Updated January 14, 2007
The Wee Care case that sentenced Kelly Michaels to prison for 47 years was typical of the child-abuse hysteria that gripped the United States in the 1980s. At the peak of the frenzy of the great day-care witch hunt, it was the day-care workers, not the preschoolers, who were at risk. As the preschoolers, urged on by overzealous social workers, child therapists and prosecutors, told their incredible stories of sexual abuse and satanic rituals in courtrooms across the United States, scores of innocent people were sent off to prison. Some are still there.
by Lona Manning
"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters"
Kelly Michaels never intended to become a preschool teacher -- she had taken fine arts and drama in college -- but she wanted to live near New York City and was looking for something to pay the rent when she applied at Wee Care Day Care in Maplewood, N.J. Although Kelly doubted if she had the qualifications, the director, Arlene Spector, had been encouraging and had persuaded her to give it a try. Once hired, Kelly was quickly promoted from teacher's aide to preschool teacher.
Kelly, then 23 years old, found that the children responded well to her. She was the oldest child in a large family and she'd done a lot of babysitting. Even without special training, Kelly knew what little children liked, what songs and games made them laugh, how to soothe their upsets, and settle their quarrels. But Kelly grew dissatisfied with Wee Care and complained that the teachers were expected to do too much without enough support and supervision. She decided to look for another job.
Although she knew that it was upsetting for little children when their teachers -- with whom they'd formed a bond -- came and went, Kelly accepted a teacher's job at the Community Day Nursery in East Orange, N.J., where she shared an apartment with a roommate. Community Day Nursery was a nicer facility -- larger, lighter, airier -- than Wee Care where the kids were stuck in the basement of a stone church and had to traipse down a long hall and up a flight of stairs to go to the restrooms.
On May 6, 1985, as Kelly was getting ready for work, she must have felt that her life was beginning to take shape and direction. She had fallen into the other day-care job, but this one she had chosen.
Then came the knock on the door of her apartment. It was just after 7 a.m.
A police sergeant and an investigator, both men, stood in the doorway. They were looking for Margaret Kelly Michaels. Could she come down to the prosecutor's office for questioning? Bewildered and concerned, Kelly went to the prosecutor's office where she was told she was suspected of sexually touching three of the little boys at the Wee Care Day Care. Kelly was shocked and horrified and as the questioning continued, she began to cry: