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 manipulate it.

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 majority.

An Investigation

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.  The first 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.  She 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.  There 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 been adjudicated.)

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 good faith.

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

Susan: Good afternoon, I need some information.  I'm trying to locate Dr. Samuel Howells.
Secretary: He's with a patient right now, Ma'am.
Susan: Well, I heard that he's an expert in sexual abuse.  What kind of doctor is he?
Secretary: He's a pediatrician.
Susan: 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.
Secretary: 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)

Heidi: This is Heidi, may I help you?
Susan: Yes, I was calling. I wanted to schedule to see Dr. Howells.  I think that my daughter's been abused.  I wanted to have Dr. Howells examine her.
Heidi: Who referred you?
Susan: 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.
Heidi: What's your child's name?
Susan: My child's name is Vicki Douglas.
Heidi: How old is Vicki?
Susan: She's eight.

(They discuss scheduling details)

Susan:  Now, would you be doing it also?
Heidi: Yes, I'm the assistant director and I'm the person who does the interviewing and assists with the physical.
Susan: Are you a psychologist?
Heidi: 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.
Susan: And you folks could tell if she'd been sexually abused?
Heidi: We've seen 1,700 children in the past two years with allegations of sexual abuse.
Susan: 1700?  And you're able to tell?
Heidi: We can tell.
Susan: How can you tell? Do you do a test?
Heidi: 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.
Susan: But what if a child is coached.
Heidi: Well, we can tell if a child is coached.
Susan: Oh, you can?
Heidi: Sure.
Susan: So you would protect me there if someone tried to say she was coaching the children?
Heidi: Uh-Huh.  You can usually tell by the way they answer the questions that we ask.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Susan: 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.
Heidi: Why is he seeking custody now?
Susan: 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.
Heidi: That's okay. It doesn't concern me in the least.
Susan: I know you're discreet and all that.
Heidi: Yes, very discreet.  We have to be in this type of business.

(They discuss this for a few minutes)

Heidi: 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.)

Heidi: 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.
Susan: You don't think that ...
Heidi: 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.)

Susan:  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.
Heidi: Does he know that you've made that allegation?
Susan: Yes, that's why he took Vicki to ...
Heidi: Oh, the psychologist.
Susan: 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 from us.
Heidi:  Yeah, well I can understand that.
Susan: Do you want me to still bring her down to be examined?
Heidi: Do you think Dad did this to her?
Susan: 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.  Can I still bring her down there to be examined?
Heidi: Yes, if you think she needs it.
Susan: Is there any possibility that with just a normal examination that something might turn up?
Heidi: 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?
Susan: 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.
Heidi: 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.
Susan: Okay.  And, should I get her examined too, while I'm here? (referring to the genital examination by Dr. Howell).
Heidi: 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.)

Susan: Okay, did you tell him that I made it up?
Heidi: Yes.
Susan: He doesn't think I'm crazy of anything?
Heidi: 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.  Susan 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.)

Susan:  I've tried talking to her about it and ...
Heidi: Do you think she has been abused?
Susan: 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?
Heidi: I don't think so, but it depends on what Vicki will say to me, and if we find any findings.
Susan: But, if she hasn't been abused ...
Heidi: 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.
Susan: Well, when she was talking to the psychiatrist, she was saying, "No, my daddy never touched me!"
Heidi: That's not unusual.
Susan: 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.)

Heidi: 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.
Susan: Well, you guys think that you can talk to her and maybe that it'll work out?
Heidi:  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.
Susan: And, he's real good with children?

Excellent.  He's the best.  He is.  So, why don't you give him a call.

Susan: Heidi, you don't think I'm wrong about doing this?
Heidi: 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 everything.)

Susan: What if I get there and she won't talk to you?
Heidi: Even if she won't talk, we'll go ahead and do her exam.
Susan: You are?
Heidi: 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 else.

Susan: Okay.  Well, we'll just see.  And, then you will go ahead and do the exam anyway, regardless, just to make sure.
Heidi:  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

Susan: May I speak to Mary Ann Bigalow, please?
Secretary: She's not in her office right now.  Could l have her return your call?
Susan: Well, this is long distance ... 
Secretary: Well, that will not matter.
Susan: When do you expect her back?
Secretary: Just any time.
Susan: How about Julie Sidwell, is she in?
Secretary: Just a moment.
Susan: I called a few minutes ago and got cut.
Secretary: I apologize — Julie is on another line.  She can call you back just as soon as she's off.
Susan: Okay.  Mary Ann isn't back.
Secretary: No ma'am.  But there's no problem with either one of them calling you back.
Susan: I can understand that but I'm somewhere where I'd rather not be receiving calls, if you can understand that.
Secretary: I can understand that but ... let me see if Julie can ... do you want me to beep Mary Ann for you?
Susan: If you would; she's expecting my call.
Secretary: Just a moment.
Mary Ann: This is Mary Ann Bigalow, can I help you?
Susan: Mary Ann, this is Susan Douglas calling back.
Mary Ann: Hello, Susan, how are you?
Susan: Fine.  Did you have a chance to talk to Julie?
Mary Ann: Yes, and she wants to talk with you herself.  Let me get her for you ...
Julie: This is Julie, may I help you?
Susan: Yes, Julie, this is Susan Douglas.  I spoke with Mary Ann Bigalow earlier and she said you wanted to talk with me about it.
Julie: I wanted to find out a little bit more about why you were wanting to have a sexual abuse work-up on your child.
Susan: 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.
Julie: Why are you wanting to secure her from your husband?
Susan: 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.  You 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.
Julie: Do you think she's been sexually abused?
Susan: I have no evidence of that; she's never told me anything like that.
Julie: 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?
Susan: 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.

Susan: I see.  So it is very traumatic for the child?
Julie: 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.
Susan: So it could be considered then, child abuse.
Julie: Yes, by some people, but not everybody.  But some people would consider it to be.
Susan: 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."
Julie: With knowing that you had no reason to suspect ...
Susan: Yes, I told them the exact same thing.
Julie: You're telling me that they were willing to do that?
Susan: 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."
Julie: 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.  And we absolutely would not at all be associated with anything like this because of the possible trauma to the child.
Susan: Okay, and even just talking to her, interviewing her ...
Julie: 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.
Susan: 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."
Julie:  I really believe that you told her exactly what you're telling me ...?
Susan: Yes.
Julie: I would have real ethical issues with this person.  What is she basing this on, a concern of sexual abuse?  There has got to be something to base it on?
Susan: Other than I explained the situation, that my husband has beaten me and that I'm trying to keep the child away from him ...
Julie: And, you told her that?
Susan: 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.
Julie: I'm shocked.  I'm very, very shocked at that.
Susan: 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.
Julie: 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.
Susan: Well, I'm sure I will not pursue that after talking with you ...
Julie: I would be very, very careful who I said that to, very, very cautious.  I think you need to drop that totally.
Susan: I appreciate your time on this and like I said, I was a little confused on what I should be doing here, so I ...
Julie: I think a more, I think a better use of your time and energy would be to ... how old is your daughter?
Susan: She'll be nine in January.
Julie: 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.
Susan: Okay.  Well, thank you.
Julie: 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.  It 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 deliberate effort.

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 response cost to decrease a behavior is a principle well known to behaviorally oriented therapists.

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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Wakefield, H. & Underwager, R. (1988). Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse (Hardcover)(Paperback). Springfield, IL: C. C. Thomas.

Wehrspann, W. H., Steinhauer, P., & Klajner-Diamond, H. (1987). Criteria and methodology for assessing credibility of sexual abuse allegation. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 32, 615-623.

Yates, A. (1988). Sex abuse study challenges "sin qua non." Convention Insights. 140th Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, Chicago, IL, p.3.

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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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