Sexual Abuse Validity Discriminators in the Divorced or Divorcing Family

Karol L. Ross and Gordon J. Blush*

ABSTRACT: Accusations of sexual abuse in divorce and custody disputes have become a problem for the professionals who must investigate these cases and determine whether the abuse is real.  There have been more cases of false allegations in recent years, and the investigator must carefully consider the context in which the allegations arise.  The personalities and behaviors of the persons involved in an abuse allegation provide important information.  The authors report on three personality patterns found in falsely accusing spouses: histrionic personality, justified vindicator, and borderline personality.  The falsely accused spouse is generally passive, nurturing, and lacks "macho" characteristics.  The behaviors of the children involved in the situation can also aid in differentiating true from false allegations.

Divorce has changed in the last decade.  A positive change is the goal for the parents to each maintain meaningful relationships with their children, despite their anger and hostility.  Multiple disciplines have attempted to inject stability into the divorced family and accomplish this goal.  This article is about a phenomenon that is of direct concern to mental health and medical professionals, law enforcement officials, attorneys and judges, and social service personnel.  It is a problem involving the physical safety and psychological well being of children.  It is a problem that encompasses all aspects of individual and family dynamics.  It is the problem of sexual abuse allegations arising within the divorced or divorcing family.

When professionals become involved in investigating sexual abuse cases, they must try to understand a situation where there is usually little (if any) tangible evidence.  Indeed, the "experts" and an ever-increasing amount of literature reflect opinions and information that range from divergency to open contradictions.  As sexual abuse of children has become a more public issue, there has been an increase in published professional articles and news and media programs along with a proliferation of seminars and other interdisciplinary activities on child sexual abuse.  With the raising of society's conscience about this legal, social, moral, medical, psychological, individual, and family problem, a movement has begun toward a more sophisticated and insightful understanding of this complicated issue.

Of the many aspects of investigation, intervention, and case management, we are most familiar with the situation in which allegations of sexual abuse emerge in a conflicted custody and/or visitation dispute.  This article is based upon social, psychological, and legal data gathered during the investigation of sexual abuse allegations that occurred at various phases of divorce, including those made at the time that divorce action began, those made during the time that it took for the divorce to become a legal reality, and those made during the period after the divorce was final.  All of these allegations arose in the context of unresolved custody and visitation matters between the divorced or divorcing parties.

The clinical information and research was gathered in a family services clinic of a circuit court setting in Michigan.  This clinic functions as an internal department of the court and is primarily involved in investigating unresolved domestic matters appearing before the court.  The staff members are clinical psychologists and social workers who function as investigators and child advocates.  The primary purpose of these investigations is to advise the judges who must make decisions that may have far-reaching consequences.  This task requires the mental health professional to act more as a critical behavioral investigator of the family than as a therapeutic agent.  It is in this context that we have seen child sexual abuse allegations in protracted visitation and custody battles.

Sexual Abuse Allegations in Divorce and Custody

Our first such case occurred in 1981.  Until then, no similar cases had been seen in the prior nine years of the clinic's existence.  For a few years after 1981, the frequency of this type of allegation increased to the point where it was not unusual to investigate one of these types of cases every several weeks.  Since 1984, the frequency has stabilized.  It is now commonplace to investigate sexual abuse allegations in divorce situations.

The ultimate question in sexual abuse cases is the obvious issue of whether the abuse has actually occurred.  In reality, however, the ultimate question is not the real issue.  In any investigation, the ongoing research by the investigator(s) provides information for addressing the ultimate question.  Our investigative work with divorced and divorcing families has yielded patterns that we believe help in discriminating, differentiating, and demonstrating whether the allegations are essentially valid and the child is at risk, or whether the allegations are more diagnostic of divorce processes rather than true indicators of actual sexual abuse.

The exaggerated and bizarre content of the allegations that we first began hearing in earlier cases concerned us.  Such allegations, which differed from the more common statements by children, caused us to seek assistance from professional literature.  A computer search of the available literature revealed only one article (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1981) that discussed sexual abuse allegations in a divorce.  This brief clinical article reported a case where sexual abuse allegations occurring in a divorce were found to be false.  Since our first search of the literature in 1984, there has been a marked increase in publications on sexual abuse allegations in divorce, including the issue of the validity or falsity or such allegations (for example, Benedek & Schetky, 1984; Besharov, 1986; Coleman, 1985; Gardner, 1985, 1987; Green, 1986; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988).

The recent emergence of this literature is not, in our opinion, purely a coincidence.  Other professionals have told us that they also had begun noticing similar dynamics in the divorce process at about the same time we were beginning to see cases involving sexual abuse allegations.  The discovery of other professionals, previously unknown to us, who were reporting similar situations, similar variables, and similar conclusions was reassuring.  It identified this phenomenon as being something other than isolated incidents or distorted perceptions.

Our data suggest that sexual abuse allegations accompanying divorce began in the early 1980s.  The evolution of this phenomenon seems related to some of the social changes that occurred in the preceding decade.  This includes the legislative drafting and passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974, which capped an ever-increasing social sensitivity to child abuse, especially physical abuse.  The identification and acceptance of the "battered child syndrome" encouraged interest in other types of abuse as well.  This concern lead to the establishment of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.  This federal program created the demand for individual states to report and investigate suspected abuse, neglect, or mistreatment of any kind.  The sudden awakening of society's conscience to a previously unspoken and unacknowledged concern, created a moral momentum that profoundly affected many different professional disciplines as well as the public.

At this same time, another social evolution was occurring.  The family as a stable, nuclear social entity was being subjected to disruption and dysfunction through divorce at a rate that concerned most professionals.  Regardless of the reason, marital breakup was becoming a more common experience affecting more people than ever before.  Society's reaction to this was to "decriminalize" the divorce process by enacting "no-fault divorce."  The increased acceptance of divorce is seen in the establishment of support groups, mediation and conciliation services and the orientation toward problem-solving processes for all of the parties involved in the divorce, including the children.

However, the fact that divorce was becoming less stigmatized did not diminish the unresolved conflicts and frustrations between the divorcing adults.  While the removal of social stigma and a sense of moral wrong from divorce added dignity and civility to the divorce, it did not address the underlying psychological issues.  We believe that human nature still needed a forum where the parties could publicly "prove" their case against the other who had, in some undeniable way, "done them wrong."  The absence of this increased the unfinished business between divorcing persons.  Both the type and the intensity of post-decree divorce conflict has, in our experience, increased in recent years.  This increased potential for unfinished business, coupled with the desire to be right and vindicated through the "indictment" of the other person, is the underlying motivational factor in the increase in claims of sexual abuse in divorce and custody disputes.

In addition, court systems charged with the responsibility of dealing with issues of divorce (including the protection of the children) are obligated to respond directly and immediately to crucial divorce issues, compared to the petty issues often accompanying domestic litigation.  The possibility that a child is at risk because of abuse, especially sexual abuse, forces the court to respond immediately.  This is one of the most powerful allegations that a parent can make in a divorce case, dramatically more so than the historically common accusations of marital infidelity, alcohol or drug abuse, lack of economic responsibility, mental illness or other more traditional complaints.

Along with this, child sexual abuse, long over-looked, now permeates everyday community and family life.  Educational programs have been created, the media frequently reports (and sometimes exploits) sensationalized accounts of human sexual conduct of all kinds, and, as this decade comes to a close, the general sense is that sexual abuse is epidemic and requires a mobilization of resources.  The development of these resources has begun without a great deal of rational forethought or professional planning.  This apparent rush to resolve suggests that some of the actions already taken are not necessarily constructive and may contribute to the waging of uncontrolled war in custody and visitation matters.

Behavior and Personality Patterns

It is with this background that we will discuss the patterns in cases where sexual abuse allegations in the divorced or divorcing family are demonstrated to be most likely false.  The ability to differentiate probably true from probably false allegations is a necessary function of the investigator, regardless of the investigator's professional discipline.  Any investigation that fails to identify the critical components and elements of a given case can place the family members, especially the younger children, at risk.  The failure to reliably differentiate between true and false abuse creates significant risk both for actual victims and for those victimized by false accusations.

As investigators, we rely heavily upon the Gestalt or whole picture concept of comprehending any situation.  The context in which the allegations arise provides the basis for seeing patterns.  This establishment of patterns is the fundamental validator of any phenomenon and stands in stark contrast to drawing conclusions from only an isolated piece of information, such as a statement that a child makes, a therapist's perception of what one family member reports, or the behavior of a young child playing with an anatomically-correct doll.

In the whole picture approach, variables examined include those that we originally reported in 1987 (Blush & Ross, 1987).  We have found four major areas of investigative concern.  We refer to these four areas as "corroborative clusters" of evidence.  By carefully evaluating each cluster of information, we develop a cumulative rationale for drawing conclusions about a given case.  The four areas are (1) the Gestalt or whole picture concept, (2) the corroborative cluster of sequence, escalation, and timing (what we now refer to as the S.E.T. of a case), (3) the cluster encompassing the personality patterns of the individual adults in the situation, and (4) the cluster of evidences relating to the child or children's behavior(s), (including what the child says and does, the role that the child has played in the family constellation, and any other current child-related dynamics such as consideration of developmental ages and stages).  In cases we have reviewed, crucial and fundamental questions about the situational context in which the allegations arise often are left unasked and thus unanswered.

Here we will focus on two of the four corroborative clusters of evidence: the cluster involving the adult personality patterns and the cluster describing the behaviors of the children.  While these patterns, like most other behaviors, are not precisely measurable, they are reliably observable to the skilled investigator who, upon recognizing them, needs to proceed with concern about the face value of the sexual allegations.

Adult Personality Patterns

Invariably, there is a primary presenting adult who brings the child and seeks assistance through some available system dealing with abuse.  Most often, this adult is the female custodial parent.  The younger the child, the more likely this is.  We have found three major personality patterns in these women in cases where the sexual abuse allegations could not be substantiated and and were probably false.

The Histrionic Personality

The first of these clinical patterns seen in the falsely accusing woman is a set of behaviors most consistent with the histrionic personality.  This individual presents herself in an anxious, concerned, and nervous manner.  She especially communicates a theme of victimization for herself at the hands of her estranged or former spouse.  She draws from her own perceptions an expressed fear of continued victimization, not only for herself, but now especially for her child when the child is with the father.  When asked to give background information about the marriage, she will often describe situations where she claims that she was manipulated, coerced, and physically or psychologically abused.  We have found it especially productive to get a detailed description of this woman's perception of her sexual relationship.  The histrionic female will give detailed anecdotal evidence of prior events and occurrences that sound realistic on the surface.  However, her vague, circular, and nonspecific responses are more often descriptive of a feeling-tone impression of the situation rather than of factual details of an actual happening.

Her interpretation of her child's behavior (especially when the child is the same gender) appears to be an extension of her own feelings.  The blending of these feelings with everyday events in her life creates a distorted vigilance that results in unusual and inappropriate sexual concerns.  This inappropriateness is especially evident considering the age of the child and the procedures used by the parent to monitor these concerns.  Histrionic primary presenting women often acknowledge behaviors such as regular or detailed genital examination of the child before or after bathing, (and especially after having had contact with the other parent), making peculiar requests for detailed and unnecessary medical procedures (without regard for the child's own experience as part of that medical examination), and/or interrogating the child about any kind of sexual activity (Martin, 1976, Soloff, 1985).

The histrionic clinical pattern is revealed not only by the adult's report of the marriage and divorce, but by her own developmental, medical, and general social history.  The investigator needs to understand a full spectrum of adult dynamics that the spouse making the allegations may have.

Again, in those cases where allegations are most probably false, we have found that the personalities of these women often fit the histrionic pattern.  However, under the stressors of divorce, there are two variations in the patterns that this basic histrionic personality can take.  One dimension is what we call the 'justified vindicator."  The other dimension is the borderline personality (up to and including the development of psychosis).

The Justified Vindicator

In the justified vindicator pattern, the presenting female initially offers an intellectually organized, and assertive and justified agenda that can have a sophisticated (pseudo-scientific) sound to it.  This woman presents in such a fashion so as to give the appearance of being highly organized in terms of indisputable facts, figures, and expert opinions supporting her evidence.  Many of these "facts" will have been acquired from multitudinous contacts with other persons, including a number of professional experts that she may have sought help from in dealing with this "traumatic" situation.  This presentation, when taken at face value, gives her the appearance of justified outrage and legitimate concern.  They validate her demand for protection or action of some kind.

The most effective way to detect the justified vindicator pattern when the woman comes armed with an unusual array of facts and figures is to carefully seek clarification of each of the details.  In so doing, the justified vindicator quickly shifts her communication style from spontaneous and motivated cooperativeness to hostile, negativistic, resistant, and passive-aggressive patterns.  Even with the most carefully framed and gentle inquiry, the justified vindicator will shift in both affect and communication style.  She will often argue and counter the investigator's questions with questions of her own.  If detail is even slightly focused on, the justified vindicator may challenge the professional competency of the investigator or even question his morals and values.

The justified vindicator often discontinues contact with the investigator who tries to clarify the specifics of the allegations.  Not only does the justified vindicator go around the investigator who presses for specificity, she may threaten or actually make complaints to the licensing board, sue the professional, or become confrontive, threatening, or harassing.  This woman is a force to be reckoned with.  The investigator should never try to engage the justified vindicator in arguments about the merits of his perceptions because there are no merits if the investigator's perception is at variance with this person.  Rather, the alert and effective investigator allows this behavior to occur as part of the diagnostic pattern presented by the justified vindicator.  Any investigator who tries to control this person will soon he seen negatively and be disregarded or confronted.

The Borderline Personality

The other major pattern of the spouse making a false accusation is the borderline personality.  This individual, by virtue of her basic histrionic propensity and the stress of the divorce, functions in a way that impairs her relationship with reality and creates significant interference with her functioning.  The degree to which reality contact is lost depends on the intensity of the stressors on the histrionic person at any given moment.

The adult who functions in this marginal contact with reality is most readily identified by his or her (again, usually "her") peculiar and bizarre descriptions of historical and anecdotal evidence.  Unbelievable and weird phenomena, such as beginning menses at five years of age, having two children without ever having had intercourse with the estranged spouse, and having a name entirely different from her legal birth name are examples of peculiarities that we have encountered in the spontaneous articulations of the borderline personality.  When this pattern predominates, a clinical diagnosis of psychotic disorder may be appropriate.

The Falsely Accused Spouse

Also, it is crucial to understand the typical behavior pattern we have observed in the man who has been identified as the perpetrator of the abuse.  Our experience is that, all too frequently, conclusions are reached by investigators about this person without benefit of data or evidence gathered from direct contact.  In many instances, we have been impressed by the fact that the man is unremarkable in all clinical dimensions.  We have reviewed other mental health professionals assessments, both interview and psychometric data included, and concur with their frequently reported findings that there are no significant outward indicators of clinical abnormalities in most of these individuals.

In our earlier cases, one pattern that was often noted and that we still see includes the following characteristics of the alleged male perpetrator: There is a marked lack of highly masculinized or "macho" characteristics.  These individuals are typically not socially aggressive, they do not present any particular patterns of intense competitiveness, nor do they typically manifest a sense of anxiety or anger consistent with the dilemma in which they find themselves.  Indeed we have been particularly struck by the lack of appropriate distress, given the seriousness of the allegations that have been made against them.  They will often articulate a concern about the allegations, but they will also express a kind of naive confidence that somehow the allegations will be understood by others and essentially "seen for what they are worth."  The alleged perpetrator in these matters often will show characteristics of being more "feminized," i.e., he is a more nurturing, more passive person who has more underlying dependency features and is often benign and child-like in many of his social responses, thoughts, and feelings.

In our earlier work we were initially concerned about these accused males because of their passivity, their child-like qualities, their dependencies, and some of their feminized features.  They can appear to be similar to patterns found in individuals who have pedophiliac propensities if they are evaluated superficially or merely by the nature of the allegations.  Our concern is amplified by investigations where an isolated psychological assessment via computer-scored cookbook interpretation is used as a primary investigation tool.  These "assessments" can provide diagnostic and summary statements that, if interpreted in the absence of the situation in which the allegations arise, can be used as support for the presence of maladaptive psychosexual patterns.  However, more recently we have been reassured because of an ever-increasing population of falsely accused individuals for whom the more dominant pattern is the one of the unremarkable person.

Children's Behavior Patterns

The behavior of the children can produce useful information when investigated within the dynamics and structure of the family situation in which the allegations have occurred.  A professional investigator needs to have an adequate experiential background so as to know how children of divorce usually sound and look when caught up in the midst of custody and visitation conflict.  Most children, especially those under the age of about eight, display an ambivalence over being caught in the middle of a power struggle in which they are unable to please either of their parents.  In cases where sexual abuse allegations have been investigated and found to be the result of unresolved adult conflict rather than of actual abuse, we find that children will show exaggerated patterns of inappropriate behaviors in the following ways:

The child will use verbal expressions and phrases that mimic and parrot the presenting adult's agenda in the adult's terms.  Inappropriate concerns such as child support issues, property settlements, and other divorce activities not within the child's understanding are cues that a child is being influenced by one of the adults.

Spontaneous, unsolicited, and markedly exaggerated protests against the non-custodial parent are patterns of behavior in those instances where the allegations are not able to be substantiated.  Gardner (1987) in his recent work in the "parental alienation syndrome" describes what we have observed for a number of years.  The child communicates an absolute foreclosure against a parent which is is not commensurate with demonstrable or factual proofs of such "horribleness" as described by the child.  Exaggerated hate and the expressed desire to "never, ever" see or interact with a parent again indicate conditioning of the child's perception to that of the parent.  Statements that contain "never" and "always" are also the expressions of children who are being used as instruments of foreclosure by the more controlling parent.

The most significant evidence we have found in the child's behaviors when the allegations are false is when the child describes "horrible" and traumatic events while not appearing to be traumatized.  This pattern of not appearing traumatized is a key missing element in how the child presents.  A skillful investigator will attend as much to what is missing as to what is present in the child's behavior.

Hyperassertive claims and exaggerated enthusiasm in statements by the child are often misinterpreted by the naive and poorly trained investigator as evidence that the child must be traumatized.  When we have seen children who have actually been sexually abused, (especially by one of their own parents) the children show the classic anxieties, embarrassment, ambivalences, and other clinical behaviors as opposed to the overt enthusiasm and spontaneity that are often present in cases of false accusations.


Although there are other important variables in sexual abuse allegations, we have discussed the patterns we have found to frequently accompany false accusations.  The personalities and behaviors of the persons involved in an abuse accusation, especially one arising in a conflicted divorce and custody dispute, provide crucial information.  Such information can help the investigator compile useful data to present to the finder of fact.  This will help answer the ultimate question as to whether the abuse is real.

Behavior occurring in a dysfunctional family unit becomes, by nature of the context in which is occurs, difficult to investigate.  Many investigators and case workers accept isolated evidence taken out of context at face value.  In a divorce, however, erroneous conclusions, professional recommendations, and actions predicated upon those conclusions can be as harmful to children as is actual abuse.  Resisting the impulse to quickly decide whether the abuse is real is an important step toward gaining more insight into what has actually happened.

It may be argued, especially by the accusing spouse, that the assessment of adult personality and family dynamics is not necessary for protecting the child at risk.  The professional who concurs with this argument may be making a mistake.  This is especially true where the professional's conclusions may profoundly affect the intervention by both social and legal agencies.

Undertaking the task of investigative research to determine what has really happened and what should be done is to be placed in a position of powerful influence.  The many complex cases that social service and mental health professionals are confronted with exerts great demands on their personal and professional resources.  There is minimal investigative information to guide them.  Our concern is that much of the information currently used in sexual abuse investigations is limited in its clinical and scientific scope.

In light of social and legal changes surrounding divorce, the investigator needs to first determine whether the investigation is occurring within an intact family or in a divorce or custody dispute.  With the recent phenomenon of false sexual allegations, the investigator must evaluate all possibilities to gain a complete and accurate understanding of the situation.  Interviewing all family parties, acting the role of investigator rather than of therapeutic agent, carefully tracking the evolution of the present complaint in its historical sequence, and understanding the clinical, social and psychological dynamics of the individuals as well as the collective unit called family, are all necessary for accurate investigations and assessments of these difficult situations.


Benedek, E. L., & Schetky, D. H. (1984, October). Allegations of sexual abuse in child custody cases. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Nassau, Bahamas.

Besharov, D. (Spring, 1986). Unfounded allegations a new child abuse problem. The Public Interest, 83, 18-33.

Blush, G. L., &Ross, K. L. (1987). Sexual allegations in divorce: The SAID Syndrome. Conciliation Courts Review, 25(1), 1-11.

Coleman, L. (1986, January-February). False allegations of child sexual abuse: Have the experts been caught with their pants down? Forum, pp. 12-21.

Gardner, R. A. (1985). Recent trends in divorce and custody litigation. Academy Forum, 29(2), 3-7.

Gardner, R. A. (1987). The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse (Paperback). Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.

Green, A. H. (1986). True and false allegations of sexual abuse in child custody disputes. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 25, 449-456.

Kaplan, S. L., & Kaplan, S. J. (1981). The child's accusation of sexual abuse in child custody disputes. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 3(1), 81-95.

Martin, P.A. (1976). A Marital Therapy Manual (Paperback). New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Soloff, P. H. (1985). Personality disorders. In M. Hersen & S. M. Turner (Eds.), Diagnostic Interviewing (Hardcover) (pp. 131-159). New York: Plenum Press.

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

* Karol L. Ross and Gordon J. Blush are psychologists and can be contacted at Professional Counseling Associates, 36040 Dequindre Road, Sterling Heights, MI 48317.  [Back]

[Back to Volume 2, Number 1]  [Other Articles by these Authors]

Copyright 1989-2014 by the Institute for Psychological Therapies.
This website last revised on April 15, 2014.
Found a non-working link?  Please notify the Webmaster.