Manipulating the Child Sexual Abuse System
Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager*
ABSTRACT: There is a concern about false
allegations of sexual abuse in divorce and custody disputes.
Although deliberately fabricated accusations probably account for a
minority of false accusations, they can occur. A conversation with
a nurse is presented to demonstrate how a fabricated accusation can be
supported and encouraged by a professional. In contrast, a conversation
with another professional is presented to illustrate the appropriate way
to respond to a fabricated allegation.
The system responding to accusations of child sexual
abuse gives massive reinforcement to the making of an accusation and has
no costs, no accountability, and no negative consequences if the
accusation is false. The mere fact that an accusation is made elicits
interest, attention, emotional support, financial support and legal and
investigative services on behalf of the accuser and the claimed victim.
The singular focus of the system on the rights of the child to be
protected from harm has overwhelmed all other values and rights long
preserved and honored in our society.
The full power of the state, directed by the choice
to elevate child rights to the place of highest importance, protects and
advances the interests of the accuser, law enforcement, child
protection, and allied mental health and prosecutorial personnel. The
courts have granted immunity from civil suits to prosecutors, law
enforcement, mental health professionals, and child protection workers
acting under the color of the state. The doctrine of harmless error and
the requirement to demonstrate bad faith or malice further insulates and
protects the people who are the system and those who may
If a mistake is made and a false accusation is
determined true at any stage in the process, two people are hurt — the
child and the accused. The nonabused child has been subjected to a
process of interrogation and often to sexual abuse therapy that is
confusing and may be emotionally assaultive. The child may have been
taught the victim role and may experience long-term negative effects.
The child may have been taught about explicit and deviant sexual
behavior long before children are ordinarily exposed to such knowledge.
The falsely accused adult is likely to suffer emotional and physical
trauma, family breakdown, and economic hardship (Schultz, 1989). His
relationship with his child may be irretrievably damaged. But the
accuser and the people in the system who supported the error experience
no consequences of making an error.
This reality leaves the system open to exploitation
by unscrupulous and ruthless individuals or, more dangerously, by true
believers whose moralism produces a conviction of righteousness and
virtue. From the beginning of our involvement in dealing with false
allegations, there has been the suggestion that the system may be
manipulated by individuals whose intents are nefarious even as they
profess the most noble of purposes. In 1976, a psychologist acknowledged
falsifying test results because of the belief the man was guilty and
deserved severe punishment. (The court's judgment was that the man was
not guilty and eventually the children were placed in his custody.)
Since then, some attorneys and persons accused have
told us that they believe that other attorneys have advised individuals
to fabricate a sexual abuse accusation to gain an advantage. We do not
know whether these suspicions or beliefs are accurate. We do know there
is a widespread perception that the child sexual abuse system is
sometimes used in an unsavory manner.
Personal injury attorneys have vigorously pursued
civil actions for damages when there is a child sexual abuse allegation.
In one instance the Nevada Supreme Court, in dismissing sexual abuse
charges, sharply criticized a civil attorney for soliciting over twenty
civil suits and attempting to manipulate the prosecution. A possible
indicator of a false accusation may be the speed with which a civil
attorney is retained to sue for damages. In some cases a civil attorney
is retained within days after a report is filed.
Some medical, psychological, and social work
professionals appear to have developed large practices by providing
affirmation and support of accusations. In each area of the country, a
cadre of professionals has emerged that is regarded as the local expert
group. Most of the referrals from county authorities go to this group.
Other professionals, not in the informally approved group, are
blacklisted or ignored. If there is not a deliberate choice by
professionals to exploit the system, there may still be the danger of
professionals who are ready to come to premature closure with minimal
information and leap to the conviction that a child has been abused.
Klajner-Diamond, Wehrspann and Steinhauer (1987) say one of the four
factors of adult influence suggesting a false accusation is a
professional committed prematurely to the truth of the allegation.
Until now the manipulation of the sexual abuse system
has been limited to suspicions. Now, with these transcripts, we see how
an individual with the intent to manipulate the system can actually get
it done with the support and encouragement of a professional. We also
see, by contrast, how responsible professionals respond to an attempt to
manipulate the system. We believe that there are many competent and
conscientious professionals who respond to attempts to manipulate the
system as the second transcript demonstrates. We hope they are the
The following telephone conversations were sent to us
by a woman who investigated the response of professionals to her
presentation of a pursuit of a fabricated accusation. She taped the
conversations and had them transcribed. Following this, she sent the
information to us. We had no prior knowledge of her plan and gave her no
advice or consultation. Although we had nothing to do with her
investigation we decided to print the two transcripts as a way of illustrating a problem.
transcript consists of several conversations and selected portions have
been excerpted. The second transcript is printed in its entirety.
The woman, calling herself "Susan Douglas,"
identified herself as a woman involved in a divorce and custody battle.
She alleged that her husband was physically abusive towards her and
stated that she wanted a sexual abuse evaluation for her daughter.
said that although the child had never told her of sexual abuse and she
had no evidence of sexual abuse, she wanted the evaluation to get
evidence about abuse that would help her get custody.
She first called the clinic of a pediatrician who has
been involved in several hundred cases of alleged sexual abuse and who
has frequently reported that he believed the abuse was factual. This
pediatrician is closely associated with a psychologist who shares his
views on sexual abuse. They have appeared together as experts in a
number of trials around the country.
In the conversations at the first clinic, Ms. Douglas
spoke to the nurse, an LPN, who works closely with the pediatrician on
sexual abuse cases. The nurse identified herself as the assistant
director of the clinic. She said that she interviews children brought
for a sexual abuse evaluation. This nurse also has been qualified by
courts as an expert in child sexual abuse and has testified in trials
together with the pediatrician. She has no training beyond her LPN
program. The transcript printed below consists of excerpts taken from
several telephone conversations Ms. Douglas had with the nurse.
The nurse's failure to respond with corrective
warnings to Susan Douglas's intent to fabricate but instead to encourage
scheduling an examination while holding out the possibility of finding
abuse is grossly unethical. Also, there are serious problems in the
nurse's handling of this case in addition to encouraging a fabricated
allegation. Scheduling a sexual abuse physical examination three months
or more after an alleged incident is a questionable procedure. When a
physical examination is performed, it should be done as soon after the
alleged event as possible. There is no scientific evidence for the claim
of the nurse that physical signs of abuse are readily detectable for
years after abuse. In fact, most sexual abuse leaves no physical
evidence. Her statements about the effect of puberty are not
supported by data. 9The claims for special competency and unique
knowledge for both the pediatrician and the recommended psychologist
exceed the bounds of propriety.
The second transcript is one conversation with an
intake professional at a major teaching hospital. This transcript demonstrates a responsible and
ethical professional stance toward the scenario given by Ms. Douglas.
Note that the intake worker did not get hostile nor angry but factually
and fully informed Ms. Douglas of the consequences of fabrication to
herself and her children. The intake worker clearly stated they would
have nothing to do with such an attempt and warned Ms. Douglas about
people who may encourage and support her attempt to fabricate an
accusation. This is what should happen.
Ms. Douglas openly says that she intends to make up
an accusation in order to achieve her purpose in a divorce. A person
consciously setting out to manipulate the system would not be as open
about fabricating an account as Ms. Douglas is in these transcripts.
Getting the response shown in the first transcript with such an open
declaration suggests that a more circumspect approach would be more
likely to obtain the desired response of affirmation of abuse from the
clinic Ms. Douglas called.
We make no claims about the frequency of similar
actions and attitudes among professionals who respond to accusations of
sexual abuse. This account serves only to illustrate the ease with which
the system can be manipulated by those who set out to accomplish their
purposes. It is intended to serve an educational and informative purpose
for professionals. All names of the parties involved have been changed.
Accusations of Sexual Abuse in Divorce and Custody
Accusations of sexual abuse in divorce and custody situations have received much publicity
recently and the literature indicates that false
accusations have become a serious problem (Ash, 1985; Benedek & Schetky, 1985a & b; Bishop &
Johnson, 1987a & b; Blush & Ross, 1987; Brant
& Sink, 1984; Bresee, Stearns, Bess, & Packer,
1986; Dwyer, 1986; Gardner, 1986 & 1987a; Goldzband & Renshaw, undated; Gordon, 1985; Green, 1986;
Jones & Seig, 1988; Levine, 1986; Levy, 1989; MacFarlane, 1986; Murphy, 1987; Schaefer &
Guyer, 1988; Schuman, 1986; Sink, 1988b; Spiegel, 1986; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988;
Yates & Musty, 1988).
Thoennes and Pearson (1988) estimate that accusations
of sexual abuse are found in 2% to 10% of contested custody cases.
is not agreement as to how many of these cases turn out to be false but most of the estimates range from a third to
four-fifths. Everyone agrees, however, that the proportion of false
allegations is higher when they arise in divorce and custody disputes.
Out of our 328 total cases involving sexual abuse in the past five
years, 39% (129) were divorce and custody cases. Of the 114 cases that have been adjudicated, it was
determined by the legal system for 78% (89) that there had been no
abuse. (In 18% there was a determination of abuse and 4% entered a plea
bargain that did not include admitting guilt. The remainder have not
In our experience, accusations of sexual abuse most
often occur in a bitter and acrimonious divorce at all stages of the
process. Benedek and Schetky (1985a) found that they were especially
common in disputes about child custody that arise after a divorce has
been granted and center around issues of visitation. Gardner (1986)
points out that an accusation of sexual abuse is a powerful weapon in a
divorce and custody dispute. The vengeful parent may exaggerate a
nonexistent or inconsequential sexual contact and build up a case for
sexual abuse. The child, in order to ingratiate himself with the
accusing parent, may go along with the scheme.
The fact of instant custody resulting from a sexual
abuse accusation against the other parent is widely known. Many judges
are afraid to take a chance and will order that visitation should stop
between the child and the accused parent.
Most of the time the accusation is not a deliberate
fabrication on the part of the accusing parent. Many parents have been
influenced by the campaigns about child abuse to make false accusations
based on misperceptions and false assumptions. However, in some cases a
parent can deliberately foster a false accusation as a way to get
custody. Thoennes and Pearson (1988) found that in 13% of the cases they
studied, the case worker expressed doubt that the report was offered in
The increasing frequency of accusations of sexual
abuse in contested divorce and custody cases means that professionals
must be very cautious. Blush and Ross (1987) encourage professionals
assessing accusations of sexual abuse in divorce and custody situations
to remain open and objective, guard against a presumption of guilt, and
resist aligning themselves with the reporting parent's agenda. Unfortunately, as the first transcript illustrates, some professionals
are not only very ready to find abuse whenever there is an allegation,
but may even go along with a fabricated account even when they had
evidence that the accusation was not made in good faith.
Transcript 1, Excerpts From Conversations with Heidi Wood, LPN,
Assistant Director of the Clinic's Sexual Abuse Evaluation Program
Caller: Susan Douglas
LPN: Heidi Wood
Pediatrician: Dr. Samuel Howells
Psychologist: Dr. Joseph Patterson
||Good afternoon, I need some information. I'm trying to locate
Dr. Samuel Howells.
||He's with a patient right now, Ma'am.
||Well, I heard that he's an expert in sexual abuse. What kind
of doctor is he?
||He's a pediatrician.
||Well, I have a child that I think has been sexually abused. ...
What would I do at this center if I bring in my child.
||They would evaluate her medically, and then Heidi, who is
the assistant director, would also be interviewing her. ... You would want
to talk to Heidi (about scheduling).
(The call is transferred to Heidi)
||This is Heidi, may I help you?
||Yes, I was calling. I wanted to schedule to see Dr. Howells.
think that my daughter's been abused. I wanted to have Dr. Howells
||Who referred you?
||I'm trying to think who did. I don't know. I just have some
friends who told me to call him, they knew he was good.
||My child's name is Vicki Douglas.
||How old is Vicki?
(They discuss scheduling details)
|| Now, would you be doing it also?
||Yes, I'm the assistant director and I'm the person who does the
interviewing and assists with the physical.
||Are you a psychologist?
||No, I'm a nurse. This is for medical diagnosis and evaluation
and treatment. ... (I'm a nurse) who specializes in interviewing
techniques of abused children.
||And you folks could tell if she'd been sexually abused?
||We've seen 1,700 children in the past two years with
allegations of sexual abuse.
||1700? And you're able to tell?
||We can tell.
||How can you tell? Do you do a test?
||No, we have ways that we ... first
of all it's imperative to get a good history from the child. That's why I
do the interview. And, the diagnosis is based on the interview as well
as the physical findings. Children who are sexually abused, who are
under the age of starting their period, if there's any type of scarring
or disruption to the hymen or the area, it shows. It does not go away
until they go into puberty, until they start having periods. On the
other hand older kids who've already gone through having their periods,
who have some type of sexual molestation and scarring results, that
stays with them forever. ... We see kids that abuse happened six years
before and we're still able to tell whether it happened, usually. The
only time we're not able to tell is when there's been fondling of the
breasts because there are no fingerprints, but if there's been any type
of genital contact, usually we're able to tell that.
||But what if a child is coached.
||Well, we can tell if a child is
||Oh, you can?
||So you would protect me there if someone tried to say she was
coaching the children?
||Uh-Huh. You can usually tell by the way they
answer the questions that we ask.
|. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
||Could I explain my situation? Let's see, I
guess the place to start is that my husband and I were divorced last February
and we have four children. The children have been going on their regular
visits and everything's been fine. Then, about four weeks ago, my
husband served me with a custody suit. Needless to say, I was shocked.
But, anyway, what I wanted to talk to you about is my eight-year-old
daughter recently told me that last summer while she visited her father,
that he forced himself on her. She said he only did it once and that she
couldn't, or didn't tell me because she was afraid and ashamed. And,
I'm just wondering, I really don't know what I need to ask you or what to
find out, but, I haven't even talked to my attorney about this.
||Why is he seeking custody now?
||I don't know. I really haven't had a chance to
talk to him. I just get so upset every time ... Let me tell you, if I
sound hesitant, he's very important here.
||That's okay. It doesn't concern me in the least.
||I know you're discreet and all that.
||Yes, very discreet. We have to be in this type of business.
(They discuss this for a few minutes)
||I think the best thing is to make that appointment
now. The first opening I have is Friday, June 24 (the date of this call
is May 18) and that's because I had a cancellation this
afternoon. Otherwise, I'm booking in August.
||. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
(In another call, a week later, Susan Douglas informs
Heidi that her husband had a visit last week. She says that the husband,
who is now aware of the sexual abuse allegations, took Vicki to a
psychologist and a pediatrician. Susan tells Heidi that both the
psychologist and the pediatrician said that Vicki reported nothing
happened and that the pediatrician found no physical evidence.)
||At eight, they know enough not to say something. The
older they get the harder it is to have them say anything because they
know they could get the other person in trouble.
||You don't think that ...
||It all depends. You see, now, when they do the exam
here, there's what they call physical evidence, and I'm not sure how
they check for it, but a normal pediatrician may not see what Dr.
Howells can see, because Dr. Howells knows what he's looking for as far
as sexual abuse.
(Heidi discusses Dr. Howell's expertise, and they
talk about interviewing procedures in sexual abuse cases, the costs of
the evaluation, and how to set up an appointment. Heidi recommends that
Susan also set up an appointment with psychologist Dr. Joseph Patterson
who is "very, very good, especially in cases of abuse like this ...
He's excellent. He is absolutely excellent." She says he "does
cases all over the United States." They discuss the procedure for
Susan arranging an appointment with Dr. Patterson.)
(Susan calls back two days later and tells Heidi that
she is afraid of her husband.)
|| Heidi, I'm really scared. My husband has beaten me before and now that I've made the
allegation of sexual abuse, I'm really scared.
||Does he know that you've made that
||Yes, that's why he took Vicki to ...
||Oh, the psychologist.
||Yeah, but Heidi, I've just made that up because I was
so scared because he's been beating me and I'm trying to keep him away
|| Yeah, well I can understand that.
||Do you want me to still bring her down to be
||Do you think Dad did this to her?
||Well, she hasn't said anything and like I
said, I more or less just threw that out there to keep him away because
I'm scared, and I didn't know what to do ... She hasn't said anything
but ... he's beating me and I just want to keep him away from us.
still bring her down there to be examined?
||Yes, if you think she needs it.
||Is there any possibility that with just a
normal examination that something might turn up?
||Well, that is a possibility but unless she has
said something to you or unless you have some idea that there's a
possibility ... has he beaten her also?
||No, no he hasn't. Not yet, but I'm afraid that
he may someday do to her what he does to me. You know, cause he's going
to try and get custody it looks like and if he does, it just scares me
what he could do to her and that's why I did that, because I am so
afraid, he's crazy.
||Okay, let me see if I can get a hold of Dr.
Patterson and I will see if I can set up some kind of meeting between us
so that you will be able to talk to him.
||Okay. And, should I get her examined too,
while I'm here? (referring to the genital examination by Dr. Howell).
||Yeah, I think you'd better do that, too.
(Susan agrees to call back to set up the
appointments. When she calls back later that day, Heidi tells her that
she has spoken to Dr. Patterson who wants to see her.)
||Okay, did you tell him that I made it up?
||He doesn't think I'm crazy of anything?
||No, but he does want to talk to you.
(They discuss scheduling the appointment.)
(The next conversation is several weeks later. Susan
reminds Heidi of their conversations and says that she was going to
bring in Vicki but it didn't work out at that time. She now wants to set up an
appointment. They discuss the details of appointments and costs.
tells Heidi that in the meantime she took Vicki to another psychiatrist
in another state who saw her twice. But the psychiatrist refused to
evaluate Vicki for sexual abuse after Susan told him she had made up the
allegations. Susan says that Vicki has never said that her father has
done anything to her.)
|| I've tried talking to her about it and ...
||Do you think she has been abused?
||She's never said anything like that ... I more
or less threw that out there because ... I don't want him to get custody
... there's no evidence of it (abuse) yet, Heidi, so that's
really what I need to work on getting ... A far as us getting the
testimony, do you think we can, is there going to be a problem?
||I don't think so, but it depends on what Vicki
will say to me, and if we find any findings.
||But, if she hasn't been abused ...
||But there's always the possibility that she
has and she's afraid to talk about it because of what might happen to
her and that's what happens in a lot of these cases, Susan, is there are
threats made to the child by the person who has molested them to the
point that they will not say anything because they know they're afraid
of what's going to happen if they do, especially when there's been signs
of physical abuse in the past that she probably has witnessed.
||Well, when she was talking to the
psychiatrist, she was saying, "No, my daddy never touched me!"
||That's not unusual.
||But, I don't think he ever has and there's no
evidence that he ever has but, I think that's the best way to keep him
out of the picture.
(They discuss the fact that her husband has a perfect
record in the Air Force.)
||Well, I think what you really need to do is
get a hold of Dr. Patterson and get him involved in the evaluation so
that we've got something to go on.
||Well, you guys think that you can talk to her
and maybe that it'll work out?
|| Well, like you said, it's got to be a coordinated
effort and that's why I need her to be able to talk to Dr. Patterson.
||And, he's real good with children?
Excellent. He's the best. He is. So, why
don't you give him a call.
||Heidi, you don't think I'm wrong about doing
||Well, Susan, I don't know. I haven't talked to
Vicki and I don't know, you know. There's always the possibility and
parents are the last to ever know.
(They discuss the logistics of contacting Dr.
Patterson. Susan mentions that she has a grandfather who will pay for
||What if I get there and she won't talk to you?
||Even if she won't talk, we'll go ahead and do
||Just to make sure she's okay.
I see. You know, cause I ask her and she says,
"No, nothing, no Mommy, nothing happened,"... what do you do
that's different that she might talk to you?
I'm not her mother, for one thing. And, one of the things we
find that happens with these type of cases is that mom is the last one ever to know,
mainly because she's trying to protect mom; she doesn't want to see mom
cry; she doesn't want to see mom hurt; or, if there's been any threats
against mom ... Many times, in this type of incidence, they trust someone
||Okay. Well, we'll just see. And, then you will go ahead and do the exam anyway, regardless,
just to make sure.
|| Uh Huh.
(They complete the arrangements.)
Transcript 2, Conversation with Julie Sidwell, a Professional Staff
Person at Children's Hospital
Caller: Susan Douglas
Professionals: Julie Sidwell and Mary Ann Bigalow
||May I speak to Mary Ann Bigalow, please?
||She's not in her office right now. Could l have her return
||Well, this is long distance ...
||Well, that will not matter.
||When do you
expect her back?
||Just any time.
||How about Julie Sidwell, is she in?
||Just a moment.
||I called a few minutes ago and got cut.
||I apologize — Julie is on another line. She
can call you back just as soon as she's off.
||Okay. Mary Ann isn't back.
||No ma'am. But there's no problem with
either one of them calling you back.
||I can understand that but I'm somewhere where
I'd rather not be receiving calls, if you can understand that.
||I can understand that but ... let me see if
Julie can ... do you want me to beep Mary Ann for you?
||If you would; she's expecting my call.
||Just a moment.
||This is Mary Ann Bigalow, can I help you?
||Mary Ann, this is Susan Douglas calling back.
||Hello, Susan, how are you?
||Fine. Did you have a chance to talk to Julie?
||Yes, and she wants to talk with you
herself. Let me get her for you ...
||This is Julie, may I help you?
||Yes, Julie, this is Susan Douglas. I spoke
with Mary Ann Bigalow earlier and she said you wanted to talk with me
||I wanted to find out a little bit more about
why you were wanting to have a sexual abuse work-up on your child.
||Well, as I was telling Mary Ann, I basically
am just trying to secure her from my husband and I felt like that would
be the best way.
||Why are you wanting to secure her from your
||Well, we're in the process of divorce and he's
trying to get custody of her and I feel he would be a terrible parent.
know, he beats me and I'm afraid that if he ever gets Vicki alone he'd
do the same to her and I'm just trying to keep him away from her.
||Do you think she's been sexually abused?
||I have no evidence of that; she's never told
me anything like that.
||Well, let me tell you something that you might
not be aware of. If you're in the process of a divorce and if his
attorney got wind that you knowingly sought out a work-up for sexual
abuse to use to keep him away from the child, are you aware that someone
could charge you with abuse of this child?
||No, is that considered abuse?
Yes, it is. It would be in some circles that
you would be willing to put your child through the emotional trauma of
what a child would have to go through. This is not something that is a
pleasant thing for a child to go through and in some, I have seen cases
to where judges have felt like the mother knowingly pursued that line in
order to keep the child away from the father because she wanted custody
and I have seen them react pretty angrily toward the mother, even
accusing the mother of being abusive in itself.
||I see. So it is very traumatic for the child?
||Yes, it can be. Not only that, but it's the
thing you're planting, even at all suggesting to the child that her
father or anyone else would do something like that to her is not
something you can, you know, take lightly. We have to have definite,
solid grounds for even going off in that direction. It's a very, very
serious accusation to make and a very serious arena to enter into with a
child and that in itself can traumatize a child, and there has to be
good, solid reasons such as some type of physical evidence that leads
one to believe sexual abuse or the child's made statements or there are
a lot of behavioral indicators. There has to be something very, very
solid for that. It is not a legitimate thing to use in order to obtain
custody. On the contrary, it can, a backlash can occur and that parent
could conceivably even lose custody for trying it.
||So it could be considered then, child abuse.
||Yes, by some people, but not everybody. But
some people would consider it to be.
||I had spoken with another clinic which is
across the country and I had told them the circumstances and they didn't
seem to have any problem with this. They said, "Fine, bring her in,
there's no problem, maybe she'll talk anyway."
||With knowing that you had no reason to suspect ...
||Yes, I told them the exact same thing.
||You're telling me that they were willing to do
||Yes, and that's why I thought, "Well,
I'll just see if Children's Hospital, since it's closer, I won't have to go that far."
||Well, I would really raise some ethical issues with that clinic.
I'm shocked. I don't know who you talked with or how versed that person
was in this area. Certainly the person could not have been very versed because, otherwise,
they would, would have, and I believe, and I don't know at all see in you, I think you really
didn't know. I think that person, obviously, really didn't know what, how this issue is dealt
with here. I do. I stay in court a lot and I've dealt with hundreds of cases like this and I can
tell you that it can, there are judges who would consider this a form of child abuse.
absolutely would not at all be associated with anything like this
because of the possible trauma to the child.
||Okay, and even just talking to her,
interviewing her ...
||Not about you're asking for a specific area. Now, if you wanted to take her to a child psychologist or somebody, I
would suggest a psychologist because of the need to do testing or
something like that, to do an evaluation of the child not at all
revolving around the issues of sexual abuse. We would consider that a
legitimate thing, but to specifically come in exploring the area of
sexual abuse, no way would I talk with your child about that.
||Well, I'm glad to hear your side of this after
talking with this other person and this other person is a nurse, and she
said, "Well, even if you're telling me that the child has never
said this, after I talk to her, a parent is the last person to know, she
may tell me."
|| I really believe that you told her exactly what
you're telling me ...?
||I would have real ethical issues with this
person. What is she basing this on, a concern of sexual abuse?
got to be something to base it on?
||Other than I explained the situation, that my
husband has beaten me and that I'm trying to keep the child away from
||And, you told her that?
||I told her that I had made it up, had made up
the allegation to keep him away and would she examine and talk to her
anyway, and she said that maybe the child would talk to me and maybe
something will show up in the examination.
||I'm shocked. I'm very, very shocked at that.
||Well, I was, too. And frankly, when I was
talking to her, I was expecting the same kind of response I'm getting
from you. And I didn't, so I thought that I should be seeking it out
because there is a possibility.
||No, that's not even enough, not that I in no
way mean to insinuate that he should be beating you or anything like
that, but I believe that's a whole separate issue and there has to be
more than he's hitting you. Just because he's hitting you in no way
makes this man a child molester. I think it's a terrible thing that he
does and you have your own set of problems with that issue right there,
but to jump from that to the problem of sexual abuse, no.
||Well, I'm sure I will not pursue that after
talking with you ...
||I would be very, very careful who I said that
to, very, very cautious. I think you need to drop that totally.
||I appreciate your time on this and like I said,
I was a little confused on what I should be doing here, so I ...
||I think a more, I think a better use of your
time and energy would be to ... how old is your daughter?
||She'll be nine in January.
||Perhaps get her in some treatment with a child
psychologist and start having them work with her and start working on
the issues of asking this person to work with you on the issue of this
whole divorce situation and what your daughter wants and the issues on
her mind right now. And I think that would be a much more productive way
to approach this.
||Okay. Well, thank you.
||Well, good luck.
The current formal and informal structural nature of
the system responding to child sexual abuse accusations invites
deliberate efforts to exploit an accusation for personal motivations.
may also be exploited by well intentioned but uninformed people who do
not exercise critical acumen but instead maintain a dogrnatic stance.
This investigation suggests how it may be done by intentional and
This investigation shows the need for all responsible
persons involved in dealing with child sexual abuse accusations to
recognize this weakness in the system. Two steps should be taken.
Procedural and systemic safeguards against manipulation should be
developed. We have been told that the domestic court judges in Birmingham
have markedly reduced the number of false accusations by informally
letting attorneys know that a false sexual abuse accusation in a
divorce/custody setting will result in custody being granted to the
falsely accused parent. This apparent success of attaching a
cost to decrease a behavior is a principle well known to behaviorally
All professionals should learn possible indicators of
a manipulated and fabricated account. When there are factors understood
to be associated with a false accusation, the possibility should be
examined and not dismissed out of hand. There are increasing
conceptualizations of indicators of false accounts, reports in the literature, and some research projects
beginning to collect empirical data (Benedek & Schetky, 1985a;
Berliner, 1988; Bresee et al., 1986; de Young, 1986: Faller, 1988;
Gardner, 1987a & b; Jones & McGraw, 1987; Klajner-Diamond,
Wehrspann, & Steinhauer, 1987; Köhnken & Wegener, 1982; Mantell,
1988; Paradise, Rostain, & Nathanson, 1988; Quinn, 1988; Raskin
& Yuille, in press; Rogers, 1989; Sink, 1988a & b; Steller,
Raskin, & Yuille (undated); Wakefield & Under-wager, 1988;
Wehrspann, Steinhauer, & Klajner-Diamond, 1987; Yates, 1988). These
efforts should be supported and encouraged and the results care-fully
and responsibly examined.
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the context of divorce. Paper presented at the 63rd Annual Conference of
the American Orthopsychiatric Association, Chicago, IL.
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Benedek, E. P., & Schetky, D. H. (1985b). Custody
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Berliner, L. (1988). Deciding whether a child has
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* Hollida Wakefield is a licensed psychologist and
Ralph Underwager is a licensed consulting psychologist at the Institute
for Psychological Therapies, 2344 Nicollet Avenue South, Suite 170,
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55404. [Back]
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