Special Problems with Sexual Abuse Cases

In J. Ziskin (ed.), Coping With Psychiatric and Psychological Testimony, Fifth Edition (Out of Print) (pp. 1315-1370). Los Angeles, CA: Law and Psychology Press.

Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield (f1)

More than any other forensic area, the interaction between the justice system, governmental authorities, and the mental health professions in dealing with child sexual abuse has the greatest potential for iatrogenic harm to individuals, adults and children, the family, and the society. The entire structure and system dealing with sexual abuse struggles to make the classification decisions-sexual abuse or not sexual abuse. Once that decision is made, the consequences to every person involved, all participating institutions, relevant social structures, and the nation inexorably march on. We suggest there is more pseudoscience, more poor science, and greater misunderstanding of what is scientific and what is not in this system than in any other. We suggest there is more error, more foolishness, and more poor practice by legal, judicial, medical, psychological, social work, and bureaucratic professionals in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse than any other social issue. There is greater and sharper polarization, more bitter acrimony, more intense emotional involvement, and deeper and more alienating divisiveness in all the professions involved in responding to accusations of sexual abuse than in any other arena (Ceci, 1994; Ceci and Bruck, 1993a).

However, there is one goal-increased accuracy-which everyone should agree on. The justice system, science, bureaucracies, and institutions may be aimed at many different goals and purposes but no participant player can disagree with the value of striving to increase the accuracy of the classification decisions made. There can be no denial that actual benefit to all people is advanced by increased accuracy.

The need to unite about the goal of increased accuracy is underscored by the fact that every scientific analysis we have found of the level and type of error made by the various scientific and mental health disciplines in the effort to deal with allegations of child abuse reaches the same conclusion. The error is massive, unacceptable, and in the direction of false positives-decisions that there is abuse when there is not (Abel et al., 1994; Altemeier et al., 1984; Caldwell et al., 1988; Gambrill, 1990; Horner, 1992; Horner and Guyer, 1991a, 1991b; Kotelchuck, 1982; Lindsay and Read, 1994; Melton, 1994; Milner et al., 1984; Paradise, 1989; Realmuto et al., 1990; Schachter, 1985; Starr, 1979; Wakefield and Underwager, 1988a; Zeitlin, 1987). The lowest ratio is 3 false positives to 1 true positive while the highest is over 200 to 1. Horner and Guyer (1991a, 1991b) demonstrate a ratio of 21 false positives to 1 false negative. Such unanimity across 16 years, different countries, and different areas of practice and technique, is rare in science. It strongly suggests that this system does more harm than good. The need for increasing the accuracy of the decisions made is imperative.

The Beginning of the Problem

Misconceptions That Increase Error

The Child Witness

Interviews of Children

Some Common But Unsupported Interview Techniques

Mental health professionals often use unsupported interview techniques when interviewing children. Although the anatomical dolls are most frequently used, books, puppets, drawings, projective cards, play dough, games, and play therapy are also used (Kendall-Tackett, 1992). None of these are reliable or valid for assessing possible sexual abuse. They have not shown acceptable validity or reliability for any scientific assessment purpose. Their use is apt to contaminate the statements children may make, especially if the the interviewer encourages the child "to pretend." Experts who have used such techniques should be challenged to produce the scientific evidence supporting their proper and appropriate use for assessment along with any contrary scientific evidence.

Anatomically-Detailed Dolls
Interpretation of Drawings
Other Unsupported Techniques

Medical Evidence

Behavioral Indicators and Child Abuse "Syndromes"

The Nature of the Allegations

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Assessment of the Accused Adult

Psychological Testing

Psychological testing is discussed in detail elsewhere in these volumes so we will limit ourselves here to testing in cases involving sexual abuse allegations. Attorneys should obtain all the raw test data underlying any reports and conclusions and then have their own expert examine them. We frequently encounter reports and depositions in which claims are made that simply are not supported by the test results (Wakefield and Underwager, 1993). In addition, tests may be incorrectly scored and misstatements made.

Misuse of the MMPI and MMPI-2

Scale 5 0verinterpretations

Overinterpretation of the K Scale in Court or Custody Settings

Failure to Recognize the Situational Factors in a Scale 6 Elevation

Departing from Standard Administration Procedures

Overinterpretation of the MMPI Supplementary Scales

Ignoring a Within Normal Limits Profile and Finding Pathology with Projective Tests

Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI and MCMI-II)

Multiphasic Sex Inventory

The Penile Plethysmograph

Testimony About the Plaintiff in Personal Injury Cases

Allegations of Recovered Memories

Court Rulings Relevant to Expert Testimony in Child Sexual Abuse Cases



Daubert vs. Merrell, Dow Pharmaceuticals (61 U.S.L.W. 4805, 113 S Ct 2786, 1993)
Frye vs. United States (293 F. 1013)
Idaho vs. Wright (110 S . Ct., 3139, 1990)
Maryland vs. Craig (110 S. Ct., 3157, 1990)
New Jersey vs. Michaels (642 A.2d 1372, N.J. 1994)

Footnote 1

Ralph Underwager, Ph.D., and Hollida Wakefield, M.A. are licensed psychologists at the Institute for Psychological Therapies in Northfield, Minnesota. They have extensive experience in consulting and testifying in cases of alleged sexual abuse. They have presented workshops and seminars and have written numerous articles on the topic of sexual abuse allegations. They are the authors of Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse (Hardcover) (Paperback), published by C. C. Thomas in 1988; The Real World of Child Interrogations (Hardcover), published by C. C. Thomas in 1990; and Return of the Furies: An Investigation into Recovered Memory Therapy (Paperback), published by Open Court in 1994. They publish a journal, Issues in Child Abuse Accusations.

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