Ambiguity, Barriers, and Contradictions: The ABCs of Child Abuse Allegations
James C. Overholser*
ABSTRACT: Variables that impede the accurate
identification and reporting of child sexual abuse include ambiguity, barriers,
and contradictions. Ambiguity refers to the difficulties involved in
knowing if a situation should be considered abusive and whether the observer
needs to respond to the situation as a crisis. Barriers come into play
once other people know abuse has occurred but their assistance can still be
delayed or inhibited by many psychosocial factors. Barriers to the
identification and effective treatment of child abuse include stigma, secrecy,
blame, and diffusion of responsibility. Once the problem has been
identified and reported, many factors can obscure the accurate portrayal of the
events that happened. Child abuse allegations are fraught with
contradictions arising because of circumstantial evidence, lack of
corroboration, and contamination of interviews. Recommendations are made
to help ensure the prompt and accurate identification, reporting, and
prosecution of child abuse cases.
Sexual abuse of children has become an increasing concern
over recent years. This is partly due to the increased rates of child
abuse reports (Russell, 1984). In addition, a number of societal factors
play a role in the increased incidence of child abuse. Higher rates of
divorce and remarriage place a child at risk for abuse by a stepparent
(Finkelhor, 1984). Also, in today's society, many young children spend 30
to 50 hours per week in child care settings, placing them at risk for abuse by a
nonrelative caretaker. Finally, the media has played a role in making many
cases of child abuse important news topics. S uch media coverage has served to
reduce the social hesitations to openly discuss the taboo topic of child abuse.
It has been estimated that only 20% of actual cases of child
abuse ever come to the attention of professionals (Finkelhor, 1984). Thus,
the majority of cases are never detected or reported. Besides the
substantiated cases of abuse, an additional number of complaints arise but
cannot be substantiated. Estimates of false accusations have ranged from
3% to 65%. Quinn (1988) argues that 3% to 8% of child abuse allegations
are completely false. Jones and McGraw (1987) found 22% of cases to be
unsubstantiated and another 8% to be completely fictitious. Richardson
(1990) argues that 65% of all reported cases of abuse are unsubstantiated.
One recent study (Eckenrode et al., 1988) found 61% of sexual abuse reports were
unsubstantiated. It should be remembered that unsubstantiated complaints
do not necessarily mean false accusations (Quinn, 1988). Even when an
allegation is false, young children may believe they have been telling the truth
(Yates & Musty, 1988). Because of the disagreement described above,
professionals involved in potential cases of child abuse must be prepared to
distinguish true from false accusations.
An important distinction to be made in any assessment
situation involves identifying errors of prediction. The two main
prediction errors are false positives and false negatives. False positives
refer to cases where abuse is said to occur when it actually did not.
False negatives refer to cases in which no abuse is noticed even though it has
actually occurred. These two prediction errors are based on the notions of
specificity and sensitivity. Specificity refers to the ability of
information to help identify people who are not abusive, i.e., true negatives
(Schneider, Helfer, & Hoffmeister, 1980). Sensitivity refers to the
ability of the information to help identify people who actually have become
abusive, i.e., true positives (Schneider et al., 1980). For example, the
use of anatomical dolls has been questioned because they are sensitive but lack
specificity of the information obtained (Realmuto, Jensen, & Wescoe,
1990). Anatomical dolls are likely to elicit sexual reenactments in older
children even if they have never been abused (Everson & Boat, 1990).
This could lead to false positive accusations of abuse. Because of the
limited amount of research done on child abuse risk assessment instruments, high
rates of false positives are likely (Wald & Woolverton, 1990).
Different sources of information have different
utility. Most symptoms of child abuse are nonspecific in focus. Such
nonspecific symptoms include anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, somatic
complaints, substance abuse, and a sudden reduction in school performance
(Benedek & Schetky, 1987b). The use of nonspecific symptoms can lead
to high rates of false positive diagnoses (Quinn, 1988). For example, many
sexually abused adolescents cope with the abuse by attempting suicide or running
away from home (Goodwin & Owen, 1982). However, this does not mean
that all adolescent suicide attempters or runaways have been sexually
abused. Thus, professionals must be cautious in the behaviors that are
assumed to indicate child abuse has occurred. More specific indicators of
child sexual abuse include overt sexual acting out, simulation of sexual
activity, fear of being left alone with a particular adult, and tissue damage
around the genital area (James & Nasjleti, 1983).
Professionals must resist the tendency to decide quickly
whether abuse has occurred (Ross & Blush, 1990). The possibility of a
false positive diagnosis is increased when the professional ignores or fails to
examine disconfirming evidence (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988). A
professional who enters the interview holding preconceived ideas about what did
or did not happen will structure the interview so as to get the information
needed to support these ideas (Quinn, 1988). It is essential for all
professionals to keep an open mind during the data collection stage of the
investigation process (Jones & McGraw, 1987). Alternative explanations
should be examined before reaching a decision (Wakefield & Underwager,
1988). Professionals may need to focus less on what the child says
happened, and more on possible motivating factors in the child or accusing
parent (Schuman, 1986). Also, nonsexual stressors should be identified
that could be causing the emotional reactions in the child (DeYoung,
1986). Most symptoms of abuse are nonspecific and could arise for many
different reasons. Other stressors capable of causing symptoms of
emotional distress in the child include the pressure to lie about abuse that did
not really occur (DeYoung, 1986).
The present review will focus on variables that impede the
accurate identification of child sexual abuse. First, variables will be
examined that make it difficult for observers to know whether abuse has
occurred. Second, barriers will be examined that inhibit the accurate
reporting of known cases of abuse. Finally, the many contradictions
inherent in cases of suspected abuse will be discussed.
Ambiguity refers to the difficulties involved in knowing if a
situation should be considered abusive and whether the observer needs to respond
to the situation as a crisis. It can be surprisingly difficult to know if
and when to respond to a possible case of child abuse. The literature on
bystander intervention (Latane & Darley, 1970) can shed some light on these
issues. The bystander intervention research examines variables capable of
promoting or inhibiting the tendency of an observer to help another person
during an emergency. An important factor causing a reduction in bystander
intervention involves ambiguity. Most emergencies begin ambiguously and
can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Some people admit to not
reporting suspected child abuse because they couldn't be sure that abuse was
really taking place (Finkelhor, 1984). It can be difficult to ascertain
what factors define a situation as an emergency. People often take their
cues from the environment, the victim, and other bystanders.
Cues from the environment may be weak and inadequate.
Previous research has shown that child sexual abuse is more likely to occur in
broken homes, with a stepfather being a frequent perpetrator (Swanson &
Biaggio, 1985). Also, child sexual abuse is more likely to occur when
children share a bed with their parents. Such environmental factors may
increase the risk for abuse, but are not strong enough to clearly indicate an
abusive situation is present.
Another "environmental" factor is divorce.
Many cases of false accusations arise during divorce and child custody
proceedings (Paradise, Rostain, & Nathanson, 1988). It can be
important to examine revenge or manipulation as possible motives underlying the
accusations. The underlying conflict between the parents may be a
motivating factor behind an unsubstantiated accusation (Paradise et al.,
1988). A falsely accusing parent may appear vindictive, attempting to hurt
the other parent without regard for the impact on the child (Wakefield
Underwager, 1988, 1990). Thus, child abuse accusations arising as part of
a divorce or custody battle may suggest a tendency for false positive
accusations. However, the couple may seek a divorce when one parent finds
the other parent sexually abusing their children. Thus, divorce may be
common in both true and false cases of abuse, causing the situation to remain
Cues from the victim may be quite ambiguous. For
example, if a four-year-old girl says she hates going to preschool, dislikes
being left with a babysitter, or hates spending the weekend with the divorced
father, it can be difficult to ascertain whether it is due to child abuse,
separation anxiety, or other factors. Situations like these often involve
separation anxiety and are a natural part of development. However, several
authors (e.g., James & Nasjleti, 1983) warn that fears about going to
certain places or spending time alone with specific people may be a warning sign
that child abuse is occurring. This may be the child's way of indirectly
communicating about the abuse. Even when abused children attempt to report
the abuse, they often speak in riddles or provide indirect clues about the
abuse. Therefore, it takes skill, patience, and experience to accurately
decipher the cryptic comments often made by sexually abused children (Ortiz y
Pino & Goodwin, 1982).
Emotional reactions to the abuse can provide an important
clue. The child's emotional state should be consistent with the disclosure
of abuse (Wehrspann, Steinhauer, & Klajner-Diamond, 1987). Abused
children typically feel nervous and reluctant to discuss the abuse (Wakefield
& Underwager, 1988). However, emotional reactions are less likely to
occur in boys (Faller, 1988) and may be a consequence of the pressure to lie
instead of due to any actual abuse (Bresee, Stearns, Bess, & Packer,
1986). Also, severe abuse may lead to emotional blunting in the child
(Jones & McGraw, 1987). The child may begin to withdraw and display
constricted emotional responses. Thus, the situation remains
ambiguous. Both abused and nonabused children may fail to display the
expected emotional reactions.
Cues from other bystanders may be counter-productive and can
inhibit the urge to help. If an observer is involved in a possible
emergency but sees no one else responding, the inactivity of the other
bystanders may suppress the urge to help (Latane & Darley, 1970).
However, the other bystanders may be temporarily frozen by confusion or fear and
thus give the mistaken belief that they are not concerned. In cases of
physical abuse of children, it has been found that abusive mothers often admit
to the abuse when talking with friends or family members (Korbin, 1989).
However, these friends and family members may minimize the seriousness of the
abuse, perhaps describing it as appropriate disciplinary tactics. This can
result in a continuation and escalation of the abuse and the eventual death of
the child (Korbin, 1989). Also, the situation can be similar to cases of
spouse abuse where friends may minimize the problem and push the victim back
into the abusive relationship (Overholser & Moll, 1990). It can be a
very difficult decision for the nonabusing parent to discriminate when her
spouse is just having a bad day versus when it becomes a pattern of abuse.
In false positive cases of abuse, the complaining parent may
be affected less by pure fabrication and more by a tendency to overreact to
minor pieces of evidence (Bresee et al., 1986, Wakefield & Underwager,
1990). Many cases of alleged sexual abuse involve incidental sexual
contact, such as that which occurs while bathing a young child or sharing a bed
with a child (Summit & Kryso, 1978). It can be important to
distinguish between abusive and hygienic touching (Quinn, 1988). Although
physical contact is a necessary and important part of parenting, it is unclear
when it becomes abusive. There are no clear standards to distinguish
nurturant from sexual behavior (DeJong, 1985). Simple misunderstandings
occur when the child or accusing parent misinterprets physical displays of
affection (Mantell, 1988). It can be difficult to distinguish between
normal affection and eroticized contact. Likewise, it can be extremely
difficult to identify the line separating normal discipline from physical
abuse. Corporal punishment is still accepted by many parents.
Anxious parents may read too much into borderline situations (Benedek &
Schetky, 1987b). Thus, a large part of ambiguity lies in the difficulty
separating normal from abnormal behavior.
Ambiguity reduces the likelihood that observers will perceive
the abusive situation as abusive and respond in a prompt manner. This is
likely to increase the rate of false negative and reduce the rate of false
positive cases of abuse. Because of the ambiguous nature of most cases of
abuse, many true cases of abuse are likely to go unnoticed.
There are numerous barriers to the identification and
effective treatment of child abuse. The barriers come into play once other
people are aware of the abuse and they know they need to respond, but their
assistance can still be delayed or inhibited by many psychosocial factors.
Many parents fail to respond to the abuse in a prompt manner, often letting the
abuse continue for an extended period of time (Adams-Tucker, 1982). When
under pressure to make important decisions, people often postpone and
procrastinate (Janis & Mann, 1977). The decision to report a spouse is
a no-win situation for accusing parents. Either they report the abuse and
completely destroy their marital relationship, or they do not report it and
allow the abuse to continue. Barriers to reporting the abuse include
stigma, secrecy, blame, and diffusion of responsibility.
There is a terrible stigma associated with being a victim of
sexual assault (Finkelhor & Browne, 1985). The stigma implies the
abused child is bad or guilty. Many victims feel marked or branded by the
sexual victimization (Browne & Finkelhor, 1986). The stigma may result
in feelings of depression, despair, and low self-esteem in the child. Even
false accusations may result in negative consequences for the child and the
parents (Richardson, 1990). Both valid and false accusations may result in
similar problems, including marital separation, divorce, loss of friends, loss
of job, and loss of home (Richardson, 1990). Parents falsely accused of
incest are likely to be abandoned by friends and colleagues (Benedek &
Schetky, 1987b). Because of the stigma surrounding child abuse
accusations, many adults may be reluctant to report suspected cases of abuse.
Because of the stigma, secrecy develops. Incestuous
families are known to become extremely secretive (Swanson & Biaggio,
1985). The secrecy can make it difficult for others to know and understand
the family dynamics that are involved. The secrecy and collusion within
the family serves as a barrier for any family member to report the abuse.
There are strong norms against informing on one's family members (Finkelhor,
1984). Incestuous uncles are often able to pressure the child's mother to
not file charges against them (Browning & Boatman, 1977). This makes
sense in light of the literature on bystander intervention. The likelihood
to intervene may be reduced if the bystander knows the offender (Latane &
Darley, 1970). Thus, child abuse reporting may be impeded by the
relationship between the abusive adult and the bystanders. Bystander
intervention is reduced when there are other observers around because of
diffusion of responsibility. The bystanders assume someone else can report
the abuse. This may be related to a fear of retaliation. Some people
report being unwilling to report suspected child abuse due to a fear of
retaliation by the offender (Finkelhor, 1984).
Tendencies for blame disrupt the reporting process.
Some individuals are capable of blaming the offending adult. However, it
is fairly common for nonabusive parents to blame themselves. They may feel
they should have known about the abuse earlier and should have prevented
it. This self-blame can cause depression and low self-esteem, and may
result in a reduced tendency to report the abuse.
Some uninformed people blame the child. They may see
erotic tendencies in the sexually abused child as a precipitant of the abuse
instead of the consequence of coercive sexual activity (Yates, 1982).
There is a direct relationship between the duration and intensity of sexual
abuse and the subsequent eroticization of the child (Yates, 1982). Even
professionals may be affected by the blaming process. One professional
(Virkkunen, 1981) has defined a subgroup of child victims as "participating
victims," stating "Without doubt, the child victim's own behavior
often plays a considerable part in initiating and maintaining a pedophiliac
crime" (p. 130-131). Apparently, this author has relied more on
reports from the offending adults than from objective evidence. Similar to
spouse abuse (Overholser & Moll, 1990) incestuous parents tend to
externalize the problem by attributing the cause to other people including the
Tendencies for victim self-blame cause another barrier.
Victims of abuse often tend to blame themselves. Abused children often
refrain from reporting the abuse out of fear of harming the abusive parent or
breaking up the family (Ortiz y Pino & Goodwin, 1982). The abusive
adult may have warned the child that if the "secret" gets out, the
adult will go to jail, the child's parents will get divorced, and the child may
be placed in a foster home. Because of the realistic nature of these
threats, the child may protect the secret. Young children typically feel
protective of parents, even if the parent has been abusive (Benedek &
Schetky, 1987a). Thus, abused children may see themselves as the cause of
the abuse. After the initial episode of abuse, attributional patterns have
been formed and tend to stabilize (Overholser & Moll, 1990).
Barriers reduce the speed or likelihood that abuse will he
reported to the authorities. Because the barriers inhibit reporting
tendencies, barriers are likely to reduce the rate of false positive and
increase the rate of false negative cases of abuse. Similar to the effects
of ambiguity, barriers are likely to result in more cases of actual abuse that
Child abuse allegations are fraught with
contradictions. Once the problem has been identified and reported, many
factors can obscure the accurate portrayal of events that happened. Such
contradictions reduce the likelihood that true cases of abuse will be justly prosecuted.
In order to reduce some of the contradictions, corroborating information from multiple
sources is required. Unfortunately, current practices have relied heavily
on the child's report. Because many developmental factors reduce the
clarity of a child's report, it should not be used as the sole indicator of
abuse (DeYoung, 1986). The child's statement is affected by many distorting
factors, including social pressure, guilt, shame, and fear (Green, 1986).
The child's stage of development can have a tremendous impact on language and
memory abilities. Child witnesses tend to be quite suggestible, perhaps
because young children do not pay much attention to details (Cohen &
Harnick, 1980). Young children tend to be concrete and egocentric, which
can obscure an allegation (DeYoung, 1986). Children can be overly
compliant and follow the lead of the interviewer. Evidence from a child
can be easily contaminated by the child's parents, police, or attorneys.
Even well meaning parents may contaminate the interview data. Thus, the
initial interview is very important in order to collect useful and
uncontaminated data (Blush & Ross, 1990).
Consistency is the key to the accurate assessment of child
abuse allegations. It is best to have corroborating evidence from two or
more independent sources. Valid allegations require consistency over time,
across people, and across methods of communication. Although consistency
of data is preferred, most evidence is usually filled with contradictions.
In cases of false accusations, the child may use verbal expressions that mimic
the accusing adult (Ross & Blush, 1990). The child's words and
sentence structure should be congruent with the child's developmental level
(Jones & McGraw, 1987). Also, details of the abuse may be inconsistent
with sexual physiology (Rogers, 1990) or extremely unlikely to occur (Wakefield
& Underwager, 1988).
Consistency over time means the witness tells the same story
on several different occasions. In order to evaluate the consistency of a
child's report, a minimum of two interviews are required (Quinn, 1988). It
can be a sign of falsification if the child's story vanes over time, especially
when the details become increasingly abusive over time (Wakefield &
Underwager, 1988). Alternatively, consistency over time may reflect the
repetition involved when numerous interviews are conducted with the child
(Wakefield & Underwager, 1988). Furthermore, some children need time
away from the abusive situation before they feel secure enough to discuss the
abuse (Sink, 1988). Thus, the child's story may remain consistent for two
reasons: (1) the events actually happened, or (2) the child has created and
rehearsed a strong story line. The story may change over time because of
two reasons: (1) the child is making up the story, or (2) the child is gradually
becoming able to discuss the details of the abuse. Thus, the
contradictions continue to obscure the accurate portrayal of events that
Consistency across people refers to telling the same story to
more than one person (Wehrspann, Steinhauer, & Klajner-Diamond, 1987).
Collateral reports are necessary to validate any child abuse allegation.
Definite conclusions regarding the abuse are not possible without corroboration
(Jones & McGraw, 1987). It is recommended that both parents be
interviewed to evaluate the consistency between their responses and the
allegations (Bresee et al., 1986). Also, it has been recommended that all
family members be interviewed individually (Goodwin et al., 1978). This
may allow the professional to identify abuse or deceit in the child's
siblings. Finally, the child's friends, teachers, and neighbors may
provide useful information. The truly abused child often complains of the
abuse (or its effects) to someone other than the accusing parent (Bresee et al.,
1986). Thus, consistency of reports across different people can help
reduce contradictions in child abuse accusations.
Consistency across methods of communication refers to
corroborating data from the child's play or drawings (Wehrspann et al.,
1987). Abused children often display their distress and/or abuse through
various modes of communication. There should be agreement between the
child's statement and other test data or play behavior (Bresee et al.,
1986). The possibility of a false allegation should be closely examined if
the child fails to show any behavioral evidence of abuse.
Several authors have noted an interesting paradox in the
child abuse literature. Sheridan (1990) notes that both consistency and
inconsistency have been used to indicate that abuse has actually occurred.
Consistencies in the child's report may suggest the abuse actually occurred,
while inconsistencies in the child's report have been used to imply the child
was too emotionally disturbed over the abuse to report it accurately.
Abused children are typically reluctant to discuss the details of the
abuse. However, in order to identify and prosecute cases of abuse, the
child must describe what happened. When a child spontaneously and easily
provides details of sexual abuse, it may be a sign of fabrication (Green,
1986). Thus, a contradiction exists: both a child that reports abuse and a
child that never speaks of abuse may not have been abused. In a similar
way, the child may maintain or recant his story, and both situations may be used
as support that abuse has occurred (Sheridan, 1990). Retractions made by
the child have been used to imply the abuse has actually occurred but the child
is now afraid of the consequences to himself or to the offending adult (Goodwin,
Sahd, & Rada, 1978). Thus, both positive and negative evidence can be
used to support or refute claims of abuse.
A cause of many problems can be found in the biased search
strategies used by many professionals. Selective attention to certain
information or minimizing the importance of other information causes biases in
the professional's judgment. Professionals often tend to search for
information that supports their initial impressions and disregard information
that conflicts with their views (Nezu & Nezu, 1989). Also, different
professionals may hold different preconceptions. Female therapists tend to
identify with the victim while male therapists identify with the offender
(Swanson & Biaggio, 1985). In either case, such identification can
reduce the professional's objectivity and detachment. This can lead to
problems when attempting to clarify the contradictory nature of most child abuse
Contradictions interfere with the prosecution of alleged
abuse. Because of the various contradictions, fewer cases of actual abuse
will be prosecuted and more cases of falsified abuse may be prosecuted.
Thus, in contrast to the effects of ambiguity and barriers, contradictions are
likely to increase the rate of false positive and reduce the rate of false
negative cases of abuse.
There are numerous factors that impede the prompt and
accurate assessment of child abuse accusations. In general, all parties
should remain cautiously aware. Adults should be sensitive to the
situations where abuse may be occurring, and respond in a prompt and caring
manner. Professionals must recognize and manage the ambiguity, barriers,
and contradictions inherent in most cases of alleged child abuse. Only by
supporting factors that promote the prompt and accurate identification,
reporting, and prosecution of child abuse can we hope to bring this serious
problem under control. Despite the current emphasis on false positive
cases of abuse, the biggest problem continues to lie in cases of false negative
allegations. Despite the fact that diagnostic errors are influenced by the
population base rate (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988), we still lack an
accurate estimate of the prevalence of child abuse (James, Womack, & Stauss,
Factors causing ambiguity of the abusive situation should be
reduced so as to facilitate the detection of true cases and minimize the
reporting of false cases of abuse. If adults have any reason to suspect
child abuse has occurred, they must take prompt action to investigate. It
is not productive to assume someone else will protect the child. Also, it
is not wise to tolerate the ambiguity and assume nothing abusive has
occurred. However, it does not mean making accusations based on
conflicting or circumstantial evidence. Ambiguity can only be reduced by
taking responsibility for investigating the situation in an objective manner.
A variety of barriers must be confronted in order to help
people report suspected cases of abuse. The stigma surrounding abuse must
be reduced and collusion within families should be curtailed. Only the
offending adult should be blamed for the abuse. Even though all parties
play some role in the onset or continuation of the abuse, the offending adult is
the only party that deserves blame.
The many contradictions inherent in child abuse accusations
must be managed in order to prosecute the true cases of abuse. Care must
be taken to collect reliable and valid evidence in order to recreate an accurate
portrayal of the events that occurred. It will be important for
professionals involved in possible cases of child abuse to reduce the confusion
which follows when circumstantial evidence is used. Also, it is essential
to get corroborating evidence from other people and multiple assessment
modalities. In this way, it may be possible to improve society's ability
to manage cases of suspected child abuse.
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The author would like to thank Patti Watson for helpful comments made on an
earlier version of this manuscript.