When a 6-year-old boy told his teachers in 1990 of his strange dreams involving ghosts, the death of babies, and sheep and children being kept in cages, his school contacted social services concerned for what might be going on inside the home of this young boy. In what should have been a follow-up investigation to ensure the child had an active imagination and was not being subjected to abuse at home, turned into one of the biggest local authority social work child abuse scandals in UK’s history.

Within days of receiving this referral, a team of social workers with police support arrived at the boy’s family home in the town of Rochdale, Manchester and removed him and his three siblings from their parents, taking them into local authority care. Social workers not only believed this young child was part of a child abuse ring, but that satanic rituals were being carried out involving witchcraft and devil worship including the killing of new-born babies, children being given hallucinogenic drugs and being subjected to extensive physical and sexual abuse.

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Within weeks a further five families in Rochdale were targeted and their children removed from their homes in a series of dawn raids across the town. In all, 21 children ranging from toddlers to young teenagers were taken into the care of authorities and allegations made against their parents of unthinkable abuse.

The media went wild with sensational headlines of devil worship and reports of horrific abuse which terrified the nation, fearing what was going on behind closed doors. The satanic panic that began sweeping America in the 1980’s had filtered through to some social workers in England and the rest of the UK. The more they read the news reports and allegations swarming day-care workers in the US, the more they felt they needed to be on the lookout for similar satanic abuse being carried out within the UK. A number of conferences and seminars had recently been held across England given by visiting workers from the United States later called “fundamentalist Christian evangelists”, who encouraged social workers to find the signs and indicators of satanic abuse in their own case files.

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The wave of panic across America was sparked by a publication called “Michelle Remembers” in 1980 by Michelle Smith and psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder. It was a memoir of how therapy received after the trauma of miscarriage resulted in the recovery of childhood memories of horrendous childhood sexual abuse by a satanic cult when Michelle was just 5-years-old. Smith and Pazder later married and became the ‘go to’ people for understanding satanic abuse of children.

After this publication, allegations of satanic sexual abuse of children began to appear across the US focused on nurseries and day-care centres. One case caused the police to write to hundreds of parents asking them to question their young children in case ritual abuse was being carried out by their carers at day-care. A number of arrests followed with accusations of sexual assault on children in their care causing widespread panic in parents as to what might be happening to their children when left in nursery as they went to work.

By 1987 most charges had been dropped and those that did reach trial were either acquitted or the charges dismissed after juries repeatedly failed to reach a verdict. The book ‘Michelle Remembers’ was discredited and its claims debunked after a series of investigations into its accuracy. However, the seeds had been planted and many still believed this was a very real and serious issue and children were being harmed and abused across the country. The case of Frances and Dan Keller especially shows the extent of the damage such moral panic caused.

The couple, who ran a day-care centre from their Texas home, were accused of horrific acts of abuse against the children including killing both babies and animals in front of the children and transporting the children into Mexico to be systematically sexually abused. In 1992, after a 12-month investigation and a 6 day trial the Keller’s were convicted of aggravated sexual assault on a child and sentenced to almost 50 years in prison. In 2011 the couple were finally released and this year officially exonerated with their convictions deemed incorrect and entirely wrongful.

For more on the Satanic Panic era, listen to the Sword & Scale Podcast Episodes 4 & 5 which cover a case at the heart of this hysteria, the disappearance of Johnny Gosch and the bizarre conspiracies that swirl around it.

Back in the UK, in Rochdale in 1990, with no evidence being provided against the accused groups of parents and their children still in care, some journalists began to question the reliability of these accusations and whether they had been fully investigated before action was taken. Furthermore, the leap from possible abuse to full-scale satanic rituals concerned many as to why the social workers involved believed so confidently that such an organised ring of abuse was taking place inside Rochdale. Many newspaper groups supported the parents affected to challenge the care orders on their children in the High Court.

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A Government judicial inquiry was ordered to investigate both the allegations and charges made against the accused but also the actions and behaviour of the social services in how they had dealt with the incident. While in care, when the children were interviewed by social workers they were asked about their lives at home with their parents, asked whether they understood what sex was and shown images of stick people and encouraged to point out areas of their bodies.

Despite the innocent responses of all of these children who did not report any abuse or give any indications of anything untoward going on in their homes, never mind anything resembling satanic abuse, social workers already had a model in their heads of what they believed was happening and they simply interpreted the children’s responses to fit that model. “I have found people interpreting what children said in terms of what they thought they ought to be saying,” said Professor La Fontaine, who later conducted a three-year inquiry into the allegations.

“The families were victims of what appeared to be a macabre race by social workers to be the first to discover rings of satanic child abusers. As a result of the false allegations, the parents and children were subjected to appalling emotional and psychological trauma.”

On 8 March 1991, a High Court judge ordered that the children of Rochdale should be taken back to their parents and advised that police and social workers had been reckless in their actions, “needlessly traumatizing the children.

While the majority of these children were returned to their families after the inquiry ruling, some were not and continued to be held in care and away from their parents. Rochdale was not the only area in the UK to see social workers jump to the idea of satanic abuse taking place. Cleveland, Orkney and Ayrshire also saw similar scenes of social workers removing children from the care of their parents under allegations of witchcraft, satanism and sexual abuse. No prosecutions came from any allegations and most children were able to return to their families, however, many were held in care and in various foster homes, some for a number of years before they could finally return home. The government inquiry into the handling of these cases stated, “Too frequent interviewing, leading questions, contamination, pressure and inducements may have resulted from the anxiety of interviewers to have found out what happened.”

Emeritus Professor of Anthorpology at the London School of Economics, Jean La Fontaine, conducted an official inquiry into claims of satanic child abuse in the UK. Defining satanic abuse as, “a ritual directed to worship of the Devil,” she investigated 86 alleged satanic ritual abuse cases taking place between 1988 and 1991, including the Rochdale cases and reported that in “no case was any convincing corroborative evidence found.” In her report released in April 1994, she dismissed the allegations of satanic abuse as ‘myth’, blaming ‘Evangelical Christians and self-proclaimed ‘specialists’ for the scare which led to police investigations across Britain from 1988 to 1991,’ reported the Independent at the time.

The psychological effects on the children and parents that the actions taken by Rochdale Council in 1990 had are long-lasting and many of the families involved took legal action looking for full apologies from the social workers and authorities responsible. One father, John Herstell, told the Guardian of how he was told his children were being taken away and the devastating impact these actions had on his family:

“One afternoon in 1990 I got a call from my wife telling me our three kids had been taken away because of witchcraft and satanic abuse. My wife and I separated because of the stress, and my daughters have lost all their confidence. I still can’t believe this has happened.”

Today, 27 years on from these Rochdale allegations, many of the children involved are still dealing with the trauma of being taken away from their parents. “I was robbed of my childhood and my parents were made to look like criminals,” Caroline Shirley who was 11-years-old when she and her siblings were taken into care in Rochdale said. “I can’t believe so many were made to suffer over accusations that were completely unfounded.”

Check out Episode 47 of the Sword & Scale Podcast for a look at the US McMartin Preschool case and the Satanic Panic that overtook an entire nation, and Episode 51 for the UK Hampstead satanic cult abuse case where children were brainwashed into making false satanic abuse allegations.