social worker, who believed Jane's claims against her mother. But he omitted a letter from a clinical psychologist (Dr. S.), written to a judge in February 1984. Dr. S., in accordance with a court order, had interviewed Dad, StepMom, Mom, and Jane. He spoke with Mom's therapist, Jane's psychologist, a CPS worker, Jane's brother, Grandma, and Mom's attorney. He read police reports, court orders, medical reports, and court transcripts. Dad told Dr. S. that Mom abuses Jane: hits her, pulls her hair, calls her names ("you shit"), and sticks her fingers up Jane's vagina and anus to clean her out, allegedly asking "does that feel good?" while doing so. Mom denied doing these things, and told Dr. S. that three CPS investigations and numerous court proceedings related to these charges had occurred, but none found her guilty of the "supposed abuse."

Dr. S. wrote in his letter to the judge that although some documents supported the premise that some type of abuse had occurred, "what has not been made clear is the source or nature of the abuse-whether these are actual physical and sexual abuses perpetrated by (Mom) or whether they exist only in the mind and fantasy of (Dad) and are communicated to (Jane) as (Mom) contends." Dr. S. noted that Jane's narration of her story was not spontaneous: "She has told her story numerous times to a number of different people and she now sounds mechanical." As for the burned feet, he said: "It was never determined if her feet and hand were indeed burned, since (Jane) has a fungus condition that causes her skin to blister and peel."

So in addition to whatever a social worker may have believed about the abuse, we would learn that a psychologist had a compelling dissenting conclusion. And, importantly, an alternative explanation existed for the allegedly "burned feet."


Mom's Life - Then and Now

With Dad's last name in hand, we wondered whether we could find Mom from information contained in the divorce file. Our assistant found Mom and contacted her at her modest home. When he explained why he was there, Mom welcomed him, sobbing her way through his interview, saying, "I never thought this day would come." The court battle she had had with Dad over Jane was a "nightmare," she said, "that never ended." The situation devastated her financially and destroyed her health. Throughout the years she expressed her grief in unpolished poetry which she shared with us.

Mom also described the consequences of Corwin's reappearance in her daughter's life. After Dad died in 1994, Mom was able to renew contact with her daughter, and had had a "very positive relationship" with her for about fourteen months. It ended, she said, when Corwin arrived on the scene. As our assistant reported: "Dr. Corwin contacted (Jane) to 'review' the old allegations that were made against Mom. . . . Mom said that after Dr. Corwin 'reviewed' the allegations with Jane, she allegedly recovered a memory of Mom bathing her. This memory made Jane believe that she in fact was molested and abused by Mom. After Jane's contact with Dr. Corwin, Mom received an angry telephone call from Jane. According to Mom, Jane screamed at her in a hostile manner, accusing Mom of molesting her. Jane cut off contact with her mother."

Mom's mother's closest friend, whom we'll call Alice, had known Mom since she was born, and also had strong views. She was familiar with the custody case, as she had attended almost all of the court proceedings and frequently went with Mom to pick up Jane for visitation. Alice described Mom as a good person and good mother. She talked of the trauma of the custody battle for Mom: "[Dad] had quite a bit of money, and he was able to pay for his attorney to continually take Mom to court." Alice was adamant that "no way did any of the allegations occur." Mom, she said, loved Jane and would never have harmed her in any way; it was Dad who coerced Jane to make up the allegations. Alice also reported that Dad treated Jane's older brother, "John," badly.

John, now in his thirties, has concurred that in no way did his mother ever abuse Jane. On the contrary, he said, it was his stepfather who was the abusive one, both to himself and to his mother. John had memories of Dad beating him with a belt that had metal circles on it, leaving imprints on his skin. John said that he was never interviewed by Corwin regarding this matter.

After reviewing this preliminary information, we contacted Mom directly. She was eager for us to visit, which we did. She lives in a town of pickup trucks and soda fountains-an "American Graffiti" sort of place. Mom told us a few things, of course from her perspective, that never appeared in any of Corwin's accounts of this case:


  • On Dad's presumably good qualities as a father: Dad had two older children other than Jane from a previous marriage, with whom he had no relationship. He "left them $l in his will," Mom said.

  • On the custody war: "I was broke in every sense of the word. I couldn't defend myself." Indeed, Dad had retained a successful lawyer whereas Mom had to rely in large part on legal aid.

  • On the allegations of the burned feet: Mom confirmed what was in Dr. S.'s report in the divorce file: Both she and Jane had a bad fungal condition, which leaves scarring that can seem like burns. Mom even showed us some remnants of this condition on one of her fingers.

  • On why she divorced Dad: He would scream at her all night long. He drank scotch in the way that most people drink water. He'd drink it straight, sometimes finishing off the whole bottle. He threw her around. Dad told her if she left him he would take Jane away from her and destroy her life.

  • On Dad's honesty: He got money by reporting supposedly stolen or lost jewelry to the insurance company.

  • On the welfare fraud for which she spent two months in jail: Because Dad paid child support so erratically, she never knew when she would be getting money from him. So Mom had filled out forms saying Jane's father was not supporting Jane. She neglected to mention a few payments that had been made, and was therefore convicted of welfare fraud.

All in all, a different picture from Corwin's portrayal of the credible, kindly dad and the thieving, abusive mom. Why did he not give us Mom's perspective-that Dad was a problem drinker, that he beat her son, that he had cheated an insurance company? As we dug into the history of this troubled marriage, we found more information that Corwin had omitted in his case study, all in public records.

When Dad and Mom first separated, Mom was awarded custody and support of $200 per month. Just nine months later, Dad asked the court to reduce his child support to $100 per month. He also asked for more specific visitation rules. Because he was in arrears on his child support, she was refusing visitation, and Dad asked that Mom be found in contempt of court for denying visitation. She responded by asking for supervised visits between Dad and Jane, claiming that he was "emotionally unstable and he drinks and uses drugs and alcohol to excess."

The court reduced child support, designed more specific visitation for Dad, and found Mom in contempt for not permitting the ordered visitations. But the couple continued to quarrel, in and out of court, over the next years.

One day, when Dad picked up Jane for a visit (she was not yet four years old), he noticed a problem with her feet and took her to a hospital in his area. The doctor there reportedly found what could be construed as "almost completely healed second degree burns on the plantar feet and palmar left hand." Dad then took Jane to another hospital, and that report too indicated that "old burns of both feet and left hand were found."

Shortly thereafter, the father's attorney put in requests for records from hospitals, the sheriff's department, child protection agencies, and other institutions relating to "possible child abuse incidents relative to" Jane. By this time, Mom's welfare difficulties were underway. While she was briefly in jail, Dad got custody, and he was explicitly ordered not to drink while with his daughter. The same order gave Mom's mother, Grandma, visitation rights.

When Mom was released from jail, she filed for custody of Jane. Grandma signed the following declaration in support:


The primary concern I have is for the safety and well being, both physical and mental, of my granddaughter Jane. Toward this end I wish to advise the Court that Dad is a character of extreme emotional instability. When my daughter and Dad were living together, Dad would regularly assault my grandson, John, who is now age eleven (11). On one occasion in 1977, my grandson was beaten so severely he was unable to remove himself from his bed for an entire day. His entire face was swollen to a pulp and he was unable to move. Although that particular occasion was the most severe, it was not an isolated incident. It is my belief that Dad has a problem associated with alcohol which may have resulted in such violent activity.


Mom did get custody back. Jane was now almost five years old, but Dad's efforts to gain custody escalated. A judge found that both parents were concerned about their child, but he was worried about the apparent findings by an emergency room doctor that there were burns on Jane's palm and fingers of the left hand. Thus, "out of an abundance of caution," the Court decided to award joint custody, with physical custody with Dad, and "reasonable rights of visitation to (Mom) as the parties can agree." The Court ended its order by quoting the words of a clinical psychologist that it is "unfortunate that the child has to bear the effects of this contest."

Even so, the contest was not over. Within a year, Dad was claiming that Jane had told him that Mom was abusing her, and Mom was complaining about visitation problems caused by Dad. The litigation dragged on and on, and in mid 1984, when Jane was five, Corwin entered the case and began his forensic interviews. He sided with the father's version of events, opining that Jane had been physically and sexually abused by Mom. Based on Corwin's report, a child protection staff worker in [Dadstown] recommended that Jane have no contact with her mother. Given his belief, it remains a mystery why no child abuse charges were filed against Mom.

And there matters ended-almost. Dad had succeeded in removing Mom from Jane's life, and she, too exhausted after a five-year battle, gave up her efforts to pursue her rights for visitation. When Jane was nine years old, her father and stepmother divorced and her father had bypass surgery. When Jane was about fifteen, Dad fell seriously ill and entered a convalescent hospital. Jane went into foster care; Dad died a year later.


Jane's Life After Mom Was Gone

Next we interviewed Jane's foster mother, who talked for nearly four hours, of course from her perspective. What follows are her recollections as revealed to us. When Jane came to stay with her, FosterMom said, Jane was extremely distressed. Her father had had a heart attack and could not care for her. Her stepmother, long divorced from her father, was out of the picture.

At FosterMom's urging, Jane tried to put the "puzzle pieces" of her past together. They talked about her memory of the "burned feet," and at one point even checked out the mom's "electric stove" whose coils had allegedly caused the burns; they found it was a gas stove-there were no coils to leave an "imprint." They wondered whether she had perhaps burned her feet when she walked on hot cement in the summer. But at other times, Jane would come up with "visions." She saw herself standing on the stove, and she would cry.

Eventually, FosterMom contacted Mom, and invited her to visit. The first meeting, said FosterMom, was "really beautiful." The night after her mother left, Jane said, "I knew she was my mother. It felt so familiar."

During this period of Mom's visitations, Jane began rethinking the subject of sex abuse. According to FosterMom, at first Jane hated her mother, thinking it had happened. Then she began to have doubts, wondering whether she could have made it up. Together, FosterMom and Jane explored what Jane remembered. Jane kept worrying. "What if I just said it? What if Dad put me up to it? I said it but did it really happen?" And then: "I wouldn't have said it if it didn't happen."

And then, as Jane was struggling to find out the truth and beginning to question whether the abuse had even occurred-as her father had repeatedly told her-Corwin entered the picture. He called FosterMom, saying he was doing research and wanted to interview Jane again. Jane wanted to do it to learn more, so FosterMom took her to the interview. When Corwin showed her the tape of herself at age six, Jane held her head and screamed, "Oh God! She did it! She did it. I can see it. I can see it." FosterMom said it broke her heart to watch Jane's reaction. After that, said FosterMom, she knew for sure, "beyond a shadow of a doubt," that Jane's mother had abused her. "That was," she concluded, "an ugly day."

FosterMom heard the phone call that Jane made to Mom after her interview with Corwin. It was short, cold, and angry. Jane called her by her first name (not Mom), and said something like, "I know that you molested me." Jane wrote a letter to her mother that FosterMom had a chance to read: "You did this. Why did you do this? How could you do that to your little girl?" She would not listen to her mother's protestations that Dad had made it up.

According to FosterMom, Jane changed dramatically after the interview with Corwin. She went into herself. She became depressed. She started behaving in self-destructive ways, and soon left FosterMom's home. At our meeting, FosterMom said she hadn't spoken to Jane in ten months, ever since Jane called her, angry and belligerent. FosterMom wondered whether Jane was suffering because of having seen the tape. Had the "Corwin thing" sent her over the edge, or was she unhappy for some other reason? Was she rejecting FosterMom because of the older woman's strict rules against staying out late and misbehavior, or because she was trying to run away from her own misery? FosterMom mused: "Would she have been better off not to remember? I don't know."

There was one other person to interview: StepMom, to hear her perspective of the sexual abuse allegations and where they came from. Early in the interview, she volunteered that the way that they got Jane away from Mom was "the sexual angle." "We proved it," StepMom said. "We saw abuse on her body. We started documenting it."

We asked her about the trip she and Dad made to the hospital in June of 1982 to have Jane's feet checked. StepMom said Mom burned Jane's feet because Jane wasn't staying in her room. Mom had "johns" over and was getting fed up with Jane. "Jane told us what happened, and we saw the burns," StepMom said. "It was with an electric coil. You could see these on the bottom of her feet." When asked why they went to second hospital with Jane that same day, she said, "We stopped at two of them. We stopped at 'here' first, then 'there' to get documentation. We wanted to document as much as we could. We were building a case against this woman. We were going for broke."

StepMom's animosity towards Mom was apparent throughout the interview. She accused Mom of being a prostitute, of locking Jane in her bedroom, of leaving her abandoned, and of binding the child and placing her feet on the stove. She called Mom a "leech," a woman who always had her hand out. "She has a black soul," she said.

StepMom accused Mom of taking soft-porn photos of John and of Jane, and peddling them. We asked how she found this out. "The police found it out," she replied, "and also Jane told us she was posing with John and that her mother was taking pictures. That's why I say she's a blackened soul." We asked whether the police ever found the photos. "I'm not sure," she said.

She later added that Jane had talked with her about the sexual abuse from ages four to nine. Although Corwin would claim that Jane had "repressed" the memory, both FosterMom and StepMom reported to us that Jane did talk about those past experiences frequently. StepMom said:


She always remembered it. But there was just the times that she wanted not to talk about it because of what it brought back. We talked because we were very close. Her mom would lie to Jane and you know, she would be in the bathtub bathing Jane, but she would tell Jane the reason why she put her fingers up her vagina was to get her clean. . . . But the way she did it was hurtful to-very rough. And not just up, but back and forth, back and forth. And I said to Dad, I said, "what she's doing basically is getting this child ready to use her later on for sex."


Later in the interview, StepMom said proudly, "I helped get Jane for Dad because we were married. I was a much younger woman. I don't have any bitterness toward Mom, I'm just saying, thank God Jane got out. And everything that Dad and I was, did together, was not in vain. . . . All that money we put in and all the time that we sacrificed, and, [it] was worth it. I'd do it all over again. All over again."

Of course, a current wife's anger and antipathy toward her husband's former wife, especially where issues of money and custody are involved, are quite understandable, and in some cases justifiable. How, then, should a scientifically minded investigator assess her testimony in contrast to Mom's account of events? Which is more credible? In science as in a court of law, both women would be cross-examined, and supporting or disconfirming evidence would be brought to bear. Corwin, of course, accepted StepMom's version of events relatively uncritically. But here is some evidence that might lead one to question her motives and account of events. Other evidence bears on StepMom's marital history or legal troubles-the type of evidence Corwin used to compare relative credibility, however dubious such comparisons on this basis might be:


  • Dad and StepMom married on 12/30/83, the very same month that Jane would make her first "reports" of sexual abuse about Mom; the couple separated three years and ten months later. Jane was only nine. Dad accused StepMom of appropriating valuable items from the house while he was hospitalized for bypass surgery.

  • StepMom subsequently married once again. Court documents reveal a 1991 "Order to Show Cause and Temporary Restraining Order" filed against StepMom by her new husband. He declared that StepMom had fraudulently claimed that he had physically abused her.

  • StepMom had further troubles in the mid-1990s with a misdemeanor arrest for vandalism; the charges were brought by a woman, and the case appears to have been dismissed.

In sum, we believe that there are ample reasons to doubt whether Jane Doe was physically or sexually abused by her mother, and to doubt much of the "supporting evidence" used to support the abuse hypothesis. Contrary to Corwin's claims, Jane's reports about her experience at the time were not particularly consistent. The argument that Dad had superior credibility over Mom in terms of marital stability, criminal records, and other behavior did not hold up. At least one expert, Dr. S., who appears to have done the most thorough investigation, was unconvinced that abuse had occurred. Finally, there was ample evidence that Jane talked about the abuse allegations on innumerable occasions with several people between the two sessions during which she was videotaped, undermining claims of massive repression or dissociation.

Part II (Skeptical Inquirer magazine : July/August 2002)

Many questions remain unanswered. Did Jane repress and recover an authentic memory of sexual abuse, or did she always remember the charges that cost her mother custody of her? Were those allegations accurate, or is there an alternative that might explain why Jane reported sexual abuse as a child and later came to believe it really happened? What is the truth about Jane's allegedly "burned" feet? Why were John Doe's abuse accusations against Dad never pursued?

A memory is, of course, not proof of the event it purports to recall. We all "remember" things that never actually happened, as ample scientific evidence has demonstrated (Loftus 1997). To take Jane's memory as evidence of an alleged prior event is to beg the question of whether it is a recovered memory. Instead, we must begin with an inquiry into what was regarded as corroboration of the claim of recollection. Thus we are led back to Corwin's original clinical evaluation.

There was no smoking gun in this case-no first-hand eyewitness accounts from impartial parties, no unambiguous physical evidence of sexual abuse or even of old burns. Corwin rests his corroboration of Jane's memory upon his clinical opinion that the alleged abuse occurred. The claim of corroboration naturally takes us to questions about the nature of clinical child abuse evaluations and their validity and reliability in general, and in this case in particular. Child sexual abuse is not a diagnosis. Instead such cases typically involve an effort to postdict-to say, on the basis of record review, contemporaneous observations, and credibility judgments whether some event did or did not occur in the past-an enterprise typically outside the scope of mental health expertise.

Can clinicians postdict with accuracy whether child sexual abuse occurred? Based upon a substantial body of scientific research, much of it done after Jane's 1984 evaluation, we have learned many sobering things about the limitations of clinical expertise in the postdiction of child sexual abuse.


  1. We know that clinical judgments of alleged sexual abuse may be unreliable (Horner, Guyer, and Kalter 1993a, b). Even experienced evaluators of child claims disagree markedly.

  2. We know that clinical judgments concerning the credibility of children's statements are not reliable (Ceci and Huffman 1997, Ceci, Loftus, Leichtman, and Bruck 1994), nor are clinical judgments concerning the credibility of adults particularly reliable (Ekman and O'Sullivan 1991).

  3. We know that there are few, if any, specific behavioral indicators of child sexual abuse (Kendall-Tackett et al. 1993), and to rely upon any one or two behavioral indicators will result in many false positives.

  4. We know that false allegations of child sexual abuse find fertile ground in highly contested child custody/visitation cases and that these are the most suspect cases in which allegations of abuse arise (Benedict and Schetky 1985). We know that children in such circumstances are often subject to so much parental influence that they sometimes lose the capacity to accurately report their own experiences.

  5. We know that children, especially young ones, can be made to recall events that have not occurred, especially if they are questioned about them in suggestive and leading ways.

  6. We know that interviewers and evaluators who have an expectation bias can influence the recollections and reports of their subjects to be congruent with their bias.

  7. Finally, we know that multiple interviews and repeated and prolonged evaluations erode the capacity of people to obtain trustworthy data from child witnesses. Indeed, the study of the malleability of children's memory constitutes an important area of memory research, and much of it has developed only in the last ten years (Ceci and Bruck 1995).

What does all this mean for Jane Doe's case? The claim of recovered memory here is founded upon a type of corroboration that in general terms is highly unreliable and invalid, though it was standard throughout the 1980s and 1990s. It is doubtful, for example, whether the clinical evaluation method of assessing abuse allegations would pass the "junk science" test set out by the United States Supreme Court in Daubert v. Merrill Dow, given the demonstrated lack of agreement among clinicians in these sorts of cases. (At the time of Corwin's 1984 evaluation of Jane, however, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry had not yet promulgated its guidelines for assessing allegations of child sexual abuse and would not do so for several more years.)

To the extent that Jane's memory can be regarded as an instance of a recovered, accurate memory, there must be some objective and independent corroboration of the events she purports to remember. If Corwin's evaluation is to serve as the corroboration of Jane's alleged abuse, it must lay some strong claim to the measure of reliability, validity, and objectivity upon which scientific claims are founded. We have argued that clinical evaluations of abuse allegations, in general, do not have the desired indicia of reliability necessary for corroborating scientific theories. There is nothing that we can see in Corwin's evaluation that distinguishes it from ordinary, subjective clinical assessments, or that allow him to make some special claim to objectivity and reliability.

Nonetheless, other important questions remain:

Even if there was no corroboration of sexual abuse, was there not corroboration of Jane's burned feet?

We learned from StepMom that Jane was taken to two hospitals on the same day to get as much documentation about the burned feet as possible. We learned from other sources that Jane had a fungal condition that could have been responsible for injuring her feet. We learned from FosterMom that Mom apparently did not have the type of stove that was supposed to have been used to burn Jane's feet. We could not access Jane's medical records, of course, because of confidentiality, but we did have descriptions about the burned feet provided in one of the CPS worker's reports. We then contacted Edwin Carlson, M.D., who was director of the emergency room at one of the hospitals where Jane was taken for examination of her feet. In response to the diagnosis of almost completely healed second-degree burns, Dr. Carlson told us: "A physician cannot tell the cause of sloughed skin when the area is healing. The sloughed area is caused by vesiculation and it in turn has many etiologies including thermal and chemical burns, exfoliative dermatitis secondary to a drug reaction, bacterial and fungal infections. Therefore the etiology in the diagnosis is related as past history by the patient or the patient's guardian."

He added that if there had been any suspicious circumstances, the chance of a report not being filed with Child Protective Services was near zero, especially with the above diagnosis. We also contacted an Emergency Room nurse who knew a great deal about the standard of care at one of the hospitals where Jane had been taken to have her feet examined. She told us that during 1982 (the year Jane was taken to have her feet examined), any suspected child abuse was reported immediately to CPS unless there was an investigation in progress in another county, that the CPS offices were in a building immediately adjacent to the hospital where Jane was taken, and that the staff were on call twenty-four hours a day. "We erred on the side of the child concerning the report," she told us. She implied that there must have been significant doubt that the "burns" were a result of child abuse.

If Mom did not sexually abuse Jane, why did Jane report abuse when she was six years old?

One possible answer: StepMom and Dad-"The Sexual Angle." A thorough examination of the data lead us to propose another equally plausible hypothesis about what happened, one that does not involve sexual abuse. Mom and Dad were involved in a prolonged and nasty divorce and child custody battle. Even allegations of deliberately burned feet had not succeeded in getting Mom out of the picture. StepMom seems to despise Mom to this day. Did she, with or without Dad's involvement, see a way to finally get rid of Mom once and for all? "The sexual angle" is the phrase StemMom used in her interview with us when asked about the initial reports of abuse. Did StepMom question Jane in a suggestive manner? Mom obviously bathed her daughter Jane, and perhaps she might accidentally have poked her. Perhaps it was ordinary bathing with vaginal and anal cleansing of the type done by many parents. Did StepMom misconstrue Jane's honest accounts of how her mother bathed her? Did she reinforce suspicions and reports of sexual abuse? Documentation from that period reveals that StepMom was the first person to whom Jane "reported" sexual abuse; only later did she tell this story to others. This is only one of the ways that Jane may have come to report sexual abuse if in fact none occurred, but there is contemporaneous documentation that is consistent with this hypothesis.

If abuse did not occur, why were so many people-including Jane herself-persuaded that it did on the basis of the videotaped interviews of Jane at six?

When someone recounts an event, especially if it is detailed and accompanied by emotion, it can be very persuasive (Bell and Loftus 1989). Jane herself was persuaded when she saw herself on tape, as were many knowledgeable scientists. Where would all that emotion and detail come from, many people assume, if the recounted events didn't happen? But of course the fact that a person has come to believe that something happened does not mean it actually did. The belief can be absolutely real and heartfelt without being correct. People who believe they were abducted by aliens, people who believe they were kings and princesses in past lives, people who believe they can recall being born (or being cramped in the womb) will also give detailed, emotional, and persuasive reports of their "memories," but it seems unlikely that they are right. Thus, Ekman could have been absolutely right in his assessment that Jane's "emotions" at age six were authentic-and absolutely wrong that she was having an authentic memory.

Where did the pornography accusations come from?

Numerous commentators have puzzled over the accusations of pornography. Corwin and Olafson's original article repeated Jane's accusations: "I accused her of taking pictures of me and my brother and selling them," Jane recalled at age seventeen (Corwin and Olafson 1997, 105-106). Neisser suggested that the pornography accusations were false: "Jane has clearly 'remembered'-and been very upset by-something that never took place" (Neisser 1997, 123). Based on our interviews, we think that these accusations may have originated in the mind of StepMom and were communicated to Jane. They were denied by Jane's older brother John, who was supposed to have participated. They were denied by Mom. No reports or documentation exist to substantiate them. They almost certainly would have been noted in police reports, therapists' notes, or other documents had they been mentioned.


The Ethics of Exploring Jane Doe's Case

Are our efforts to examine this case study ethical? Was it appropriate for us to track down information, reassess the evidence and claims, and come to a different conclusion than Corwin's? We consulted Thomas McCormick, a physician whose specialty is medical ethics at the University of Washington. McCormick offered a hypothetical situation in which a professional has published a case history claiming that he cured cancer with marijuana leaves and Crisco. Oncologists would naturally have many questions to ask of this case study: Did it really work? If the patient seems to be in better health after the "treatment," did he or she really have cancer in the first place? Would it be ethical for a physician to talk to the "case history" and to examine the original doctor's data?

McCormick thinks so, and so do we. The essence of science is its openness to examination by one's peers. Claims ought to be subject to peer review; facts must be available for verification or criticism; and findings ought to be reproducible. When an author puts forward a hypothesis based upon a case study that he maintains is true, one that he uses to defend his theory, others are entitled-indeed obligated-to scrutinize the methods and findings as long as this can be accomplished without undue harm. In the case of Jane Doe, we followed the trail left by Corwin, and we tracked down many documents pertinent to her case, and met a few individuals who knew her. We found a great deal of material that was damaging to his claims. What we did was reminiscent of the work of scholars who reexamined Freud's case of Dora, discovering crucial information about her that Freud neglected to tell his readers. Reanalyzing a case study does require detection skills.

Readers may wonder why we did not speak to Jane Doe herself. We thought long and hard about doing this. Although we obtained recorded permission from Jane's mother to contact her daughter, we worried that such contact might be upsetting to Jane-and she had surely been upset enough in her troubled young life. Given that Jane's own account at this point might well not shed additional light on the "case study," as her beliefs had potentially been so contaminated, we decided not to risk upsetting her.

Corwin and Olafson and some of the commentators proposed a new "research paradigm": future studies could take advantage of the existence of vast numbers of decades-old tapes of children making sexual abuse allegations. Adults like Jane who had been videotaped in childhood, reporting that they had been abused, could be recontacted to explore their memory of the childhood trauma. Adults like Jane could be shown their childhood tapes, as Jane was. Lindsay (1997) urged careful consideration of this idea, and after seeing what followed in Jane's life, we agree. We think this method is risky-indeed, potentially catastrophic.

If the abuse never happened in the first place, the adult-child may be mistakenly led to believe that it did because she does not understand that there are reasons why a child might make an abuse report even when no abuse had occurred. She may be led to act on the basis of this "new information" in ways that she would not have otherwise acted, with results devastating for her and others. In this case, for example, Jane terminated her newly reforming relationship with her mother after seeing her childhood tapes. No one counseled her that her age six statements, however dramatic, might have been the result of suggestion. Moreover, according to many sources, prior to Corwin's intervention, Jane was frequently questioning her "memories," talking about them, wondering what "really" happened. Did her 1995 contact with Corwin push her over from uncertain to certain?



Our efforts to critically evaluate this claim of the recovery of a repressed memory were met with unexpected and unsettling obstructions. Critics of our inquiry, some of whom shielded themselves in "confidential" memos and anonymous allegations of our supposed wrongdoing (memos to which we were denied access and hence opportunity to respond), were able to impede the publication of our work for more than two years. Indeed, our respective universities issued chilling warnings to us that we were to avoid the publication, in any forum, of any of this material, even that which is in the public domain and readily found by anyone with access to a modem and Google search engine. Our vindication, and concomitant recognition of our constitutionally protected speech, was wrested from the academy not by the shield of "tenure" and its intended protections of the spirited exchange of intellectual ideas, but through the costly (emotionally, professionally, and financially) retention of private counsel. We are alarmed on behalf of all members of the academic community that our universities, institutions that above all others should be championing the right to free speech and academic debate, so implacably opposed it in this instance.

Jane Doe's case continues to be offered as proof of the authenticity of repressed or dissociated memories in many venues, including court cases involving other, potentially innocent, accused individuals.

Jane terminated her newly emerging relationship with her mother after Corwin came back into her life and replayed her childhood tape. Her mother lost her once, long ago in 1984, and lost her again in 1995. At this writing they are not in contact with one another.



We are enormously grateful to Carol Tavris, so generous of her time and her talent, a veritable muse. Many other individuals, friends and colleagues, provided valuable insights and editing assistance.



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About the Authors

Elizabeth Loftus is professor of psychology and adjunct professor of law at the University of Washington. She is past president of the American Psychological Society and author of twenty books and more than 350 scientific articles. Address: Psychology Department, Guthrie Hall, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-1525. E-mail: eloftus@u.washington.edu.  

Melvin J. Guyer is professor of psychology, Department of Psychiatry, University of Michigan Medical School, 1500 East Medical Center Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-0390. E-mail: guyer@umich.edu.

Last June, a woman walking her dog on Deer Island, in Boston Harbor, came across a black plastic garbage bag on the beach. Inside was a very little girl, dead. The woman called for help and collapsed in tears. Police searched the island; divers searched the water; a medical examiner collected the body. The little girl had dark eyes and pale skin and long brown hair. She weighed thirty pounds. She was wearing white-and-black polka-dot pants. She was wrapped in a zebra-striped fleece blanket. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said that no child matching her description had been reported missing. “Someone has to know who this child is,” an official there said. But for a very long time no one did.

A forensic artist fed a morgue photograph into a computer and made a likeness, a dead child brought back to life. The Massachusetts State Police put the picture on its Facebook page. By the Fourth of July, more than twenty-four million people had looked at it, posting thirty-four thousand comments. Three days later, the number of visitors had risen to forty-five million. And still no one knew her name. Authorities began calling her Baby Doe.

Deer Island sits among more than thirty islands in Boston Harbor. English colonists named a lot of them for animals. There’s a Sheep Island and a Calf Island, too. Deer Island used to be remote, but a hurricane in 1938 left a strip of sand behind, attaching the island to the town of Winthrop by a neck of land. There are windmills there now, and a state-of-the-art wastewater-treatment plant. When the body was found, work at the plant came to a standstill. “People were devastated,” Susan Brazil says. Brazil works for the water authority, and she’s also from Winthrop, a town whose population is predominantly white, working class, and Catholic. Brazil started collecting money. Everyone wanted to do something; no one knew what. “The photograph just ripped your heart out,” she says. People from the town and workers at the plant, wanting to fold that little girl into their arms, began leaving flowers and notes and holding vigils. “She’s our little girl,” a priest said at a memorial Mass in July. “She belongs to us.” Workers at the plant placed on the ground a sculpture of bronze: a fawn, like Bambi, curled up, sleeping, a baby doe.

Authorities pasted the computer-generated photograph on billboards all over the state, with a plea: “Did You Know Me? Please . . . tell the POLICE my NAME!” There was a number to call, and another to text. “Remember me? Then please tell the police!”

Remember her? Nearly everything about this story reminded me of something that happened during the Blizzard of 1978, when I was eleven. The snow began falling on February 5th. The next day, in Somerville, just outside Boston, Edward R. Gallison, thirty-five, came in from the storm and knocked two-year-old Jennifer Gallison into a chair. Or maybe he pushed her against a refrigerator. Or maybe she fell and hit her head. She’d been sick, with a fever of 104 or 105. Maybe pneumonia killed her. The facts never quite came out. After the little girl fell to the floor, her mother, Denise Gallison, twenty-two, wrapped her in a blanket and put her to bed. In the morning, Edward Gallison moved the bundle to an unheated storage room in the back of the second-floor apartment. He left the window open. The room filled with snow. Winter ended; the snow began to melt. Then, on Good Friday, Edward Gallison dressed his daughter in a snowsuit, hat, and boots and put her into a garbage bag. He carried the bag down the street and left it in a trash barrel in front of a statue of the Blessed Mother. The body of Jennifer Gallison was never found.

More than a hundred inches of snow fell in Boston last winter, storm after storm. So the Blizzard of 1978 was on my mind when, not long after daffodils poked up through the last of the long-lingering snow, the lifeless body of a little girl was discovered in a trash bag on Deer Island, cast away.

Baby Doe had no fingerprints. The tide had damaged the skin on her hands. Her DNA didn’t match the DNA of anyone in the F.B.I.’s database of missing children. The State Police sent two hundred strands of her hair, and one tooth, to a lab in Salt Lake City, to try to figure out where her drinking water came from. Pollen found on her clothes went to a lab in Houston. There was soot in her hair; it placed her as having lived in Boston. And still no one came forward to name her. The letters and toys left for her on Deer Island were getting ruined in the rain. Lenny Young, who works for the plant’s Buildings and Grounds and keeps a photograph of his own daughter on his phone’s home screen, started bringing them into a storeroom, for safekeeping. There are Teddy bears, for comfort; lions, for courage; and tiny deer, namesakes.

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The loss of a child is an unbearable grief, the murder of a child an unthinkable atrocity. Thinking the unthinkable tends to have dreadful consequences. The Baby Doe story was covered by the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and New England television news. It was picked up by CNN, People, the Times, the Washington Post, Fox News, and the Guardian. It had every element of a developing crusade: outrage, pity, and sanctimony. Historically, crusades begun in response to the murders of children have had terrible results. In 1979, a boy in New York City named Etan Patz disappeared; his father was a professional photographer; soon, photographs of missing children were being printed on milk cartons. There were claims, at the time, that fifty thousand children disappeared every year. The real number was less than three hundred. The Gallison story and stories of missing children had been hard for me to forget, partly because of those milk boxes but also because, in 1980, ABC-TV broadcast a one-hour documentary about the case called “Denise: The Tragedy of Child Abuse.” Facebook is the new milk box; the tragedy is the same.

The Baby Doe story has unfolded against a backdrop of controversy involving the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. In December, 2013, a five-year-old boy named Jeremiah Oliver was reported missing from his home in Fitchburg. He hadn’t been seen since September, but, despite the fact that the Massachusetts D.C.F. had been involved with the family since 2011, when it first received reports of the neglect of three children, then ages seven, five, and two, Jeremiah’s disappearance had not been noticed by his caseworkers. Governor Deval Patrick asked the Office of the Child Advocate to conduct an investigation. “How can a social worker not notice when a five-year-old boy on her caseload disappears?” the O.C.A. asked, in a report filed in January, 2014. That spring, the boy’s body was found in a suitcase by the side of a highway, and his mother and her boyfriend were arrested and charged with assault, kidnapping, and child endangerment; both pleaded not guilty. Patrick commissioned the Child Welfare League of America to conduct a review, led by Linda Spears, into the D.C.F. His administration, pressured by the state legislature, accepted the resignation of the D.C.F. commissioner, who had held the office for only a year.

Whatever has gone wrong in Massachusetts has gone far worse in other parts of the United States. Nineteen states (including Massachusetts) are being sued for their systems’ failure to protect children; Mississippi’s Division of Family and Children’s Services is struggling to avoid being put into receivership. Last year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked Massachusetts third best in the nation in the over-all well-being of children. The best is not good.

In January, 2015, when Charlie Baker was inaugurated the new governor of Massachusetts, he named Spears as the new D.C.F. commissioner. She took office in February. Not long after that, a seven-year-old boy who was in the custody of his father, but whose case had been overseen by the D.C.F. for more than five months, was brought to the hospital with burns on his feet and bruises all over his body and weighing only thirty-eight pounds; he has been in a coma ever since. How had caseworkers not noticed that the boy was being beaten and starved? The D.C.F.’s investigation into the case concluded that the department has been “unable to successfully implement and sustain meaningful change over time.” Spears had been in office for barely four months when, in June, Baby Doe washed up on Deer Island in a plastic garbage bag as dark and as fathomless as the very bottom of the sea.

The overwhelming majority of children who die from abuse or neglect are under the age of four; roughly half are less than a year old. In September, 2015, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a “Spotlight”-style nonprofit, released a story called “Out of the Shadows: Shining Light on State Failures to Learn from Rising Child Abuse and Neglect Deaths,” reporting that a hundred and ten Massachusetts children died between 2009 and 2013 in circumstances suggesting abuse or neglect, and that a third of them had been under the care of the D.C.F. (This rate is the national average: across the country, about one in three children who die from maltreatment belongs to a family that had previously drawn the attention of child-protection services.) Long before anyone knew her name, it seemed all too likely that this would turn out to be the case with Baby Doe.

Even the best reporting, though, can’t help missing a feature of the story that can be seen only from the vantage of history. Child protection is trapped in a cycle of scandal and reform. The D.C.F. was established in 1980, as the Department of Social Services, in response to the Gallison case. It was renamed the Department of Children and Families in 2008, under the Act Protecting Children in the Care of the Commonwealth, an omnibus reform that also created the Office of the Child Advocate, in response to the case of an eleven-year-old girl who was brought to an emergency room in a coma, having been severely beaten; one doctor said that her injuries were so grave it was as if she’d been in a high-speed car accident. Social workers had earlier investigated charges of abuse but had determined that the injuries were self-inflicted. The law came with virtually no new funding. (About the only mention of money, in the legislation itself, is this: “The department may pay a sum not to exceed $1,100 for the funeral and burial of a child in its care.”) It was passed in the midst of both a global financial collapse and an opiate epidemic. From the time that the D.C.F. got its name until 2014, its budget was cut every year; adjusted for inflation, more than a hundred and thirty million dollars was slashed. (In the wake of Jeremiah Oliver’s death, money has begun to trickle back.) [cartoon id="a19744"]

Programs for the poor are poor programs. And they are made poorer when they fail, and when they are needed most. Natural disasters like blizzards, earthquakes, and hurricanes drive reform and the allocation of resources, leading to improvements in public safety. The tragic but ordinary deaths of people in situations in which people are likely to die don’t usually change policy. When someone dies in an ambulance, that death is not generally followed by an investigation into the qualifications of E.M.T.s. “We don’t stop funding FEMA when the economy gets bad,” Maria Mossaides pointed out, when we met. Mossaides, an attorney, was hired by Michael Dukakis in 1977 and moved into child welfare soon after the Gallison disaster. Deval Patrick had hoped that Mossaides would be willing to serve as D.C.F. commissioner. Instead, she accepted Baker’s offer to become the state’s new director of the Office of the Child Advocate. One feature of a scandal-reform cycle—“Kids die and heads roll,” she says—is a policy pendulum. “The pendulum has swung at least four or five times in the last forty years,” Mossaides says. It swings between family preservation (keeping kids with their family of origin) and removal (removing kids from their homes and severing parental rights so that the kids can be adopted). “We inevitably have cases where we don’t get the safety assessment right,” Mossaides says. “Then you have the high-profile death, and the pendulum will swing in the opposite direction.” When Jeremiah Oliver was reported missing, the governor’s office was boasting that the number of children in the care of the state was down to seven thousand: family preservation was the priority. Two years later, that number has risen to ninety-two hundred, a record. “Pull every kid” is what Mossaides suspects D.C.F. workers are being told. “The only way that happens is social workers have become afraid to leave kids with their parents.”

This didn’t start in 2008 or even in 1980. The child-protection movement has origins in 1837, with “Oliver Twist,” Charles Dickens’s indictment of England’s Poor Laws. The policy pendulum was already so firmly in place by the eighteen-eighties that it was accurately described in a treatise called “Children of the State,” by Florence Davenport-Hill, an early advocate for foster care: “First we find the children placed in homes, but not safeguarded,” then “abuses are discovered” and the children are “in consequence massed together in some big institution” until there, too, still more abuses are discovered, and “in desperation they are dispersed again,” until, once again, abuses are discovered in homes, and the children are sent to institutions. The oscillation lately isn’t between foster homes and institutions but between reunification and termination of parental rights. The pattern remains the same.

Other patterns remain in place, too. Victorian child-savers enlisted public support by telling sensational stories involving the deaths of poor children, especially babies. It became a convention of the dead-baby story to suggest that poor women are not to be trusted with babies, and as a result the public favors rescuing children but not if it means helping women. As a rule, setting the interests of poor children against those of poor women leads to reforms that fail, which leads, a few years later, to another dead-baby story. This next time around, the reform itself is blamed for the death of the baby, and an opposite reform is proposed. It, too, fails. And then the cycle begins again.

“Baby farming,” a term coined in a British medical journal in 1867, was what Victorian doctors called it when desperately poor women paid even poorer women to take care of their babies, or, rather, doctors said, to deliberately kill them; many of the babies died of maltreatment, others of outright starvation. In 1871, the Infant Life Protection Society proposed legislation requiring childcare providers to be licensed by the state. The National Society for Women’s Suffrage formed a Committee for Amending the Law in Points Wherein It Is Injurious to Women, arguing not only that it would “legislate on matters affecting women without their consent” but also that it began “at the wrong end”: it failed to address or even to see the real problem—the political and economic inequality of women. In New York in 1874, the Times reported that a girl named Mary Ellen Wilson was “rescued” from her home by a charity worker whose husband happened to be a newspaper reporter. The rescue was made possible with the help of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. This and other cases led to the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It did for children what its sister organization did for animals. “Lists of ‘saved children’ joined those kept for ‘redeemed dogs,’ ” Judith Sealander reports in her jaundiced history, “The Failed Century of the Child.” Sealander argues that the dead-baby story proved so successful because infant and childhood mortality was falling, fast. “Before the early nineteenth century, the average child was the dead child,” Sealander writes. “For most of human history, probably seven out of ten children did not live past the age of three.” If Victorian- and Progressive-era middle-class moralists were newly concerned about the dead and dying babies of the poor, it was partly because their own babies were, for the first time, not dying. And the more the children of the better-off were cherished, and pampered, the worse the treatment of the children of the poor appeared to be. In 1920, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children issued a pamphlet, aimed at well-to-do children, inviting them to join the society’s Junior Division but taking pains to protect them, even, from the pain of reading the stories of less fortunate children: “We cannot tell you much about our cases because they are too sad.”

Denise Gallison was born Denise Sousa in 1955. Less than two years later, her father was convicted of sexually assaulting her oldest sister, who was five, and all five of the Sousa children were placed in the care of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Denise went straight into the hospital. She was eighteen months old and had hardly ever been taken out of her crib: she was malnourished and unable to stand. From the hospital, she went into foster care; in the course of fifteen years, she was placed in eleven homes and institutions by eighteen social workers. In 1960, when she was four, the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare determined that she was “not adoption material,” because she was “socially, emotionally, and intellectually retarded.” In 1962, while she was in the New England Home for Little Wanderers, she was diagnosed as suffering from “maternal deprivation”; at the age of six, an evaluation determined, she was “not able to relate in a meaningful way to others.” One foster mother described her as “a very cunning, sadistic, malicious child.” At fourteen, she was sent to a residential school for “mildly retarded” children, where she was given a hundred milligrams of Mellaril (an antipsychotic) and twenty-five milligrams of Elavil (an antidepressant) three times a day.

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The modern era in child protection began with the rediscovery of child abuse, in July, 1962, when the Journal of the American Medical Association published a paper called “The Battered-Child Syndrome.” The paper’s lead writer was a pediatrician named C. Henry Kempe. Kempe reported on what he characterized as an invisible epidemic. Only with X-ray evidence could doctors be convinced that the injuries seen in very young children—most of those affected were younger than three—were caused by beatings. Kempe wrote, “The bones tell a story the child is too young or too frightened to tell.”

In 1962, some ten thousand reports of child abuse were filed nationally. Between 1963 and 1967, all fifty states passed child-abuse-reporting laws. By 1976, the number of reports had risen to 669,000; in 1980, it was 1,154,000; it’s currently about three million. The staggering effect of Kempe’s article raises a question: Why, for all the attention paid to preventing cruelty to children during the Victorian and the Progressive eras, did interest fall off so dramatically between 1920 and 1962? There’s no reason to believe that the mistreatment of children declined during those years. And X-ray evidence of the beating of children had been reported by a radiologist named John Caffey in 1946, in a somewhat oblique journal article called “Multiple Fractures in Long Bones of Infants,” and more squarely, by other researchers, in 1955. What was new, in 1962, was the extent and nature of the press coverage. Kempe’s article was picked up by Time, Newsweek, and the Saturday Evening Post. Between 1950 and 1980, the historian Barbara Nelson has reported, child abuse was the subject of more than six hundred articles in the Times alone.

Why was the press so interested in child abuse after 1962? One reason is that the unseen catastrophe was a mainstay of the early-sixties exposé. A month before “The Battered-Child Syndrome” appeared, The New Yorker serialized Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Seven months later, the magazine published “Our Invisible Poor,” by Dwight Macdonald. Carson ushered in the modern environmental movement; Macdonald is credited with helping to launch the War on Poverty. And Kempe launched the campaign against child abuse.

Still, that doesn’t quite explain the relative lack of interest in child abuse in the twenties, thirties, forties, or fifties. This is nicely addressed by Macdonald. “There is a monotony about the injustices suffered by the poor that perhaps accounts for the lack of interest the rest of society shows in them,” he wrote. “Everything seems to go wrong with them. They never win. It’s just boring.” Generally, what has made the particular misery of babies and young children less boring is the attention paid to it by female political writers. Public attention to the welfare of poor children, the historian Linda Gordon has argued, coincides with eras in which women have had a strong political voice. It was therefore high when women were most actively fighting for the right to vote (from 1870 to 1920) and during the women’s-liberation movement (from 1961 to 1975).

Interest in the welfare of children in the sixties was also part of that decade’s ambition to end poverty. But the triumph of the report-abuse model marked the abandonment of that ambition. The turn came in the early nineteen-seventies. In 1971, Congress considered the Comprehensive Child Development Act, a last piece of Great Society legislation, an entitlement program providing for universal preschool education (referred to, during congressional debate, as “developmental day care”), with tuition scaled to a family’s ability to pay. The bill’s lead sponsor was Walter Mondale, a senator with Presidential aspirations who was the chair of the Subcommittee on Children and Youth and who had drafted childcare legislation as early as 1961. Supporters of the Child Development Act cast childcare as a civil-rights measure. Not since the 1964 Civil Rights Act had a bill been subject to more intense lobbying. The bipartisan vote in the Senate was an overwhelming 63–17; the victory in the House was razor-thin, 186–183. In December, 1971, Nixon, who was running for reëlection on the back of a strategy that involved an appeal to conservatives, vetoed the bill. Pat Buchanan drafted Nixon’s veto message, in which Nixon said that “for the Federal Government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child development would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing.”

Conservatives argue that Great Society anti-poverty programs created a “culture of dependency.” It’s undeniably true that the War on Poverty has been a failure. But the abandonment of a federal childcare program made the independence of poor women impossible. What liberals sought, in its place, has proved disastrous. Mondale called Nixon’s veto message “cruel, hysterical, and false.” He then made a fateful decision: he crafted a piece of legislation that the White House would be unable to veto. “Not even Richard Nixon is in favor of child abuse!” Mondale said. Nixon had defended his veto of the childcare legislation on the ground that it had not been subject to sufficient debate or hearing. Mondale was determined that the same would not be said of the child-abuse legislation. In 1973, his subcommittee convened four days of public hearings in three cities. The lesson Mondale learned from Nixon’s veto was that the care of children had to be distanced from the care of the poor. Mondale insisted, again and again—and against all evidence—that child abuse has nothing to do with poverty. “This is not a poverty problem,” he said. “This is a national problem.” [cartoon id="a19682"]

Out of those hearings came the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, signed by Nixon in January, 1974. Caring for children came to mean emergency intervention, to stop them from being murdered—Victorian infant life protection, revisited—notwithstanding the glaring fact that federally funded child-protective services that handle three million reports of child abuse every year represent a far, far more intrusive form of state authority over family life than federally subsidized childcare could ever have constituted. Meanwhile, the idea that the government might have a different kind of obligation to poor mothers and their children slowly faded away.

On April 29, 1974, eighteen-year-old Denise Sousa was discharged from the care of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She was two weeks pregnant. She eventually married the baby’s father, Edward Gallison. After her son Eddie was born, premature, at twenty-nine weeks, in November, 1974, she told a nurse that she wanted to kill him.

In the mid-seventies, the soaring number of reports of child abuse and the new federal legislation meant that state Departments of Public Welfare needed more social workers. Most states, weakened by the recession, had scant funds to train new social workers, little money to pay them, and not the least inclination to value them. Toll-booth workers earned more.

In 1974, the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare was reorganized, and long-standing employees, after passing an exam weighted for seniority, were offered the opportunity to move into social work with little consideration of their experience. “You didn’t need a college degree until 1980,” Eleanor Dowd explained. Dowd helped work on the state’s report about the Gallison case. (She’s the acting head of a private agency, Cambridge Family and Children’s Service, which was founded in 1873.) Like Mossaides, she felt confident, when she started out in 1968, that childhood poverty was about to be eradicated. By the time of the Gallison investigation, a great deal had changed. “We learned a lot from the War on Poverty that we never used,” Dowd says. “We took a wrong turn somewhere.”

By March of 1975, Denise Gallison was pregnant again. A case record was kept by visiting nurses and workers from Catholic Charities. One of them arranged for her to have an abortion. On the day the abortion was scheduled, a worker wrote in the case record, “EXTREMELY HOSTILE, BELLIGERENT AND THREATENING—states no one understands her—no longer wants abortion.”

Jennifer Gallison was born on September 13, 1975. Ten days later, a nurse visited the Gallisons’ apartment and found that the baby and her ten-month-old brother, Eddie, “were without diapers and were wrapped in rags.” Eddie weighed only ten pounds, could not sit up, and had no hair on the back of his head, apparently because he had so seldom been lifted out of his crib. In October, 1975, Catholic Charities filed a petition to remove the children from their parents’ custody. (Only a court has this authority.) The judge refused to grant the petition, but Denise Gallison then called the Department of Public Welfare and asked that the children be taken away from her. “I couldn’t take the pressure,” she later said. “Plus, I was on speed.” The babies were placed in different foster homes. The department conducted an intake study: “Treatment for mother has been recommended. This appears to be essential if any serious plans for reuniting this family are contemplated.”

In April, 1976, a social worker named Carolyn Punch was assigned to the Gallison case. Punch had started at the department in 1951, as a typist. She had no social-work experience or training, but during the 1974 departmental reorganization she was promoted to clinical social worker, based on her seniority. Her supervisor started working at the agency in 1945, as a stenographer. She had no social-work experience, either: her training, when she switched from stenography to social work, in 1974, consisted of watching a film.

“There is no reason why her children should not be reunited with their parents,” Punch wrote in Denise Gallison’s case record in October, 1976. Since the children had been taken from their care, more than a year before, Denise and Edward Gallison had almost invariably failed to turn up for their appointments to visit them. Punch recommended weekend, overnight visits. Catherine Holbrook, Eddie’s foster mother, who was keen to adopt him, reported that after one such visit Eddie had to be hospitalized. At a hearing on October 31, 1977, Punch recommended that the children be returned to their parents. (At no hearing did the children have a legal representative.) The court ordered the children returned, with the stipulation that the family be followed closely. No one in the Department of Public Welfare ever saw Jennifer Gallison again. The blizzard came in February. In an assessment filed on April 28, 1978, an assistant director reported that Denise Gallison’s daughter weighed twenty-nine pounds: “Mother describes her as getting tall and slender ‘like her father.’ ” By then, Jennifer Gallison had been dead for two and a half months.

The break in the Baby Doe case came in September, 2015, when a man named Michael Sprinsky told his sister that he believed he knew the girl in the photograph, and his sister told the police. Sprinsky knew a woman from Dorchester named Rachelle Bond, who had a baby named Bella. When Bella disappeared, Bond had at first told Sprinsky that her baby had been taken away by the D.C.F. but later admitted that the baby was dead: she said that her boyfriend, Michael McCarthy, had killed her. Bond and McCarthy were arrested.

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McCarthy told the police that he had no idea what happened to Bella Bond and that he believed she’d been taken into custody by the D.C.F. Bond told a different story. She said that, after she asked McCarthy to quiet the baby, he killed her by punching her in her stomach. She said that he told her he’d kill her if she reported her daughter’s death and that McCarthy put the body in a trash bag and shoved it into the refrigerator. Bond also told the police that she and McCarthy then drove to his father’s plumbing business, where they got weights, which they put into a duffel bag, along with the trash bag, and dropped it into the harbor from a cruise-ship terminal in South Boston; the tide carried the trash bag to Deer Island.

Bond had used heroin just a few days before her arrest. During her arraignment, at Dorchester Municipal Court, in September, Bond, wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt, looked distant, confused, and dissociative. “I hope you rot in hell!” a woman screamed during the proceedings. Also at the arraignment was the baby’s father, Joseph Amoroso. Amoroso, thirty-two, has a long criminal record. He knew about the baby but had never met her. “I hold D.C.F. responsible for a lot of this,” he told reporters on the courthouse steps. In an on-camera interview with the Boston Herald, he said, “My poor little angel Bella’s life was taken from her by a monster!”

On Facebook, people began calling Rachelle Bond a “momster.” The Governor held a press conference, pledging to transform child protection. Unfortunately, nothing could be worse for the prospects of reform than a high-profile trial.

On May 12, 1978, Carolyn Punch knocked on the door of the Gallisons’ apartment building. Denise Gallison said that the children weren’t at home, but Punch could hear a child crying upstairs. Punch returned with two Somerville police officers. Jennifer was nowhere to be found, but Eddie, three, was alone, strapped into a chair. His face had been so badly beaten that he no longer had an upper lip. Denise Gallison later said that Eddie had asked about his sister. “ ‘Where’s Jenny?’ he kept asking . . . and I couldn’t take it, so I just started beating him.” A doctor at Somerville Hospital said that, aside from having been burned with cigarettes, the boy’s buttocks had been flayed so repeatedly that they were “like leather.” It was a month before he was well enough to leave the hospital. Denise Gallison told the police that her husband had put her daughter in a trash bag. The police suspected that the bag had been picked up with the rest of the city’s trash and dumped into a furnace that supplied steam for a General Electric plant.

Denise and Edward Gallison were arrested and charged with assault and manslaughter. Denise Gallison was pregnant with her third child.

On May 22nd, the Massachusetts legislature opened hearings into the Department of Public Welfare’s handling of the Gallison case. “I lay the blame for the death of Jennifer Gallison directly on the Dukakis administration’s policy, since 1975, that human services are expendable in a time of fiscal crisis,” the chairman of the Senate’s Human Services Committee said. The problem, Barney Frank pointed out, was that “the beneficiaries of this money—the children—don’t vote.” Dukakis had been a comfort during the blizzard, but he was heartbroken during the Gallison disaster. It would take “the wisdom of Solomon” to know what to do about the thousands of reports of abuse the state received each year, he said: “Whether the state should take a child away from his parents is an extremely difficult and very lonely decision.”

Dukakis’s administration appointed a fact-finding committee to investigate. Its report revealed that no one at the Department of Public Welfare had ever looked up Denise Gallison’s own case file. In 1978 and 1979, Denise and Edward Gallison were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison. The fact-finding committee recommended the establishment of “a separate, adequately funded, adequately staffed Department of Social Services.”

“The first commissioner of the new department, child psychologist Mary Jane England, is a realist in this regard,” the Boston Globe reported in the summer of 1980. “ ‘Children will continue to die,’ she said recently, bluntly addressing the major challenge and the most desperate problem facing the new department. ‘What we want to do is reduce the chances of that happening.’ ”

That hasn’t come to pass. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of infants murdered, per hundred thousand infants in the population, rose from 5.8 to 9.1. Other measures are even more troubling. Today, the United States has one of the highest rates of childhood poverty of any nation in the developed world. Then, there is the matter of the criminal-justice system. A study conducted last year by Citizens for Juvenile Justice found that seventy-two per cent of youths in the Massachusetts juvenile-justice system had been involved with the D.C.F.; fifty-seven per cent of boys and fifty-nine per cent of girls had their first involvement before the age of five; more than forty per cent had their first involvement before the age of three. The children in both systems are disproportionately nonwhite. The problem isn’t only that the kinds of family that attract D.C.F. involvement tend to raise children who might later have trouble with the law; it’s that D.C.F. involvement itself “can increase the likelihood of future delinquent activity.” The system has contributed to the establishment of a juvenile version of the carceral state, a birth-to-prison pipeline. It is outrageously expensive, devastatingly ineffective, and profoundly unjust. [cartoon id="a19766"]

Rachelle Bond was born in 1975; she’s exactly the age Jennifer Gallison would be if she were still alive. She grew up in Acton and Fitchburg, with her mother; she never knew her father. Bond and her only sibling, a sister, Tamera Bond, say that they were both beaten and sexually abused as children. Rachelle Bond’s first run-in with the law was in 1994, when she was eighteen. She has been incarcerated no fewer than twelve times since, including for prostitution, and has a long history of drug use. She had her first child in 2000, and another soon after. Following reports of neglect, the D.C.F. removed both children from her care, and the state eventually terminated her parental rights. She was arrested again in 2008 and released to a residential program. She has been the recipient of a great many social services, after-the-fact interventions.

She got pregnant at the end of 2011, while living in a tent in Occupy Boston. She spent much of her pregnancy in prison. Bella Bond was born in August, 2012, when her mother was living in a homeless shelter. Reports that Bond was neglecting the baby led to D.C.F. involvement for the first five months of Bella’s life, and then again in June, 2013, when Bella was ten months old. The D.C.F. closed the case in September, 2013. (Instead of conducting a new assessment, caseworkers at the D.C.F. had copied into Rachelle Bond’s file information from an assessment conducted in 2006.) The next month, Rachelle Bond left the homeless shelter and moved into a subsidized apartment.

After her arrest last fall, reporters and a torch-bearing public trawled the Internet for information about her. She’d had a Facebook page. She’d posted dozens of pictures of Bella, and videos, too. Bella in pigtails and purple footie pajamas, Bella in a topknot and bluejeans, Bella with a Dora the Explorer puzzle, Bella at her Hello Kitty-themed birthday, the day she turned two. People began bringing to Deer Island new toys, Hello Kittys, and new notes: “We will never forget you, Bella.”

Bond’s attorney is Janice Bassil, who has been involved in many of Boston’s most high-profile trials. She helped defend John Salvi, who, in 1994, killed two women at a Planned Parenthood clinic. In September, she got a call from the state asking her if she’d be willing to represent either McCarthy or Bond. “They said, ‘Who do you want?’ And I said, ‘I’ll take the woman,’ ” Bassil said.

A few years ago, Bassil successfully defended a woman who had murdered her two children. She used an insanity defense, which very seldom works. “My goal was to tell her whole life story so the jury would have some empathy,” Bassil told me. Her approach to Bond’s defense is likely to be both the same and different. She’ll tell her whole life story, emphasizing the eight years she spent living on the streets. “She lived under a bridge,” Bassil told me. “You live under a bridge and tell me how well you’d cope.” Under the circumstances, she’ll probably say, Bond was the best mother she could have been. Bassil might talk, too, about the history of the provision of services to poor mothers and poor children. “When I started as a Massachusetts public defender, in 1978, the year of Gallison, the entire front row in court was filled with people from programs who were there to step up and say, ‘Judge, we can offer a bed or clinical services.’ And then that disappeared. By the mid-nineteen-eighties, that was gone.” Denise Gallison’s attorneys tried, and failed, to have details from Gallison’s own childhood entered as evidence, but “the law has opened up there,” Bassil says. “Battered-women’s syndrome didn’t exist when Denise Gallison was being tried.” I asked Bassil if the public’s embrace of Bella Bond would make defending her client more difficult. Bassil shook her head. “The reason there are those pictures and videos,” she said, her voice steadily rising, as if she were addressing the jury, “is because her mother took them because her mother loved her.”

In October, when Bond and McCarthy appeared in Dorchester Municipal Court, television trucks parked outside the courthouse raised their antennae until they towered over the American flag fluttering from a pole on the courthouse lawn. Inside, Bond shuffled into the dock, sheltered behind glass. She hid her face with her hair. (In prison, inmates shout “Baby killer!” whenever she leaves her cell.) Bassil asked for a second autopsy; the assistant district attorney didn’t object; the judge granted the request; court adjourned. The bailiff cried, “God save the Commonwealth.”

A grand jury was called. All fall, it met to weigh evidence: text messages, cell-phone records, DNA. On November 17th, while the grand jury deliberated in secret, Governor Baker held a press conference at the State House. “There’s nothing more important than the safety and security of our kids,” he said, echoing Dukakis, announcing a new set of D.C.F. policies. Three days later, the Office of the Child Advocate released its final report, urging a slate of reforms. “Support cannot just come during crises,” Mossaides’s office warned.

There’s no doubt that the proposed reforms are well intended. And there is little doubt that they will fail. [cartoon id="gross-2004-01-26"]

Linda Spears grew up in Rhode Island; her father, a Narragansett Indian, was an engineer; her mother was a child-protection worker. Spears got her first job in 1979, when states all over the country were reshaping social services to manage the skyrocketing number of reports of child abuse. “My first day, I walked into my office, in a basement, and there was a box of cases on my desk. I did my first removal on day three,” Spears told me when we met at her office. In the nineteen-eighties, she grew interested in policy. “It struck me that the problems that workers face on the front line could not be solved on the front line,” she says. In 1992, she went to Washington, to work for the Child Welfare League, where she performed assessments on local and state agencies and saw a lot of reforms put into place. The problem, she says, is that they never hold for long; they’re undermined by budget cuts.

Spears believes that responsibility for the scandal-reform cycle lies not only with the press and with legislators but with the child-protection movement itself. “Historically, we sounded only alarms,” she says. “Every message was ‘It’s horrible! It’s horrible! It’s worse than ever!’ So now all we hear are different alarms: ‘The system doesn’t work! Poor families are broken families!’ ”

The newest regime in child protection is the quantitative analysis of risk. “We have risk-assessment tools that we’ve never had before,” Spears says. (One of the first changes she made was to expand a program to distribute twenty-four hundred iPads to field workers.) “At the end of the day, you’re talking about, one, trying to predict human behavior and, two, matching resources to those predictions,” Spears says. “Some families, where there’s an alcoholic parent, the family is less than perfect, but the kids are O.K., they’re really O.K. Another family with the same kind of parent, and less than perfect, and no one is functioning.”

The murky science of risk assessment relies on attempts to quantify “trauma” and “adversity,” which, on the one hand, are meaningful clinical concepts but, on the other hand, are proxy terms for poverty. (And, worryingly, the study of trauma has both a dubious intellectual history and an abysmal track record, not least because of its role in the sexual-abuse scandals of the eighties and the recovered-memory travesty of the nineties.) Vincent Felitti, the longtime head of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Kaiser Permanente, in California, is one of the principal investigators in a body of work on adverse childhood experiences, or ace. The ace study is a collaboration of Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control. In 1985, Felitti launched a weight-loss program for patients at Kaiser Permanente and developed a theory that obesity in adulthood was an indicator of abuse in childhood. Felitti and Robert Anda, of the C.D.C., then designed a study to trace the influence of childhood experiences on adult illness and death. After completing questionnaires about their childhoods, more than seventeen thousand Kaiser Permanente patients were assigned an “ace score,” from zero to ten, a tally of the kinds of adversity experienced before the age of eighteen. The ten adverse childhood experiences are emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; violence, alcoholism and drug abuse, incarceration, or mental illness within the family; and having been raised by anyone other than two biological parents. The study is ongoing, but early reports assert that ace scores are predictive. For instance, “compared to persons with an ace score of 0, those with an ace score of 4 or more were twice as likely to be smokers, 12 times more likely to have attempted suicide, 7 times more likely to be alcoholic, and 10 times more likely to have injected street drugs.”

The noble dream here is that, if only child-protective agencies collected better data and used better algorithms, children would no longer be beaten or killed. Meanwhile, there is good reason to worry that the ace score is the new I.Q., a deterministic label that is being used to sort children into those who can be helped and those who can’t. And, for all the knowledge gained, the medicalization of misery is yet another way to avoid talking about impoverishment, destitution, and inequality. “Adverse outcomes?” Spears asks. “Adverse outcomes are what happen to poor kids.”

The tragedy of the child-welfare system lies, unnoticed, at the bottom of the chasm that divides American politics. On the right, in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, Victorian child-saving was reborn as the pro-life movement, complete with the dead-baby exposé, right down to last year’s Planned Parenthood videos of “baby parts”: its concern with the lives of children begins with conception but ends with birth. On the left, feminists have generally aligned with the report-abuse regime, rather than serving as critics of it: when battered-woman syndrome followed battered-child syndrome, the recovery of trauma became feminist dogma. During the decades in which the right and the left battled over abortion, a whole raft of programs designed to prevent the neglect of young children were being dismantled. “In 1980, with the remnants of the poverty programs, you had some locally based or even neighborhood-based programs still in place,” Dowd says. Little of that exists anymore, and programs aimed at prevention have proved impossible to rebuild. “Agencies have tried and tried to get closer to a prevention model, but it’s just not how the field is set up,” Spears told me. In the rare instances when states establish prevention programs, she says, they can’t sustain them: “When budget cuts come, you can cut prevention but you can’t cut intervention.” Presumably, preventing abuse and neglect by providing family-support services would reduce the numbers of children in the juvenile-justice system and in the adult-justice system, too. “If you could do it, the savings would be enormous,” Spears says.

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