The False Child Molestation Outbreak of the 1980s: An Explanation of the Cases Arising in the Divorce Court
In 1981, Congress enacted legislation to deal with
actual cases of child abuse by requiring the states, as a condition for
the funding of state programs, to enact mandatory reporting laws. California's statute requires all child care custodians, medical, and
nonmedical practitioners, defined to include teachers, nurses, and
dental hygienists, among others, to report suspected cases of child
abuse — sexual, physical, and emotional. Failure to report is a
misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
In addition to defining sexual abuse to include
virtually any inappropriate sexual stimulation of a child, the statute
defines "reasonable suspicion" to mean "that it is
objectively reasonable for a person to entertain such a suspicion, based
upon facts that could cause a reasonable person in the like position,
drawing when appropriate on his or her training and experience, to
suspect child abuse" (California Penal Code Sec. 11166[a]).
That nondefinition is a major rational problem area
in dealing with this emotionally overloaded issue. It has contributed to
the bringing of some 1.2 million reports of suspected abuse in 1981 and
1.9 million reported cases in 1985, according
to findings released March 2, 1987, by the House Select Committee on
Children, Youth, and Families, in a report entitled "Abused
Children in America: Victims of Official Neglect."
Behavioral indicators of child abuse, according to
the prosecutor's handbook put out by the National Center for the
Prosecution of Child Abuse, of Alexandria, Virginia, a subsidiary of the
National District Attorneys Association, may include overly submissive
behavior, aggressive acting out or incorrigible behavior, school related
excesses, sleep disturbances, bed-wetting and "clingingness."
Such broadly defined so called indicators have a grave potential
for contributing to a false accusation, because children who have not
been sexually molested may exhibit such behavior.
There are other error factors which either cause false reports to be made or contribute to the failure
to recognize a false report.
In the divorce context, this may be seen when an
overly suspicious mother tells the child protection intake workers that
she suspects the father for some reason, such as vaginal redness. The
young child, under the mother's questioning, may acknowledge the father
touched her "there" during weekend visitation. The worker
interrogates the child and develops the story. A report is written and
submitted to a court which cuts the father off from the child, who
remains with the mother. Criminal proceedings may result based on the
uncorroborated word of children as young as three. Fathers have been
bankrupted, emotionally wrenched, and deprived wrongly of their children
based on circumstances such as this. Some may have been erroneously
convicted as well.
I would ascribe it to a failure of reason in the
context of an emotional situation.
The Salem Experience
There have been notorious examples of rational
failure in the past. The Salem, Massachusetts witch-hunt of 1692 is the
classic irrational child molestation case of all time, with eleven girls
ages eight through seventeen instrumental in causing twenty executions
and 130 condemnations to death on the charge of witchcraft.
More precisely, the Salem children's parents and the
surrounding adults were responsible for the outbreak, not the children.
The adults were acting as child advocates, working for the best
interests of the children.
Witchcraft was felony child molestation, a capital
crime, in 1692. The myth in which virtually all of the Puritans believed
was that there was a devil, who operated through intermediaries, termed
witches if female, wizards if male, to harm or torment innocent people,
such as the children of the village.
When Dr. Griggs was called to examine children who had adopted "odd postures,"
"foolish, ridiculous speeches," "distempers," and
"fits," he diagnosed the "Evil Hand" or malefic
witchcraft. Perhaps, believing in the devil, he expected to find his
The household of the Rev. Samuel Parris, in which the
first witchcraft accusations were developed, was irritated and
disturbed. Parris was at war with his congregation and his town and felt
betrayed by their failure to pay his salary, which included corn and firewood,
essential to withstanding the winter.
The context may be likened to that of a divorcing
family, a microcosm coming to an end, with attendant fear and anxiety,
marked by bitterness and ever increasing ruthlessness in fighting, with
the children used as weapons. Had Dr. Griggs, and the real experts, the
ministers, objectivity and sufficient distance from the problem they
might have looked for the cause of the children's behavior, and
subsequent allegations, in the context of what preceded them.
From the distance of three centuries, it seems more
The children, according to Boyer and Nissenbaum (Salem Possessed,
Harvard U. Press, 1974), were
experimenting with fortune telling on the subject of their future
status, including love and marriage. They conjured with sieves, keys,
peas, nails, and horseshoes. They foretold the future with a crystal
ball, and perceived a specter, like that of a coffin, which frightened
Questioned by Puritan elders, they at first resisted
answering, one supposes because of the sexual content of the imaginings
One also supposes that the children of 1692 were as
familiar with what witchcraft manifestations were supposed to be like as
our children are about fantastic space characters, or a Halloween witch
or ghost. "Whoo ... a ghost," immediately conjures up the
specter in our minds, even now, of an ephemeral creature shrouded in
white from another world who passes through walls and does mischief, to
the fright of children and believers.
A Puritan elder's interrogation might be a
frightening thing to a child, just as any child might be apprehensive in
admitting a sexual curiosity to a strict adult who professed against
such things as being sinful.
Rumors began going around and, although resistant at
first, the girls, "under the pressure of adult questioning, had
finally named as their tormenters" three women who were accused as
witches. One even confessed, as many more later did.
Thus the Salem witchcraft cases had even more proof
than many uncorroborated child molestation cases today; they had
corroboration, confessions from the witches themselves. What better proof could there
Unless one believes in witches, and the confessions
of witchcraft extracted under some pressure by interrogators, the
twentieth century rational analysis of such cases would require looking
to other causes, and treating the children's testimony not as direct
evidence of their claim of molestation by a witch, but as circumstantial
evidence that something very disturbing had occurred in their lives.
This would require some investigation to determine that the case had
nothing to do with witches.
I think we would focus on what was disturbing in the
children's lives, perhaps the uncertainty of their future as a family on
the frontier of a wilderness populated by warlike savages with winter
coming on and a father unsupported by his community and railing about it
both in the pulpit and at home.
We might also look to the misinterpretation placed by
the adults on the unfamiliar behavior of children.
Finally, we would look to the interrogation process
by which the allegations themselves were first developed by adults, to
see whether the statements of the children had been contaminated by the
expressions of the adults.
I suggest that this would be a rational approach to
understanding both Salem's, and today's experiences with uncorroborated
molestation charges developed by adults from the mouths of children,
following some not-clearly-understood behavior or appearance.
The Rational Approach
Child abuse cases are peculiarly difficult for those
in authority to deal with rationally for a number of reasons. The
underlying causes of difficulty are the emotions such cases engender,
together with the pressure to "do something" right away to
"protect the child" from the imagined abuse. The result, in
the false cases, may be characterized as an order amounting to a
judicial kidnap, the taking of the child away from an innocent parent,
usually the father, and delivering the child into the arms of a
wrongdoing mother, who is strongly motivated to support the newly
established status quo.
What are the rational approach problem areas in the divorce,
or hostile context?
Let us first look at the meaning of the rational, or
A rational approach requires the employment of reason,
not emotion, to resolve disputed propositions, through
argument supported by fact and theory, accepted, after critical
analysis, as comporting with human experience. It requires that a demand
for a reason, or reasoned objection, be met with a piece of
purportedly sound reasoning based on acceptable facts.
Sound reasoning requires that the proponent of a
proposition, i.e. the child protective service worker, or the
prosecutor, advance facts sufficient to warrant the action proposed to
be taken. The proposed action is often drastic, such as removal of the
child from a parent, or, it may result in imprisonment for long periods.
The less drastic the consequences, and the more emergent the need
to take immediate protective action, the less proof
required to do so describes how the legal process actually functions.
In child abuse cases the amount of proof required to
remove a child temporarily from a parent is trivial. The mere reported
statement of the child is often sufficient, particularly when the
reporting party is a person wearing the mantle of the flimsiest
authority or competency, such as a so-called child-advocate or social
The rational approach requires that no adverse action
be taken on insufficient proof, and that reasonable objections must be
shown not to exist before adverse action can justifiably be taken.
Rational Approach Problems Areas
The Cause of
The misinterpretation of a young child's account of an
overnight visit with the father is the most common cause of a false
report. If the intake worker is biased towards believing the accusation
developed from the child by the mother, the stage is set for travesty.
The child will be cut off from the father and kept with the mother, even
if the story is false, because the worker will either fall to detect the
falsity or will contribute to its development.
One supervisor of a child abuse intake unit in a city
hospital, a psychiatrist, described how she had once missed diagnosing a
valid case of abuse, only to learn that the child had been found dead
hanging in a closet later. Such experiences, and the teaching of them,
may encourage some child abuse intake workers to persist in questioning
a child until the child says what the worker is asking about and
wants to hear.
Since the child is frequently brought to the child
advocate by someone suspecting sexual abuse, and the subject
will have been discussed with the child, directly or within earshot
before arrival, a persistent questioner may be rewarded by achieving a
reiteration. This is particularly true when the child is shown unusual
and suggestive dolls with disproportionately large penises and vaginas.
The misinterpretation of the child's account of a visit with father is the result of observer bias,
ineptitude, frustration, and the like. The riskiest area involves
improper questioning technique. Questioning is improper when it supplies
new words or concepts which may elevate the child's level of sexual
sophistication, or suggest details the child hadn't uttered.
The reinforcement of selected responses by reacting
positively or negatively to the child's statements and the projection of
the questioner's own emotions, fears and concerns, gives several
messages to the child. She learns that these things are expected and it
is okay to say them. She experiences that she will be rewarded with
love, sympathy, and protection, on a personal level. She is told that
she will he helping daddy get needed "help" to prevent him
from molesting again.
In the hostile context, particularly where the mother
questions the child after every weekend visit with the father, such
questioning can have an influential effect on the child in terms of her
level of sexual sophistication. It can also affect her willingness to
take the mother's side in a fight where the custody of the child is the
mother's desired goal, and perhaps eventually, the child's as well.
The critical factors comprising this risky scenario
include the domination by one in a superior position over a weaker
person who is dependent on the superior person for continued unpunished
existence, and the essentials of life, such as food, shelter, clothing,
and emotional peace, particularly the latter. Indoctrination through
confrontive, suggestive questioning in a hostile and fearful context
provides the necessary information. This information is later repeated,
orally or through drawings, dolls, or "play therapy" — devices
used to entice a child into reiterating what it is she is supposed to
A motive on the part of the stronger to resist losing the possession, loyalty, or control of the weaker
represents domination over an enemy. This, together with isolation and
time to work on the dependent one, will result in a succumbing to the
will of the stronger, a surrender, an accommodation. This occurs when
the ability to resist is worn down in the interest of surviving in
How effective is this process?
This describes the Korean War situation which gave
the term "brainwash" popular currency in 1952, when 22
American POWs, ranking as high as lieutenant colonel, denounced their
mother country, turned coat, and refused repatriation.
Other examples: "Stockholm Syndrome,"
describing hostages of armed bank robbers who held them for several days
in a vault while surrounded by police. Several of the women "fell
in love" with their captors. One later married hers.
Patti Hearst: the kidnapped hostage of a terrorist group, held in isolation for long periods, beaten,
and dominated, physically and emotionally, ultimately was
"turned." She then cooperated in their crimes, for which she
was convicted of having participated of her own free will. Her sentence
was later commuted, I think, because of reasonable doubt that she really
acted of her own free will.
Peaceful intact families, where each parent supports
the other in the role of loving parent and protects the child's sense of
emotional security, rarely produce children who falsely accuse of
sexual molestation. This is seen most often in warring families where
one parent vies for the child's attention and love, and may use the
child as a lever for the destruction of the other parent.
In a divorce, the elements of dependence, isolation,
hostile context, bitterness, increasingly ruthless fighting, motivation,
indoctrination, and time to take effect, are present along with the
child's need to accommodate for the sake of emotional peace. If the
price of peace is the destruction of the father, it is not too high for
a child disturbed from living in such an anxious, conflicted state,
particularly where the mother represents the hope of refuge.
One would think that anything the child says in such
a context would be treated as were the statements of the POWs, that is,
brainwashed, coerced, not the product of free will, suspect, subject to
confirmation by independent, dependable evidence before being accepted.
No corroboration, no faith.
This is not the invariable response. Numerous are the
examples of innocent accused fathers who liken their experience to the
Salem witch-hunts, with good reason.
Later, the POWs returned, recanting and acknowledging
the indoctrination problem. Anne Putnam, in 1706, abjectly recanted her
Salem witchcraft accusations, in writing and in public, attributing them
to adult influence. Even the judges recognized they had shed innocent
blood and prayed forgiveness in their churches.
What stopped the Salem executions was the fact that
the newly arrived governor's wife, Lady Phips, having expressed sympathy
for the condemned, found herself accused by the children, following
which her husband abolished the special court he had established
to handle the outbreak of cases. This effectively put a stop to the
prosecutions which were increasingly being questioned as more and more
people, mostly women, were being condemned.
In the outbreak we see today, the governor's wife has
yet to be falsely accused. We see sufficient numbers of ordinary people
falsely accused to give rise to support groups protesting
the medico-legal response to the phenomenon.
Weapons of Choice
In the divorce wars, each on the field of combat has
a weapon of choice.
First I should note that I have never heard of a case
in which a father sexually abused his child to get back at his ex-wife.
Incest is a differently motivated pathology entirely. The typical male
response to the provocation, frustration, and rage of divorce, is to
drink or use violence against his wife, perhaps in the presence of the
children, or both.
The wife's weapon of choice is not violence, but the
child. She gets back at the husband by depriving him of the only thing
out of the broken marriage he dearly loves, the child. The child is her
leverage to insure cooperation and punishment for a recalcitrant and
deserving husband. If she can point out to the child examples of his
misbehavior, she is well on her way toward succeeding in the alienation
The role of the mother in developing a false
accusation may have causative factors in addition to her own hatred,
spite, and desire for revenge. She may feel guilty for some part she
played in the breakup of the family. She also may achieve three positive
emotional gains by succeeding in developing an accusation out of the
First, she secures the "buying-in" of the
child to her hostile view of the father.
Second, in the eyes of herself, the child, her family
and friends, the mother goes up a peg and the father goes way down,
because even if the accusation is not formally acted upon, the stigma
becomes part of the family lore, and the father is always seen in some
degree as being tainted. I see this as an attempt to achieve a
Third, what do we naturally do when we feel guilty
about something bad we've done? We relieve the guilt by shifting the
blame. We point out someone who is even more blameworthy.
No matter what misconduct a woman is guilty of, from
sex, to drugs, to child neglect, it is not as bad as child sexual
molestation perpetrated by the father. Guilt transference is the first
resort of the scoundrel.
A hysterical mother, obsessed with the thought that
her children may be victimized sexually by the hated father, is apt to
go looking for signs where none exist, and find them anyway. Experienced
child protective service workers have come to expect mothers to
bring young daughters in on Mondays following visitation, with redness,
rash, or itching precisely because fathers sometimes avoid cleansing the
child's vaginal area thoroughly because of a reluctance to touch there.
Psychiatrists are aware of cases in which two people,
a mother and daughter, for example, feed off each other's mental
abnormality such that they share the same delusions. It is doubtful that the average
child protective service worker or police investigator is competent to
detect or rule out such a process during an intake interview.
In the divorce wars, the children's prime weapons are
acting out, and accommodating. No doubt there are many other behaviors
as well. Areas to be investigated to understand the child
in a conflicted situation include the relationship to each parent,
mental abnormality of the child or parent, conflict in loyalty towards
each parent, anxiety over being separated from a different parent twice
weekly over visitation, a sense of powerlessness, an undeveloped
conscience, such that the child does not know the significance of unreal
things spoken or acted out, and the normal attraction that a child has
for the opposite-sex parent at various stages of development. Finally,
the child's stage of development, including the ability to accurately
perceive, interpret, and recount circumstances of adult significance
requires focused attention.
The Causes of the Failure to Detect False Reports
The myth current in Salem, Massachusetts, 1692, was
that there was a devil who tormented children through adult
intermediaries who were in league with him as witches. Today's equally
malefic myth is that repeated in the brochure of San Francisco General
Hospital's child abuse intake unit termed CASARC, for
Child-Adolescent Sexual Assault Resource Center. SFGH is the publicly
funded county hospital. Its brochure states:
"Always believe the child who discloses sexual
abuse. Children NEVER lie about this problem" (Emphasis in
An attorney who fancies herself a
"child-advocate" (self-proclaimed, often court
appointed, and who is now a Juvenile Court referee with decision-making power
over suspected cases of abuse) lectures "Children deserve to be
Only truth deserves to be believed, and neither the
children nor their advocates have a monopoly on it. Nonsense to the
contrary contributes to the failure to detect falsity even where there
is a willingness to look competently, which is rare.
"Looking competently" is difficult to
achieve. It presupposes training. It requires the opportunity to look,
that is uncontaminated access to the child, the mother, and the father.
It requires hard work and a willingness to put aside bias, cant, and
emotionalism. Distractions such as laziness, politics, and lack of
funding to provide the necessary time and manpower get in the way.
It is difficult to get at the facts by ordinary
investigative means. Often the facts are not properly developed.
The result is the failure to identify valid and invalid
cases, and the tendency to treat more cases as valid than exist.
How bad are the rational failures of inept
child-advocates? I call it the trick mirror approach. I see it in
arguments over the validity of cases. The false premise is that the
facts support the truth of the child's uncorroborated accusation, but if
the facts are otherwise, the accusation is still true.
(1) Consistency in the repetition of the story indicates
truthfulness, whereas inconsistency also indicates
truthfulness, because the child is disturbed over having been molested.
(2) Timeliness in reporting the distressing
event indicates truthfulness, whereas delay also indicates truthfulness,
because the child is disturbed and thus reluctant to talk about the
(3) The presence of graphic details indicates
truthfulness whereas the absence of details also indicates
truthfulness, for the same reason.
(4) That the child sticks to the story
indicates truthfulness, whereas if the child recants, this also
indicates truthfulness, because of the disturbing consequences of
relating the traumatic experience.
On this latter point, I suspect that some children
would sometimes like to extricate themselves from having made a false
report, but are not permitted to do so.
(5) If the father confesses, the accusation is
true; if he denies guilt,
it is also true, because admitting guilt is too shameful in these cases.
Many people acknowledge wrongdoing, including men
who have molested children. There is no reliable study concluding that
there is a greater reluctance in these cases than others. You would expect an innocent man to deny wrongdoing.
That is what you would
do if you were falsely accused of anything.
Compounding all of the above difficulties in thinking
clearly, California has enacted a statute, and its courts interpret it
in a manner insuring that a competent investigation not only will not
performed by the authorities, but will not be permitted on behalf
of an innocent accused.
The statute, California Penal Code 1112, was enacted
at the urging of women's rights organizations to protect rape victims
from being compelled to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, on the ground
that it was intrusive, and that men who brought criminal charges were
not compelled to undergo the same. This statute is now applied to
prohibit a child psychiatrist or psychologist from interviewing the
child in a maternally developed, uncorroborated, charge of incest
brought by a child as young as age four, even where obvious
signs of disturbance can be cited as preceding the accusation on the
part of both the mother and the child.
Not the least of the rational problem areas is the
tendency, perhaps unintentionally, to shift the burden
of proof to the accused father and to expect him to explain how the
mother could have induced the child to so testify, while at the same
time not permitting him competent access to the child or the mother.
Prosecutors say, "This kid is good, she couldn't be
making this up, she couldn't know about these things." She could if
she were asked about it by the mother. The mother's denial should be
taken skeptically. In divorce cases, undue influence should be presumed
until eliminated factually.
Police and prosecutors ask suspects if they will take a polygraph examination.
If the authorities have to ask, they are
acknowledging doubt and they need to prove the case out of the suspect's
mouth. It is not a burden he should willingly shoulder.
There is the tendency to lower the burden of proof to mere nothingness, to have intake
workers testify as to what they think they recall the child was saying,
in order to spare the supposedly molested child the
"additional" trauma of testifying in court, or confronting the
person she accuses.
Until these problems are effectively dealt with,
we'll see many more false cases before the Governor's wife is accused
and a stop is put to the child molestation witch-hunts that crop up with
I suggest that if the emotionalism is recognized, and
put aside, as we focus on a rational, analytical approach, we can
distinguish the valid from the invalid cases, and bring fewer false
Thomas Brattle, of Brattleboro, Massachusetts in 1692
was the first to proclaim that innocent blood had been shed. Shortly
after Increase Mather, president of Harvard College, wrote A Case of Conscience,
declaring his misgivings about the
accusations and what served as proof of them. In it he uttered his
famous dictum: "It were better that a hundred witches
go free than one innocent person be condemned."
The prosecution and the removal of a father from his
child on the basis of the reasoning criticized here is the shedding of
innocent blood. When a father has been put in jeopardy of his liberty,
and wrongfully deprived of seeing his child for years, innocent blood
has been shed when the falsity could have been discovered beforehand,
but was not.
Selected Bibliography on the Salem Experience
Aymar, B., & Sagarin, E. (1967). Salem
witchcraft. In A Pictorial History of the World's Great Trials ()()
(Chapter 7). New York: Bonanza Books.
Boyer, P., & Nissenbaum, S. (1974). Salem Possessed: The
Social Origins of Witchcraft ()(). Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Hansen, C. (1969). Witchcraft at Salem ()(). New York: George Braziller, Inc.
Karlsen, C. F. (1987). The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New
Norton & Company.
MacFarlane, A. (1970). Witchcraft
in Tudor and Stuart England (). New York:
Harper and Row.
Starkey, M. L. (1949). The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern
Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials
York: Time Incorporated, Book Division.
The Salem Witchcraft Papers (3 vols.) ()
New York: Da Capo Press. (Verbatim transcripts of the legal documents
of the Salem witchcraft outbreak of 1692. Compiled 1938 by
the Works Progress Administration. Edited and with
Introduction and Index by P. Boyer and S. Nissenbaum.)
Thomas, K. (1971). Religion
and the Decline of Magic (). London.
Upham, C. W. (1959) (2 Vols. Reprint edition). Salem Witchcraft
()(). New York: Frederick Ungar
Publishing Co. American Classics Edition. First published 1867.
Weissman, R. (1984). Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th Century
Massachusetts (). Amherst,
Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts
* Robert Sheridan is an attorney and can be contacted
at 735 Montgomery Street, Suite 210, San Francisco, CA 94111. [Back]