IPT Book Reviews

Title: Expert Witnesses in Child Abuse Cases
Editors: Stephen J. Ceci and Helene Hembrooke
Publisher: American Psychological Association, 1998

American Psychological Association
APA Order Department
P.O. Box 92984
Washington, DC 20090-2984
(800) 374-2721
$39.95 (c)

This is a good book, but it is too late. The aim of this 199-page book is stated in the final paragraph of the introduction: "The chapters in this volume are successful in addressing what the issues are. The next logical, moral, and ethical step is to address them formally in a manner that is complete and unambiguous. The duality of the question 'What can (and should) an expert tell the court?' will always exist in theory, given the differences between the legal and psychological forums. This book is a first step toward eradicating this duality in practice. Our hope is that professionals serving as experts will concern themselves with the should" (7-8).

This is what I think this book should elicit from us. I suggest that every psychologist who accepts responsibility to advance and support the concepts of science and the commitment of psychology to respect the rights of all individuals must demand an open, public apology from the American Psychological Association (APA) for its failure to maintain standards of scientific rigor and responsible practice in accordance with the Boulder model. I suggest a formal motion for the APA business session or Council of Representatives expressing regret and sorrow for the damage done to our nation and to so many individuals by the irresponsible inactivity of the APA and the continued tolerance of what is now openly understood and identified in this book to be grievous error.

I find myself both saddened and angered by this book. It is 22 years too late to avoid the victimization of hundreds up to thousands of children by suspicions, investigations, and interventions based on the concepts and myths now finally and decisively discredited by this book. It is 22 years too late to avoid the wrongful conviction of an indeterminate number, but what may be from hundreds up to thousands of men and women now unjustly imprisoned. It is 22 years too late to prevent the destruction of family after family of American citizens by the misguided policies of child protection services based upon a pseudoscience that shaped a heavy-handed, power-obsessed, bureaucratic empire. Each of these consequences is described in muted fashion in the book.

None of the points made in this book about what the science of psychology now understands about child sexual abuse and claims of recovered memory is new. There were sufficient credible scientific data long before 1976 and the implementation of CAPTA with federal money. Scientific psychologists should have immediately begun to call attention to it and resisted the juggernaut of pseudoscience. Instead, the APA dithered about with equivocating task forces that were controlled by advocates of the mythology that was currently popular and said to be based on clinical observations and opinions.

However, there is another point that needs to be made about the book. It demonstrates within its covers the problem that may be involved in the APA's failure 20 years ago to make clear what should be said by psychologists in the witness box. In spite of the bravado with which the editors assert that the chapters are fine, the first chapter by Lucy Berliner is not. In it she repeats the current mantras or spin of those who were saying 20 years ago that children cannot lie and children must be believed at all costs. She is not challenged by the editors, even when she seriously misrepresents research studies which she cites.

On page 13, Berliner cites a content analysis of national publications (Beckett, 1996) to support this statement: "[C]urrent portrayals of child witnesses emphasize the weakness of children's memories as well as concerns about 'false memories' of abuse reported by adults." What the Beckett report actually documents is that from 1980 to 1994 the proportion of articles that presented the myths Berliner supported went from 85% in 1980-84 to 42% in 1990-94. Articles that presented a concern with false allegations and false memories went from 7% in 1980-84 to 58% in 1990-94. The definition of the content analysis of false allegation does not mention weak memories of children at all. Rather this is all that Beckett says about memories: "Both children's and adults perceptions and memories are fallible and vulnerable to suggestion and the methods used to uncover these are highly suspect" (Beckett, 1996, p. 64). Berliner's spin implies that the media has turned against children and presents only lurid, extraordinary cases and ignores the "much more common" (p. 13) real cases of abuse. But the data she cites do not support that at all.

On page 14, Berliner cites Oberlander (1995) as support for the statement, "[A] majority [of professionals] believe that results of an evaluation can establish abuse." In addition to being contrary to the rest of this book, Berliner's statement is simply not supported by the Oberlander study. The Oberlander study used a sample of 31 mental health professionals who specialize in child sexual abuse evaluations, with a return rate of 37%, who responded to a 20-item survey using a seven point scale going from +3 (can establish abuse) to -3 (cannot establish abuse). Item 15 is the single item dealing with whether or not an evaluation can establish abuse. The mean response was 0.323, SD = 2.151, p = .008. Although it may be statistically significant, it has little practical relevance to the claim that a majority believe as Berliner asserts. This hardly represents a strong endorsement or firm belief that a psychological evaluation can establish whether alleged abuse is real. Instead, what the Oberlander study actually documents is that a majority of the sample of evaluators use some of the flawed methods of evaluation that are excoriated in the other chapters of this 1998 book. It is questionable to generalize from a small unreplicated face-valid survey and a single item of a limited sample from one state to the entire community of professionals.

On page 17 Berliner makes the assertion that "[A]mong children who come to the attention of authorities, many do not spontaneously tell, delay in reporting, or make gradual disclosures (e.g. Sauzier, 1989; Sorenson & Snow, 1991)." But this is what Sauzier actually states: "In this study over half of the victims purposefully revealed their abuse, regardless of their ages. This finding contradicts the belief, commonly held but not verified by research, that children do not disclose their sexual abuse" (p. 460).

As to the Sorenson and Snow (1991) study, the Utah Supreme Court found in Utah v. Hadfield, No. 880234 Supreme Court of Utah, 128 Utah Adv. Rep. 6; 788 P. 2d 506: 1990 Utah, that law enforcement personnel testified that, in their investigatory work, false information deliberately "fed" by them to Barbara Snow promptly appeared in the statements of children she interviewed. These are the children in the sample used in the study. Rather than offering support for the claim about disclosure made by Berliner, the Sorenson and Snow study gives strong support to fears voiced in the rest of the 1998 book about the iatrogenic harm that can be done by biased mental health professionals who evaluate children and also treat them. Unfortunately, the highly suspect and flawed study by Sorenson and Snow is also cited uncritically by authors in other chapters in the book.

On page 18 Berliner writes: "[M]ost offenders have normal profiles (e.g., Murphy & Peters, 1992; Williams & Finkelhor, 1990)." Here again the cited material does not support the claim made by Berliner. Murphy and Peters (1992) do not report that most offenders have normal profiles. In fact, their report is that the research shows that most sexual offenders have abnormal profiles. What they claim is that there is no single profile that can be said to differentiate sexual offenders. The reason is that almost all of the possible abnormal profiles are found in sexual offenders. While I do not have a copy of the Williams and Finkelhor chapter, I have a number of other articles by Finkelhor which indicate his perception that child molesters are a disturbed group and not normal.

On page 22 Berliner states, "Only unusual sexual behavior and posttraumatic stress symptoms have been specifically correlated with sexual abuse." Again, this is an overstatement of the data. A number of studies have failed to demonstrate a significant correlation for either. Finkelhor has specifically written that PTSD does not fit sexual abuse claims.

Berliner also claims, "Research does not support the premise that children whose memory is consolidated and accurate in the first place will become inaccurate reporters simply because they have been interviewed repeatedly" (p. 22). There are many reports on the effect of repeated questioning that challenge this assertion, but Berliner does not note them here.

The editors have shown concern about science, and aim at a normative posture about what should be done. Yet, here, a chapter that can be said at best to show a distorting bias, if not misrepresentation, is included as the first chapter of their book. Throughout the development of the pseudoscience that pervades the APA's actions, positions, and organizational identification with clinical practice, there has been a reluctance to confront folly.

This may be what Meehl (1973) describes in his essay on why he does not attend case conferences:

1. Buddy-buddy syndrome. In one respect the clinical case conference is no different from other academic group phenomena such as committee meetings, in that many intelligent, educated, sane, rational persons seem to undergo a kind of intellectual deterioration when they gather around a table in one room. The cognitive degradation and feckless vocalizations characteristic of committees are too well known to require comment. Somehow the group situation brings out the worst in many people, and results in an intellectual functioning that is at the lowest common denominator, which in clinical psychology and psychiatry is likely to be pretty low (p. 227-228).

Meehl goes on to describe what he sees as an absurd idea that "All evidence is equally good" and "Reward everything - gold and garbage alike" to be factors in the intellectual suicide often committed in academia as well.

These factors may well be involved in the sorry performance of the APA for the past 20 years. However, in my darker moments I entertain a more sinister and reprehensible possibility. I think it may be that many who sought leadership and positions of eminence in the APA structure were willing to sell their soul for the Faustian bargain of power and prestige. Whatever may be a causal factor, the reality is that the APA has failed science, failed the society, failed its members, and done needless grievous harm to many persons.

I demand an open, public, and profound apology from the APA. Repentance is in the air these days, and following our nation's leaders, it is politically correct to make public apology for past sins. Nothing less will save the science of psychology. That is what APA should do. This is the should Ceci and Hembrooke point to in this book.

Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies.

Order this book: Hardcover

Visit our Bookstore

Beckett, K. (1996). Culture and the politics of signification: The case of child sexual abuse. Social Problems, 43, 57-76.

Meehl, P. E. (1973). Psychodiagnosis: Selected Papers (Out of Print)(Out of Print). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Murphy, W. D., & Peters, J. M. (1992). Profiling child sexual abusers: Psychological considerations. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 19, 24-37.

Oberlander, L. B. (1995). Psycholegal issues in child sexual abuse evaluations: A survey of forensic mental health professionals. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19, 475-490.

Sauzier, M. (1989). Disclosure of child sexual abuse: For better or for worse. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12(2), 455-469.

Sorensen, T., & Snow, B. (1991). How children tell: The process of disclosure in child sexual abuse. Child Welfare, 70, 3-15.

Utah v. Hadfield (1990). 788 P.2d 506.

Williams, L. M. & Finkelhor, D. (1990) The characteristics of incestuous fathers: A review of recent studies. In W. L. Marshall, D. R. Laws, & H. E. Barbaree (Eds.) Handbook of Sexual Assault: Issues, Theories, & Treatment of the Offender (Hardcover) (pp. 231-255). New York: Plenum Press.

  [Back to Volume 10]

 
Copyright 1989-2014 by the Institute for Psychological Therapies.
This website last revised on April 15, 2014.
Found a non-working link?  Please notify the Webmaster.