| Expert Witnesses in Child Abuse Cases
|Stephen J. Ceci and Helene Hembrooke
|American Psychological Association, ©1998
American Psychological Association
APA Order Department
P.O. Box 92984
Washington, DC 20090-2984
This is a good book, but it is too late. The aim of this 199-page book is
stated in the final paragraph of the introduction: "The chapters in
this volume are successful in addressing what the issues are. The next logical,
moral, and ethical step is to address them formally in a manner that is
complete and unambiguous. The duality of the question 'What can (and should)
an expert tell the court?' will always exist in theory, given the differences
between the legal and psychological forums. This book is a first step toward
eradicating this duality in practice. Our hope is that professionals serving
as experts will concern themselves with the should" (7-8).
This is what I think this book should elicit from us. I suggest that every
psychologist who accepts responsibility to advance and support the concepts
of science and the commitment of psychology to respect the rights of all
individuals must demand an open, public apology from the American Psychological
Association (APA) for its failure to maintain standards of scientific rigor
and responsible practice in accordance with the Boulder model. I suggest
a formal motion for the APA business session or Council of Representatives
expressing regret and sorrow for the damage done to our nation and to so
many individuals by the irresponsible inactivity of the APA and the continued
tolerance of what is now openly understood and identified in this book to
be grievous error.
I find myself both saddened and angered by this book. It is 22 years too
late to avoid the victimization of hundreds up to thousands of children
by suspicions, investigations, and interventions based on the concepts and
myths now finally and decisively discredited by this book. It is 22 years
too late to avoid the wrongful conviction of an indeterminate number, but
what may be from hundreds up to thousands of men and women now unjustly imprisoned. It is 22 years too late to prevent the destruction
of family after family of American citizens by the misguided policies of
child protection services based upon a pseudoscience that shaped a heavy-handed,
power-obsessed, bureaucratic empire. Each of these consequences is described
in muted fashion in the book.
None of the points made in this book about what the science of psychology
now understands about child sexual abuse and claims of recovered memory
is new. There were sufficient credible scientific data long before 1976
and the implementation of CAPTA with federal money. Scientific psychologists
should have immediately begun to call attention to it and resisted the juggernaut
of pseudoscience. Instead, the APA dithered about with equivocating task
forces that were controlled by advocates of the mythology that was currently
popular and said to be based on clinical observations and opinions.
However, there is another point that needs to be made about the book. It
demonstrates within its covers the problem that may be involved in the APA's
failure 20 years ago to make clear what should be said by psychologists
in the witness box. In spite of the bravado with which the editors assert
that the chapters are fine, the first chapter by Lucy Berliner is not. In
it she repeats the current mantras or spin of those who were saying 20 years
ago that children cannot lie and children must be believed at all costs.
She is not challenged by the editors, even when she seriously misrepresents
research studies which she cites.
On page 13, Berliner cites a content analysis of national publications (Beckett,
1996) to support this statement: "[C]urrent portrayals of child witnesses
emphasize the weakness of children's memories as well as concerns about
'false memories' of abuse reported by adults." What the Beckett report
actually documents is that from 1980 to 1994 the proportion of articles
that presented the myths Berliner supported went from 85% in 1980-84
to 42% in 1990-94. Articles that presented a concern with false allegations
and false memories went from 7% in 1980-84 to 58% in 1990-94.
The definition of the content analysis of false allegation does not mention
weak memories of children at all. Rather this is all that Beckett says about
memories: "Both children's and adults perceptions and memories are
fallible and vulnerable to suggestion and the methods used to uncover these
are highly suspect" (Beckett, 1996, p. 64). Berliner's spin implies
that the media has turned against children and presents only lurid, extraordinary
cases and ignores the "much more common" (p. 13) real cases of
abuse. But the data she cites do not support that at all.
On page 14, Berliner cites Oberlander (1995) as support for the statement,
"[A] majority [of professionals] believe that results of an evaluation
can establish abuse." In addition to being contrary to the rest of
this book, Berliner's statement is simply not supported by the Oberlander
study. The Oberlander study used a sample of 31 mental health professionals
who specialize in child sexual abuse evaluations, with a return rate of
37%, who responded to a 20-item survey using a seven point scale going from
+3 (can establish abuse) to -3 (cannot establish abuse). Item 15 is the
single item dealing with whether or not an evaluation can establish abuse.
The mean response was 0.323, SD = 2.151, p = .008. Although it may be statistically
significant, it has little practical relevance to the claim that a majority
believe as Berliner asserts. This hardly represents a strong endorsement
or firm belief that a psychological evaluation can establish whether alleged
abuse is real. Instead, what the Oberlander study actually documents is
that a majority of the sample of evaluators use some of the flawed methods
of evaluation that are excoriated in the other chapters of this 1998 book.
It is questionable to generalize from a small unreplicated face-valid survey
and a single item of a limited sample from one state to the entire community
On page 17 Berliner makes the assertion that "[A]mong children who
come to the attention of authorities, many do not spontaneously tell, delay
in reporting, or make gradual disclosures (e.g. Sauzier, 1989; Sorenson
& Snow, 1991)." But this is what Sauzier actually states: "In
this study over half of the victims purposefully revealed their abuse, regardless
of their ages. This finding contradicts the belief, commonly held but not
verified by research, that children do not disclose their sexual abuse"
As to the Sorenson and Snow (1991) study, the Utah Supreme Court found in
Utah v. Hadfield, No. 880234 Supreme Court of Utah, 128 Utah Adv. Rep. 6;
788 P. 2d 506: 1990 Utah, that law enforcement personnel testified that,
in their investigatory work, false information deliberately "fed"
by them to Barbara Snow promptly appeared in the statements of children
she interviewed. These are the children in the sample used in the study.
Rather than offering support for the claim about disclosure made by Berliner,
the Sorenson and Snow study gives strong support to fears voiced in the
rest of the 1998 book about the iatrogenic harm that can be done by biased
mental health professionals who evaluate children and also treat them. Unfortunately,
the highly suspect and flawed study by Sorenson and Snow is also cited uncritically
by authors in other chapters in the book.
On page 18 Berliner writes: "[M]ost offenders have normal profiles
(e.g., Murphy & Peters, 1992; Williams & Finkelhor, 1990)."
Here again the cited material does not support the claim made by Berliner.
Murphy and Peters (1992) do not report that most offenders have normal profiles.
In fact, their report is that the research shows that most sexual offenders
have abnormal profiles. What they claim is that there is no single profile
that can be said to differentiate sexual offenders. The reason is that almost
all of the possible abnormal profiles are found in sexual offenders. While
I do not have a copy of the Williams and Finkelhor chapter, I have a number
of other articles by Finkelhor which indicate his perception that child
molesters are a disturbed group and not normal.
On page 22 Berliner states, "Only unusual sexual behavior and posttraumatic
stress symptoms have been specifically correlated with sexual abuse."
Again, this is an overstatement of the data. A number of studies have failed
to demonstrate a significant correlation for either. Finkelhor has specifically
written that PTSD does not fit sexual abuse claims.
Berliner also claims, "Research does not support the premise that children
whose memory is consolidated and accurate in the first place will become
inaccurate reporters simply because they have been interviewed repeatedly"
(p. 22). There are many reports on the effect of repeated questioning that
challenge this assertion, but Berliner does not note them here.
The editors have shown concern about science, and aim at a normative posture
about what should be done. Yet, here, a chapter that can be said at best
to show a distorting bias, if not misrepresentation, is included as the
first chapter of their book. Throughout the development of the pseudoscience
that pervades the APA's actions, positions, and organizational identification
with clinical practice, there has been a reluctance to confront folly.
This may be what Meehl (1973) describes in his essay on why he does not
attend case conferences:
1. Buddy-buddy syndrome. In one respect the clinical case conference is
no different from other academic group phenomena such as committee meetings,
in that many intelligent, educated, sane, rational persons seem to undergo
a kind of intellectual deterioration when they gather around a table in
one room. The cognitive degradation and feckless vocalizations characteristic
of committees are too well known to require comment. Somehow the group situation
brings out the worst in many people, and results in an intellectual functioning
that is at the lowest common denominator, which in clinical psychology and
psychiatry is likely to be pretty low (p. 227-228).
Meehl goes on to describe what he sees as an absurd idea that "All
evidence is equally good" and "Reward everything - gold and garbage
alike" to be factors in the intellectual suicide often committed in
academia as well.
These factors may well be involved in the sorry performance of the APA for
the past 20 years. However, in my darker moments I entertain a more sinister
and reprehensible possibility. I think it may be that many who sought leadership
and positions of eminence in the APA structure were willing to sell their
soul for the Faustian bargain of power and prestige. Whatever may be a causal
factor, the reality is that the APA has failed science, failed the society,
failed its members, and done needless grievous harm to many persons.
I demand an open, public, and profound apology from the APA. Repentance
is in the air these days, and following our nation's leaders, it is politically
correct to make public apology for past sins. Nothing less will save the
science of psychology. That is what APA should do. This is the should Ceci
and Hembrooke point to in this book.
Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies.
Beckett, K. (1996). Culture and the politics of signification: The case
of child sexual abuse. Social Problems, 43, 57-76.
Meehl, P. E. (1973). Psychodiagnosis: Selected Papers ()(). Minneapolis:
of Minnesota Press.
Murphy, W. D., & Peters, J. M. (1992). Profiling child sexual abusers:
Psychological considerations. Criminal Justice and
Behavior, 19, 24-37.
Oberlander, L. B. (1995). Psycholegal issues in child sexual abuse evaluations:
A survey of forensic mental health professionals.
Child Abuse & Neglect,
Sauzier, M. (1989). Disclosure of child sexual abuse: For better or for
Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12(2), 455-469.
Sorensen, T., & Snow, B. (1991). How children tell: The process of disclosure
in child sexual abuse. Child Welfare, 70, 3-15.
Utah v. Hadfield (1990). 788 P.2d 506.
Williams, L. M. & Finkelhor, D. (1990) The characteristics of incestuous
fathers: A review of recent studies. In W. L. Marshall, D. R. Laws, &
H. E. Barbaree (Eds.) Handbook of Sexual Assault: Issues, Theories, &
Treatment of the Offender () (pp. 231-255). New York: