Investigation and Case Management Issues and Strategies

Gordon J. Blush and Karol L. Ross*

ABSTRACT: Sexual abuse allegations arising in the context of a custody and visitation dispute provide a difficult challenge to professionals.  These cases are often misunderstood and mismanaged, which does great harm to all parties involved.  Cases which turn out to be false are characterized by a loss of control, usually in the early stages of the allegation.  Frequently observed case management problems are described and suggestions made as to how to manage such cases more effectively.  Professionals must be open-minded and sensitive to both the rights of children and of adults.  Without more objective guidelines and more effective procedures, humane and meaningful control of the sexual abuse case is not possible.

We have spent the last decade performing family evaluations and offering custody recommendations as psychologists working in a court-connected clinic in Michigan.  Several years ago we began seeing increasing numbers of cases in which sexual abuse allegations arose during custody and visitation disputes.  We have now consulted on hundreds of such cases, both within our own court and in others.  We have found these cases to be protracted and emotionally difficult to investigate and manage.  We have also learned a great deal about both effective and ineffective investigative and case management strategies.

In sexual abuse allegations during a divorce, we have observed a repeated problem the mismanaged, misdiagnosed, misrepresented, misinterpreted, and misunderstood case.  We are struck by how little real information most professionals acquire before an accusation becomes a fait accompli.  Professionals who do not clarify and investigate before reaching conclusions and who rush to premature closure are acting irresponsibly and unethically.  Professionals who, either wittingly or unwittingly, exacerbate, accelerate, or escalate cases rather than approach the issues in a problem-solving and rational manner are doing grievous harm to all parties involved.

With increasing frequency, the media reports child sexual abuse horror stories of false allegations.  What usually is unreported are the details of the specific conditions that created the false stories.  In reviewing these cases, we have observed that a critical management agency or individual always contributed to the loss of control of the case, usually in the early stages of the allegations.  For example, in the McMartin Preschool Case in California, the Manhattan Beach Police Department, upon becoming aware of allegations from one parent, sent a letter of inquiry to about 450 parents throughout the community.  In the letter, they asked the parents if they had any information regarding similar complaints from their own children.  Historical perspective shows how community hysteria was triggered by that one central phenomenon the letter of inquiry.  (The mother of the alleged first victim was later identified as having a history of psychosis.)

Other experts also report that the primary investigating agent is frequently the key factor in the loss of control of the case.  This agent might be the initial investigator for the child protective services agency in a given state or community.  Attorney General Van de Kamp concluded it was a young child protection social worker who was not controlled by either her agency or the sheriff that caused the Bakersfield false allegations.  It might also be a police agent or a mental health worker.  In Michigan, where most of our data has been collected, it is often a protective services worker, and an employee of the State Department of Social Services.

Individuals who initially receive complaints are in a precarious and difficult situation.  We do not necessarily criticize their intentions or good will.  However, their investigative behavior is often inadequate, inept and naive.  The fault, however, usually does not lie directly with these front line workers.  They have often been poorly trained and have learned to investigate these cases with biases based on unfounded beliefs (e.g., children don't lie; children cannot talk about things they have not experienced; there is an epidemic of sexual abuse).  Most of the time they are also over-worked with far too many cases to manage any of them adequately.

In addition, many long-term employees, often rigidly and defensively, hold tightly to their positions.  They become argumentative and belligerent when confronted.  They appeal to other legal agencies to support them in their pursuit of prosecution once their investigation is challenged.  Thus, they become key players in escalating the loss of control.  We have little respect for the investigator who arbitrarily, unilaterally, and capriciously pursues personal perceptions without observing a check-and-balance system.

Another key complication arises with therapists.  They listen to and accept uncritically innuendo, direct allegation, or other inflammatory information.  They quickly become partisans and allies of the complaining parent.  They show no awareness of the reality and dangers of transference and countertransference.  They often react by single-handedly and directly attempting to control the situation in the name of protecting the child.  Their overzealous concern can create disastrous outcomes.  They draft hostile documents and cling tenaciously to investigative proofs that do not hold up under scrutiny.  They communicate in frightening tones to other adults involved in the situation.  They make inflammatory and often exaggerated claims.  They advise and admonish authority figures such as judges with extreme and overblown statements.

Despite good intentions and noble purpose, all of these behaviors deserve harsh censure as ill-advised and destructive activities that are inappropriate in the management of these difficult cases.  The insistence of mental health agents that they are professionally obligated to take action is certainly understandable.  The problem is the arrogance, imprudence, and fervor with which they exercise this obligation.

One of the great umbrellas under which mental health professionals operate is the legal opinion that they may decide something has happened to a child, but they may not specify exactly what happened or who was the perpetrator.  However, often by default, the professional accepts the scenario communicated by the presenting adult and covertly or overtly endorses the guilt of the accused.  (In sexual allegations in divorce cases, the non-custodial parent is usually the accused.)  This clinical license is equally as dangerous as the clinical license of protective services workers which mandates that they cannot be held individually liable for their professional role behaviors.

Another source of management problems comes from classroom teachers and school guidance counselors.  They may become involved in the escalation of sexual abuse allegation cases either through their own initiative or by being pulled in by parents or other agents.  While they are legally mandated to report suspected abuse, educational professionals are not in a position to contribute to the ongoing investigation.  The school is an inappropriate vehicle for these investigations, and it should remain only a reporting agency.  However, we find school personnel are far less likely than other agents to send sexual abuse allegation cases out of control.

We have seen much havoc and personal disaster heaped upon alleged victims and alleged perpetrators as a result of case mismanagement.  If we were to reveal some of the incredible injustices that have been perpetrated in mismanaged cases, they would likely be discounted as gross exaggeration or perhaps even pure fiction.  It is crucial to understand and appreciate the potentially catastrophic results of improperly managed sexual abuse allegation cases.  These may include loss of livelihood, personal economic ruin, imprisonment, and severe psychological trauma.  Victim and victimizer are often blurred in the frenzied justification of protecting the child.  Two books which vividly illustrate the personal devastation caused by case mismanagement in sexual abuse allegations are A Question of Innocence by Dr. Laurence Spiegel (1986) and Bad Moon Rising by Dana Ferguson (1988).

One of the more disconcerting aspects of the mismanaged cases is the total lack of awareness by the professionals of what happens to a child if the adults and professionals make a mistake.  It is not a benign, innocuous, or innocent experience when a nonabused child is treated by the system as if the child has been abused (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988).  A non-abused child is taught to be a victim.  A nonabused child treated as if the alleged abuse were real may be trained by adults to be psychotic.  In these instances the mismanaged case causes emotional abuse.

The Ideal A Multidisciplinary Team

We have described case mismanagement as a situation in which individuals, agencies, and/or the system unilaterally take matters into their own hands and fast forward their own perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and ideas without using rational investigative techniques.  This approach convolutes the facts of a case, making it exceedingly difficult to ever sort out what, in reality, occurred.  In an effort to address and remedy this problem, we have developed an investigation format and strategy.  We are convinced that a proper investigation process is the only effective means for controlling and managing these cases.

The most effective approach to case investigations is the formation of a multidisciplinary investigation team that is activated when a sexual abuse allegation first occurs (Schetky & Boverman, 1985).  This multidisciplinary team should include members from several communities: medical, behavioral science (especially individuals with forensic and investigative expertise), mental health (individuals with therapeutic and clinical treatment expertise), police (investigative experts), law enforcement (members of the prosecutor's office), and social services.  A social services agent would be charged with facilitation of child care management of the case on behalf of the State.

The multidisciplinary team should first evaluate the allegation in terms of its content and context.  It should carefully interview the presenting adult prior to any extensive inquiry of others (including the child).  Obviously, if the allegation includes physical evidence (bruises, scratches, inflammation, bleeding, etc.), the medical examination team would immediately evaluate the child.  However, the medical evaluation team should do nothing other than carefully observe and record the physical data.  Investigative inquiry of the alleged victim during the physical examination is inappropriate and could result in erroneous hypotheses.  Interview and interrogation should initially be only with the presenting adult.

If there are any unusual circumstances concerning the presenting adult and the alleged victim, those circumstances need to be identified.  The team can then define what aspects of the case should be carefully investigated through interview, interrogation, and documentation; who needs to be interviewed and interrogated concerning which aspects; and who is the most appropriate professional to conduct each aspect of inquiry.  An overall game plan needs to be formulated by the investigation team before random, multiple data gathering occurs.

One of the most critical aspects of this game plan is to carefully develop the content of any interrogation of the child prior to that interview.  The interview should then be conducted by the most appropriate team member, the entire session should be videotaped, and no one else should repeat the interview.  In her work MacFarlane (1986) states that there is a definite loss of information through interview repetition.

Although these recommendations are idealistic, we believe it is important to initiate the discussion of case management with an ideal goal that can be aimed at by the professional community.  Many communities claim that they have such multidisciplinary teams in place, but, in our experience, that is not yet true.  There are trauma evaluation teams, law enforcement special investigation teams, special mental health units for treatment of alleged victims and their families, etc.  However, fully functioning, organized multi-disciplinary investigative teams do not exist.  Instead, hap-hazard, rambling, protracted, and adversarial "crazy quilt" configurations are the general rule.

A great deal of innovative and creative activity could be undertaken in the development of such a multidisciplinary investigative team, and we encourage professionals to promote that development.  However, in the meantime, we must address the realities that surround existing cases.  The following are procedures that must be employed by professionals (regardless of agency affiliation) to prevent out-of-control chaos and disaster.

The Investigation Beginning Strategies

The First Step

When a sexual abuse allegation is made, the presenting adult should be directly interrogated about the specific nature of the complaint as he or she understands it.  Specifically, how did the complainant come to understand or suspect that abuse occurred?  Did the person directly observe physical evidence?  How did the person observe this evidence?  Was he or she bathing the child, "inspecting" the child, getting the child ready for bed, etc.?  Using this strategy, we have heard some very peculiar scenarios describing the discovery of physical "evidence."  These can provide first clues and possible red flags to alert the investigator to the possibility of false allegations.

The investigator should then determine if a medical examination is needed.  If the presenting adult has observed or believes there is physical evidence of abuse, the medical evaluation should address only those specific evidences reported.  The examining physician and other medical personnel should, under no circumstances, directly question the child about what happened.  They should merely report what they have observed.  They may offer possible interpretations of their findings, but that would be all that is allowed.  If the presenting adult does not report physical evidence, obtrusive and protracted medical examination procedures should be avoided.  (Keep in mind that there is no agreement that physical evidence provides conclusive knowledge about the etiology of the observed physical signs.)

Once the investigator has arranged for an appropriate medical examination, he or she must immediately ask the presenting adult who he or she believes is the alleged perpetrator.  Very skillful probing must be done whenever divorce, visitation disputes, or other domestic problems precede the sexual abuse complaint.  The investigator must clarify with as much precision as possible the adult's perception of what has happened to the child no matter what that perception is based upon (the child's report, a non-victim child's report, etc.).

The presenting adult should also be questioned as to exactly how the knowledge or suspicions first developed.  Although it is extremely difficult to pin down this abstract process of identifying cognitive or emotional awareness of the incident, to do so can provide acutely important information.  It is important to listen carefully to the articulation of the allegations and note any subtle contradictions, vagueness, or circulatory explanations.  These may indicate the need for caution to the professional.  All too often, however, the professional immediately sympathizes and aligns with the presenting adult who often appears as traumatized, if not more so, than the child.

If it is alleged that the child has made statements about the abuse, it is important to clarify the circumstances under which these statements were made.  Was it a spontaneous disclosure or was it elicited in response from questioning from a suspicious adult?

Interviewing the Child

After these first areas are investigated, the professional needs to obtain initial information from the alleged victim (the child) individually.  In sexual abuse allegation cases, this is the most profoundly unreliable area of management by professionals.  The very concept of interrogating a child, especially one who has been reportedly victimized and traumatized, is repugnant to many adults (particularly those trained in the mental health discipline of therapeutic intervention).  However, by interrogation, we simply mean the act of specific inquiry and specific clarification of information offered by the child.

The interrogator must avoid cuing through body-language signals.  Many nonverbal behaviors can influence the child's responses.  The most common is a positive nodding of one's head while asking a leading question (e.g., an up and down "yes" motion while asking, "Did someone touch you down there?").  Another common practice is the positioning of the interrogator in close physical proximity to the child (e.g., sitting directly next to the child with one's arm around him or her in a supportive manner, holding the child on one's lap, or, in some other physical position, cuddling the child).  Reinforcing messages are often sent by patting or stroking the child while certain crucial questions are being asked (e.g., "Did someone touch you down there?" while the examiner, with an arm around the child, reassuringly the back or shoulder).

The power of these nonverbal messages is grossly underestimated.  Mental health experts should be aware of communication subtleties that occur between humans.  Body language influences especially very young children whose verbal capacities are limited by their age and development.  They are far more responsive to the physical gestures and cuing of adults than they are to the exact words used by those adults.

The sophisticated investigator also understands the tremendous influence that affective (emotional) tone has in human communication.  Investigators who are unaware of emotionally empathic tones (or, for that matter, are even unaware of any of the affective intonation in their verbal communications) risk producing a response bias in others.  Again, younger children are especially responsive to the tone of language, and it can carry far more weight than the actual verbal content of a message.

In reviewing audio- and videotapes of investigative interviews with allegedly abused children, our most frequent observation is that the investigator often uses a tone of therapeutic softness and supportiveness to elicit affirmative responses.  While this may be understandable, it is unacceptable investigative behavior.  We are by no means suggesting a hard nosed or blatantly tough approach.  However, the inappropriate overinclusion of supportive and empathic emotional tones in critical questions can distort the child's response.  Interviewers must monitor their own behaviors.  If they hear themselves becoming soft and empathic, they must recognize that this leads them away from their obligation to remain detached and rational as they listen to the information offered by the child.

In the interview, another important factor is the verbal content of the communication used in gathering information from the child.  The science of human behavior has demonstrated that the way a question is framed and presented strongly influences the response.  To understand how critical the formulation and framing of words within a question can be, we need only look at political ballot proposals which ask us to vote "yes" if we oppose the proposal and vice versa.

The infamous leading question is another error.  For example, a question such as "Where did Daddy touch you?" forces the child to respond affirmatively in order to cooperate with the interviewer.  An objective interviewer would say, "Tell me about your visit with Daddy this weekend."

We have heard an infinite variety of leading questions used.  The most typical include presuppositions by the questioner that force a positive response in order for the child to react "correctly" and gain approval.  Melton and Limber (1989) claim that useful information can become contaminated through this power of suggestion.  The evaluator who makes the assumption that something is true (because of historical truths, preexisting personal biases, etc.) actually forecloses on any additional clarification that might come from the child's own version of what happened.  The investigator is merely using the child as an extension of his or her own perceptions of what "probably" happened.  We cannot stress enough the subtle yet powerful influences of the question-framing process (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988; Underwager & Wakefield, 1989).

Consequences of Multiple Interviews

Once the allegation is made, the initial interview with the alleged victim becomes the most crucial element in the entire investigation.  Therefore, the investigator who conducts that interview has great responsibility.

Multiple interviews with the child by different professionals contributes immensely to the loss of control of sexual abuse investigations.  Currently however, it is almost impossible to avoid multiple interviews because no uniform procedure governs or limits the interview and interrogation.  The best way to eliminate the need for multiple interviews is to conduct the first interview correctly.  The common practice of multiple interviews is nothing more than the prolonged abuse of children.  Even the use of audio- or videotape cannot replace the basic and fundamental skills of the evaluator who first interviews the child.

Another problem with multiple interviews is that they coerce children (especially those under the age of eight) to expand and compound versions of their initial reports.  This may be caused by their perception that if adults keep asking for information, more information is needed.  Older children and adolescents may respond to multiple interviews by repeating their previous responses.  When asked repeatedly about a phenomenon that they have reported, they merely entrench themselves more firmly in the story.  This process of story expansion by younger children and story entrenchment by older children does not contribute to a better understanding of the alleged abuse.  Instead, multiple interviews reinforce further distortion and convolution of the facts.  Multiple inquiries and multiple retelling of the story prior to completion of a full investigation confuse the evaluation.

Professionals sometimes promote multiple retelling of an incident to rehearse a child for testimony, claiming that this strategy is necessary to desensitize the psychologically traumatized child.  However, when this is done before the situation is fully understood, it can jeopardize the integrity of the data.

The necessity for a child to repeatedly retell the "facts" can have far-reaching consequences not only for investigators trying to understand the allegations but also for the alleged victim.  A number of experts (Coleman, 1986; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988; Underwager & Wakefield, 1989) now assert that the chronic retelling of a false story constitutes teaching of unreality to the child.  Some experts perceive this as tantamount to the teaching of psychosis.  While we were not initially concerned with this process in our earlier studies, we now support this clinical tenet based upon our longitudinal experiences with these cases.  We have begun to see psychiatric symptoms (sometimes requiring hospitalization) after the child has been exposed to multiple interviews for either investigative or therapeutic purposes.

Mistaken Techniques

Negligent investigators of sexual abuse cases overlook important developmental issues that often influence a child's behavior at a given time.  Many investigators are not well schooled in developmental ages and stages and behaviors that typically accompany the developmental dynamics of human beings.  Others who should have this knowledge abandon it and focus only on the sexual abuse allegations per se.  Some investigators interpret certain kinds of behaviors from the perspective of the abuse incident rather than from that of the overall developmental scheme.

For example, it is developmentally appropriate and normal for a child to engage in psychomotor activity by manipulating objects.  Too often, a child's interaction with anatomical dolls is misconstrued as sexual preoccupation or obsession.  The child who quickly undresses anatomical dolls or inserts her finger into an orifice of a doll is not necessarily exhibiting inappropriate behavior.  The normal expression of curiosity is improperly perceived when separated from the child's total behavior.  The naive investigator also may quickly seize upon a child's fascination with body parts and bodily functions and interpret this as evidence of abuse.  To exclude the possibility of attributing some of a child's behaviors to normal developmental processes is untenable.  It is the absolute obligation of the professional investigator to operate in an objective, informed, comprehensive manner.

The use of anatomical dolls is a highly controversial investigative and case management strategy.  Many times this "tool" is used in the initial investigative contact with the child.  In other instances the dolls are introduced after multiple interviews.  We have even seen the dolls used as part of a peculiar blend of both therapy and ongoing investigation, regardless of the stage of the abuse allegation case.

The anatomical dolls are a poorly understood and nonscientific technique.  The anatomical correctness of the dolls is not established by any objective criteria.  There is no evidence that they do what they are claimed to do.  Mclver, Wakefield, and Underwager (1989) found that there was basically no difference in behaviors between those children who had allegedly been sexually abused and those who had not in terms of their interactions with the dolls.  The minimal existing data concerning the ability of investigators to assess accurate sexual abuse information through the use of anatomical dolls is highly conflicted and controversial.  Gabriel (1985) states that there are many behaviors which nonabused children exhibit with the dolls that could easily be misconstrued as diagnostic of sexual abuse.

The dolls typically are used with younger, less verbal children.  The developmental cognitive and perceptual processes of very young children are scientifically defined.  In the world of make believe, there is no reason to expect doll play by two, three, and four-year-old children to be particularly different with the anatomical dolls than it is with any other play paraphernalia.  A therapist's attempt to non-traumatically investigate the child's perceptions dictates that dolls must be presented essentially as part and parcel of a game, a play format, or a story telling experience.

The proponents of this method argue they do not use the dolls in this way.  They claim that they explicitly define which doll represents which family member and then discuss those specific family members.  However, this is nothing more than adults projecting adult interpretation upon young children's behaviors.  To assume that the child is, in fact, construing the situation as we adults would is presumptuous.  Considering the leading questions and subtly pervasive behaviors that the adult interrogator may use while engaging the child in anatomical doll play, this strategy is one of the least reliable and least desirable at any stage of case management.

Having the child point to a picture of a boy or a girl is also an ineffective method for validating facts.  The presentation of the picture is typically prefaced by an instruction such as "Show me where (identified perpetrator) touched you."  This is followed by questions such as "Did he touch you here?  Did he touch you there?"  In truth, practically every part of our bodies have been touched in infancy and early childhood by our caregivers.  To employ this tactic and to endorse its credibility is professionally naive.

The Guardian Ad Litem

We recommend the appointment of a guardian ad litem for the alleged victim in a sexual abuse allegation situation.  We have seen this strategy successfully used in a number of cases.  The guardian (usually an attorney) often can suppress potential chaos while remaining outside the ongoing investigation, treatment, or any other process occurring in the sexual allegation situation.  While not all attorneys may be enthusiastic about serving in this capacity, it is advantageous to identify those who are so motivated.  In several areas, the appointment of a guardian ad litem is becoming a common policy of the court.  All professionals who deal with sexual abuse allegation cases can benefit from the guardian ad litem system.  If it is not yet available to them, they should consider making such a recommendation to assist in case management.

Case Management Intermediate Strategies

Some of the aforementioned strategies obviously continue to play an important role as the case evolves into its intermediate stages.  However, effective case management in the sexual abuse allegation situation mandates that the previous strategies are used first.

Interviewing the Alleged Perpetrator

Probably the most crucial intermediate management strategy is the effective and thorough interview and interrogation of all the other key players in the situation (Schuman, 1984).  After the interviewer has talked to the presenting adult and the child, the alleged perpetrator immediately should be offered an opportunity to not only tell his or her version of what happened but also to answer directly the allegations made by the presenting adult and the child.

The statements of the presenting adult are the foundation upon which to base the questioning of the accused perpetrator.  Response to those statements provides insight into dysfunctional family dynamics.  Sexual abuse allegations in divorce are more frequently an indication of family dysfunction than of sexual abuse per se.  The opportunity for the accused adult to clarify certain dynamics can be extremely productive.

The investigator should avoid merely asking whether the alleged perpetrator did it or didn't do it.  Broader questioning permits an understanding of the entire situation, especially as relates to the dysfunctional family.  In most investigations, the accused is not directly confronted or given a chance to respond to the primary investigator.  While this certainly saves the investigator a great deal of anguish by avoiding any potential contradiction of "facts" as related by the presenting adult or child, it serves no constructive long-range purpose for the child or for the social system designed to safeguard both adults and children.

The interviewer of the accused should present all of the allegations of both the presenting adult and the child.  Many professionals may be ambivalent about doing this, but if done in a rational and effective manner, it not only clarifies the other side of the story but can minimize irrational acting out on the part of the accused.  If that person believes someone is willing to investigate and understand his version of the incident, the disclosure acts more as a catharsis, diffuser, and decelerator than as an intensifier of negative behaviors.

When the accused is excluded from the investigation there is likely to be an escalation of negative and self-defeating behavior.  Although this is certainly understandable, it does not aid the investigation.  Exclusion of the alleged perpetrator from the investigation violates professional objectivity by ignoring half of the adult story.  In gathering information, all of the previously mentioned rules for effective investigation must be applied.  There is no substitute for good interview and interrogation skills.

As part of an ongoing case management strategy, we, whenever possible, interview and interrogate the accused in the presence of the child or, in many instances, the presenting adult.  While we recognize the resistance that many professionals might have to this, we find it to be an extremely useful approach, especially when the alleged victim is an older child or an adolescent.

Just as strategic family therapy demonstrates that problem solving needs to involve all of the key people in a given situation, a complete understanding of the dynamics between the key parties requires their presence together.  We are still in the early stages of formulating strategies for using this confrontive modality as a case management procedure.  At this point there do not appear to be differences in interviewer behavior in this modality compared to the individual modality.  Obviously, all of the rules for effective interview and investigation remain.  Forthrightness is essential, and sensitivity to all of the parties' emotional feelings about the situation is required.  Appropriate empathy mixed with appropriate skepticism and direct clarification of specifics are necessary.

One of the most significant outcomes of these confrontive sessions is that many of the escalated and expanded allegations become much more tempered in the presence of the other party.  Most important, however, is that the interviewer can observe the interactive dynamics (especially between the adults) which, in the sexual allegations in divorce case, are extremely significant in understanding the context in which the allegations have been made.

Frequently, the presenting adult reports that a young child is frightened of the other parent (the alleged perpetrator) and never wants to see him again.  Gardner (1987) describes such exaggerations as "the parental alienation syndrome."  When interviewed individually, the child often reaffirms that position.  However, when dealt with in the presence of both parents, the child may change dramatically and show no fears or anxieties.  Indeed, he may manifest behaviors that are contradictory to what the presenting adult reports.  These kinds of variations of the traditional investigation process constitute positive and potent case management strategies during the intermediate phases of professional involvement.

Interviewing Others

In addition to interviewing the alleged perpetrator, we also recommend interviewing any significant others involved in the case.  This includes present romantic companions if such relationships are part of the present life circumstances.  Obviously, if there is a living together situation or a remarriage, that partner can provide helpful information.  Grandparents or siblings can also be helpful.  Professionals who may have been involved with the parties or other individuals who can provide information about the family's functioning or dysfunctioning can contribute to a complete understanding of the case.

Merely accepting purported statements made by other persons is not sufficient.  For example, a presenting adult might report that he or she initially learned from the child's aunt that the child had talked about some peculiar incident while visiting the father.  This is not enough information to understand the full meaning of what really happened.  It is necessary to communicate directly with the conveyor of that reported information and clarify the report.  This is especially true when a baby-sitter gives information to the presenting adult.

Indeed, hearsay evidence should be taken only as hearsay and nothing else.  Statements allegedly made by teachers, counselors, neighbors, friends, relatives, or anyone else should not be given specific meaning until the investigator clarifies that information from its direct source.  Specific inquiry is always the investigative must.  It is the only mechanism for controlling the rumor and innuendo of the hearsay.

Other Issues in the Intermediate Stage

Written reports, documents, personal communications, and other "factual" evidences should be reviewed completely, but always in the context of perspective.  Investigators cannot accurately understand and interpret the contents of a document unless they have a sense of the author's perspective, philosophy, and professional role in the situation.

A therapeutic agency acting under the guise of an investigative agency can be one of the most dangerous document producers in sexual abuse allegation cases.  While no document should be ignored, neither should the investigator naively accept the content without considering influential variables.  These include agency bias, situational context in which the document was drafted, existing biases inherent in the situation (e.g., written by a friend, neighbor, minister, etc.), and any other prejudicial elements.  Many of these written documents have no more validity or reliability than does the letter of recommendation solicited from a friend, neighbor, teacher, or employer.  The sophisticated investigator always maintains a healthy skepticism toward data from any source.

The investigator should always insist upon physical evidences and proofs whenever the presenting adult claims that such proofs do exist.  Examples of such allegations include pornographic pictures, histories of medical and/or psychiatric treatment, previous arrests, and other agency and court involvements.  The effective case manager always remembers that allegations in the absence of physical proofs must be considered unsubstantiated evidence.

Another important and ongoing issue is the removal of children from the home in which the abuse allegedly occurred.  Obviously, in substantiated physical abuse cases where a child is clearly at risk, removal is imperative.  However, we have seen legions of cases in which, with no more than a mere hint of possible problems in the home, children have been immediately and traumatically removed.  This tremendous disruption in the continuity of the home environment is abuse in and of itself.  We have interviewed many parents who are threatened by professionals that their children will not be returned until the parent permanently disengages contact and/or marital relationship with the alleged perpetrator.  We have seen children placed in foster care settings and subjected to numerous unwarranted cruelties in the absence of valid evidence that this kind of drastic action was necessary.

The concept of forced separation seems to validate practically every personal underlying motivation for investigators who rationalize that they are only taking correct and protective measures.  Behavioral science and mental health communities have no scientific longitudinal data on the long-range impact of these sudden disruptions of social contacts and relationships.  A common pattern in divorce cases is that the professional, acting immediately upon minimal information, recommends to a court official, referee, or judge immediate cessation of contact between the child and the alleged adult perpetrator.  This frequently becomes the first step toward a long-range, total, and absolute foreclosure on the alleged perpetrator, regardless of the ultimate conclusions about the initial allegations.

Many investigators use polygraph data as a strategy in case management.  The fact that polygraph results cannot be legal evidence in court limits their purpose and value.  More fundamental than that are the inconsistencies of polygraph data, which adds to the preoccupation with whether the accused is "guilty."  We have seen individuals who appear to us to be actual abusers pass the polygraph.  We have seen other individuals who appear not to be involved in any sexual abuse produce a deceptive or inconclusive polygraph.  We have also seen situations in which an individual takes multiple polygraphs and under certain circumstances passed and under other circumstances failed.

Variables such as the competence of of the polygraph operator, his interaction with the accused, presentation of questions, and the testing situation can all affect the polygraph results.  All elements of polygraph testing continue to be intensely debated, even among the experts who administer the test.  Our experience is that the polygraph does not give reliable information, especially in out-of-control cases when the polygraph is given as an afterthought to investigate "the facts."  We consider polygraph data only in the context of all of the other data.

A consideration is whether the sexual abuse allegation is of such peculiar content and magnitude that it originally seems unbelievable.  Some professionals reason that an allegation of exceedingly unusual dynamics, incredible proportion, and astonishing behavioral deviance could never be made up.  However, sexual behavior, like all other human functioning, does have some common, usual components and dimensions.

Whenever a reported incident exceeds these usual parameters, the investigator must seek detailed clarification of the content and frequency of the allegation rather than merely accept its bizarre characteristics as validating the accusation.  An evolving belief by some professionals is that extreme and bizarre allegations are probably credible evidence of ritual abuse.  "Experts" who try to validate these aberrant occult allegations through pseudo-scientific evidence often create public hysteria.  Even in the most unique cases, it is the duty of responsible professionals to remain pragmatic and to doggedly pursue legitimate, factual evidence.

Long-range Case Management Recommendations

Several longer range actions should be initiated to help resolve sexual abuse allegation cases.  First, there is definite need for revision of the child abuse report laws (Besharov, 1986).  Rational input to the federal and state legislative processes is the foundation by which this long-range goal can be accomplished.  The social climate that motivated the passage of the current laws must now be tempered with acumen, information, and accurate description of the entire problem of child abuse so that laws may adequately provide an effective network for children who need protection.  Revision of the statutes and mandates should not be made on a passionate or crisis-oriented basis.  Authorities assisting the legislative process in reformulating and refining the reporting laws should be knowledgeable, insightful, and objective.  The current laws were enacted to sensitize society to the dilemma of child abuse and to create vehicles for response.  It is now time for transition and refinement.  We must develop even more responsive and responsible tools by which society can protect its children.

Sexual abuse allegations cases within ongoing divorce litigation should be investigated expediently, and decisions of the court should be rendered as quickly as possible.  The court should put all parties on notice that the case will be monitored, that certain aspects of the family's functioning will continue, and that there will be ongoing surveillance by an objective outside agency which is legally empowered to supervise certain activities of a family in transition.  Agencies and agents charged with these responsibilities must receive and follow clearly specified effective case management guidelines and procedures.

Quality professional education for individuals who deal with these difficult cases is critical.  They must receive specialized training in effective interview and interrogation strategies.  Currently, most investigators in social and legal agencies have no such background.  The lack of appropriate training is an unconscionable flaw in the social service, mental health, and legal communities.  It puts everyone at risk: the alleged victim, the reporting adult, the alleged perpetrator, and even the case workers who ultimately suffers from an insidious burnout.

The competent and skillful professional involved in the management of the sexual abuse allegation case must maintain an intense and accurate sensitivity that balances the rights of children with the rights of adults.  This perspective is an absolute necessity for humane, civil, and meaningful control of these cases.  Inept professional case management has motivated the formation of such groups as VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws) and MARC (Mothers Against the Raping of Children).  The rapidly increasing membership in such organizations is an unfortunate commentary on the current operation of the professional community.

All professional disciplines charged with handling these difficult cases share the responsibility for changing the way they are managed.  The time has come to discard subjective, emotionally guided passions predicated upon personal feelings and agendas.  If we are to operate within a safe and just society, we must cooperatively develop and employ objective guidelines and procedures for effective case management.


Besharov, D. (1986). Unfounded allegations: A new child abuse problem. The Public Interest, 83, Spring, 18-33.

Coleman, L. (1986, July). Has a child been molested? Getting at the truth. California Lawyer.

Ferguson, D. (1988). Bad Moon Rising (Currently Out of Print). Nashville, TN: Winston-Derek Publishers, Inc.

Gabriel, R. M. (1985). Anatomically correct dolls in the diagnosis of sexual abuse of children. The Journal of the Melanie Klein Society, 3(2), 40-51.

Gardner, R. A. (1987). The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse (Paperback). Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics

MacFarlane, K., & Waterman, J. (1986). Sexual Abuse of Young Children (Paperback (1988))(Paperback (1995)). New York: The Guilford Press.

Mclver, W., Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1989). Behavior of abused and non-abused children in interviews with anatomically-correct dolls. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations. 1(1), 39-48.

Melton, G. B., & Limber, S. (1989). Psychologists' involvement in cases of maltreatment: Limits of role expertise. American Psychologist, 44, 1225-1233.

Schetky, D. H., & Boverman, H. (October, 1985). Faulty assessment of child sexual abuse: Legal and emotional sequelae. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. Albuquerque, NM.

Schuman, D.C. (October, 1984). False allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. Nassau, Bahamas.

Spiegel, L. D. (1986). A Question of Innocence (Out of Print). New Jersey: The Unicorn Publishing House.

Underwager, R., & Wakefield, H. (1989). The Real World of Child Interrogations (Hardcover). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1988). Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse (Hardcover)(Paperback). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

* Gordon J. Blush and Karol L. Ross are psychologists and can be contacted at Professional Counseling Associates, 36040 Dequindre Road, Sterling Heights, MI 48317.  [Back]

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