Several professionals (e.g., Corwin et al., 1987; Faller, 1990a;
Goodwin, Sahd & Rada, 1989; MacFarlane, 1986) believe that some parents
become more likely to sexually abuse their child after the divorce. This
may be to retaliate against the spouse or because the stress of the
divorce results in an angry or emotionally devastated parent seeking
affection and comfort from the child. There is no evidence, however, as to
how often this actually happens.
A false accusation is seldom a deliberate fabrication made to obtain
custody. However, the media attention to sexual abuse and the
publicity about purported behavioral signs of sexual abuse may sensitize
parents to its possibility. Then, when embroiled in a custody
battle, a parent may play close attention to the child following visits
with the other parent. In a high-conflict divorce, not only is the
child likely to undergo significant stress, the parents are apt to blame
the child's anxiety and distress on the other parent (Wallerstein & Kelly,
1975 & 1980). Both parents are ready to believe the worst about
their former spouses.
Then, if they observe innocent or ambiguous behaviors, such as
nightmares and bedwetting following a visit or find the child masturbating
or engaged in sex play with another child, they may conclude that the
other parent has done something to cause this behavior (Myers, 1993;
Schaefer & Guyer, 1988; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988, 1990, 1991).
The parent, now fearful that the former spouse has sexually assaulted the
child, questions the child. The questions are apt to be leading and
suggestive. In this way, statements about abuse inadvertently can be
shaped and developed.
Although deliberate false allegations to obtain an advantage in custody
are uncommon, they can happen (Green & Schetky, 1988; Wakefield &
Underwager, 1989, 1991). Thoennes and Pearson (1988b) report that in
15% of the cases they studied, the case worker doubted that the report was
offered in good faith. Myers (1993) observes that it is important in
custody disputes to differentiate between good faith but mistaken
allegations and deliberate falsehoods. A court may doubt the
custodial fitness of a parent who deliberately fabricates an allegation,
but see it as appropriate to award custody to a parent who makes a good
faith but mistaken allegation.
Criteria for Differentiating Between Real and False Allegations
Although it is the court's responsibility, not the professional's, to
make the ultimate determination about whether abuse occurred, the court
seeks guidance from mental health professionals regarding such allegations
(Bow et al., 2002; Brooks & Milchman, 1991). The judge cannot make a
decision concerning custody until there is a finding about the alleged
abuse. Although there is no easy way to differentiate between true
and false allegations, it is important to examine the circumstances of the
disclosure of abuse and to learn as much as possible about the progression
of the case (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). Areas that are believed to be
- The number and quality of the interviews, both formal and informal
- Any behavioral indicators observed in the child by parents or others
- The timing of the allegations
- The nature of the original disclosure, including the length of time
between alleged event and disclosure
- The characteristics of the child's statement
- The nature of the allegations
- The age of the child
- The medical evidence
- The behavior and personality characteristics of the accusing parent
- The behavior of the professionals involved
The Number and Quality of the Interviews, Both Formal and Informal
There is strong research evidence documenting the susceptibility of
children to leading and suggestive interviews. The suggestibility of
child witnesses is one of the areas that Kassin et al. (2001) found to be
considered by forensic psychologists as reliable, valid and adequate for
use in court testimony. Kuehnle, Greenberg, and Gottlieb (2004) also
note that the evidence concerning the way children should be interviewed
in forensic situations is now sufficiently evolved so that the recommended
techniques can be used in interviewing children in custody evaluations.
It is now generally recognized that leading, suggestive, or coercive
questioning can result in the child's developing a subjectively real
memory for an event that never happened. A current article by Bruck
and Ceci (2004) briefly summarizes the research in this area.
Informal questioning by parents and other trusted adults can affect the
responses of children in later, formal interviews, even when the forensic
interviews are conducted in an optimally non-suggestive manner (Poole &
Lindsay, 2001). Even the use of nonsuggestive, open-ended
questioning does not guarantee accuracy when child witnesses have
previously been exposed to misinformation.
Several professionals and professional groups have developed guidelines
as to how investigations and interviews must be done in order to obtain
accurate and reliable information. These guidelines show a strong
consensus as to how interviews and investigations should be conducted
(APSAC, 1996; Bourg et al. 1999; Ceci & Bruck, 1995; Davies et aI, 1996;
Kuehnle, 1996; NIJ, 1992; Myklebust & Alison, 2000; Orbach et al. 2000;
Poole & Lamb, 1998; Powell & Thomson, 1994; Raskin & Esplin, 1991; Saywitz
& Camparo, 1998; Sternberg et al., 2002; Warren & McGough, 1996; Warren et
al., 1996; Wilson & Powell, 2001; Wood & Garven, 2000; Wood, McClure, &
Birch 1996; Work Group, 1997; Yuille et al., 1993).
There is a strong consensus that forensic interviews of child witnesses
should be videotaped or at least audiotaped (Wakefield, 2004). Only
electronic recording can ensure an accurate record of the interview (e.g.,
DeLipsey & James, 1988; Henry, 2000; Lamb et al., 2000; McGough, 1995,
2002; Myers, 1994; Warren & Woodall, 1999). Without a tape, there is
no way to know what was said by the interviewer to elicit a response from
the child. Nor is there any way to know just what the child said.
Moreover, there is no way to determine whether the child's statements are
the result of a leading, coercive, and contaminating interview rather than
the child's account from his or her own memory and personal knowledge.
Even experienced interviewers are unable to accurately recall their
specific, verbatim questions and the child's answers that are necessary
for evaluating an interview (Warren & Woodall, 1999). This is true
even when the interviewers take verbatim notes during the interview (Lamb
et al., 2000).
In order to obtain a reliable statement from the child, the interviewer
must approach the interview without a bias as to what happened.
Interviewers with preconceived beliefs are very likely to ask questions
and get answers that will confirm their beliefs (e.g., Ceci & Bruck, 1995i
Pettit, Fegan, & Howie, 1990i Thompson, Clarke-Stewart, & Lepore, 1997;
Kassin, Goldstein, & Savistsky, 2003). The interviewer should
explore alternative hypotheses or explanations about what happened.
One hypothesis is that the abuse occurred as alleged, but there are other
possibilities that should be explored.
Other guidelines that are generally accepted in the scientific
- The child should be interviewed alone. To the extent that the
child perceives pressure to say what she thinks the interviewer expects
to hear, more than one interviewer will increase this perceived pressure,
especially if the interviewer is identified as an authority figure.
- There should be a rapport building phase at the beginning of the
interview. The interviewer should avoid asking a series of closed
and forced choice questions during this beginning phase. It is
important to let the child know from the beginning that only she has the
- During the rapport phase there should be a practice interview where
the child is asked open questions about neutral topics and encouraged to
give narrative answers. These "practice interviews" allow the
interviewer to gauge the child's memory and his ability to describe past
events; and allow the child to practice giving information in response to
open, nonleading questions.
- Interviews of children should begin with ground rules that include
telling the child that the interviewer does not know the answers and that
it is all right for the child to say, "I don't know" or "I don't
remember"; and that the child should correct the interviewer if the
interviewer says something wrong.
- Open-ended questions that encourage the child to give a free
narrative of the alleged events should be asked as much as possible.
If a more specific question must later be asked, it should then be paired
with an open question (e.g., "And then what happened?") .
- Suggestive questions which provide information to the child about the
allegations should not be asked. The interviewer should not ask a
question about something unless the child has already brought it up.
- Specific responses about abuse should not be selectively reinforced.
- Pressure and coercion should never be used.
- Specific, closed, and yes-no questions should not be repeated.
When children are asked the same question repeatedly, they can change
their answers to conform to what they think the interviewer wants to
- There is no research supporting the use of anatomical drawings where
body parts are named. There is an indication that this may decrease
the reliability of the information obtained (Rawls, 1996). These
drawings may communicate to the child that what is to be discussed is
body parts and touching.
- The same criticism holds for the discussions of good touch and bad
touch. The guidelines on how to conduct noncontaminating, accurate,
and forensically useful interviews of children do not mention beginning
the interview with good touch-bad touch discussions.
- The anatomical dolls are controversial and cannot be said to be
generally accepted in the scientific community (Wakefield & Underwager,
2003). For an excellent critique of the dolls see Wolfner, Faust,
and Dawes (1993).
There are no behavioral signs or indicators that discriminate between
abused and nonabused children (Berliner & Conte, 1993; Lamb, 1994;
Legrand, Wakefield, & Underwager, 1989; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990,
1995). These problem behaviors are stress responses that are not
unique to child sexual abuse. The same symptoms are found in
children whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict divorce and other
situations, including economic stress, wartime separations, absent father,
natural disaster, and almost any stressful situation children experience
(e.g., Bow, et al., 2002; Emery, 1982; Hughes & Barad, 1983; Jaffe, et al,
1986; Porter & O'Leary, 1980; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980; Wolman, 1983).
Although age-inappropriate sexual behavior is often claimed to be a
better indication of sexual abuse, there is no reliable relationship
between sexual abuse and sexualized behavior. Hagen (2003) notes
that a review of 20 years of research on child sexual abuse fails to
support the claim that most sexually abused children exhibit symptoms of
trauma. Neither do they reliably exhibit sexualized behavior.
A significant percentage are asymptomatic.
Children with no history of sexual abuse act out sexually.
Silovscky and Niec (2002) found that 62% of the children with sexual
behavior problems in their sample had no substantiated history of sexual
abuse. Friedrich et al. (2001) report that age-inappropriate sexual
behaviors are also associated with physical abuse, domestic violence,
excessive life stress, and exposure to family sexuality. Drach,
Wientzen, and Ricci (2001) found no relationship between child sexual
abuse and the presence or absence of sexual behavior problems in children
referred for a forensic sexual abuse evaluation.
What normal, non-abused children do sexually is more frequent and
involved than most people assume (Best, 1983; Gundersen, Melas & Skar,
1981; Lamb & Coakley, 1993; Martinson, 1981, 1994, 1997). Friedrich
and his colleagues, (Friedrich et al., 1991, 1998) asked mothers of
nonabused children to complete questionnaires concerning sexual behavior.
Although behaviors imitative of adult sexual behaviors were comparatively
rare, the children exhibited a wide variety of sexual behaviors at
relatively high frequencies. Many children are exposed to sexually
explicit materials, soap operas, and adult magazines (Gordon, Schroeder, &
Abrams, 1990a). Sexually explicit materials can readily be accessed
on the Internet (Goodson, McCormick, & Evans, 2001).
Brilleslijper-Kater, Friedrich, and Corwin (2004) state that "[S]exual
behavior is not as valid a marker of sexual abuse as once thought, and its
assessment suffers when reporters are neither objective nor informed about
their child" (p. 1015). Although they believe that age-inappropriate
sexual knowledge (as contrasted to behavior) has promise as a way of
validating sexual abuse, an earlier study found no differences between
sexually abused and non-abused children in sexual knowledge (Gordon,
Schroeder, & Abrams, 1990b).
Sbraga and O'Donohue (2003) argue that using symptoms exhibited by
children to support a claim of abuse constitutes "post hoc reasoning" and
that given the status of knowledge concerning relevant probabilities of
symptom/abuse versus symptom/no abuse, it is not possible to reason from
symptom observation at Time 2 to abuse status at Time 1. Gratz and
Orsillo (2003) conclude that any testimony that a child has been sexually
abused based on the child's current psychological functioning not only
fails to meet Daubert standards but is unsupported by both the science and
ethics of clinical psychology.
The Timing of the Allegations
Although false accusations of sexual abuse can occur at any point
(Wakefield & Underwager, 1988; Blush & Ross, 1987), they appear to be
especially common in disputes about child custody that arise after a
divorce has been granted and center around issues of visitation (Benedek &
Schetky, 1985; Ehrenberg & Elterman, 1995). If it can be determined
that the divorce occurred as a result of the abuse disclosures, the abuse
may be more likely to be true. Sirles and Lofberg (1990) studied 128
families in which sexual abuse occurred, and approximately half of these
families ended in separation and/or divorce. But, by itself, the
timing of the allegation cannot be used to prove or disprove a claim of
The Nature of the Original Disclosure, Including Length of Time
Between Alleged Event and Disclosure
If a young child makes a spontaneous disclosure, the allegations are
more likely to be true, although this is not necessarily the case with
older children and adolescents. Young children are unlikely to
fabricate sexually abuse allegations (e.g., Berliner & Conte, 1993;
Ehrenberg & Elterman, 1995; Klajner-Diamond et al., 1987; Myers, 1992;
Wakefield & Underwager, 1991; Yates & Musty, 1988; Yates, 1988).
There is reason for caution when the disclosure comes about only after one
parent becomes suspicious because of an ambiguous behavior and asks the
child a series of leading questions about what the other parent did.
This does not mean that disclosures occurring as the result of a parent
questioning a child are likely to be false; such disclosures can also be
true. But a spontaneous disclosure made by a young child without
evident adult influence is less likely to be false.
With an older child or adolescent, one must consider other possible
motivational factors. Older children can make deliberate false
allegations for a variety of reasons, including to gain attention, to get
away from home, to retaliate against a parent for perceived mistreatment,
or to gain status in a peer group (e.g., Boakes, 1999; Everson & Boat,
1989; Horowitz et al., 1984; Kellogg et al., 1993; Mantell, 1998;
Mikkelsen, Gutheil, & Emens, 1992; Yates, 1991).
There is no typical length of time between abuse and disclosure
— some children tell immediately, others delay disclosing for
months, and many may never do so. Most abused children, however,
tell when directly asked (Bradley & Wood, 1996; London et al., in press).
Characteristics of the Child's Statement
The nature and amount of details about alleged abuse have long been
considered to be important in assessing the credibility of a child's
statement (e.g., Burkhart, 2000; deYoung, 1986; Faller, 1988; Jones &
McGraw, 1987; Jones & Seig, 1988; Sink, 1988a). The assumption is
that in false allegations there is likely to be an inconsistent, sparse,
or unrealistic account, whereas real accounts contain contextual
descriptive information given spontaneously. Thought to be
especially important have been unique or idiosyncratic details, emotion
expressed that is congruent with the topic discussed, and reports of
secrecy, coercion, or threats. These characteristics of a statement
based on an actual event are similar to those looked for in the Criterion
Based Content Analysis (CBCA) /Statement Validity Analysis procedure
(Khnken & Steller, 1988; Raskin & Esplin, 1991; Rogers, 1990; Undeutsch,
Although the CBCA procedure shows differences between more and less
credible accounts, it is not accurate or reliable enough to be used in
court (Brigham, 1999; Lamb, 1998; Lamb et al., 1997a, 1997b; Ruby &
Brigham, 1997, 1998; Santtila, et al., 2000). The amount and
quality of details do not discriminate between real and false accounts
when the child has been subjected to prior suggestive interviews or when
the interviewer fails to ask open-ended questions (Bruck, Ceci, &
Hembrooke, 2002). Unless the information is obtained from free-recall
memory, it is difficult to evaluate the credibility of the child's
statement. There must be a taped statement obtained as soon as
possible from a child who has made a spontaneous disclosure, and the
statement must be based upon the child's narrative account and not on
responses to leading questions. Age and verbal ability can also
affect the details in the child's statement.
The difficulty in assessing the veracity of children's statements after
they have been previously interviewed is demonstrated by Steve Ceci (e.g.
Ceci & Bruck, 1995; Ceci et al., 1994). He showed videos of the
children in the final interviews in his experiments to professionals and
asked them to select which children were providing genuine accounts and
which were providing false accounts. The professionals were never
able to do better than chance would allow.
Nature of the Allegations
The behaviors alleged should be examined in terms of what is known
about the behavior of actual sexual abusers and incest perpetrators
(Wakefield & Underwager, 1994). Are the behaviors simply not
plausible? In false allegations, the child may describe something
that is highly improbable or even physically impossible.
If the allegations have grown and expanded over time in a child who has
been placed in therapy or interviewed several times, this is most likely
due to the influence of adults who may be encouraging and reinforcing the
child for talking about abuse. Although real accounts contain variations
and minor inconsistencies, there should be no major inconsistencies. There
is no support for the belief that disclosure of sexual abuse is a process
in which the child initially denies abuse, later makes a tentative
disclosure, and finally, over time, provides more and more details
(Bradley & Wood, 1996; Bruck & Ceci, 2004; London et al., in press).
The Age of the Child
If the interviews of the child, both formal and informal, have been
leading and suggestive. and if the adults questioning the child have had a
preexisting bias as to what has happened, younger children will be more
vulnerable to making false statements in response to the suggestive
questions. There are clear age trends in the suggestibility of child
witnesses, with preschool children being more vulnerable to suggestion
than school-aged children or adults (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995). In
their study on the effects of misleading suggestions from parents on
children's later reports, Poole and Lindsay found that although all their
subjects (ages 3 to 8) were influenced by the exposure to misinformation
from parents, the younger children were less accurate in the later
interviews. But it is a misconception that suggestibility is only a
problem for preschoolers; the suggestive techniques used in the preschool
studies also produce false reports in adults, and susceptibility to
suggestion is highly common in older children (Bruck & Ceci, 2004).
Most sexual abuse does not result in physical findings. A study
of 2,584 children referred for a sexual abuse examination found that only
4% had abnormal examinations (Heger et al., 2002). Therefore, the
absence of medical findings does not rule out abuse. But vague,
nonspecific physical findings such as anal dilatation or anal scarring,
redness in the genital area, "enlarged" vaginal openings, and bumps,
mounds, tags, and clefts on the hymen do not support a finding of abuse
since these are found in normal, nonabused children (e.g., Adams, 1995;
Gardner, 1992; Goodyear-Smith, Laidlaw, 1998; Heger et al., 2002; Ingram,
Everett, & Ingram, 2002; McCann, 1998; McCann et al., 1989, McCann &
Voris, 1990, 1992; McCann & Wells, 1990, Paradise, 1989). The only
physical findings which provide strong support of sexual abuse are
pregnancy, acquired gonorrhea or syphilis, acute injuries, or the presence
of sperm or semen.
Behavior and Personality Characteristics of the Accusing Parent
The information on the personality and characteristics of the accusing
parent is primarily anecdotal and based upon the observations of
professionals who have been involved in these cases; therefore, these
observations should be taken with caution. Several professionals
(e.g., Bresee et al., 1986; Ehrenberg & Elterman, 1995; Faller, 1990b;
Gardner, 1987; Jones & Seig, 1988; Rand, 1989, 1990, 1993; Schaefer &
Guyer, 1988; Wakefield & Underwager, 1991) have observed that, whereas in
cases of actual abuse the parent is willing to consider other possible
explanations for the child's behavior or statements, in false allegations
the parent is apt to refuse to consider any explanations other than sexual
abuse. In real cases, the parent allows the child to be interviewed
alone, but in false cases s/he is likely to insist on being present during
the interview. Also, in false cases, when the professional says that
abuse is unlikely, the parent may shop for other professionals who will
verify her suspicions.
There is some evidence that parents involved in false allegations are
more likely to have personality disorders and other psychiatric problems (Benedeck
& Schetky, 1985; Gardner, 1998; Green & Schetky, 1988; Jones & McGraw,
1987; Klajner-Diamond et al. 1987; Rogers, 1990; Ross & Blush, 1990;
Wakefield & Underwager, 1990, 1991). However, as Bresee et al.
(1986) point out, although women who make false allegations may be
histrionic or combative, such troubled women with vengeful motives may
nevertheless have discovered genuine evidence of sexual abuse.
Behavior of the Professionals Involved
Professionals should not presume either guilt or innocence.
Klajner-Diamond et al. (1987) believe that one factor suggesting a false
accusation is a professional committed prematurely to the truth of the
allegation. Blush and Ross (1990) observe that false cases are
characterized by a loss of control by the agencies involved in the case
early on when professionals decide that abuse is real before doing a
careful investigation. Mantell (1988) notes that child sexual abuse
allegations tend to develop a life of their own that resists satisfactory
resolution. I have observed that in cases that turn out to be false,
a professional quickly reaches a decision that abuse had occurred, the
decision was made on the basis of limited data, disconfirming data was
ignored, and no alternative options were examined. If the
determination of abuse was made quickly and alternative explanations or
hypotheses were not explored, the allegation should be treated with more
Sexual abuse allegations developing in custody disputes are complicated
and difficult to sort out. Professionals must remain open and
objective, explore alternative explanations, and attend to what is known.
They must carefully examine each case and not immediately dismiss an
allegation as false because the parents are in the midst of a divorce.
But they must also guard against a presumption of guilt, and resist
aligning themselves with the reporting parent's agenda. Specific
- Interviewers should follow the generally accepted guidelines for
conducting noncontaminating, forensically-useful interviews of children.
They should explore multiple hypotheses and should be particularly
careful to avoid premature conclusions.
- Attorneys must be familiar with the literature on the generally
accepted guidelines on how to do investigative interviews of children.
They should make a time line of the case and examine the quality of all
formal and informal interviews anyone has had with the child, including
the parents. They should not only educate themselves concerning
this area but should retain an expert to examine the documents and review
the videotapes. If a cute child holding a stuffed animal testifies
on the stand that "Daddy hurt my pee pee," the defense attorney will need
a way to explain how this may have happened other than accusing the child
- The circumstances of the initial disclosure should be carefully
examined, especially if the child only discloses in responses to
suggestive questioning from an adult and initially denies the
allegations. The behaviors that are alleged should be looked at in
terms of their plausibility.
- Although a medical exam is important, it seldom is dispositive since
most abuse does not leave physical evidence. The absence of
physical findings is seldom exculpatory. But, at the same time,
vague, nonspecific findings do not support a claim of sexual abuse.
Rarely, there will be clear findings (e.g., the defendant's sperm in the
child's vagina) that provide strong support for sexual abuse.
- The so-called behavioral indicators of sexual abuse do not
discriminate between abused and nonabused children. In the absence
of a clear, uncoerced statement, even sexual acting out and sexual
behavior problems cannot not be used to support a claim that a child has
- With an older child, possible motivational factors must be
considered. Older children and adolescents occasionally fabricate
allegations for personal gain.
- All formal interviews should be electronically recorded. The
attorney should vigorously confront the police or the social services
interviewer who elected not to record the interview. There is no
way that the interviewer can later accurately recall what took place in
the interview. There are no good reasons for not at least audio
taping all investigative interviews of the child.
- Despite their earlier promise in differentiating between false and
true accounts, looking at the nature and amount of details in the child's
statement and using the CBCA procedure is not adequately accurate or
reliable for court.
- It the attorney determines that the interviews have been so leading
and suggestive that the child may no longer have any independent
knowledge of the events in question, the attorney may wish to consider a
taint hearing. The attorney must understand that this has to do
with reliability and cannot be equated with credibility. This is an
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