It all began when a mother (who was mentally unstable) accused Ray Buckey, a worker the McMartin Preschool near Los Angeles, of raping her child. Although police were initially skeptical, in an abundance of caution they sent letters home to the parents of other children at the day care center asking them to question their children about acts like sodomy and oral sex. As parents talked to their kids and to each other, more accusations followed. Buckey, his mother, Peggy McMartin (who owned the school), and other teachers were eventually charged with 208 counts of child molestation [sources: Wasserman, Haberman].
As time went on, and social workers were brought in to "get more information" out of the young children, the accusations got wilder. In addition to being raped and sodomized, the children said they'd participated in Satanic rituals, been forced to drink blood and had witnessed a baby being sacrificed in a church. The ensuing trial lasted several years, but none of the defendants was found guilty of anything.
During the years the McMartin trial was going on, and even after, similar allegations were leveled against day care centers and their employees in 46 states. At the Little Rascals Day Care Center in North Carolina, for instance, defendants were accused of sexual abuse as well as a host of other actions involving spaceships, hot air balloons and pirate ships. Many people were found guilty, only to be released later when their convictions were overturned [sources: Wasserman, Haberman, Little Rascals Day Care Case].
No one knows for sure how things got so out of hand. Richard Beck, author of the book "We Believe the Children," says during that era many adults were worried about crime and the decline of respect for traditional authority. Add to that the media coverage that reported everything at face value — and the leading questions social workers asked the children at the day care centers — and you've got a full-fledged panic [source: Casey].