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
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
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
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.
to these four areas as "corroborative clusters" of evidence.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
have been reassured because of an ever-increasing population of falsely
accused individuals for whom the more dominant pattern is the one of the
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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