Assessment of the Accused Adult

No psychological test nor evaluation procedure can ascertain whether a given individual has, in fact, abused a child or committed any other specific behavior. Hall and Crowther (1991) observe: "In sum, there appears to be no psychological method of identifying sexual aggressors and predicting recurrence of sexually abusive behavior that has unequivocal empirical support." (p. 80) Myers (1992) notes that "There is no psychological litmus test to detect sexual deviancy." Erickson et al. (1987) report that there is no typical sex offender MMPI profile and that "Attempts to identify individuals as likely sex offenders on the basis of their MMPI profiles are reprehensible." (p. 569)

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, a distinction must be made between "sex offender against a minor" and "pedophile." The former refers to a criminal sexual behavior and the latter to an anomalous sexual preference. Many pedophiles never act on their impulses. The DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) defines pedophilia in terms of recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children, and requires that the fantasies, urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. It is therefore possible for an individual who meets these criteria to have never engaged in illegal sexual behaviors. At the same time, not all sex offenders against a minor are pedophiles. All mental health professionals acting in an expert witness capacity should know this distinction.

The psychologist may make unsupported claims concerning the defendant. For example, although some professionals distinguish between "fixated" and "regressed" pedophiles, empirical research does not support the existence of this typology (Conte, 1990; Knight, 1989; Knight et al., 1989; Simon et al., 1992).

Another unsupported claim is that most sexual abusers were themselves abused as children. In some cases, the mental health professional will use a history of sexual abuse to bolster the claim that an individual who is denying abusing a child has the characteristics of an abuser. But the empirical evidence does not support the claim that most sexual abusers were themselves sexually abused (Garland and Dougher, 1990; Langevin and Lang, 1985; Murphy and Peters, 1992; Rivera and Widom, 1990; Widom, 1989a, 1989b, 1989c). Although the DSM-III-R (American Psychiatric Association, 1987) stated that "Many people with this disorder were themselves victims of sexual abuse in childhood," (p. 285) this statement is not found in the DSM-IV. Murphy and Peters conclude that "Clearly there is insufficient evidence to correlate historical items with sex offending in any fashion that would be reliable enough for use in a courtroom." (p. 33)

Although sex offenders are likely to have psychological problems, they are heterogeneous in personality characteristics. There is no typical MMPI profile for child abusers, although they often have various types of pathology that are reflected in their MMPIs. But a significant minority of sex offenders produce normal MMPIs. Erickson et al. (1987) found that 19% of their convicted sex offenders had profiles within normal limits, and Shealy et al. (1991) report on MMPIs of incarcerated sex offenders against children and found two of four subgroups with mean MMPI profiles that were within normal limits (although all four groups had various types and levels of difficulties in personality functioning). Therefore, a "normal" personality based on an MMPI or other assessment techniques does not mean that the individual could not be a sexual abuser. And the presence of psychological problems does not mean the abuse is real, since the great majority of people with psychological problems are not sexual abusers.

If the results of an evaluation are presented in terms of the person fitting or not fitting the "profile" of an abuser, this is especially problematical. Psychologists and psychiatrists do not deal with profiles; this concept comes from the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit. There is no "profile" of a typical child sexual offender. Profile evidence is usually not admissible in court and Myers (1992) points out that many courts hold sex offender profiles are a form of novel scientific evidence that has not found general acceptance in the scientific community. Peters and Murphy (1992) summarize appellate rulings and conclude, "With the notable exception of courts in California, virtually every appellate court that has ruled on the admissibility of expert testimony regarding the psychological profile of child molesters has rejected it." (p. 39)

When a woman is accused of committing sexual abuse and the mental health professional testifies that she did it, the base rates for women as child sexual abusers must be considered. Despite several highly publicized day care cases which have involved women and the belief of some professionals that sexual abuse by women is a serious and under-detected problem, sexual abuse by a woman remains unusual (Wakefield and Underwager, 1991a). Professionals who fail to carefully examine the evidence when a woman is accused of sexual abuse may cite the research of David Finkelhor and his colleagues (Finkelhor et al., 1988a, 1988b), who, in a national study of 270 day care cases, report that 40% of the perpetrators were women. These women tended to be intelligent, educated, highly regarded in their communities, and not likely to have a history of known deviant behavior. Many of these women were alleged to have engaged in extremely deviant, low base rate behaviors such as oral-genital penetration, urolagia and coprophagia, and ritualistic, mass abuse.

There are significant problems with the methodology of this study. Although the researchers required the abuse to be "substantiated," substantiation was defined in terms of any one of the people assigned to investigate the report believing that the abuse was real, despite whoever else may have thought it was false. They say, "our way of defining substantiation is only a way of approximating the truth. . . . Whenever we refer to cases, the reader should not automatically assume that we, or anybody else, knows with absolute certainty that these are cases of abuse rather than mistaken allegations" (Finkelhor et al., 1988a, pp. 14-16). Their sample therefore includes an indeterminate number of cases which ended in dismissals or acquittals, or convictions that were later reversed. For example, the McMartin case, which later ended in dropped charges and acquittals, is included. So is the Kelly Michaels case in New Jersey, which was overturned on appeal in 1993. No responsible professional believes that Kelly Michaels was guilty.


Special Problems with Sexual Abuse Cases


The Beginning of the Problem

Misconceptions That Increase Error

The Child Witness

Interviews of Children

Some Common But Unsupported Interview Techniques

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

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



Footnote 1


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