One Hundred Cases of Unfounded Child Sexual Abuse: A Survey and Recommendations

LeRoy Schultz*

ABSTRACT: One hundred questionnaires were completed by persons who had been falsely charged with child sexual abuse.  Almost all falsely charged persons experienced family breakdown, loss of employment, deterioration of physical or emotional health, and/or welfare dependency.  All reported little sympathy and no victim welfare services in their community.  It is argued that persons found "not guilty" as determined by the study are a victim type because of the trial-induced trauma and therefore require social services.  Recommendations are made toward prevention of their victimization and trauma.

This century has seen a considerable increase in the power of the state to intervene in the lives of children and their families.  Increasing state involvement was, for much of this period, seen as beneficial for children and society.  The proper physical and emotional care of children became areas of official and professional concern.  Official policy could be crudely encapsulated in the statement that the well-nurtured child becomes the responsible and well-balanced adult.  Therefore, parents failing to provide for the emotional and physical needs, as defined by the state (or interest groups who impact state policy), of their children have become increasingly "at risk" of state intervention, including, as a final resort, taking children away and convicting (parents) of the criminal offense.

All well and good so far.  But it is how policies are implemented that makes the difference in this country.  There is increasing skepticism over our present child welfare policies' philosophical underpinning.  There is belief that the law favors the state rather than the child or the parents, that there is poor quality of state care, that the present system is poor at protecting children and protecting the parent's legal status and constitutional rights, and that the system is not functioning well and has damaging consequences for some children and parents.

Along with protecting children whose parents are not providing proper care, children and families should have the legal right to protection from unnecessary and intrusive state intervention.  Is justice for the child to be rendered only at the expense of justice for the parent(s)?

Child protection agencies investigate more than one million suspected cases of abuse or neglect each year (National Center for Juvenile Justice, 1981).  These agencies institute approximately 150,000 court proceedings yearly to establish state supervision of children alleged to be abused or neglected (National Study, 1981) and of this total only 8% represent alleged sexual abuse of children or adolescents.  One study indicated that of each 576 sexual abuse allegations, approximately 267 may be false allegations or very questionable, usually described as "unfounded" (Young, 1985).  (See also Abramczyk, 1985; Hepworth, 1983; Besharov, 1985 a & b for similar figures).

A major party to the community's response to suspected child/adolescent sexual abuse is the court system (civil or criminal), one of the most democratic institutions of a civilized society.  The court's function is to prevent undue state interference in family privacy, or to order intervention by others, or to intervene itself when there is a need to protect a child or family.  However, since the inception of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974, very few communities have had enough professional investigators (De Paulo, Zuckerman, & Rosenthal, 1980) or resources to carry out its mandates.  This causes system overload, professional burnout and legal stress on well-intentioned service providers (Roberts, 1978; Hutchison, 1986).

In some instances the current protective service system of investigation brings violence directly on the worker (Schultz, 1987; AFSCME, 1985).  It is mythology that compels each state to declare all "sexual abuse" as "dangerous" or "at risk" calling for instant removal of the alleged victim from his/ her home, the worker's judgment notwithstanding (Morris & Miller, 1986).  Victim impact statements (calling for justification for victim removal) and family impact statements have not been demanded by all courts or social service agencies despite their rational need.  Our survey results represent an initial foray into an, as yet, unexplored area of unintended victimization (Pellegrino, 1979).

When parents are charged with child sexual abuse with or without court proceedings, they may suffer trauma requiring a wide variety of community services (Tyler & Brassard, 1984).  Currently, there are few services for falsely charged parents suffering various types of trauma.  The current hysteria, with both sides shouting inflated numbers, war stories and atrocities, misinformation, and "children don't lie" simplicity (Haralambie, 1986) must not unduly impact the independent judgments of child protective workers, defense or prosecution or court personnel.  (Kirp, 1985; St. Petersburg Times, 1985; Glamour, 1986; A.B.C., 1986; Hutton, 1987).

This article will deal with the experiences and reactions of 100 parents falsely accused of sexual child abuse and their suggestions for correcting or preventing this traumatizing experience.  Parent-victims may be our most critical link to positive system change (Tyler, 1984; Magura & Moses, 1984) in protective services policy, juvenile courts, and criminal courts.  This report indicates how some victims cope and their proposed solutions to this problem.  Although some people believe that protective service workers are lenient and too liberal (Dingwall & Eckelaar, 1984), the impact on innocent persons of a false allegation is often overlooked.  As Doug Besharov (formerly, Director, National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect) put it "In seeking to protect helpless children, ... it is all to easy to ignore the legitimate right of parents" (Besharov, 1985 p.77).

We are aware of the limitations of this study since it is only a preliminary survey and no control group was used.  However, we believe that it contributes to a greater understanding of victimology (i.e., victim welfare) with reference to how arrestees accommodated to and often transcended the ordeal of false charges.

Sample and Method

The author attended the first annual conference of Victims of Child Abuse Laws (VOCAL) held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1985 and the second conference held in Torrance, California in 1986 and requested that those persons present who were found "not guilty" of the criminal charge of child/adolescent sexual abuse complete a two page questionnaire made up of 20 open-ended questions.  The questionnaire was a voluntary one, confidential, and was not paid for.  The 20 questions were designed to cover attitudes, feelings, and evaluations of the respondent's relationship with the protective service worker, police, defense lawyer, prosecutor, court, and the media, and parent-victim feedback on how to improve the protective system, including prevention of false charges.

One hundred fully completed questionnaires were used, coming from false charges (later determined) made in ten states.  Ages of the respondents ranged from 18 years to 80 years and 8% of the sample were females (see McCarty, 1986, regarding mother-daughter incest).  Defendants were determined to be "not guilty" for the survey if they had been acquitted by a jury, if the case was refused by the grand jury, or if the prosecutor nolle prossed the case, and when the defendant claimed innocence.  Some 62% of the sample were charged with the new offense "child sexual abuse" as opposed to the past-used criminal charges that were in the criminal code for more than 100 years (Weisberg, 1984) highlighting the current moral panic.

Results and Discussion

The Media

No social service agency can long survive without paying attention to and using the media.  The falsely accused must have a similar awareness (Jones, 1986).  Fourteen percent of the sample felt the media had done a "good" job on reporting the sexual event in the news, and many in this group felt it was the media that helped to exonerate them.  However, 30% reported their cases (false allegations) got no media attention even after repeated letters and phone calls to the media.  Most felt the media were the only effective way to reach the public on protective service and court abuses of power.  Fifty-two percent of the sample evaluated the media, as used in their case, as either "biased," "sensationalistic" or "fearful of the courts." Most felt the media were sensationalizing the sexual aspects or the youth of the alleged victim.  Some spoke of "teletrauma," i.e. television coverage as causing psychic trauma to the victim.  Most felt the media were looking for concrete answers that could be reported and were avoiding the vagaries and ambiguities of the case, or were "hung up" on children rights vs. family needs.

Network television cannot cover everything.  Commercials and credits leave but 23 minutes for every half hour; no news person is happy about such brevity.  Television affiliates can promote more coverage because of an hour's coverage of local news.  When television news downplays a story that would otherwise appear to merit more coverage, the explanation is often that the story lacked drama, controversy, human interest or good pictures.  False sexual abuse charges should qualify superbly for the dramaturgy of television news.  The uncertainty as to the possible scope of misfortune is usually an incentive, not a deterrent, to additional news coverage.  This may be what accounted for the falsely accused's belief that the media were overly controlled by the prosecutor's office and the child protective agencies (Schoenfeld & Meier, 1979; Drechael, 1985).

The child protective agency, the prosecutor's office and the falsely charged victims all need access to the media to air the many sides and dilemmas of this issue, since child abuse remains a public problem (Geach, 1982).  For suggested improvements in media coverage, 32% of the respondents felt it was wise and fair to avoid the media completely until after the trial, and 56% felt the media should avoid hype, hysteria and crisis-mongering.  Only 12% felt the media had power to positively change child protective policy or the justice system to be more fair and balanced.  All agreed that press conferences should be banned before trial or guilt determination.

Media not only conveys information of crime or arrest, but also acts as an expression of public opinion.  Publishing names of suspects can cause misery and embarrassment to them and to their relatives which goes beyond punishment and deterrence.  Acquittal does not mean that a person's name is cleared — the public may assume that "where there's smoke there's fire."  No person should be tried by media-communicated public information.  At the same time, malpractice by secret juvenile court or protective service persons or policy cannot be exposed without the media.


Pretrial release is essential for effective legal case preparation for each defendant.  if criminal charges are placed and jail is required, defendants run a risk of an unfair trial since they are not able to locate evidence.  Forty-eight percent of our sample were released on their own recognizance after the alleged child/adolescent victim was placed in a foster home or detention home.  Twenty-two percent felt no bail should be required until guilt is determined by a criminal court.  All felt they were no danger to the alleged victim or the community.  Eighteen percent voiced concern on the unevenness of bail-setting as the case moved from court to court, or through various legal stages, and 12% felt bail was set too high for the average family income, particularly when multiple offenses were charged.

While most of those charged in criminal court had houses or property that could be posted as bail, those who had neither voiced concern for their own safety in jail (see also Robertson, 1985/86; Martin & Webster, 1971) or said that money needed for defense costs and experts (see also Cohen, 1985) was used up for bail.  Granting of bail virtually guarantees the suspected child-victim's placement m a "safe" home, i.e., not the defendant's home.  By making both "past" victim and "future victim" rationales, protective workers have made substantial progress in legitimizing preventive detention for suspects, its unconstitutionality not withstanding (Henderson, 1985).

Status Change

Almost all falsely charged victims experienced trauma in personal health, family breakdown, loss of employment and/or welfare dependency.  All reported some degree of sleeplessness, unusual weight loss or gain, nausea, night-terrors, and depression.

All reported no victim welfare services in their community and little sympathy.  While 16% of the sample reported no change in job status if bail had been granted, 82% suffered some type of job loss or penalty.  Twenty-four percent applied for some form of welfare benefits, excluding the public defender service.  (These costs must be added to child-placement costs, a serious concern for states "balancing" their budgets.)  Some suspects (28%) had to sell the family house to meet legal or expert costs.  This further affected family status when 'the suspected child-victim was returned to the family.

Twenty percent applied for or received a divorce as a result of the charges, and 22% lost custody of their children to foster home or to the divorced spouse.  Many were further outraged when they had to hire a lawyer to regain custody after being acquitted by a jury.  Eight percent reported that the family was actually brought closer as they fought an outside enemy.

The results of this survey support the proposition that social service workers investigating allegations of suspected sexual abuse where charges are brought by a separated parent should be sensitive to and aware of family disputing dynamics (Benedek & Schetky, 1985; Ash, 1985; Federal Register, 1986; Gardner, 1987).  Abramczyk reported that 9% of all sexual abuse complaints were made by custodial parents (Abramczyk, p.68).

The Protective Service Worker (PSW)

In a society obsessed with individual responsibility it is only natural for the falsely charged to want to counterattack the social service worker at the front line.  Seldom do they charge (letter writing is the exception) those really responsible — the legislature, the governor, the state or federal budget office, or the federal government, who are most likely to have the resources for problem resolution.  The falsely charged client has little recourse under our legal tort system but to counterattack the individual worker, supervisor, or agency.  In our survey, some defendants were appalled that the child protective workers did not apologize to the lawyer or client on a jury finding of not guilty.

Forty-four percent of the sample felt the PSW was unskilled in investigation of suspects and in child-victim interviewing (see also Dean & Locke, 1986), and 16% felt the PSW was "biased" in favor of the charge before the investigation took place.  Sixty-four percent suggested "more training and skill in gathering legal evidence" for all PSWs.  Eight percent felt no warrant would have been issued had the first interrogation of suspect and suspected victim been videotaped (see also Dinoff, 1970; Piche & Rubin, 1978; Goodman, 1984).  The financial burden of tapes and cameras is beyond most current social agency levels and few have the in-service training required for expert use.  The use of "anatomically correct" dolls requires special skill in expert court presentation.  Such "dolls" have not yet been validated on normal children (Mclver, Wakefield & Underwager, 1988; Gabriel, 1985; White, Strom, Santilli & Halpin, 1986; Freeman & Estrada-Mullaney, 1988).

In addition, 34% recommended that all professionals involved in case management or prosecution have more training in how to protect all client's rights (see also Hannah, Christian & Clark, 1981; Sasin & Caulum, 1983; Elias, 1985; Short, 1986; McDowell & Hibler, 1987) and being thoroughly acquainted with current child/adolescent developmental issues and language development (see also Cohen & Hornick, 1980; Girdner, 1985; Rosenblatt & Meyer, 1986; Vasek, 1986).  The professional social service worker is required to act as law-enforcement officer, judge, jury, and scientist, even though he may lack training for such serious work (Hoshino, 1971), or may be punished if "blowing the whistle" on poor practice and policy (Lewis, 1985) or may simply show outrage by unexpected case outcome (Shore, 1985).  Suspect fear of incarceration may be used by the PSW to insure compliance with rehabilitative orders (Edwards & Sagatun, 1983).

Defense Counsel

Criminal lawyers may be most parent-victims' (i.e., falsely charged) last and only line of defense, and 38% of the sample gave high marks to their lawyer's skill (see also Mather, 1979).  Fourteen percent felt their lawyer was not aggressive or abrasive enough to match the opposition (see 10th Annual Report, 1968).  Twelve percent of defendants objected to using small town or rural lawyers, and 50% recommended that defendants charged with sexual abuse only use out of town lawyers and expert witnesses.  As one small town lawyer stated, "I never take on a sexual case in this town, it's one of those matters you quickly refer to an outside attorney."  (See also Landon, 1985; Daniels, 1982; Pollitt, 1964).

Aggressive, combative, contentious clients are often drawn to lawyers of similar persuasion, to the relief of other attorneys who wish for a quieter, more conventional, practice (Landon, 1985).  Defense tactics are now being taught to lawyers and protective service workers (Course syllabus, 1985; Sannito, 1981; Short, 1986).  Duquette (1982) estimates that only 20% of all child abuse cases go to trial, thus possibly leaving many parents without due process protections.

The Police/Sheriff

The National Institute of Justice reported that "although the quality of an alleged victim's report ... is important, police investigators often have minimal guidance in developing interview techniques that facilitate retrieving memories of a criminal event" (Geiselman & Fisher, 1985, p.1).  Yet case acceptance or rejection by the prosecutor is driven by the strength of evidence gathered by police methods, not necessarily by just the social service worker (Vennard, 1985).  The exact relationship between police and social service requires clear guidelines in each community as to responsibility and roles (Pierce & Pierce, 1985; Stone ,Tyler & Mead, 1984).

Thirty-four percent of the respondents felt the police did an unprofessional investigation and 22% felt the police should have read them their Miranda Rights, an absolute requirement of warning on statements on a criminal charge (Juvenile and Family Court Journal, 1986, p.18).  But only Virginia requires a social worker to read Miranda Rights to suspects (Va - HB 132, 1987).  Twenty-four percent complained that the police should have interrogated both the suspect and the suspected victim, and another 8% felt the police should videotape all interviews to prevent lying or general falsification by police or victim suspect (see also Burkholder, 1986).

The major suggestion made by parent-victims for improving police practice was "better" and more professional interrogation training for all police officers who are involved in child abuse cases (64%).  The most common mistake made by suspects was to assume police were established to protect all legal rights.  Only 14% felt the police did a good job and in some cases actually cleared the suspect.  Emergency placement of the suspected victim by police is always higher than professional social workers use of placement (Shireman, Miller, & Brown, 1981).

The Prosecutor and Court

Eighteen percent of the sample felt prosecutors were incompetent, i.e., not family rights-minded, and another 16% felt the prosecutor was not specifically family rights protective but only child rights oriented.  Twelve percent felt the prosecutor was politically or career motivated in making a name for himself or herself through convictions (see also Gershman, 1986).  Thirty-six percent felt the courts were not family oriented but only interested in child protection.  The cost to the child victim of criminal court conviction of innocent parents is well established (Dickens, 1982).  Eight percent felt the prosecutor had helped declare the suspects not guilty by nolle prosequi.  Forty-four percent advised all court personnel to undergo training in gathering evidence from suspected child/adolescent victims through understanding child/adolescent development and family legal rights to prevent miscarriages of justice (see also Legrand, 1985; Webster, 1984; Mass, West & Brigham, 1985).


There is no agreement in the child welfare field that all sexual acts between persons of different ages are dangerous (Schultz & Jones, 1983; Cook & Howells, 1981; Taylor, 1981; Weinbach & Curtiss, 1986; Kilpatrick, 1986) yet social service workers are required by agency manual (see Ill. Investigation Decision Handbook, 1982, p.43) to make molestation a first priority.  Neither child, nor parents, nor society, are served well by such an absolute.  "Sexual danger" and "prudent risk" are not clearly defined and the workers or police officers are left without guidelines, and must fall back on their own concepts of agency/worker legal vulnerability (Schultz, 1981; Besharov, 1985; Meddin, 1985; Felner, 1985; Lipton & Hershaft, 1985).  States need stricter definition of what types of sexual trauma warrant state intervention so as to help investigators.  All agencies require even more state and federal monies for socio-legal training for child protective workers and police officers, with more adequate salaries required for this serious type of professional work.  (The seriousness of PSW and court decision can be seen in Florida's allowing the death penalty for forceful sexual abuse for a child under age 12, and North Carolina's allowing a life sentence for same.)  Child Protective Agencies need more in-service training in legal evidence gathering that will withstand probing in criminal court cases so that the guilty and the innocent are quickly determined, particularly since studies have indicated that 60% of all child abuse complaints are unfounded (U.S. Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, 1981; Stein & Rzepnicki 1984).

Suggestions for Improvement

1. Manageable and reasonable case load size is a basic need and right for each protective worker.  In view of the failure of agency manual, policy, or service in caseload control, perhaps the court may be the protective worker's and parent-victim's last refuge for reasonable size (Fishgold, 1985; VOCAL, 1985).  Protective service workers need to know how to use the court-adversary process to work for them.

2. Protective workers should know that working in an agency is different from working with a troubled family and that the sexual (abuse) act may not be the primary source of child/adolescent degradation.  Case focusing only on the abusive act may not be in the victim's or the family's best interest.

3. in-service training for agency supervisors and administrators in proper and ethical use of the media is very important but neglected.  At present, the media uses hype, war stories and exaggerated data that helps the agency and protective services lose credibility (Geach, 1982; Altheide, 1980).

4. One useful technique to save time, money and costly unfounded conclusions would consist of classification of all hotline complaints of child sexual abuse, by the agency's most experienced workers in grades of "risk" or "seriousness" or "danger."  This would relieve the individual investigator of solo-decision-making and retard malpractice fears and burnout.

5. All child/adolescent protective services (agencies) should be licensed with minimum standards of training of staff (NASW, 1981) credentials of staff, salary of staff and case-load size control.  While child abuse is declining (Straus & Gilles, 1986), citizen and professional reports of suspected abuse are increasing and require an investigation by overworked existing staff to determine if the complaint is unfounded.

6. Protective workers should be required to prepare a family-impact statement to professionally justify all major decisions for state intervention into family privacy.  Vague, ill-defined terms like "danger" and "risk of further harm" should be challenged by case supervisors before they get to court so that they may withstand probing.

7. Having the protective agency assign one staff person to represent the child, and another to represent the interest and rights of the parents may gain exposure for all sides, indicating their strengths and weaknesses.  Outside, private practicing social workers may be used by the small rural protective agency (Giller & Morris, 1982; Renshaw, 1987).

8. Differences among experts representing opposing sides and disagreeing over the burden of proof, should, via mediation, be smoked out before court intervention, by court mandate.  Both sides should specify to the social agency, in advance of court date, what type of evidence or analysis would convince them to alter their positions.  Neither side should just stress adversity.  Both sides need access to court and agency records (Michaels & Walton, 1987).

9. All hiring civil service systems or protective agencies must require either a college degree with knowledge of child adolescent development or provide such in-service training (Pecora, 1983; Larson & Juhasz, 1986).  The agency's staff use of second-guessing in interviewing suspected offenders or children should be researched for its balanced-proper utility (Dolger, Hewis, & Graham, 1986).

10. All interviews of suspected victim and offenders should be videotaped, if this is not unconstitutional.  Agencies will need increased budgets to purchase equipment and to teach its proper operation.  Such tapes should be given to defense council at cost, before trial (Gudjonsson, 1984).

11. More refined measures of subjective distress and disability for those falsely charged should become a future research priority for the university community or responsible private organizations or private practitioners.

12. Courts, juvenile or criminal, should be made aware that agency intervention may have different outcomes, for the child, for the family and for the agencies, including possible iatrogenic factors (Oates, 1986; Morgan, 1983).

13. There is a marked need for legal training, or law enforcement training, in how to effectively gather evidence that will stand up in court, by both law enforcement and the protective service.  Forensic social work is still in its infancy. Most BSW and MSW granting universities and colleges give slender guidance here (Miller, 1980; Martinez, 1980).  Generic social work education is insufficient.  The content of agency records is discussed largely in terms of the data to be collected.  There is little or no account of why certain areas of the subject's life rather than others are singled out for mention and how the various facts are to be weighed, argued and synthesized in order to derive causations, predictions or recommended treatment plans.  Sometimes, values pose as facts (Seighart, 1985; Gaylin, 1978).

14. Videotaped interviews should be done only by licensed persons skilled in questioning young persons about possible sexual abuse.  They should be approved by the court and the protective agency listings, who furnish the video equipment.  The interviews should be without leading questions, without the use of anatomically correct dolls, and with neutrality toward state and alleged victim (Mahusky, 1986) and without a "support" person for the child present, all of which may prove defective in a later court trial.

15. When requested, professional help to assist the parent-victim in forgiving the court and protective service agency is one way to repair injury by the persons who unintentionally wronged the parent-victims.  At present, such innocent parents or victims have little to guide them but sympathy from family, peers or groups such as VOCAL.  Trauma among innocent defendants is well known (Eth & Pynoos, 1985) and is treatable in mental health agencies, but there remains a lacuna in professional literature on this problem.  There is no debriefing of suspects later found not guilty or community services for them.  Such service is recommended.

16. When parent(s) or others are found to be not guilty by standard court processes, or by protective agency investigation, the innocent party should be allowed his or her choice of two to five newspapers in which notice of innocence will appear at state expense.  Legislation should require such service costs be provided by the state protective agency budget.

17. A victim-compensation benefit for the falsely charged and/or convicted should be instituted or made apart of current victim compensation policy.  While money cannot make up for the agony of false imprisonment or false charges involving alleged sexual acts, its granting acknowledges that the state admits a regrettable mistake.  Such victim-compensation may retard large court claims later (Social Action and the Law, 1985).  Such a service is in effect in Sweden (Lither, 1985) and France now.  Being labeled an abuser may produce the personality characteristics which are later called the causes of child abuse (Webb, 1986).


This survey indicates that well intentioned interventions may have negative results, and rehabilitative services for the unfounded chargees are needed in each community.  These results indicate the need for continuing research into predictive and casual analysis of sexual abuse allegations with an awareness of the dangers of simplistic theories.


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* LeRoy Schultz is a professor of social work at West Virginia University[Back]

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