EVALUATING CASES OF FALSE ALLEGATIONS OF SEXUAL ABUSE IN CHILDREN
BY DR. LEIGH M. BAKER
A majority of children tell the truth when it comes to allegations of sexual abuse. However, for the minority of children who present with allegations of abuse in high conflict divorce or custody situations, it is often up to social service professionals, mental health workers, and judges, to determine the validity of children’s sexual abuse allegations.
These cases need to be evaluated by a specialist in the area of false allegations of sexual abuse in children. Hiring a specialist will save the clients and the courts countless hours and finances. But more importantly, it will help children caught up in the middle of adult conflict. If children are falsely accusing one parent of abuse, the psychological damage is immeasurable. Not only does the child lose a relationship with a parent, the child grows up believing a falsehood. Children cannot flourish in this situation. Forever they will be plagued with untruths and a deep- seated sense of guilt and shame for the loss of a parent.
The following is a list of six critical factors that must be addressed when assessing the validity of children’s allegations:
- Context and Timing of the Allegations
The majority of false allegations of sexual abuse occur in the context of high conflict divorce and/or custody cases. There exists a motive for one parent to indoctrinate a child into believing the other parent molested him or her when custody issues are at stake. Angry parents who believe they have been unjustly treated and wish revenge, parents who fear the spouse and believe the spouse is harming their child, parents who themselves have been traumatized and project this onto their child, or parents who wish to eliminate the other parent’s relationship with the child, all have motives to coach a child into making false allegations of abuse.
Therefore, when assessing the validity of a child’s allegations, look at the circumstances surrounding these accusations. Has the ex-spouse asked for more money, withdrawn financial support, or has found another partner? Often when we look at the timing of allegations made by an estranged ex-partner, we can see motivating factors for introducing allegations of abuse.
- Consistency of the Child’s Allegations
Most children’s allegations remain consistent over time. In other words the basic story remains the same. Additional details are often added in subsequent interviews that relate to the abuse but do not substantially alter the child’s initial outcry. It is true that children will often test an adult to see if the adult will be receptive and supportive and then furnish more information.
In fabricated allegations, the initial outcry is a gateway for embellishment. Children will add on infraction after infraction as they weave stories that reach unimaginable proportions. What initially was an outcry of inappropriate touching may turn into fantastical stories of oral sex, bondage, intercourse, anal penetration, etc.
- Forensic Interviews
It is critical when evaluating a child’s allegations of sexual abuse, a thorough review of the initial forensic interview takes place. There has been a great deal of research done on techniques that elicit the most reliable information from young children. (Thomas D. Lyon, et.al.) It is important to understand when young children are interviewed, they believe the interviewer already knows the answers. Children are biologically programmed to listen and respond to adults. Even if they don’t know an answer, they will give an adult a response in order to please that adult.
Research has demonstrated the only question that produces the most reliable information from a child is an open-ended question such as “tell me more about it?” or “tell me more.” Yes/No questions will often result in a response as noted previously in order to please an adult. Studies have shown the last option stated is more often the one a child chooses and that children have a predisposition to answer “yes” to an adult. Children given forced choices, such as “Did your father touch you over or under your panties?” Studies have demonstrated that the last option is often the one the child picks. Remember a young child is programmed to respond to an adult’s questions, therefore even if the correct option is not presented, the child will give an answer.
Lastly, suggestive questions, such as “Where did your father touch you? Or “Did anything come out of his penis when you touched him?” are suggestive questions that assume abuse has occurred and are information gathered from this type of questioning does not produce valid and reliable results.
Many parents unhappy with one professional’s findings may “therapy-shop” until they find the “right one” who will validate what the parent believes. However, the more young children are interviewed, the less reliable the information will be. Repeated interviewing skews the child’s reality that sexual abuse did occur and the more the child is interviewed, the more embellished and fabricated the allegations become.
- Do the Children’s Behaviors Reflect Fear of the Accused Parent?
Often in cases when a parent is accused of sexual abuse, he or she is prohibited from seeing the child. In many cases, the accused parent may not see the child for months or years.
Prolonged absence from a parent can create emotional turmoil in a child and establishes the sense the estranged parent has done something wrong. When evaluating cases of sexual abuse it is critical to interview the accused parent in order to gain a perspective into the case. If this is not done, it is a grave injustice to the accused parent. In most cases of false allegations of sexual abuse, once the child is in the presence of the accused parent, he or she will show no fear, anxiety, or trauma. The child is happy to see the parent and even when the issue of abuse is brought up, the child will deny it ever happened or avoid the topic all together.
- Is There Evidence of Coaching or Parent Alienation?
Children who have been sexually abused by a parent often present with conflicting feelings about the parent. In most cases of bona fide abuse, the child remains attached to the parent since there often exists a relationship in which the abuse has occurred. The child may have received special attention, recognition, and gifts for compliant behaviors.
In cases of parental alienation, the child is completely estranged from the parent and denies any type of emotional connection to that parent. The child complains about all aspects of the parent’s behavior and demonstrates utter commitment to seeing the accused parent in a negative manner. They will parrot a parent’s concern about the accused parent such as “he doesn’t pay us money” or “she has a new family and doesn’t care about us anymore.”
Children who are coached to rehearse sexual abuse allegations often use adult language and terminology when describing the abuse. These children parrot what they have been told to say and often there is little to no emotion when alleging the abuse.
Coaching may take on a more subtle form of indoctrination other than practicing what to say. A parent’s anxiety, constant questioning of the child, bringing the child to multiple professionals and medical doctors for validation of abuse, and keeping lengthy journals and notebooks on the child’s statements and behaviors at home, create an environment in which the child comes to believe the “reality” created by the alienating parent.
One parent’s anxiety about the other parent is contagious and a child will adopt the parent’s anxiety and incorporate it into his or her reality. Parents who alienate and coach children usually have some form of trauma in their own past; more often sexual abuse. They are a hyper-vigilant and protective of the child. You may see these children home-schooled, or have other “medical” issues that necessitate constant monitoring and care. More often than not, these parents have families that support their delusions, creating grandparents who “witness” children’s statements and behaviors. These parents create an enmeshment with the child therefore, it is difficult to ascertain where the parents’ concern end and the child’s allegations begin.
- Child’s Therapist
It is not uncommon to see children’s allegations of sexual abuse reported by the therapist since the therapist is a mandatory reporter. However, many child therapists will begin to treat the child for sexual abuse prior to determining if it actually happened.
Treating a child for sexual abuse will instill in the child more firmly the sense sexual abuse did occur. In those instances where there are false allegations, the treatment will only reinforce the allegations.
Tags: alienation, coaching, false allegations of sexual abuse, interviewing young children for abuse, parental alienation