One Hundred Cases of Unfounded Child Sexual Abuse: A Survey and Recommendations
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,
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,
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
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.
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).
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.
our survey, some defendants were appalled that the child protective
workers did not apologize to the lawyer or client on a jury finding of
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,
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 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.
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 &
Suggestions for Improvement
1. Manageable and reasonable case load size is a basic need and right for each protective worker.
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
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
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;
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, &
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.
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.
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,
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
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