SPECIAL ISSUE EVALUATIONS
CONDUCTING COURT ORDERED ASSESSMENTS FOR ALLEGATIONS OF CHILD ABUSE IN THE CONTEXT OF HIGH CONFLICT DIVORCE
A majority of child sexual assaults are never reported to the police. From those children who do report abuse, a small percentage of those children make false allegations. The statistics vary from state to state, and county-to-county, making it difficult to come up with a definitive number; however reports of false allegations of sexual abuse in children range anywhere from 1.5 to 7.6 percent. (Stahl, Philip, Ph.D, ABPP, “Advanced Issues in Child Custody and Parenting Evaluations”, 2016.)
Therefore the chance that a child is fabricating sexual abuse is marginal when compared to the percentage of children who do tell the truth. However, when one looks at the population of children making false reports of sexual abuse, those children in the midst of a high conflict divorce are 67 to 79 percent more likely to make false allegations of sexual abuse. (Stahl, Phillip, cited above)
False allegations of sexual abuse in high conflict relationships are the most complicated and difficult to evaluate. These cases clog the courts, take seemingly endless amounts of financial, professional, and emotional resources, and wind up causing more harm to children and parents. Philip Stahl (see reference above) estimates 10-15% of families who divorce are high conflict, yet 85-90% of court services are directed to this small population.
There are many factors that make evaluations for false allegations difficult to identify. To begin, the child may have already had a forensic interview and the results of this interview will be used in court. And by the time the case is made known to the courts, the child is also most likely already in therapy.
The mother may have “therapy shopped” to find a professional who agrees with her child’s allegations. However, if the therapist is not well versed in parental alienation and false allegations of child abuse, she or he may erroneously diagnose and treat the child as “sexually abused.” In too many of these cases the therapist has not interviewed the father and has never seen him in the presence of his child. Yet, this professional still makes the decision the child was sexually abused by the father. Therefore, the courts may already have, along with the forensic interviewer, two important witnesses to confirm the child’s sexual abuse allegations.
There may also be a court appointed PRE or a CFI investigating the family for custody issues. Yet, experts who conduct PRE or CFI investigations when allegations of sexual abuse are involved may not have experience in false allegations of sexual abuse in children. This leaves gaps in the scope and accuracy of their reports. On occasion a PRE may ask an expert to evaluate the child for sexual abuse and include the expert’s assessment in the report. However, this raises problems with timeliness. Usually a PRE report takes months to complete. During the time the court is waiting for the report, the child and the “alienated” parent may have had no contact with one another, or have been meeting in clinically supervised settings; both have a deleterious impact on the parent-child relationship.
Hiring an expert in a timely manner is critical when these cases present themselves.
An expert can serve several purposes. An attorney may ask an expert to testify about certain aspects of parental alienation and false allegations of sexual abuse without having any knowledge of the case. The expert can explain to the court the factors involved in false allegations of sexual abuse; more specifically why, when, and how false allegations are created in children.
More often, an expert is hired by the defendant’s attorney to evaluate the case for parental alienation, coaching, and false allegations of abuse. The expert has all the material available to the attorneys. The expert reviews the file, evaluates the validity of the forensic interview with the child, and is able to identify statements from the child suggesting alienation and coaching. Yet, in more cases than not, these evaluations have their limitations since the evaluator is not given access to the entire family. Without a court order, unfortunately in many of these cases, an expert never meets the alienating parent or the children. Therefore, the opinions and recommendations issued from the expert’s report must be prefaced with a caveat explaining the limitations of the expert’s opinions.
Special Issues Evaluations ordered by the court would give the expert the most comprehensive access to the family in order to properly assess false allegations in the context of high conflict divorce by ordering the entire family to be involved in the evaluation.
The difference in Special Issues Evaluations is the timeliness, the focus, the scope, and the fee for the professional’s services. When a question of false allegations arise in the context of high conflict divorce, the expert needs to conduct the evaluation in as timely manner as possible. The focus should only be on the referring question and other issues related to the custody of the child should be put on hold temporarily until the Special Issues Evaluation is complete. The courts may be responsible for the expert’s fees, or other arrangements may be made with the parents.
By having the court issue a Special Issue Evaluation, it is more likely the evaluation will be done in a timely manner. Most often the accused parent, usually the father, is prohibited from seeing their child for weeks and often months while the investigation is proceeding. Further, as noted previously, the child is usually sent to a therapist, who may be unsuspecting and unaware of parental alienation issues, and thus, treats the child as if he or she has been abused. Prolonged absence from an alienated parent and the time spent in sexual abuse therapy will escalate the fear and estrangement from the accused party, making it more difficult to ascertain the validity of the child’s original allegations. The longer the child remains in “sex abuse therapy,” the more entrenched the false allegations become.
Special Issue Evaluations should take precedence over all other evaluations of the family because they are critical to the child’s mental health as well as the relationship between parent and child. Custody issues can be put on hold prior to the results of the Evaluation.
An expert hired to perform this evaluation should be:
- Well versed in child psychology, particularly child development
- Knowledgeable about sexually abused children
- Experienced in legal consulting, legal report writing, and court testimony
A thorough evaluation for the credibility of abuse evaluations in children should include:
- Review of all case materials
- Interviews with both parents
- Review of the forensic interviews
- Observations of child with each parent
- Evaluation of the child
Interviews with the both parents give the expert insight into the parents’ personalities and provide important background data. If psychological tests have been administered, it is helpful for the expert to review these reports. However, despite the fact there are certain traits that sexual offenders share as well as parents who alienate their children from the other parent, psychological testing does not identify these individuals with any type of reliability. If the expert needs further information to fully assess the father’s sexual functioning, a referral for a sexual abuse evaluation may be requested.
The expert will review the forensic interview and look for leading questions, open-ended questions, multiple choice, or yes/no queries in the forensic interviews. Research has demonstrated how only open-ended questions produce the most reliable and valid results in children. Other types of inquiries have questionable validity. (Hershowitz, Lanes, &Lamb, 2007).
The expert should review the child’s medical records for other factors that may have influenced the child’s interview. Age, cognitive development and pre-existing conditions such as ADHD or bipolar disorders can significantly affect the child’s responses. It is also common for children caught in the web of false allegations of sex abuse to have an extensive medical record as the “alienating” parent often brings the child to a number of medical professionals in order to confirm sexual abuse.
The evaluation of the child is important in assessing statements made by the child that reflect coaching, estrangement, parentification, and false allegations of abuse. Seeing the children over three separate sessions can give the expert information about the child’s cognitive developmental level, rule out other emotional or behavioral disorders that may be affecting the child’s allegations, and most importantly to look at the consistency, affect, and reliability of the allegations over time.
Children who are alienated from a parent, have alleged false statements of sexual abuse, and are caught in the high conflict between parents, have a poor prognosis of developing healthy relationships in the future. A majority of them believe themselves entitled and have problems with authority. Their self-esteem suffers and they experience depression, anxiety, and substance abuse problems in their adolescent and adult years. In order to minimize the psychological damage done to these children, it is critical to establish a pattern of rapid court response and directives in these types of cases.
My hope is in the future, the courts, attorneys and professionals can work in a collaborative manner to stop the inordinate amount of financial and emotional resources these cases require and to eliminate the dangerous risk they pose to children and their parents.Tags: allegations of sexual abuse, child abuse, coaching, false allegation of child abuse, false allegations of sexual abuse, parental alienation