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Political science professor Ross Cheit calls it “extreme research.” To help him track down material for his recent book on child sexual abuse, The Witch-Hunt Narrative, more than eighty students joined in to help hunt down primary sources.

cheit.jpg
Frank Mullin
Fortunately, I am at Brown, where you can treat undergraduates as if they're graduate students," Cheit says.
Ben Petrosky ’03, for example, was his “media sleuth.” While working as a Cheit research assistant during his junior and senior years, he tracked down the author of an unsigned Playboy article, retrieved videotapes of news shows from the 1980s, and read through trial transcripts gathered from courts around the country. Cheit once sent Petrosky to the Berkshires in Massachusetts to confirm that a road mentioned in a court record still existed. It had been overgrown with weeds for years, but Petrosky found it.

More than fifteen years in the making, The Witch-Hunt Narrative examines dozens of child sexual abuse cases from the 1980s. Over time, these cases ensnared dozens of defendants, some of whom were eventually cleared of any wrongdoing. Many experts believed these prosecutions came about when interrogators asked young children leading questions, resulting in a witch-hunt in which wrongful accusations were made against thousands of people.

Thanks in part to the work of Brown students, Cheit reviewed all the so-called witch-hunt cases and concluded that most of the charges brought against child molesters were grounded in some truth. At the very least, he says, there was enough credible evidence to begin police investigations.

Cheit, who holds a law degree and is also a professor of public policy, believes we are far too quick to dismiss the accounts of young children. “We have, over the last twenty years,” he writes in The Witch-Hunt Narrative, “discounted the word of children who might testify against sexual abuse. We have become more worried about overreacting to child sexual abuse than we are about underreacting to it.”

What makes Cheit’s project especially remarkable is the number of undergraduates who contributed to it. “Fortunately,” he says, “I am at Brown, where you can treat undergraduates as if they’re graduate students.”

Morriah Horani ’02 began working with Cheit in her sophomore year and continued doing research for him for a year after graduation. She says she investigated “deep in the recesses of the bowels of the court system,” providing summaries of cases to Cheit, who discussed them with her at length and helped her refine her analyses. Now an attorney in Maryland, Horani says, “He had such a huge impact on my life. He taught me to think like a lawyer.”

Eric Tucker ’02 says he found Cheit’s commitment to hunting down the truth inspiring. “Through his own insistence on working to contribute to the struggle for human dignity,” Tucker says, “Cheit taught us about how to compose a meaningful adult life.”




Comments (8)
09/12/14
 
I was one of the 80 near the end of the book's journey, and I have to say that working with Professor Cheit was perhaps my most rewarding experience as an undergrad. Being part of a long line of undergrads to work on this research gave me a sense of place and history at Brown, and seeing his book published makes me so happy for him and all the others who worked on the book. Very glad to see all of the well-deserved hype the Brown community has given him now that the project is live.
 
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09/12/14
 
Professor Cheit's instruction, commitment to his students and passion for his work epitomizes what I loved so much about Brown. He did indeed treat undergrads like grad students, in that he gave students responsibility, had high expectations and valued our thoughts and contributions. As a young, eager person, what more could I have wanted from my undergraduate experience? So proud to now call Ross a friend and to see his important, gutsy work come to fruition.
 
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09/12/14
 
Delighted to read about the growing body of work coming from Prof. Cheit and from the Public Policy center. Keep it coming!
 
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09/12/14
 
I have been involved in child protection cases since 1987. It is very gratifying to read about Professor Cheit's work and undergraduates' deep involvement in work of this kind. Children of any age who disclose such abuse are fragile and vulnerable; they react and act out in myriad ways. Thorough investigation and research of the kind reported here is essential to find the "some truth" in the allegations.  
 
Well done, everyone.
 
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09/12/14
 
Professor Cheit advised me during my senior year, and offered encouragement and wisdom during the always-stressful law school admission process. He helped me take the "path less taken" -- in my case picking a California school when I had at that time never been west of Iowa. It is great to read about his continuing scholarship, and especially gratifying to see that so many others have benefitted from his thoughtful and kind wisdom. Thank you again Prof. Cheit!
 
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09/12/14
 
Ross Cheit was the "cool, young professor" when I was at Brown. His classes in public policy greatly influenced my growth as a problem-solver and as a conscientious citizen. I also benefited greatly from working with him through the Center for Environmental Studies. I know that the issue of child sexual abuse is of great personal significance to Ross and I am so glad that he has brought the issue to the forefront and has pursued it professionally involving students in the research process. I remain grateful to have been under his tutelage oh-so-long ago!
 
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09/13/14
 
So often a child's word is discounted. To have approached the research in an effort to seek the truth without a set paradigm is the most validating - the best evidence. To have begun the journey at all took courage, not knowing what the outcome would be and sifting through difficult subject matter. I prosecute child abuse cases for a living and am very thankful to Professor Cheit and all the volunteers for their contribution. Those in the field of child protection/prosecution sometimes need a reminder to listen to the child no matter how bizzare it may sound at first - through the eyes of a child. Wish I'd had the pleasure of taking one of your courses Professor!
 
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09/13/14
 
I applaud Dr. Cheit for providing undergraduates the experience to contribute to meaningful work and to Brown for offering that forum. The article beautifully draws attention to the fact that research can provide educational experiences that complement classroom study, that challenge us, and that may even change our own trajectories. 
 
I found it unfortunate, therefore, that the professor's comment, and the editorial emphasis elevated in the call out quote "Fortunately, I am at Brown, where you can treat undergraduates as if they're graduate students" seems to me to be a bit myopic, perhaps communicating the message that few universities are employing undergraduates, and implying that Brown students have innate capability or intelligence simply not found elsewhere. Having seen first hand very real undergraduate research opportunities provided at other institutions, and having met brilliant people from all walks, I'd simply like to correct what seems like a somewhat self-congratulatory idea. My thoughts are not at all intended to belittle the research or the tremendous opportunities that Brown can offer, but simply to suggest that Brown tread lightly in pronouncing its elevated status.
 
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