Self-Help Groups for the Erroneously Charged: A Proposed Model
LeRoy G. Schultz*
ABSTRACT: Persons who are falsely accused of child abuse
suffer significant stress and trauma. Participation in a self-help group
is often helpful in coping with this situation. A short rationale for
groups of erroneously charged and/or convicted is proposed, with a group
meeting scheme for lay groups.
The sociolegal abuse of the erroneously charged (in
criminal court, police stations, or social service agency, or juvenile
court) is well established in both the professional and popular literature
(Associated Press, 1987; Fattah, 1989; Feeney, Dill & Weir, 1983;
Fricker, 1989; Gross, 1987; Huff, Rattner & Sagarin, 1986; Jones &
McGraw, 1988; KIemke & Tiedman, 1981; McNamara, 1969; Pellegrino,
1979; Rattner, 1984; Tufts New England Medical Center, 1984). Sad accounts
of erroneously charged defendants also appear regularly in the popular
press (Baxter, 1986; Lukezic, 1990; Rabinowitz, 1990) and on television
(Frank, 1988; Priest, 1990).
The American system of justice, like all others, is less
than 100% reliable. There is an indeterminate amount of injustice attached
to every system of justice simply because justice is pursued by humans.
"To err is human." This reality is basic to any consideration of
justice for whatever else justice may be, it is not error. To control and reduce the level of error and thus
injustice should be accepted by every citizen as central to the continued
health, stability, and well being of the society.
Some writers blame erroneous charges on poor police investigation methods (Daly, 1988; Erickson,
1985; Stenross & Kleinman, 1989). Another potential cause may be
unprofessional prosecutorial practices (Jonakait, 1987; Meyers &
Hagan, 1979). Others suggest poor training and excessive caseloads of
social service agencies (Baker & Vosburgh, 1977; Burak, 1988; Hentoff,
1988; Oehler, Snizek, & Mullins, 1989). There may be biases such as
unresolved problems in gender issues in investigation (Dukes & Kean, 1989;
Mass & Volpato, 1989). Error may come in through mistaken or misled
witnesses and victims (Cunningham, 1988; Underwager & Wakefield,
1989), poor media coverage of the issue (Frank, 1988; Gorelick, 1989;
Johnson, 1988), and a general lack of legal protections for the falsely
accused or convicted (Lane, 1988; MacKinnon, 1988; University of Penn. Law
False allegations exert a heavy cost on both the
individual and the family (Schultz, 1989) as well as on society (Trial,
1989; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988). State organizations designed to protect children,
adolescents and their families have voiced concern about the cost of
criminal prosecutions and the loss of social service money, programs and
staff if states should be forced to declare bankruptcy. For example, the
McMartin Day Center Case cost California taxpayers over fifteen million
dollars and resulted in a verdict of not guilty (Daro, 1988; USA Today,
1990; Wayson & Funke, 1989).
Most parents charged or investigated for alleged child abuse have the accusations against them declared
"unfounded" or "unsubstantiated" or
are found to be not guilty by the legal system (Schultz, 1989; Besharov,
1985). If premature and hasty action has been taken by law enforcement
authorities, family members suffer false arrest victimization problems as
a result (Horowitz, Wilner, Kaltreider, & Alvarez, 1980; Pellegrino,
1979; Perr, 1988). Some persons falsely arrested may suffer some or all of
the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (American Psychiatric
Association, 1988). Others may experience a variety of emotional disorders
related to the stress of being arrested. Some tactics employed by law
enforcement appear deliberately calculated to increase the stress of the
experience. For example, persons accused are often arrested on late Friday
afternoons so that they spend the entire weekend in jail before the system
returns to functioning on Monday morning.
Handbooks to help the erroneously charged or convicted
have been published and distributed aimed at helping to reduce stress, (Bryan, 1988; McMahon, 1988; Schultz & Hart, 1988).
of VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws or Victims of Child
Abuse Legislation) have emerged to give support to victims. These two
organization arose independently of each other but simultaneously. Both
began in September to October of 1984, one in California and one in
Minnesota. In one of the amazing coincidences that occur in history the
groups came up with the same acronym — VOCAL. The simultaneous but
independent emergence of these two groups, in itself, dramatically shows
the deep and real need for such organizations.
The paper will discuss a intervention plan or model for
those persons who suffer erroneous arrest or conviction and may be used by
churches, citizen groups, international victim groups, victim service
agencies, mental health agencies, family and children's service agencies,
and those in private practice of the various professions.
Effects of Erroneous Charges
The response of the system in cases of actual abuse can
be damaging to the victims and their families. Baurmann (1983) studied the
effects of the investigation and prosecution on victims in 8058 cases of
actual sexual abuse in the German State of Lower Saxony and found that
the effects of the investigation were sometimes more harmful than the
abuse itself. He termed this "secondary victimization."
and Brassard (1984) investigated the effects on families where the father
had pled guilty to incest. Their subjects reported serious financial
problems and destroyed family relationships. Tyler and Brassard concluded
that the investigation and prosecution of incest results in a devastating
blow to the family. If the accusation is false, added to this will be
frustration, shock, despair, and outrage.
The experience of being falsely accused and wrongly
arrested or convicted of child abuse and/or child sexual abuse is worse
than any other false or wrong arrest. No other crime carries as much
repulsion, distaste, and potential for harsh and punitive rejection by
everybody around the person accused (Underwager, Clauss & Wakefield,
1990). Being accused of murder appears to cause less revulsion and
punitiveness than being accused of child sexual abuse. Bail for an accused
child sexual abuser is often set higher than for others, and, if
convicted, sentences are harsher (Champion, 1988; Gebotys, Roberts, &
DasGupta, 1988; Moran, 1987; UPI, 1990). Imprisonment for a convicted
child molester is fraught with greater danger and carries an inherent
double-bind because of the frequent lack of treatment resources
(Alexander, 1988; Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, 1984; Leibman,
1989; Milan & Evans, 1987).
The stress on persons falsely accused begins with
misperceptions of the justice system. The falsely charged individual and
his family assumes that the government has the motivation and resources to
charge only those who are, in fact, guilty. Therefore, if the police are
saying somebody did something wrong, they must be right. After all, Sgt.
Friday did not make mistakes and the Mounties always get their man.
The evidence in some child abuse charges is not very
firm, secure, or convincing (particularly for sexual abuse with no
physical evidence). Constitutional rights (innocent until proven guilty,
or the right to reasonable bail, due process, and the right to
confrontation) are legal fictions to most defendants. The burden, stress,
and costs of defending against a false accusation, are placed on each
family member which includes children. It may also involve correction
costs for the taxpayer or the building of new prisons. Financial costs
alone can ruin some families (Schultz, 1989).
Most parents who are investigated for suspected child
abuse have the case "unsubstantiated" or "unfounded."
However, the investigation by police or child protective service workers
is extremely traumatic and difficult. Wakefield and Underwager (1988)
The people who are the target of a false report of
child abuse are subjected to enormous stress and trauma. The determination
that a report is unfounded can only be made after an investigation that violates the family's privacy.
To determine whether or not a child is being
abused social workers and police must inquire into intimate and personal
matters. Friends, neighbors, teachers, day care workers, clergy may be
questioned. If the false report is of sexual abuse, the effects are even
worse (p. 281).
Common responses to false arrest, investigation, and/or conviction include:
1. The person falsely accused loses confidence in his
own judgments while at the same time realizing that the judgments of the
CPS (Child Protection Services) workers are not accurate. He may
desperately try to resolve the contradiction by speculating whether he may
have done something inadvertently or while he was asleep. For example, he
may say, "Maybe I had an erection but didn't realize it," or
"We were taking a nap together, maybe I touched her in my
sleep." If this attempt to resolve the contradiction is made to the
police, it is likely to be used as a confession.
2. The person still tries to believe that the system
should do what is is supposed to do. Despite the realization that the
system has made a mistake in his case, he feels that the system should be
necessary and meaningful to protect children who really need it.
3. The person begins to doubt himself and makes
desperate efforts to maintain the concept that he is a good parent.
4. As the person resolves these contradictions by
becoming convinced that the police and social service workers were
completely mistaken and the investigation was unfair, he begins to view
the system as evil and totalitarian. An example of this is a bumper
sticker allegedly seen in Texas that stated, "Have a nice day, kill a
5. The person feels alienated from friends and
coworkers. Even though he knows that he is innocent, he is self-conscious,
ashamed, embarrassed, and questions what others believe about him.
6. The person suffers significant emotional trauma and
stress. He is depressed, anxious, nervous, scared, frustrated, and angry.
He may show signs of PTSD (Horowitz et al. 1980). The most analogous
comparable event is that of having a child killed.
No established social service, mental health agency, or
law enforcement agency provides corrective experiences or treatment for
the above normal responses.
Stages of Reactions to a False Accusation
Phases experienced by falsely accused victims may be
divided into three stages. The first stage (usually following arrest,
having one's children removed and making bail) is usually characterized by
disbelief, denial of feelings, shock, numbness, delusions, paranoid
feelings, paralysis of defensive action and denial of normal sensory
impressions. The person may perceive the reality of his or her situation
and feel trapped.
The second phase is characterized by frozen fright or pseudocalm.
There may be unrealistic perceptions of our government, or the
belief that the courts, police, and social service workers will see their
errors and rush to correct them with an apology to the victim. Usually
after 48 hours or more, if confined and interrogated, symptoms of trauma
begin to manifest themselves. The first symptom is psychological
infantilism, and a reverting to early behavior that was used to combat
problems (Symonds, 1980). Some victims may feel guilty about their
cooperation with police, social services, or the prosecutor's office,
after they were made verbal promises of "getting to go home to your
kids" for cooperating so well (referred to as the Stockholm
Syndrome). Some also feel guilty for succumbing to the "good cop, bad
cop game" in interrogation where two officers play hard and soft.
Usually, at this point, victims begin to accept
survivor status and develop new coping skills. Relief may come from
writing about the experience (Gans, 1989), reading others' "war"
stories, counseling similar victims, or developing new hobbies or engaging
in busy work around the home.
Some victims of false charges may blame their spouse
for cooperating with state officials. However, investigators usually
threaten to have the unaccused parent declared an unfit parent or to be
co-charged with child abuse unless the spouse cooperates with
investigators. This creates an tremendously stressful no-win situation for
a person who believes in her spouse's innocence.
The third stage is characterized by emotional
exhaustion which lasts until the body's resources are replenished. A
victim's ability to think, reason and act in self-defense is modified
under stress. The victim's family should be alerted to this normality.
Some victims will turn to drugs, alcohol, suicide or eating disorders to
help mitigate PTSD symptoms. Some symptoms persist and remain disabling,
and such persons should be referred to a professional (McCain, Sakheim,
& Abrahamson, 1988).
When it is established that an accusation has been
false, apology from bureaucracies is seldom forthcoming. The justice
system does not provide for compensation to an innocent person who has
been acquitted, or against whom all criminal charges have been dismissed
1976). This has led some persons to file civil lawsuits against the
agencies or persons involved (Besharov, 1984 & 1985; Catterall, 1988;
Underwager, Clauss, & Wakefield, 1990). However, a major problem is
overcoming the immunity granted to the agencies involved. In the aftermath
of the Jordan, Minnesota cases, many of the parents filed lawsuits against
the officials who had arrested them and taken their children (Myers vs.
Scott County, 1987) but everyone involved was given immunity, which was
extended to similar cases in Minnesota (Diaz, 1989; Doe v. Hennepin County,
1988; Oberdorfer, 1987).
Victims of erroneous charges sense that they have power
to correct, but need to overcome fairness myths in our justice or social
service system, before they can challenge the welfare system or its
funding agencies. Falsely accused persons must be fueled by a sense of
injustice that will propel them toward personal power. Often, participation
in a self-help group can aid in this. Injustice and
unfairness can create group consciousness and the call to action (Kidder
& Fine, 1986).
However, although such self-help groups can be of
tremendous help to the falsely accused, they may be difficult to establish
and maintain. The stress in the erroneously charged or convicted persons
can prohibit group cooperation and group cohesion at first. Groups of
injustice experiencing victims who target the wrong beliefs when they
organize may fail and never know why (Alinsky, 1946). Erroneously charged
victims may reject professional help that "blames the victim" but they will
look to the group for empowerment and self-esteem building that will break up stereotypes in
social agency and law enforcement practice.
Starting a Self-Help Group
What follows are suggestions for those who want to
start a group for the erroneously charged or convicted. The model is based
primarily on the writing of Alinsky, 1946; DeJardins, 1977; Gamson,
Fireman, & Rytina, 1982; Humm, 1979; Kidder, Boell, & Meyer, 1983;
Lane, 1988; Nagayama Hall 1989; O'Neil et al. 1988; Scott, 1981; Self
Help Reporter, 1989; Taylor,
Wood, & Lichtman, 1983; and Wartman, 1983. Many VOCAL chapters also
have had experience with self-help groups and have prepared "survivor
manuals" for those facing false charges (Bryan, 1988; MacMahon, 1989;
Schultz & Hart, 1988).
1. Find victims or survivors for your group. You may
have to use publicity for this. Use local TV, radio or bulletin boards,
prepare news-releases, or volunteer for interviews on talk shows. Start a
2. See how a meeting is conducted by other groups
already established in your area, such as Alcoholics Anonymous,
Compassionate Friends (for parents whose children have died), a Colostomy
Group or a Gay Rights Group. Your main concern should be on format and
style. Note how group members are drawn out of their silence.
3. Establish a group purpose. Have printouts made up in
clear English that all members, potential members, and bureaucracies fully
comprehend. Main thrusts of group are usually educational (how system
works), assistance-giving by members to each other (may consist of
supportive activities such as going to court with each other, etc.) and
stress reduction for the individuals or their families.
4. Determine democratic membership rules. (Keep rules
simple or use Roberts Rules of Order to avoid spending too much time on
one case.) Be anti-big, anti-power, but still be pragmatic.
5. Determine ideal group size and structure,
remembering that consumers of a service (legal, social or group) are your
producers of tomorrow.
6. Arrange a regular meeting place and time. In
general, it is better not to meet in each others homes. Check out, in
advance, local churches and/or public buildings, welfare offices, public
schools, YMCAs, health departments, or public libraries. Some meetings
have been held in defense counsel office.
7. Your first meeting:
a. You must plan and lead your first session.
b. Line up (plan) your speakers ahead of time and be
sure they will deliver material that will be helpful to the group.
c. Have your coffee (tea or soft drink) breaks well
timed in terms of group fatigue (groups usually meet in the evening after
a full day's employment) and the attention span for the speakers
d. Prepare all publicity (ads, flyers, locations) well
ahead of your actual meetings.
e. Disseminate all publicity as to meetings yourself.
f. Arrange to have writers, typists, artists,
mimeograph machines well in advance of usage.
g. Arrange to handle appropriately all fees, cash, and
membership dues. Check out bonding laws in your state (always have receipt
h. Write letters for your group, with their permission,
on your group's stationary.
i. Form a reliable phone tree, use it to get members to
attend and act as phone contact.
8. Get group members to share accounts of social
service abuse or arrests, conviction and what each arrestee did to survive
the stress. Self-esteem and success should be reinforced.
9. Be consistent in recovery plans for members. Referral to sympathetic professionals should be made when a member's
symptoms prove dysfunctional or persistent.
Victims of erroneous charges or convictions are
entitled to group help by lay persons because they have suffered a
personal injury, not because they are inadequate. They seldom need a
therapist, they need support. The distress and emotional trauma following
false arrest may undermine falsely accused persons' ability to cope with
their situation, and the group can provide support for these victims and
Solomon's four group strategies may be used by each
group member (Solomon, 1985). These are: 1) to enable all group members to
survive and help themselves, 2) to link with others suffering the same
problem on a regular basis, 3) to help individuals obtain needed resources
(lawyers, social workers, bondsman, etc.), and, 4) to prime the various
related systems to respond differently in the future. Through these
strategies, the isolation, powerlessness and hopelessness can be reduced
for each member.
More concrete group activities that the leader may want
to use are a media-watch (TV, radio, newspapers), a speakers bureau, a
non-violent demonstration in front of a welfare office or court, lobbying
the legislature to change agency practices, fundraising for the groups'
future needs, surveys of the extent of the problem of false accusations,
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