Self-Help Groups for the Erroneously Charged: A Proposed Model

LeRoy G. Schultz*

ABSTRACT: Persons who are falsely accused of child abuse suffer significant stress and trauma.  Participation in a self-help group is often helpful in coping with this situation.   A short rationale for groups of erroneously charged and/or convicted is proposed, with a group meeting scheme for lay groups.

The sociolegal abuse of the erroneously charged (in criminal court, police stations, or social service agency, or juvenile court) is well established in both the professional and popular literature (Associated Press, 1987; Fattah, 1989; Feeney, Dill & Weir, 1983; Fricker, 1989; Gross, 1987; Huff, Rattner & Sagarin, 1986; Jones & McGraw, 1988; KIemke & Tiedman, 1981; McNamara, 1969; Pellegrino, 1979; Rattner, 1984; Tufts New England Medical Center, 1984).  Sad accounts of erroneously charged defendants also appear regularly in the popular press (Baxter, 1986; Lukezic, 1990; Rabinowitz, 1990) and on television (Frank, 1988; Priest, 1990).

The American system of justice, like all others, is less than 100% reliable.  There is an indeterminate amount of injustice attached to every system of justice simply because justice is pursued by humans.  "To err is human."  This reality is basic to any consideration of justice for whatever else justice may be, it is not error.  To control and reduce the level of error and thus injustice should be accepted by every citizen as central to the continued health, stability, and well being of the society.

Some writers blame erroneous charges on poor police investigation methods (Daly, 1988; Erickson, 1985; Stenross & Kleinman, 1989).  Another potential cause may be unprofessional prosecutorial practices (Jonakait, 1987; Meyers & Hagan, 1979).  Others suggest poor training and excessive caseloads of social service agencies (Baker & Vosburgh, 1977; Burak, 1988; Hentoff, 1988; Oehler, Snizek, & Mullins, 1989). There may be biases such as unresolved problems in gender issues in investigation (Dukes & Kean, 1989; Mass & Volpato, 1989).  Error may come in through mistaken or misled witnesses and victims (Cunningham, 1988; Underwager & Wakefield, 1989), poor media coverage of the issue (Frank, 1988; Gorelick, 1989; Johnson, 1988), and a general lack of legal protections for the falsely accused or convicted (Lane, 1988; MacKinnon, 1988; University of Penn. Law Review, 1970).

False allegations exert a heavy cost on both the individual and the family (Schultz, 1989) as well as on society (Trial, 1989; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988).  State organizations designed to protect children, adolescents and their families have voiced concern about the cost of criminal prosecutions and the loss of social service money, programs and staff if states should be forced to declare bankruptcy.  For example, the McMartin Day Center Case cost California taxpayers over fifteen million dollars and resulted in a verdict of not guilty (Daro, 1988; USA Today, 1990; Wayson & Funke, 1989).

Most parents charged or investigated for alleged child abuse have the accusations against them declared "unfounded" or "unsubstantiated" or are found to be not guilty by the legal system (Schultz, 1989; Besharov, 1985).  If premature and hasty action has been taken by law enforcement authorities, family members suffer false arrest victimization problems as a result (Horowitz, Wilner, Kaltreider, & Alvarez, 1980; Pellegrino, 1979; Perr, 1988).  Some persons falsely arrested may suffer some or all of the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (American Psychiatric Association, 1988).  Others may experience a variety of emotional disorders related to the stress of being arrested.  Some tactics employed by law enforcement appear deliberately calculated to increase the stress of the experience.  For example, persons accused are often arrested on late Friday afternoons so that they spend the entire weekend in jail before the system returns to functioning on Monday morning.

Handbooks to help the erroneously charged or convicted have been published and distributed aimed at helping to reduce stress, (Bryan, 1988; McMahon, 1988; Schultz & Hart, 1988).  Numerous chapters of VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws or Victims of Child Abuse Legislation) have emerged to give support to victims.  These two organization arose independently of each other but simultaneously.  Both began in September to October of 1984, one in California and one in Minnesota.  In one of the amazing coincidences that occur in history the groups came up with the same acronym VOCAL.  The simultaneous but independent emergence of these two groups, in itself, dramatically shows the deep and real need for such organizations.

The paper will discuss a intervention plan or model for those persons who suffer erroneous arrest or conviction and may be used by churches, citizen groups, international victim groups, victim service agencies, mental health agencies, family and children's service agencies, and those in private practice of the various professions.

Effects of Erroneous Charges

The response of the system in cases of actual abuse can be damaging to the victims and their families.  Baurmann (1983) studied the effects of the investigation and prosecution on victims in 8058 cases of actual sexual abuse in the German State of Lower Saxony and found that the effects of the investigation were sometimes more harmful than the abuse itself.  He termed this "secondary victimization."  Tyler and Brassard (1984) investigated the effects on families where the father had pled guilty to incest.  Their subjects reported serious financial problems and destroyed family relationships.  Tyler and Brassard concluded that the investigation and prosecution of incest results in a devastating blow to the family.  If the accusation is false, added to this will be frustration, shock, despair, and outrage.

The experience of being falsely accused and wrongly arrested or convicted of child abuse and/or child sexual abuse is worse than any other false or wrong arrest.  No other crime carries as much repulsion, distaste, and potential for harsh and punitive rejection by everybody around the person accused (Underwager, Clauss & Wakefield, 1990).  Being accused of murder appears to cause less revulsion and punitiveness than being accused of child sexual abuse.  Bail for an accused child sexual abuser is often set higher than for others, and, if convicted, sentences are harsher (Champion, 1988; Gebotys, Roberts, & DasGupta, 1988; Moran, 1987; UPI, 1990).  Imprisonment for a convicted child molester is fraught with greater danger and carries an inherent double-bind because of the frequent lack of treatment resources (Alexander, 1988; Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, 1984; Leibman, 1989; Milan & Evans, 1987).

The stress on persons falsely accused begins with misperceptions of the justice system.  The falsely charged individual and his family assumes that the government has the motivation and resources to charge only those who are, in fact, guilty.  Therefore, if the police are saying somebody did something wrong, they must be right.  After all, Sgt. Friday did not make mistakes and the Mounties always get their man.

The evidence in some child abuse charges is not very firm, secure, or convincing (particularly for sexual abuse with no physical evidence).  Constitutional rights (innocent until proven guilty, or the right to reasonable bail, due process, and the right to confrontation) are legal fictions to most defendants.  The burden, stress, and costs of defending against a false accusation, are placed on each family member which includes children.  It may also involve correction costs for the taxpayer or the building of new prisons.  Financial costs alone can ruin some families (Schultz, 1989).

Most parents who are investigated for suspected child abuse have the case "unsubstantiated" or "unfounded."  However, the investigation by police or child protective service workers is extremely traumatic and difficult.  Wakefield and Underwager (1988) observe:

The people who are the target of a false report of child abuse are subjected to enormous stress and trauma.  The determination that a report is unfounded can only be made after an investigation that violates the family's privacy.  To determine whether or not a child is being abused social workers and police must inquire into intimate and personal matters.  Friends, neighbors, teachers, day care workers, clergy may be questioned.  If the false report is of sexual abuse, the effects are even worse (p. 281).

Common responses to false arrest, investigation, and/or conviction include:

1. The person falsely accused loses confidence in his own judgments while at the same time realizing that the judgments of the CPS (Child Protection Services) workers are not accurate.  He may desperately try to resolve the contradiction by speculating whether he may have done something inadvertently or while he was asleep.  For example, he may say, "Maybe I had an erection but didn't realize it," or "We were taking a nap together, maybe I touched her in my sleep."  If this attempt to resolve the contradiction is made to the police, it is likely to be used as a confession.

2. The person still tries to believe that the system should do what is is supposed to do.  Despite the realization that the system has made a mistake in his case, he feels that the system should be necessary and meaningful to protect children who really need it.

3. The person begins to doubt himself and makes desperate efforts to maintain the concept that he is a good parent.

4. As the person resolves these contradictions by becoming convinced that the police and social service workers were completely mistaken and the investigation was unfair, he begins to view the system as evil and totalitarian.  An example of this is a bumper sticker allegedly seen in Texas that stated, "Have a nice day, kill a social worker."

5. The person feels alienated from friends and coworkers.  Even though he knows that he is innocent, he is self-conscious, ashamed, embarrassed, and questions what others believe about him.

6. The person suffers significant emotional trauma and stress.  He is depressed, anxious, nervous, scared, frustrated, and angry.  He may show signs of PTSD (Horowitz et al. 1980).  The most analogous comparable event is that of having a child killed.

No established social service, mental health agency, or law enforcement agency provides corrective experiences or treatment for the above normal responses.

Stages of Reactions to a False Accusation

Phases experienced by falsely accused victims may be divided into three stages.  The first stage (usually following arrest, having one's children removed and making bail) is usually characterized by disbelief, denial of feelings, shock, numbness, delusions, paranoid feelings, paralysis of defensive action and denial of normal sensory impressions.  The person may perceive the reality of his or her situation and feel trapped.

The second phase is characterized by frozen fright or pseudocalm.  There may be unrealistic perceptions of our government, or the belief that the courts, police, and social service workers will see their errors and rush to correct them with an apology to the victim.  Usually after 48 hours or more, if confined and interrogated, symptoms of trauma begin to manifest themselves.  The first symptom is psychological infantilism, and a reverting to early behavior that was used to combat problems (Symonds, 1980).  Some victims may feel guilty about their cooperation with police, social services, or the prosecutor's office, after they were made verbal promises of "getting to go home to your kids" for cooperating so well (referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome).  Some also feel guilty for succumbing to the "good cop, bad cop game" in interrogation where two officers play hard and soft.

Usually, at this point, victims begin to accept survivor status and develop new coping skills.  Relief may come from writing about the experience (Gans, 1989), reading others' "war" stories, counseling similar victims, or developing new hobbies or engaging in busy work around the home.

Some victims of false charges may blame their spouse for cooperating with state officials.  However, investigators usually threaten to have the unaccused parent declared an unfit parent or to be co-charged with child abuse unless the spouse cooperates with investigators.  This creates an tremendously stressful no-win situation for a person who believes in her spouse's innocence.

The third stage is characterized by emotional exhaustion which lasts until the body's resources are replenished.  A victim's ability to think, reason and act in self-defense is modified under stress.  The victim's family should be alerted to this normality.  Some victims will turn to drugs, alcohol, suicide or eating disorders to help mitigate PTSD symptoms.  Some symptoms persist and remain disabling, and such persons should be referred to a professional (McCain, Sakheim, & Abrahamson, 1988).

When it is established that an accusation has been false, apology from bureaucracies is seldom forthcoming.  The justice system does not provide for compensation to an innocent person who has been acquitted, or against whom all criminal charges have been dismissed (Rosenn, 1976).  This has led some persons to file civil lawsuits against the agencies or persons involved (Besharov, 1984 & 1985; Catterall, 1988; Underwager, Clauss, & Wakefield, 1990).  However, a major problem is overcoming the immunity granted to the agencies involved.  In the aftermath of the Jordan, Minnesota cases, many of the parents filed lawsuits against the officials who had arrested them and taken their children (Myers vs. Scott County, 1987) but everyone involved was given immunity, which was extended to similar cases in Minnesota (Diaz, 1989; Doe v. Hennepin County, 1988; Oberdorfer, 1987).

Victims of erroneous charges sense that they have power to correct, but need to overcome fairness myths in our justice or social service system, before they can challenge the welfare system or its funding agencies.  Falsely accused persons must be fueled by a sense of injustice that will propel them toward personal power.  Often, participation in a self-help group can aid in this.  Injustice and unfairness can create group consciousness and the call to action (Kidder & Fine, 1986).

However, although such self-help groups can be of tremendous help to the falsely accused, they may be difficult to establish and maintain.  The stress in the erroneously charged or convicted persons can prohibit group cooperation and group cohesion at first.  Groups of injustice experiencing victims who target the wrong beliefs when they organize may fail and never know why (Alinsky, 1946).  Erroneously charged victims may reject professional help that "blames the victim" but they will look to the group for empowerment and self-esteem building that will break up stereotypes in social agency and law enforcement practice.

Starting a Self-Help Group

What follows are suggestions for those who want to start a group for the erroneously charged or convicted.  The model is based primarily on the writing of Alinsky, 1946; DeJardins, 1977; Gamson, Fireman, & Rytina, 1982; Humm, 1979; Kidder, Boell, & Meyer, 1983; Lane, 1988; Nagayama Hall 1989; O'Neil et al. 1988; Scott, 1981; Self Help Reporter, 1989; Taylor, Wood, & Lichtman, 1983; and Wartman, 1983.  Many VOCAL chapters also have had experience with self-help groups and have prepared "survivor manuals" for those facing false charges (Bryan, 1988; MacMahon, 1989; Schultz & Hart, 1988).

1. Find victims or survivors for your group.  You may have to use publicity for this.  Use local TV, radio or bulletin boards, prepare news-releases, or volunteer for interviews on talk shows.  Start a group newsletter.

2. See how a meeting is conducted by other groups already established in your area, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Compassionate Friends (for parents whose children have died), a Colostomy Group or a Gay Rights Group.  Your main concern should be on format and style.  Note how group members are drawn out of their silence.

3. Establish a group purpose.  Have printouts made up in clear English that all members, potential members, and bureaucracies fully comprehend.  Main thrusts of group are usually educational (how system works), assistance-giving by members to each other (may consist of supportive activities such as going to court with each other, etc.) and stress reduction for the individuals or their families.

4. Determine democratic membership rules.  (Keep rules simple or use Roberts Rules of Order to avoid spending too much time on one case.)  Be anti-big, anti-power, but still be pragmatic.

5. Determine ideal group size and structure, remembering that consumers of a service (legal, social or group) are your producers of tomorrow.

6. Arrange a regular meeting place and time.  In general, it is better not to meet in each others homes.  Check out, in advance, local churches and/or public buildings, welfare offices, public schools, YMCAs, health departments, or public libraries.  Some meetings have been held in defense counsel office.

7. Your first meeting:

a. You must plan and lead your first session.

b. Line up (plan) your speakers ahead of time and be sure they will deliver material that will be helpful to the group.

c. Have your coffee (tea or soft drink) breaks well timed in terms of group fatigue (groups usually meet in the evening after a full day's employment) and the attention span for the speakers

d. Prepare all publicity (ads, flyers, locations) well ahead of your actual meetings.

e. Disseminate all publicity as to meetings yourself.

f. Arrange to have writers, typists, artists, mimeograph machines well in advance of usage.

g. Arrange to handle appropriately all fees, cash, and membership dues. Check out bonding laws in your state (always have receipt book ready).

h. Write letters for your group, with their permission, on your group's stationary.

i. Form a reliable phone tree, use it to get members to attend and act as phone contact.

8. Get group members to share accounts of social service abuse or arrests, conviction and what each arrestee did to survive the stress.  Self-esteem and success should be reinforced.

9. Be consistent in recovery plans for members.  Referral to sympathetic professionals should be made when a member's symptoms prove dysfunctional or persistent.

Victims of erroneous charges or convictions are entitled to group help by lay persons because they have suffered a personal injury, not because they are inadequate.  They seldom need a therapist, they need support.  The distress and emotional trauma following false arrest may undermine falsely accused persons' ability to cope with their situation, and the group can provide support for these victims and their families.

Solomon's four group strategies may be used by each group member (Solomon, 1985). These are: 1) to enable all group members to survive and help themselves, 2) to link with others suffering the same problem on a regular basis, 3) to help individuals obtain needed resources (lawyers, social workers, bondsman, etc.), and, 4) to prime the various related systems to respond differently in the future.  Through these strategies, the isolation, powerlessness and hopelessness can be reduced for each member.

More concrete group activities that the leader may want to use are a media-watch (TV, radio, newspapers), a speakers bureau, a non-violent demonstration in front of a welfare office or court, lobbying the legislature to change agency practices, fundraising for the groups' future needs, surveys of the extent of the problem of false accusations, and/or asking the county prosecutor to investigate the fairness of social services investigations.


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Additional Suggested Reading

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Ekman, P. (1989). Why Kids Lie (Paperback). New York: MacMillan.

Family Matters Project (1984). Communication for empowerment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Finkelhor, D., Hotaling, G., Lewis, I., & Smith, C. (1989). Sexual abuse and its relationship to later sexual satisfaction, marital status, religion, and attitudes. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 4(4) 379-399.

Harris, M. (1986). Justice Denied (Out of Print). Toronto: MacMillan.

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Miller, C. (1987). State sponsored abuse. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 4(3/4) 10, 1587 - 11, 1597.

Newlund, S. (1987, January 29). Counseling urged for child abuse workers. Minneapolis Star Tribune, p. 7B.

Patten, S., Gelz, Y., Jones, B., & Thomas, D. (1989). PTSD and the treatment of sex abuse. Social Work, 34(3), 197-203.

Smith, K., Simmons, V., & Thames, T. (1989). Fix the women: An intervention into an organizational conflict based on parallel process thinking. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 25, 11-29.

Straker, C., Moosa, F., & Sanctuaries Counseling Team (1988). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A reaction to state supported child abuse and neglect. Child Abuse & Neglect, 12, 383-395.

* LeRoy G. Schultz is a professor of social work and can be contacted at 708 Allen Hall, Suite 710, West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia 26506.  [Back]

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