Why Children Make False Allegations of Sexual Abuse

Why Children Make False Allegations about Sexual Abuse

By Leigh M. Baker, Psy.D.

            I recently read a harrowing account of the infamous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. For a little over 9 months, this New England settlement was bombarded by allegations of male and female witches flying on their broomsticks to attend demonic rituals where they made pacts with Satan and reveled in ungodly fashion. Ministers, teachers, mothers, and even young children were jailed in the most terrible conditions for months before they were either hanged or under torture or prolonged interrogations, they confessed and were released.

What drove this New England town to this madness? Why were nineteen men and women hanged for these absurd allegations that arose from hysterical adolescent girls and young women?

In my thirty years of practice I have observed children, who much like the Puritan teenagers in Salem, have made allegations of abuse that appear improbable, outrageous, and yet, are remarkably dangerous. Fathers and mothers have lost custody of their children, families have been torn asunder, and the legal fees mounted as people lost homes, cars, businesses, and their reputation,

A moral panic of a magnitude that rivals the Salem witch trials occurred in America in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. There were numerous charges throughout the country and in Europe against day-care providers of several forms of child abuse, including satanic ritual abuse. The issue of day-care sexual abuse was brought to the forefront of public awareness and figured prominently in news coverage for almost a decade. Fears of satanic abuse once more gripped this country.

This wave of outcries was determined to be a result of a number of factors. The anxiety and guilt of working mothers leaving their young children with strangers may have created a climate of fear and readiness to believe false allegations.

It was also determined that the techniques used by the interviewers were flawed. Children are vulnerable to outside influences that lead to fabrications of their testimony. Maggie Bruck published an article in the American Psychological Association that explains children’s response to interviewing. Children tend to incorporate aspects of the interviewer’s questions into their own answers. Children will tell the interviewer what they think the interviewer is seeking. Further, young children may not understand the interviewer’s questions; yet, they will offer an answer, believing that there is an answer to be given. And repeated questioning of children causes them to change their answers because they perceive repeated questioning as a sign that they did not give the “correct” answer. Interview bias is also a major factor in children’s testimony. When a child makes an allegation, the interviewer may smile, nod, or congratulate the child on his or her bravery and honesty, even though the story may be false. In reviewing some of the child testimonies that were given during this “day-care” hysteria, it was found that interviewers rewarded the children with games, candy, and prizes if they gave what they felt were the answers the interviewer wanted.

Other factors that influence children’s testimony are peer pressure. Studies show that when a child is told that his or her friends have made allegations of sexual abuse, he or she is more likely to create a matching story. Thus the infectious nature of the day-care allegations spread to other children in the same schools. To a naïve investigator, these multiple accounts of abuse stands as testament to the credibility of the children, rather than understanding how contagious these allegations can be when children are involved.

While studies such as Oates, R. K. “Reliable and Fictitious Accounts of Sexual Abuse to Children” published in Journal of Interpersonal Violence, show that only a small percentage of children actually do produce fictitious reports of sexual abuse, the havoc that occurs when they do make false allegations far outweighs the incidents.

Dr. William Bernet, in his article “False Statements and the Differential Diagnosis of Abuse Allegations, states “child psychiatrists do not have a consistent way to classify the untruthful child.” Thus, it is often left to specialists in child sexual abuse to make a determination regarding the credibility of children’s allegations.

I conduct evaluations for sexual abuse over three separate sessions with the child. However, there have been instances in which I cannot make a clear determination, and, therefore recommend on-going therapy to allow time for a more thorough evaluation. Despite the fact that I am an expert in the field of child sexual abuse, and have been practicing for almost thirty years, there are times when I can’t tell if a child is lying, fabricating, fantasizing, or are influenced by a disgruntled parent.

Dr. Bernet categorizes false statements made by children in the following manner. He lists parental misinterpretation and suggestions as one of the major factors involved in false allegations.

I have seen this numerous times in my own practice. Particularly when parents, in the midst of a highly contentious divorce, audio or videotape allegations made by their children as evidence that abuse is occurring. During these recorded pieces, I can often distinguish the anxious, fearful, or perhaps histrionic parent who has taken an innocent remark and inflated it into something worse, thus inducing the child to endorse the parents’ interpretation.

Becky was three years old when she came into my office. A bright precocious toddler, she did not appear to be a child who was suffering from trauma. However, her mother had brought her in after Becky, while taking a bath, had remarked that her vagina hurt her. When mother questioned Becky why it hurt, she said daddy hurt it. Becky, in the midst of a very contentious divorce, began inspecting her daughter’s vagina every time she came back from her father’s house, and questioning her about her father. Becky’s mother was highly anxious because her ex-husband showed violent tendencies toward her during their marriage. After three months of therapy, Becky took a doll and pointed to the vaginal area, repeating, “hurt me, hurt me.”

            Of course little Becky would point to a vagina and repeat these words. She has heard them repeatedly from her mother. Little girls often have irritated vaginas and if they associate this pain with abuse, then of course the child will say that someone has hurt her “privates.”

Another category by which false statements occur is mental mechanisms in the child that are not conscious or not purposeful. This includes: fantasy, delusions, misinterpretations, miscommunication, and confabulation.

Preschool children do confuse fantasy with reality. From ages 2-6, children live in a magical world. They confuse reality with fantasy, and their wishes and dreams with the truth. Just ask any preschooler what they did on vacation and you will get a potpourri of incongruent events that are strung together. The preschooler will embellish things they saw or did, making themselves appear brave or strong.   However, if the fantasizing child is ask whether this is really true or something that they wish happened, they will often respond to the latter. If pressed, young children can make a distinction between fantasy and reality

Delusions are distinguished from fantasies primarily because the child believes the delusions to be true. A preschooler who is fantasizing, will upon question, modify and change their answers, but true delusions remain immovable. Delusions occur more often in adolescence and may be due to psychological disorders that corrupt the child’s reality testing. Severe depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders can cause delusions.

Misinterpretations may also cause false beliefs, but it may be derived from something that actually happened to a child.

I treated a young boy who was removed from his mother’s care because the mother had physically assaulted the father. The little boy was bereft at not seeing his mother, and in his grief, he recreated the situation by stating, “my daddy hurt my mommy.” He had seen the fight between his parents, but because he missed his mother, it was easier to interpret the fight as his father’s fault.

Research has demonstrated, (Benedek and Schetky, 1987) that children often fill in the gaps of their memory by confabulating. This often occurs when an interviewer repeatedly reinforces the child to give more information. The child may not remember, but because children are programmed to respond to adult questions, he or she will fill in the blanks. It is in these “blanks” that false allegations are born.

The final category of mechanisms that explain false allegations is false statements can be caused by mental mechanisms in children that are more conscious and purposeful. Innocent lying and deliberate lying fall under this category. We often see these types of wrongful allegations in children who have reached the concrete operational stage of development, approximately 7 to 12 years old. However, intentional lying is also common in young children who wish to escape recriminations for a misdeed.

Self-serving, intentional fabrications are more common in school aged children and adolescents and often occur for a variety of reasons. Although the children in this category are aware of the moral issues involved in lying, they choose to distort reality for personal advantage or revenge.

Mia was ten years old when her mother brought her in for therapy. Her parents had gone through a contentious divorce. Mia made numerous accusations against her father to her mother and eventually to me. She claimed he was verbally, physically and sexually abusive. Because of these allegations, which were unfounded by social services, the father was still taken to court and was awarded only bi-monthly supervised therapeutic visits with his children.

            Mia was articulate, intelligent and very expressive in the playroom. As time went on, her allegations multiplied and worsened. One day, we decided to make a timeline that would specify at what age she had been abused and what actually had happened at each age. As we began to fill in the events, Mia never once wrote down an incident of sexual abuse. When the timeline was finished, I asked about her allegations of sexual abuse and why she had not included this in her timeline. Her reply, “I can’t remember the sexual abuse, maybe it was in my dreams.”

            Mia was lying all along and she knew that she was. When talking about the lies, she shrugged her shoulders and replied, “I don’t know.” And of course she wouldn’t know because the psychosocial mechanisms underlying her deception were unknown to her. Perhaps it was the attention she so desperately craved from a mother who has preoccupied with her own work, or other men. Or was it the anger she felt at her father for remarrying so quickly? I believe that it was a combination of factors that caused Mia to lie. In the end, the emotional toll this lie had taken on her father, mother, and her, was considerable.

I have learned throughout the years that the adage, “children do not lie about sexual abuse” is not true. They do make up stories. Whether it is to get attention, to satisfy an anxious mother’s questions, or to fill in the blanks of a persistent interviewer, false allegations of sexual abuse do occur. It is primarily up to the skilled clinician to take the time to accurately assess all aspects of the child’s life. Including the alleged perpetrator in the evaluation is critical in understanding the context upon which the allegations arose.

It is interesting that many preschool children who have made serious unfunded allegations of abuse against a parent continue to want to spend time with that parent. They continue to display a close bond, obviously unaware of the impact that their allegations has had on that parent. They may even try to have the “accused” parent comply with their allegations by stating, “you did touch me, don’t you remember?” If a child is truly being abused by a parent and has been traumatized by this abuse, these types of “friendly” encounters would be less likely.

As children become more aware of the dangerous elements in good touch/bad touch, and stranger danger, their knowledge about sexual abuse increases. While this knowledge is essential in protecting children from abuse, it can also produce children who have heightened sensitivity and interest in sexuality. The stranger who hurts children becomes the fairy tale equivalent of the wicked witch or the troll who sits under the bridge. Children like to make up stories about the wicked. They learn early on to classify the world into “good” and “bad” people and they most often identify with the “good guys.” They pummel, punch, and kick the bad guy into oblivion while feeling confident and victorious. In this context creating situations where they are being hurt and are in need of protection comes naturally.

There is not an easy solution to this problem. We know that repeated interviewing is counter-productive. Therefore, the child must remain in therapy with a highly skilled clinician, who, in time, will be able to discern the child’s reality from fantasy. Along with the child’s individual therapy, family therapy is highly recommended to identify any behaviors that may be contributing to the child’s false allegations.

When I was a young therapist, just beginning my practice, I believed in all the stories the children told me. I was a champion for the cause, intent on eradicating childhood sexual abuse. Through the years, I have matured and understand much more about the intricate webs of deceit that can be propagated by children’s fantasy, misunderstanding, and fabrication. I believe I have an extensive understanding of parental alienation and the Alienated Child, but as for the rest of the children who make outcries that are difficult to substantiate, it is critical to understand the type of misconceptions that are arising and why they are occurring at a particular time.

Therefore, it is critical when assessing child sex abuse allegations, that parents, teachers, and the legal profession find professionals who are well aware of the issue involved in children’s allegations.




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