The Effects of a False Allegation of Child Sexual Abuse on an Intact Middle Class Family1

Darrell W. Richardson*

ABSTRACT: The personal, clinical, and legal experience of an intact family of four in which which a false allegation of sexual abuse was made by the daughter toward the father was reported.  The family was followed for two years.  The experience destroyed the family and the parents and children all suffered depression, stress, rage, distress, hurt, and alienation.  This case study parallels the available literature which indicates that a false allegation of sexual abuse is destructive and traumatic.

On his way to work, a clinical psychologist had no way of knowing he was about to be arrested.  As he got out of his car, two police officers approached him, asked him who he was, placed him under arrest, handcuffed him, and drove him off to jail.  He had been charged with sexually abusing his two-year-old daughter (Spiegel 1986).

I know of several similar incidents.  A clinical psychologist was investigated by Child Protective Services for allegedly molesting his three-year-old daughter.  A manager in a local supermarket was investigated for allegedly abusing his seventeen-year-old son, a local football star.  He was fired as soon as the investigation became public.  A drug and alcohol counselor was fired because it was rumored that he molested a counselee.  A woman left her husband, a young army N.C.O., and informed him that she intended to keep all the appliances, furniture, and any other possessions she wanted (whether or not they belonged to her).  And if he tried to stop her, she would turn him in for sexual abuse.  The N.C.O. did nothing.  His rationale was that his career in the service would be ruined.

The common strand in all these situations was that the allegations were found to be false.  The clinical psychologist spent $50,000 in his defense, lost his practice and most of his friends (Spiegel 1986).  The second clinical psychologist spent nearly $35,000 in Juvenile Court in his defense (criminal charges were never filed).  Both psychologists reported suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and depression.  The supermarket manager lost his job, his home, filed bankruptcy, and went through a divorce.  He related these tragedies to the intervention of the state.  The drug and alcohol counselor lost his job because of the rumor, even though a check of the local law enforcement agencies (city, county, and state) found no charges filed, nor was there any complaint filed with CPS.  The N.C.O. was blackmailed by his former spouse.

Why were there divorces?  Why were people fired before they were convicted?  How could a spouse blackmail her husband with impunity?  In a larger sense, what was it like for these people?  What were the effects of a false allegation of child abuse on the people that were subject of that allegation?

This study examined the experience of a formerly intact middle-class family, victimized by false allegations of child and sexual abuse.  It examines not only the facts, but the ethos, the experience of being innocent and on the wrong side of public opinion, and the power of the state.

The Problem

The National Study of Child Abuse (Smith, 1985) estimated that 1.1 million child abuse and neglect reports have been filed with Child Protective Agencies each year and that more than 600,000 of these probably cannot be substantiated even using the broad definitions of child abuse and neglect often used by the protective service agencies.  Of the remaining 40%, only half (or 20% of the total reports) were considered substantial enough to be included in the national study (Smith, 1985).  It was not known what happened to the hundreds of thousands of people accused but not convicted of child abuse and neglect.

There is no nationally accepted definition of sexual abuse.  The variability of definition with regard to all forms of child abuse between states and counties was found to be one of the main causes of false allegations (Schultz & Jones, 1983; Finkelhor & Hotaling, 1984: Fantuzzo & Twentyman, 1986; Parker & Parker, 1986; Rosenfeld, 1987).

Literature Review

A search of the literature yielded little information on the effects of a false allegation of child sexual abuse on an intact family.  Many experts assume that an investigation by the local child protection agency in and of itself is traumatic to a family.  If other persons are questioned during the course of the investigation (neighbors, in-laws, teachers, physicians), the investigation could seriously stigmatize the family members (Besharov, 1986; Johnson, 1986; Smith, 1985).  The few case studies on false allegations of child and sexual abuse discuss the situation at the time of the intervention and subsequent proceedings (Schuman, 1986; Green, 1986; Goodwin, Sahd & Rada, 1982).

There is disagreement in the professional literature about the number and significance of unsubstantiated reports of child abuse each year.  Also, there is disagreement concerning the adequacy of definitions of child sexual abuse, child abuse, and child neglect.

There is little in the literature about the effects of false allegations on intact families.  The only research found on this was done by Schultz (1989).  There was another study which discussed the effects on families and individuals who were convicted of sexual abuse which seemed to parallel the experience of those in Schultz's study (Tyler & Brassard, 1984).

Incidence of False Allegations

Smith (1985) believes that the large numbers of reported, but unsubstantiated, cases of child abuse and neglect indicates there are serious problems with child abuse reporting laws.  He reports that the National Study of Child Abuse found that for nearly 60% of the children reported as victims of child abuse, the alleged abuse could not be substantiated by child protective agencies.  Therefore, out of an estimated 1.1 million child abuse and neglect reports which were investigated each year, more than 600,000 cases were not substantiated, even using the broad definitions employed by the agencies.  This suggests that there is great confusion concerning the definition of child abuse.

In 1974 the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (Federal law, P.L. 93-247), established a National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN).  The main purpose, in addition to research, was to begin child maltreatment programs and establish standards by which states could become eligible for federal money to help them establish their own child abuse agencies (Johnson, 1986).

Douglas Besharov, the first director of NCCAN, addressed the issue of unfounded allegations in an article that broadly outlined the development of child maltreatment as a social issue from relative obscurity in the 1950s.  He said, "We now face an imminent social tragedy: the nationwide collapse of child protective efforts caused by a flood of unfounded reports" (1986, p.22).  Besharov notes that in 1984 nationwide, 65% of all reports proved to be unfounded, (dismissed after an investigation by child protective agencies).  Put another way, "Each year, over 500,000 families are put through investigations of unfounded reports" (p.23-24).

Besharov believes that the existing child abuse reporting laws and associated educational materials and programs need to be modified to provide better definitions of what should and should not be reported.  He also maintains that Americans have a right to know that current statistics on child abuse are badly inflated.


In a review of research and theory regarding child sexual abuse, Hodson and Skeen (1987) defined child sexual abuse as any exploitation of a child for the sexual gratification of an adult.  The behaviors could encompass exhibitionism, other non-touching offenses, genital fondling, and actual intercourse.

Fantuzzo and Twentyman (1986) found that existing definitions of child maltreatment were nightmarish for research purposes.  The definitions of what constituted an abusive act were measured against community standards and varied from state to state and, sometimes, from county to county.  Additionally, they found a lack of clarity in specifying what psychotherapeutic methods would be effective in treating the range of disorders encountered in the treatment of child abuse.  Further, they found a lack of treatment outcome studies.  In addition to citing a critical need to establish empirically-based definitions of child abuse for research purposes, they believe that much greater cooperation between the clinical and research community is necessary to ensure scientific progress in the diagnosis and treatment of child abuse.

Finkelhor and Hotaling (1984) appraised the sexual abuse definitions contained in the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse.  They contend that the definition of sexual abuse in the National Incidence Study of 1979 and 1980 was too narrow for research purposes.  They note that sexual abuse has been defined in different ways and state:

A conservative approach would limit it to some kind of genital contact.  However, we favor a definition of sexual contact that includes breast and buttock fondling, inappropriate sexual solicitations, and encounters with exhibitionists.  Including such activities, even if controversial, poses no problem as long as those who wish a more conservative definition can exclude these categories (p.31).

While Finkelhor and Hotaling's definition appears to be more inclusive, it does not include the issue of sexual intent on the part of the perpetrator.

Curtis (1986) reports that diagnosis by clinicians frequently is based on subjective impressions, and that these judgments are "often unreliable and inaccurate" (p.592).  He believes this occurs because of pressure on professionals to act decisively in cases involving suspected incidents of sexual abuse coupled with the absence of specific, empiric ally verifiable, situational and diagnostic factors associated with child sexual abuse.  In Curtis's words, "Clinicians have been forced to make largely intuitive 'hit or miss' judgments regarding the likelihood of occurrence sometimes resulting in unfortunate miscalculations" (p.569).

The lack of uniform definition and the lack of reliable diagnostic criteria is not the only area of ambiguity. Parker and Parker (1986) note:

Despite the proliferation of recent literature, the causes of child sexual abuse in the family remain elusive.  There is little agreement about its antecedents; for virtually every finding that implicates a particular factor there is another that demonstrated only a weak association or none (p.532).

Contradictory findings concerning whether reconstituted families, broken families, or single-parent families were more likely to be abusive than natural families sometimes appear in the same study.  Parker and Parker (1986) observe different studies give contradictory results on effects of class status, disturbed marital relationships, distributions of power (domineering father, or domineering mother) within families and alcohol abuse.

Rosenfeld (1987) investigated clinical issues that could clarify the controversy over the definition and diagnosis of sexual abuse. In his experience, the subjective reports of incest victims varied from one patient to the next.  Their feelings ranged from positive to negative. Some victims were emotionally neutral while others were ambivalent and confused.  Rosenfeld therefore recommends that practicing clinicians approach each new case with no presuppositions.  Whereas it is an easy legal decision when a child has been forcibly raped, it is less apparent "where the border of incest begins" (p.494).  He asks how much and what kind of intimate interaction between a child and parent should be considered proper and where the line of community standards would be violated.  He suggests the line between intimacy and sexual abuse could be thin.  While other researchers suggest that cultural standards vary (Hodson and Skeen, 1987), Rosenfeld notes that intrafamily intimacy also varies between families.

According to Schultz and Jones (1983), much of the literature on sexual abuse is "marked by poor samples, lack of longitudinal studies, and the cloaking of moral position with scientific attitudes" (p.99).  Their report of a survey of 267 college students in West Virginia challenges several popular ideas about child molestation and warns of the danger of iatrogenic trauma.

They state that approximately 40% of both sexes in their sample report engaging in three sexual acts before age 12.  The reactions to the sexual acts were varied and Schultz and Jones state that "These highly differentiated reactions to the sexual act . . . should warn professionals that each case must be evaluated with caution because psychological trauma may not be assumed, and they ... have a duty to control for possible psychological iatrogenesis" (p.101).

The authors warn that the legal process after an offense is reported, along with viewing the child as a victim of violence, may overlook the strength and health of the family, or the alleged act's intended nature.  They suggest inappropriate sexual activities of children are best treated from a family dysfunction perspective.

While this survey was a self-selected group of volunteer college students which relied upon recall, its value is that it further underscores the complexity of the problem of child sexual abuse definition, treatment, and perception.

False Accusations: An Overview of Selected Case Studies

Fantuzzo and Twentyman (1986) report that most of the literature on treatment outcome for child abuse was based on single-case methodology.  They point to the value of single case methodology to provide a close look at the variables of behavior and as a more specific means for "generating hypotheses regarding the functional relation among a number of factors and maltreatment" (p.376).

Goodwin, Sahd, and Rada (1982) state the phenomenon of false accusations has been largely neglected in the literature.  They found only one article between the years of 1968 and 1978.  It is their opinion. that false accusations are quite rare; however they report four cases they believe to be false.  Three of the four consisted of accusations brought by the daughter.  The final accusation was brought by a mother with a long history of hospitalization for schizophrenia.

The first case involved a daughter who readily retracted her story of incest.  The authors believe that the accusation was an act of revenge against the remarriage of her mother.  The second accusation was retracted by the daughter when it was established she was attempting to hide her own masturbation from her mother.  The third case involved an accusation of physical abuse that was appended to a charge of molestation.  The daughter apparently resented the stepfather's playful "shadow boxing" and described it to school officials as a "beating."  The molestation charges came from her allegation that her stepfather had entered her room and fondled her.  It was determined that the stepfather had come home drunk, entered the wrong room, taken off his clothes, and then attempted to get in bed.  When the daughter began screaming, the stepfather became so confused and frightened he made a hole in the wall in an attempt to get out of the room.  The final case concerned a schizophrenic mother whose claims were initially believed by her psychiatrist until the charges became too bizarre for him to believe.  A weakness of this study was that no information was given as to where the sample population came from or who made the determinations.

Schuman (1986) describes seven cases from his practice that he determined to be false by affirmative psychodynamic formulation and vindication by the justice system.  All seven cases involved acrimonious domestic litigation (separation, divorce, or remarriage).  Five of the seven were involved in custody or visitation litigation.  In two of the cases the alleged offense seemed incidental to the litigation.

All allegations were believed to have come from the alleged victim.  In one case the alleged victim maintained an active role in the litigation.  In the other cases the reporting children were quickly replaced by adults who pursued the allegation in the stead of the children.  The alleged victims' ages ranged from three to thirteen years at the time of the reports.  The offenses included alleged burning, beating, sexual caresses, erotic kissing, manual vaginal and anal penetration and vaginal intercourse.

Schuman (1986) reports that in these seven cases none of the original reporters recanted (saying that they had been wrong).  Two of the reporters persisted in their allegations.  In three cases, the reporters claimed they had been misunderstood.  In one case, the allegations were shrugged off as trivial.  In another the charges were withdrawn without comment.  He cites regression in both adults and children during domestic turmoil as a breeding ground for false allegations.  Children may misinterpret the actions of adults toward the child and toward themselves.  Schuman argues that it is possible for children to misinterpret and elaborate ambiguous acts into subjectively real but nonvalid beliefs that abuse had happened to them.

Schuman (1986) suggests children might originate an ambiguous report that is magnified by others, is projected back to the child, and begins a feedback loop that increases the final distortions.  He observes that every reporter was believed and there was never any thought by investigators that children might have been pressured into making the allegations.  He recommends that evaluators listen behind the allegation to try to find out what the motivation of both the victim and the prime mover was "Why are they doing and saying whatever they are?"

This study illustrates the frequently sensational and shocking character of allegations of sexual abuse and the readiness of professionals to accept reports as true without question.  It is clear several of the parties manipulated the system for their own interests in these cases.  In several children of varying ages readily lied whether for personal ends, to please significant others, or to avoid intimidation.

In a paper that suggests a method for differentiating between true and false sexual abuse cases, Green (1986) describes case histories that show the difficulties of diagnoses.  He proposes four types of situations in which false allegations occur:

1) The child was brainwashed by a parent who fabricated the incest to punish and deny the other spouse further contact with the child;

2) The child was repeatedly questioned about alleged sex acts with the other spouse until the child, under pressure, accepts the delusions as true, creating a folie deux;

3) The child's allegations of sexual abuse were based on their own personal fantasies preadolescent and adolescent girls projected their own sexual wishes onto the parent;

4) The child made a false accusation in order to get revenge or retaliation.

Green states the investigation usually uncovered an underlying motivation such as anger over recent punishment, a deprivation, or a desire to get the father or stepfather out of the home.  He summarizes the characteristics of a typical false allegation:

Details of the sexual activity are obtained rather easily during the initial interview, or may even he presented spontaneously.  Children are outspoken and nondefensive in their descriptions of sexual activity, without significant changes in mood or affect (p. 452).

Green observes actual victims were characterized as secretive about the events.  The disclosure by abused children was accompanied by depression and intense or distressed affect.  These children were fearful and inhibited with the father.  Clinicians frequently assessed the mother-child interaction to get an evaluation standard in order to assess the interaction between the father (or the alleged perpetrator) and the child as a clue as to whether abuse had occurred.

Green presents several case studies of false allegations he had dealt with clinically.  He concludes "since many of the children evaluated for alleged sexual abuse have in fact, not been molested" (p.456) evaluators must be cautious and obtain whatever information necessary to discriminate between true and false allegations.  Green also notes, in a small number of cases, experts have been unable to reach a clear decision about whether abuse has taken place.

Family interaction within abused and nonabused groups was studied by Starr (1987) who compared the ability of experienced professionals and undergraduate students to identify abusive and nonabusive familial interactions.  The results were that professionals were no better than the undergraduates at discriminating between the two groups.  Both functioned at chance levels.

The Effects of Allegations of Sexual Abuse on Families

Tyler and Brassard (1984) examined the effect of sexual abuse allegations on those accused of sexual abuse and their families.  Fifteen offenders attending a Utah Parents United group completed a questionnaire about their prosecution and the way the media reported the abuse along with the effect the abuse charges had on their job status, living and financial situations, and family and social relationships.  This study is relevant because of possible parallels with the effects of false allegations of sexual abuse.

The 15 subjects were male offenders who pleaded guilty when charges were filed.  The mean age was 33.9 years with a range of 19 to 45 years.  The victims' mean age was 11.2.  Of the offenders, six were fathers, six stepfathers (two molested two children), one father-in-law, one stepbrother, and one was both a biological and a foster father.

The questionnaire took approximately 10 minutes to complete.  Questions referred to the sequence of events from the initial report to the sentencing, and dealt with effects on the family's social, financial, and employment status (with the effects on the family if the job was lost), as well as the living arrangements of the victim and the offender, and the media's impact, if any.

The results indicated that seven wives, two sons, two daughters, a neighbor and three sheriffs filed the original complaint.  Nine convictions were not printed in the paper, six were and two cases were announced on the radio.

Of the fifteen men, 33% (5) lost their job, 40% (6) felt there was no effect, and 27% (4) were not sure what the effect would be.  Living and financial status was affected: 60% (9) were forced to move and 40% (6) of the families had to go on welfare.  Social and family relationships were strained: 73% (11) reported their wives were angry or "against them," 60% (9) reported the same for the attitude of the victim towards them, 33% (5) reported their other children were angry or against them, 40% (6) reported the same reaction from parents, 20% (3) from in-laws, and 53% (8) from friends.  Many of the offenders did not inform their other children, parents, in-laws, or friends about the charges.  For 27% (4) the situation resulted in divorce or separation, and 60% reported that the offender was removed from the home with the same percentage of victims also removed from the home (the number was 9 in both samples).

The consequences of the incest report were devastating to the family. "In addition to family disbandment, relocation, and financial crisis, 33% of the families had to deal with the humiliation of the public announcement of the abuse" (p.50).

Tyler and Brassard report the offender was left isolated and treated as a pariah.  The victim was subjected to particular humiliation by being removed from the home, placed in foster care, and cut off from siblings and peers that might offer support.  The spouse suffered the humiliation of having a convicted sex offender for a husband, the loss of the husband's income, probable relocation, separate residences, the daughter's absence, and marital strain or possible divorce.  Nonabused children suffered by having a convicted felon for a father, probable humiliation by their peers, the probability of living on welfare, going through the divorce of their parents, watching their mother not be able to cope with the strain, and possibly ending up in foster care themselves.  They recommend changes in Utah's laws and procedures in order to assist families, the victims, and the offenders in more positive ways.

Schultz (1989) reported on 100 family members falsely charged with sexual abuse.  The definition of "not guilty" was based on respondents' insistence they were innocent, acquittal by a jury, refusal of the case by a grand jury, or if the prosecutor nolle prossed the case.

Virtually all respondents reported trauma in personal health, family breakdown, loss of employment, and/or having to go on welfare.  All reported some degree of depression, sleep difficulties, nausea, and weight loss.  Only 16% reported no change in job status and 82% suffered some type of job loss or penalty.  Financial problems were common, 24% applied for welfare and 28% had to sell the family home to pay legal fees.  Families were disrupted, as 20% were divorced and 22% lost custody of their children to foster homes, or to the divorced spouse.

Because of the vagueness of the figures in Schultz's report, it is difficult to compare his work with Tyler and Brassard's.  Divorce and separation rates were 20% for the falsely accused and 27% for the offenders.  Only 24% of the innocent group went on welfare compared to 40% of the offender group.  Just over one-fourth of both groups had to change residences (27% for the offenders and 28% for the falsely accused).


This is a case study of one family in which an accusation of sexual and child abuse was made.  The accusation was ultimately dismissed by the criminal court for lack of evidence.  The data was gathered in a series of interviews over the period of two years.  The family provided a copy of the police report, court documents (criminal and juvenile), as well as the reports of the various psychologists and therapists involved with their case.

I had a pastoral relationship with the family throughout the time of state intervention.  The information was obtained with the permission and cooperation of the family members and the narrative was reviewed and approved by the family as it was recorded in this research.


The subjects were four members of a family.  Their names have been changed in order to protect their identity.  The family consisted of Bob Smith, 41 years of age, the husband and father; Mary Smith, 38 years of age, the wife and mother; Mike Smith, 11 years of age, and Marybeth Smith, 10 years of age.  The family was intact at the time of the state's intervention.

Bob and Mary had never been married before and the children were their biological children.  They were residents of a small northwestern city at the time of the intervention.  Bob worked in an executive position for his father in a family owned manufacturing firm.  Mary was a school teacher.  The family's socioeconomic status was upper-middle class.  There was no prior involvement with the law, or any prior drug or alcohol use.  The family was intact at the time of the intervention.  Bob and Mary had been married for 13 years.

Analysis of the Data

I followed the personal, clinical, and legal experience of the Smiths from the time of the state's intervention in June of 1986 until November 1987.  The subjective experience of the Smiths was reported in narrative form.

The data were compared to case studies of false allegations in the literature review.


The Family Situation Before the Intervention

Prior to the intervention, the family was intact.  Bob had reluctantly gone to work for Ralph (his father) in his manufacturing business the year before.  The relationship between Bob and Ralph had never been good, but Bob felt he should go into the family business because he made more money than in his construction work.  The marriage was described by both Bob and Mary as strained because of Bob's unhappiness working for his father, but otherwise it was "okay."

Marybeth was a good student.  She was tested for (but not admitted to) the gifted children's program, TESERA, during the year of the state's intervention.

Mike was an average student.  Both children were active in sports and school.  The family was described as affectionate toward the children and close knit by its members and by friends that were interviewed.

The Intervention

Monday afternoon, 6/4/86

Marybeth was contacted at school by a case worker for Child Protective Services (CPS) and a detective.  Marybeth informed the CPS person and the detective that her father had for the last eight months been touching her in a manner that made her feel uncomfortable.  When asked where she was touched, Marybeth pointed to her vaginal area, and said the the touching took place in the family bed.  Her father would call her into the bed and he would begin rubbing her.  This would happen once or twice a week, usually in the morning.

She never said anything about it because she didn't think her mother would believe her and she didn't want to hurt her father's feelings.  Sometime in the last four months Marybeth recalled that her father had tried to put his penis in her bottom, but she had said "No" and he stopped.  Marybeth also alleged that her mother was in bed at the time these acts allegedly took place and that she felt like her mother might have been aware of these things going on but she wasn't sure.

When asked why she reported these things, she said that while she was putting away some socks in her father's drawer she came across a number of nude pictures of her parents with other family friends and their daughters doing sexual things, and this frightened her.  She asked her brother Mike what they should do and they called their Aunt Barb.  Aunt Barb told them she had also been molested by their dad and said that Marybeth should report this so it would stop.  At that point Marybeth decided to tell somebody.

The CPS worker then asked Marybeth if she thought the touching was sexual and Marybeth said "Yes."  The principal, also present, explained that the children knew what good and bad touch was.  The CPS worker then asked Marybeth if she felt safe at home and Marybeth said "No."  Arrangements were then made to place her in emergency foster care.

Next they interviewed Marybeth's brother, Mike.  In this interview it came out that Mike's father was very strict, frequently beating Mike with a "very thick, heavy belt" and that his father would sometimes lose his temper and throw him into the wall.  The case worker then advised Mike of their interview with Marybeth and asked Mike if he would feel safe at home.  Mike said "No."  Arrangements were then made to place Mike in emergency foster care.

The caseworker and the detective then went to the Bob and Mary's house and spoke with Mary about the alleged touching and alleged physical abuse.  Mary denied both allegations and said that the children were overreacting and she doubted very much that her husband had ever touched Marybeth for sexual reasons.  She was then advised that Marybeth and Mike had been placed in temporary foster care and that both had expressed a desire not to be around their father Marybeth because of the touching, and Mike because of the abusive treatment.  Mary Smith then advised the CPS worker and the detective that her husband had never sexually molested their daughter and the the whole thing was a terrible mistake.

Tuesday afternoon, 6/5/96

Arrangements were made to interview Bob Smith.  He arrived, waived his constitutional rights, denied all the charges and agreed to take a polygraph exam.

Wednesday morning, 6/6/86

Bob Smith took the polygraph exam.  It was determined that he was being deceptive in his responses.  This finding was forwarded to the prosecutor's office asking for a warrant charging Bob Smith with one count of incest, second degree.

Two weeks later, 6/21/86

Bob Smith was arrested, jailed, and released on his own recognizance (OR) on the charge of second degree incest.  A few days later he pleaded not guilty at the preliminary hearing, and was allowed to remain free (OR).  He was ordered to remain out of the home and was not permitted any contact whatsoever with his children, particularly Marybeth.  If the court were to learn of such contact, Bob would be placed in jail immediately pending his criminal trial.  The trial date was set for 8/29/86.

The Custody Battle

On 6/27/86, in the Superior Court, Juvenile division, a petition was filed for the custody of the minor children, Marybeth and Mike Smith, by the paternal grandparents, Ralph and Betty Smith.  The petition stated allegations of physical and sexual abuse were made by the children to the senior Smiths while on a visit.  Allegations were also made that the Mary was aware of these incidents and made no effort to intervene and that neither parent was a suitable custodian for their children.  The grandparents requested that the children be placed in their custody.

The petition was accompanied by an affidavit which swore, under oath, that both grandparents were informed by the children of overt acts of physical and sexual abuse and that the mother was present on at least one occasion when the sexual abuse was taking place and did nothing.  The senior Smiths claimed that they had been fully cooperative with CPS and the police department in the investigation.  They asserted they had offered continuing physical and emotional support to Mary and Bob Smith, their son, and the reason for the custody petition was their concern for the well-being of the children and the parents.  They wished to "provide the children with an environment where there are no influences to change or recant earlier made allegations ..."  Subsequently, the senior Smiths took Bob and Mary to court four times in order to get custody of the children, on 6/27/86, 7/8/86, 7/17/86, and made a final plea during the dependency trial on 7/22/86.

The Dependency Actions

Following the emergency placement of Marybeth and Mike Smith on 6/4/86, Child Protective Services filed a dependency petition with Juvenile Court to make both children dependents of the state.

A fact-finding hearing was scheduled on 7/22/86.  At that time, on the advice of their attorneys, Bob and Mary did not contest the dependency of Marybeth.  Mike's dependency action was dismissed because there was no physical evidence of abuse.  In Washington state, a finding of dependency was reviewed each six months until it was either dismissed or parental rights were ultimately terminated.

Bob Smith was court-ordered into sex offenders' counseling and ordered out of the home until such time as the therapist and the caseworker recommended his return.  Both Marybeth and Mike were left in the custody of their mother, with family counseling ordered by the court.  Bob and Marybeth were ordered into psychological evaluation and counseling.

The dependency continued for approximately a year and a half until it was dismissed by the court.  Bob and Mary Smith, during that time, did not comply with the order in any significant respect, and were eventually found in contempt of court because of noncompliance.  They did not complete or participate in any sex offenders' programs and maintained their innocence throughout.  Bob and Mary eventually did go to counseling with a state-approved therapist (due to the contempt ruling), but she continued to deny any abuse until the therapist felt there was no point in continuing.

The Criminal Action

The criminal charges were filed on 6[7/86.  Bob was arrested for one count of second degree incest on 6/21/86, finger printed, photographed, jailed briefly and released on his own recognizance.  In his preliminary hearing Bob pleaded innocent to the charge, and was ordered not to have any contact whatsoever with his daughter.  The criminal trial began on Thursday 8/ 28/86 and lasted four days, concluding on Tuesday, 9/4/86.

Bob was confronted by Ralph a week and a half after the first charges were filed.  During the confrontation his father told him to plead guilty or else he would fire him.  Ralph gave his son 48 hours to consider the ultimatum.  Bob angrily refused.  Ralph fired him on 6/14/86.

Bob hired a prominent attorney immediately after charges were filed but when he was fired by his father applied for, and received, a public defender.  He concurrently began court-ordered psychological evaluation.  When he completed that evaluation, his psychologist recommended a second opinion, and so Bob went to another psychologist for further evaluation.  Both psychologists were unable to substantiate that Bob had sexually abused his daughter or physically abused his son.

The psychological evaluation included several hours of interviews and testing with the children.  In addition, Bob and Mary completed the MMPI and other tests.  At the dependency hearing of 7/22/86 the state was successful in getting the evaluation of the two psychologists impeached because they were not "approved" by CPS to do evaluations.  One psychologist possessed a contract with CPS to evaluate clients but his contract was revoked soon after Bob's hearing.  CPS gave no reason for revoking the psychologist's contract.

Bob went to a third therapist, this time a master's level psychologist, who was approved by the state.  He had two sessions with that therapist prior to the criminal trial.  The evaluation was not completed.  The state-approved therapist would later inform the court that he would be willing to testify that Bob was "grooming" his daughter for incestuous purposes.  The two nonapproved psychologists were ready to testify as expert witnesses on Bob's behalf during the trial.

In concurrent juvenile court actions both psychologists gave depositions on behalf of the Smiths.  One psychologists, along with a child psychologist associate, gave lengthy testimony (as expert witnesses for the Smiths) to their belief the sexual abuse could not be substantiated and that continuation of the state's presence in the Smith family presented the family, and in particular, Marybeth, with grave stress.  This testimony had little effect in amending the dependency intervention.  No therapists testified at the criminal trial.

Marybeth's experience with therapy at this time was entirely negative.  She began to see a CPS-approved child therapist.  When Marybeth told the therapist she had been coerced into making the charges, the therapist told her she was lying.  Marybeth's therapy lasted a total of four sessions and it amounted to a debate about what happened.

Once Marybeth informed her therapist that she intended to tell the truth at the trial, a recess was held while the prosecution sequestered Marybeth for approximately five hours and forced her to listen to her earlier tapes on which she had made the allegations.  She was also confronted by both sets of grandparents and her aunt Barb, as well as the prosecutor himself, all to no avail.  Marybeth was determined to tell the truth.  Even though she was only ten years old, they had not been able to get her to reverse her decision to deny the original allegations.

The first two days of the trial were taken up by motions and jury selection.  All mention of the alleged sexual relationship between Bob and his sister Barb was excluded from the trial.  It was ruled the alleged event was so remote that it was meaningless to the case.  It was felt the suggestion of the information would very likely prejudice the jury against Bob.

The allegation of nude pictures was excluded because there was no evidence of their existence.  They had no relationship to the charges and would likely prejudice the jury.  Barb's testimony amounted to informing the jury that the children had originally reached out to her.  On cross-examination it was revealed that Barb had, in fact, been telling the children for some six months that their father had committed sexual acts with her and to be vigilant about anything he might do to them.  Further questioning revealed that Barb wasn't sure who said what to her over the phone, but that she had told the children to get in touch with her parents, Ralph and Betty.  The only other witness for the state was Marybeth, since Ralph and Betty refused to testify.

Marybeth's testimony was based on the fact she had been frightened and brainwashed into making the statements she made because of her grandparents' influence.  She testified that her father had done nothing to her.  At that point the defense moved for dismissal and the prosecution requested time to continue to make its case.  The court was recessed until 9/4/86.  The prosecution then tried to impeach her testimony by claiming she had been forced into reversing her story.  Since the prosecution could offer no proof beyond its own inference that Marybeth had been influenced, the court dismissed the charges with prejudice.

Effects on the Children, Mary, and Bob

The Children

With Bob removed from the family and fired by his father it became clear that Mary and the children would have to move.  They borrowed a 20-year-old Rambler from a friend.  The neighbors, who had also been interviewed by CPS, became very aloof.  The news traveled fast to those who hadn't been interviewed.  Mary found that she had no friends in the neighborhood.  Some even forbid their children to play with Marybeth or Mike.  Mary's parents repeatedly asked her when she was going to divorce Bob.

Mike became very difficult to manage, defying his mother, staying out at night, and getting into fights with neighbor boys.  Suddenly he was an angry child, berating his mother and sister.

Marybeth for a time was very defiant to the caseworker and the Guardian Ad Litem (a child advocate assigned to each case), demanding that they let her dad come home.  Both children repeated the story about the grandparents pressuring them repeatedly for the first few weeks, and the story about their foster home, and the intervention.  The children talked to their parents about the details of the intervention, the allegations about Barb, the allegations that Ralph and Betty had made about Bob and Mary having had multiple affairs, their experience with counselors, the court experience, and the criminal trial.  These conversations took place during the year that followed the criminal trial.

One incident from the summer of 1986 shows a pattern for future acting out by Marybeth.  In the middle of July, Mary's parents invited Marybeth to go with them to Seattle and spend a couple of weeks with her uncle and his family.  Mary refused to let her go.  Angered, Marybeth called the Guardian Ad Litem, informed her that her brother berated her incessantly about her allegations and that she wanted to be able to live with her grandparents (Mary's folks) to get away from the pressures at home.  The Guardian Ad Litem called the caseworker who came and picked up Marybeth against her mother's will and took Marybeth to her grandparents.  From there Marybeth went to Seattle, spent three weeks with her uncle and then returned to her grandparents' home.  Within a week she ran away to her mother.  Marybeth repeated this pattern of running away and then running home three times during the year and a half that followed.

Marybeth attempted suicide in November of 1987 by overdosing on Tylenol and in December she slashed her wrists.  Ironically, the juvenile court dismissed her dependency in late November three days before the first attempt.  Immediately following the December attempt, Mary and Bob admitted Marybeth to the psychiatric wing of a local hospital.  She was there for a month until she was considered stable.  Mary then got her into counseling with a child psychologist.

Counseling revealed that Marybeth had become involved with drugs in the early fall of 1987.  She was depressed because she thought everything was her fault (despite whatever her parents told her).  She completed the school year, ran away several times during the following summer and was readmitted to a psychiatric unit six months after the first suicide attempt.  Her doctors recommended long-term institutional care.

Mike, following his initial acting out, has continued in a stable fashion.  His grades have put him on the honor roll twice.  There was no relationship with Ralph and Betty, and there was virtually no relationship with Mary's parents or brothers for either of the children.

Following the trial, Mike and Marybeth made several angry phone calls to Ralph and Betty demanding to know why Ralph and Betty had done what they had done to them and to their family.  Ralph and Betty responded through their attorney who demanded that the harassing phone calls cease or else.  Barb called Mary, pleading with her for a visit.  Barb admitted that she had lied and she was very sorry all this had happened.  She wished there was something she could do.


Mary's major challenge was living with depression and questions concerning whether Bob was guilty that began to disturb her.  She would spend days barely functioning, laying in bed, having bouts with tears, fighting with the kids, fighting her anger, and her sense of having been abused by the system and by Bob's parents.  She received no support from her parents, or her brothers and sister during the intervention.  Her family assumed Bob's guilt and were critical of Mary's loyalty to her husband.  The pressure from her family to divorce her husband was unrelenting.  Mary's friends offered encouragement.  Mary withdrew into her house during the course of the criminal proceedings.  Her contacts with Bob were characterized by her as strained and sad.  She kept the situation from her coworkers because she feared for her job.

Because the prosecution intended to use her as a witness, she was kept from the courtroom during the criminal trial.  She described the court appearances she was required to make during the dependency and custody actions as particularly degrading and stressful.  The allegation that she had known about the alleged molestation and did nothing was repeatedly made during her appearances in court.

When Marybeth arranged her Seattle trip and was picked up, Mary reported that she went through a particularly intense episode of depression.  When the Guardian Ad Litem informed Mary that Marybeth claimed her mother had pressured her to recant her allegations, Mary was outraged and hurt.  Marybeth's erratic behavior deepened Mary's doubts about whether Marybeth had, in fact been abused.  The doubts began to drive a wedge between Bob and Mary.


In therapy, Bob admitted to a couple of inappropriate situations with his sister Barb, but claimed that they amounted to little more than "playing doctor."  The confusing thing to Bob was that he had gone to Barb years before asking her forgiveness, which he thought he had received.  The psychologist suggested that his father, Ralph, might be taking vengeance on Bob for his inappropriate behavior in years past, or that his father might in fact be having (or had) an incestuous relationship with Barb and could be projecting his participation (real or fantasied) onto Bob.

Bob was also told that the inappropriate behavior with his sister looked bad for now, but did not necessarily mean he was guilty of the present charges.  He was also told that the information his parents had given the children, even if true, was grossly inappropriate and possibly damaging to the relationship between himself and his children.  Nevertheless, the past relationship with Barb was in the therapist's mind, the accelerator in the present action, whether or not Bob was guilty.

Bob cut off all contact with Ralph and Betty and no emotional or physical support (as claimed in the affidavit Ralph and Betty filed) was ever offered to Bob or to his family.  Bob cut off most of his contact with his friends, although friends from work quietly came to offer sympathy and support.  Bob began drinking and frequenting the bars after he found out about the trouble at home and that Mary had doubts about whether Bob had told the truth.

During that time, Bob began to make visits home to see the children, despite the court's orders prohibiting him from doing so.  While he and Mary had gotten together from time to time prior to the trial, and he had seen Mike on a number of occasions, he had not seen Marybeth for almost three months.  Their reunion was warm.  After the trial, Marybeth insisted on spending a few nights at her dad's apartment.

One of the leverages CPS used to encourage offenders to get help was to keep them out of the home and away from the kids, except with the approval of the therapist.  Therapist approval was contingent on the offender admitting the offense.  Approval was withheld as long as the offender had a "denial" problem.  With Bob and Mary the incentive program failed, because the funds weren't there for Bob to pay for counseling ($50.00 and up an hour with state approved therapists).  Had the funds been present, Bob would have insisted on his innocence (as he ultimately did when funds were approved) and his "denial" problem would have kept him at loggerheads with this therapist and the necessary permission would not have been forthcoming.  So, Bob simply went to visit his children at will.

A year later he would admit to this in juvenile court and he and Mary would be found in contempt of court and given a suspended jail sentence on the condition of counseling.  He continued to maintain his own residence for over a year, because of the court's order.

A year later when the court approved Bob's return to the family residence, Bob no longer wanted to live at home.  He had met another woman just before New Years.  He divorced Mary four months later.  In December of 1987, he remarried.

Bob and his new wife left the area not long after they were married.  He got a construction job in central Washington, and before he moved, he told me that he didn't feel like he had much reason to stay.

The Results

In June of 1986 this was an intact family with no presenting pathology.  Both parents were working and the children seemed to be doing well.

In June of 1986 Bob Smith was charged with one count of second degree incest.  The state dismissed the charge with prejudice on September 4, 1986.  The only two psychologists who were able to complete an evaluation on him could not substantiate that Bob committed the acts alleged nor conclude that he was a likely child abuser.  The relationship with the sister remained unclear with respect to allegations of brother-sister molestation.

Bob lost his job.  Mary kept hers, primarily because she was able to keep her associates from finding out.  Bob was forced out of his home.  Mary and the children were forced out of theirs.  Bob and Mary lost their cars.  There was significant isolation of each family member from any social support they might have received.  The isolation ultimately culminated in divorce.  All four family members suffered depression, stress, rage, distress, hurt, devastated self-esteem, and alienation from their extended family members.  Marybeth suffered in deep, profound ways to cause a confused, suicidal ideation for some time after the intervention by the state had been resolved.

The question of character damage might be raised anecdotally:  After the dismissal of the criminal charges, as the courtroom was clearing, Bob's best friend reportedly heard the following exchange as Ralph walked up to the prosecutor:

"Can we get him for drugs?"

The prosecutor looked at him and quietly said, "There is so much of that stuff out there, its impossible to trace."

"Can we appeal this?" asked Ralph.

The prosecutor returned to his briefcase, "There's no grounds for any kind of an appeal."

To which Ralph replied, "Goddamnit, He's guilty, He's a pervert, I don't give a damn about the laws, he's guilty and those kids need to be protected!

Summary and Analysis

The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of a false allegation of child sexual abuse on an intact family.  The survey of the literature indicated that investigations which led to a finding of unsubstantiated abuse (of all kinds) comprised about 65% of the total reports filed nationwide.  That means there are approximately 500,000 families a year involved in these investigations.  The literature also reflects a widespread inconsistency of definition with respect to child abuse, child sexual abuse, and neglect, in both legal and therapeutic applications.  This increases the probability of large numbers of false allegations, in which families who are the subjects of these investigations would be exposed to serious harm.

The Schulz (1989) and Tyler and Brassard (1984) surveys indicate that both convicted and nonconvicted families in which there are accusations of sexual abuse face similar problems.  High percentages reported separation and or divorce, losing their homes, losing their jobs, becoming dependent on the state for financial and other assistance, and losing their social support network of friends and extended family members.

The case studies on false allegations show there was a motive behind virtually all of the false accusations studied.  Frequently, the moving force was a parent involved in a custody dispute, and domestic turmoil was a particularly ripe setting for false allegations.  The system designed to protect children was usable by people seeking to punish another person or to manipulate the system to their advantage.

The Smith's experience resembled some of the more hurtful examples in the literature review, but it went beyond the statistics and gives insight as to why marriages might end and families become isolated.  Being forced apart by the court and having to endure crisis situations alone contributed to the destruction of Bob and Mary's marriage.

Barb's allegations of earlier molestation by Bob may have triggered Ralph and Betty's efforts to have Bob convicted, but it cannot explain everything.  It appears that Bob's parents were moving to protect the children from something they believed Bob had also done in his own childhood.  What Bob did amounted to his word against Barb's.  Barb later admitted that she had lied about a lot of things.  Her world was skewed as well, she was going through a nasty divorce at the time of the intervention.  Maybe Barb displaced her anger at her estranged husband onto Bob.  Perhaps Bob had done something to make Marybeth uncomfortable, although Marybeth never publicly alleged it after she modified the accusations, and the elder Smith's over-reaction, laced with their anger at Bob for allegedly molesting Barb, explains more about their acts.  It still doesn't explain the long night in which the children were told horrible things about their father.  Maybe they were parroting the allegations of Barb.

The effect on the younger Smith's family was tragic.  Bob and Mary divorced.  Their reputations were destroyed by the allegations and a public trial.  Bob's job loss disrupted the family financially.  Friendships were lost.  The children suffered at the hands of their friends who learned about the charges and hounded them.  Teachers treated the children as abused.  The father left the area to avoid as much as possible the continued reminders and probable character damage of his ordeal.

Marybeth was told terrible things about her father and was coerced into bringing allegations against him by her grandparents.  She was then drawn into the Child Protective System, foster homes, counselors, lawyers, judges, and court.  This was a terribly wrenching and confusing situation for a ten year old to be in.  She watched her family fall apart under the weight of the charges she brought.  She soon became suicidal and required in-patient psychiatric care twice.  She became a drug user and a run away.  Before the intervention she was a good student, active in sports, well-liked and without presenting problems.  The effects of the intervention may be with her for a long time.

No one escaped the jolting, tarnishing effects of the accusation.  Mary, more than anyone, felt she was a victim of circumstances outside her control and that there was very little she could have done to make things better and lots she could have done (with very little effort) to make things worse.  Marybeth was caught in a trap meant for her father, which was set by her grandparents and sprung by the state.  Mike, in his own way, was set up and used as well by the same forces.  In this sense, everyone was a victim of the situation, and of a system that in seeking to prevent abuse was shown capable of participating in and fostering a kind of abuse as damaging as the abuse it sought to prevent.


Humans are faced with a terrible dilemma how to protect children from abuse while protecting the rights of families.  There is explicit tension between the two goals, in that the right of a family to discipline does not include physical damage to children, parental love and intimacy cannot condone sexual contact, and the sanctity of family life is subject to the law.  Therefore, those who care about families have a vested interest in the kinds of laws that get passed, so that the cure does not become worse than the disease.

Until better definitions of sexual abuse are accepted by the legal and therapeutic communities, an accusation of child abuse, particularly of sexual abuse is extremely serious, and such an accusation is likely to affect a family system for life.  If a false accusation is made, everyone can and probably will suffer as much as if the abuse had actually take place.

A child caught in the production and prosecution of a false accusation is placed in an insane, other-side-of-the-mirror world in which everything becomes reversed.  What you said first is the truth and any modification isn't.  If you say you were abused, you were abused, but if you say you weren't, you were coerced into recanting.  But if you say you were coerced into making the charges, then you must have been forced into changing your story, and if you say nothing happened, then you are a liar.  If you say you weren't a victim, then you're crazy and you surely are a victim.  At least this was Marybeth's experience.

Those who are in a position of dealing with reports of alleged abuse wield enormous power.  When police and child protective workers make an investigation they have a grave responsibility to the public and to the members of the family being investigated.  Given the current political climate, an accusation of sexual abuse is very nearly as damaging as a conviction in court of sexual abuse.  Until this climate moderates, those investigating allegations of abuse must assume responsibility not only for abused children, but for families and children who they can indeed, thoroughly abuse should they make a mistake.  The issue of false allegations is as important and urgent as the issue of child abuse itself.  This is the major finding of this study.

Recommendations for Future Research

Further research is needed regarding the number of allegations that are falsely made about child sexual abuse as contrasted with the other forms of abuse.  Research into the figures for unsubstantiated reports should examine how many families are investigated and to what depth of intervention for example, how many have only one or two interviews, how many go to counseling without CPS filing a complaint with juvenile court, how many go to juvenile court, and how many end up in both criminal and juvenile court.  We need to know more about what the incidence figures mean.

We need agreement on a definition for sexual abuse that is not so vague that people could be prosecuted and sent to prison for ambiguous "touches" in one jurisdiction and ignored in another.  In order to prosecute abuse, the legal and helping community needs to know what it is prosecuting and there needs to be uniformity across state lines.  This is an issue involving millions of people in our nation.  The definitional issue is paramount.  Clearly, further research is needed to clarify the issues that could lead to a better, more workable, solution to the confused, obscure definitions currently in force in different jurisdictions.

The motivating issues behind false accusations should be investigated.  Custody disputes are not the only reason false allegations are filed.  What other ways are there for people to use the situation to get revenge, to punish, to manipulate others, to gain advantage?  What happens to the children?  Isn't the ordeal of a false production of an allegation, for a child, a serious kind of abuse?  Does this case study suggest that there may be a phenomenon of transgenerational abuse abusive parents becoming abusive grandparents, finding that grandchildren present inviting new opportunities to humiliate and punish their adult children?  If we knew more about what kinds of factors encourage people to turn somebody in, to use the system for personal ends other than to report real or suspected abuse, evaluators could be more aware of those situations likely to create false positives.


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1 This article is a revised version of a thesis which was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Science, Eastern Washington University, in November, 1988.  [Back]

* Darrell W. Richardson is a counselor and can be contacted at Route 1, Box 116, Troy, Idaho 83871.  [Back]

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