The False Child Molestation Outbreak of the 1980s: An Explanation of the Cases Arising in the Divorce Court

Robert Sheridan*

In 1981, Congress enacted legislation to deal with actual cases of child abuse by requiring the states, as a condition for the funding of state programs, to enact mandatory reporting laws.  California's statute requires all child care custodians, medical, and nonmedical practitioners, defined to include teachers, nurses, and dental hygienists, among others, to report suspected cases of child abuse sexual, physical, and emotional.  Failure to report is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

In addition to defining sexual abuse to include virtually any inappropriate sexual stimulation of a child, the statute defines "reasonable suspicion" to mean "that it is objectively reasonable for a person to entertain such a suspicion, based upon facts that could cause a reasonable person in the like position, drawing when appropriate on his or her training and experience, to suspect child abuse" (California Penal Code Sec. 11166[a]).

That nondefinition is a major rational problem area in dealing with this emotionally overloaded issue.  It has contributed to the bringing of some 1.2 million reports of suspected abuse in 1981 and 1.9 million reported cases in 1985, according to findings released March 2, 1987, by the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, in a report entitled "Abused Children in America: Victims of Official Neglect."

Behavioral indicators of child abuse, according to the prosecutor's handbook put out by the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, of Alexandria, Virginia, a subsidiary of the National District Attorneys Association, may include overly submissive behavior, aggressive acting out or incorrigible behavior, school related excesses, sleep disturbances, bed-wetting and "clingingness."  Such broadly defined so called indicators have a grave potential for contributing to a false accusation, because children who have not been sexually molested may exhibit such behavior.

There are other error factors which either cause false reports to be made or contribute to the failure to recognize a false report.

In the divorce context, this may be seen when an overly suspicious mother tells the child protection intake workers that she suspects the father for some reason, such as vaginal redness.  The young child, under the mother's questioning, may acknowledge the father touched her "there" during weekend visitation.  The worker interrogates the child and develops the story.  A report is written and submitted to a court which cuts the father off from the child, who remains with the mother.  Criminal proceedings may result based on the uncorroborated word of children as young as three.  Fathers have been bankrupted, emotionally wrenched, and deprived wrongly of their children based on circumstances such as this.  Some may have been erroneously convicted as well.


I would ascribe it to a failure of reason in the context of an emotional situation.

The Salem Experience

There have been notorious examples of rational failure in the past.  The Salem, Massachusetts witch-hunt of 1692 is the classic irrational child molestation case of all time, with eleven girls ages eight through seventeen instrumental in causing twenty executions and 130 condemnations to death on the charge of witchcraft.

More precisely, the Salem children's parents and the surrounding adults were responsible for the outbreak, not the children.  The adults were acting as child advocates, working for the best interests of the children.

Witchcraft was felony child molestation, a capital crime, in 1692.  The myth in which virtually all of the Puritans believed was that there was a devil, who operated through intermediaries, termed witches if female, wizards if male, to harm or torment innocent people, such as the children of the village.

When Dr. Griggs was called to examine children who had adopted "odd postures," "foolish, ridiculous speeches," "distempers," and "fits," he diagnosed the "Evil Hand" or malefic witchcraft.  Perhaps, believing in the devil, he expected to find his presence.

The household of the Rev. Samuel Parris, in which the first witchcraft accusations were developed, was irritated and disturbed.  Parris was at war with his congregation and his town and felt betrayed by their failure to pay his salary, which included corn and firewood, essential to withstanding the winter.

The context may be likened to that of a divorcing family, a microcosm coming to an end, with attendant fear and anxiety, marked by bitterness and ever increasing ruthlessness in fighting, with the children used as weapons.  Had Dr. Griggs, and the real experts, the ministers, objectivity and sufficient distance from the problem they might have looked for the cause of the children's behavior, and subsequent allegations, in the context of what preceded them.

From the distance of three centuries, it seems more clear.

The children, according to Boyer and Nissenbaum (Salem Possessed, Harvard U. Press, 1974), were experimenting with fortune telling on the subject of their future status, including love and marriage.  They conjured with sieves, keys, peas, nails, and horseshoes.  They foretold the future with a crystal ball, and perceived a specter, like that of a coffin, which frightened them.

Questioned by Puritan elders, they at first resisted answering, one supposes because of the sexual content of the imaginings being probed.

One also supposes that the children of 1692 were as familiar with what witchcraft manifestations were supposed to be like as our children are about fantastic space characters, or a Halloween witch or ghost. "Whoo ... a ghost," immediately conjures up the specter in our minds, even now, of an ephemeral creature shrouded in white from another world who passes through walls and does mischief, to the fright of children and believers.

A Puritan elder's interrogation might be a frightening thing to a child, just as any child might be apprehensive in admitting a sexual curiosity to a strict adult who professed against such things as being sinful.

Rumors began going around and, although resistant at first, the girls, "under the pressure of adult questioning, had finally named as their tormenters" three women who were accused as witches.  One even confessed, as many more later did.

Thus the Salem witchcraft cases had even more proof than many uncorroborated child molestation cases today; they had corroboration, confessions from the witches themselves.  What better proof could there be?

Unless one believes in witches, and the confessions of witchcraft extracted under some pressure by interrogators, the twentieth century rational analysis of such cases would require looking to other causes, and treating the children's testimony not as direct evidence of their claim of molestation by a witch, but as circumstantial evidence that something very disturbing had occurred in their lives.  This would require some investigation to determine that the case had nothing to do with witches.

I think we would focus on what was disturbing in the children's lives, perhaps the uncertainty of their future as a family on the frontier of a wilderness populated by warlike savages with winter coming on and a father unsupported by his community and railing about it both in the pulpit and at home.

We might also look to the misinterpretation placed by the adults on the unfamiliar behavior of children.

Finally, we would look to the interrogation process by which the allegations themselves were first developed by adults, to see whether the statements of the children had been contaminated by the expressions of the adults.

I suggest that this would be a rational approach to understanding both Salem's, and today's experiences with uncorroborated molestation charges developed by adults from the mouths of children, following some not-clearly-understood behavior or appearance.

The Rational Approach

Child abuse cases are peculiarly difficult for those in authority to deal with rationally for a number of reasons.  The underlying causes of difficulty are the emotions such cases engender, together with the pressure to "do something" right away to "protect the child" from the imagined abuse.  The result, in the false cases, may be characterized as an order amounting to a judicial kidnap, the taking of the child away from an innocent parent, usually the father, and delivering the child into the arms of a wrongdoing mother, who is strongly motivated to support the newly established status quo.

What are the rational approach problem areas in the divorce, or hostile context?

Let us first look at the meaning of the rational, or analytic approach.

A rational approach requires the employment of reason, not emotion, to resolve disputed propositions, through argument supported by fact and theory, accepted, after critical analysis, as comporting with human experience. It requires that a demand for a reason, or reasoned objection, be met with a piece of purportedly sound reasoning based on acceptable facts.

Sound reasoning requires that the proponent of a proposition, i.e. the child protective service worker, or the prosecutor, advance facts sufficient to warrant the action proposed to be taken.  The proposed action is often drastic, such as removal of the child from a parent, or, it may result in imprisonment for long periods.  The less drastic the consequences, and the more emergent the need to take immediate protective action, the less proof required to do so describes how the legal process actually functions.

In child abuse cases the amount of proof required to remove a child temporarily from a parent is trivial.  The mere reported statement of the child is often sufficient, particularly when the reporting party is a person wearing the mantle of the flimsiest authority or competency, such as a so-called child-advocate or social worker.

The rational approach requires that no adverse action be taken on insufficient proof, and that reasonable objections must be shown not to exist before adverse action can justifiably be taken.

Rational Approach Problems Areas

The Cause of False Reports

The misinterpretation of a young child's account of an overnight visit with the father is the most common cause of a false report.  If the intake worker is biased towards believing the accusation developed from the child by the mother, the stage is set for travesty.  The child will be cut off from the father and kept with the mother, even if the story is false, because the worker will either fall to detect the falsity or will contribute to its development.

One supervisor of a child abuse intake unit in a city hospital, a psychiatrist, described how she had once missed diagnosing a valid case of abuse, only to learn that the child had been found dead hanging in a closet later.  Such experiences, and the teaching of them, may encourage some child abuse intake workers to persist in questioning a child until the child says what the worker is asking about and wants to hear.

Since the child is frequently brought to the child advocate by someone suspecting sexual abuse, and the subject will have been discussed with the child, directly or within earshot before arrival, a persistent questioner may be rewarded by achieving a reiteration.  This is particularly true when the child is shown unusual and suggestive dolls with disproportionately large penises and vaginas.

The misinterpretation of the child's account of a visit with father is the result of observer bias, ineptitude, frustration, and the like.  The riskiest area involves improper questioning technique.  Questioning is improper when it supplies new words or concepts which may elevate the child's level of sexual sophistication, or suggest details the child hadn't uttered.

The reinforcement of selected responses by reacting positively or negatively to the child's statements and the projection of the questioner's own emotions, fears and concerns, gives several messages to the child.  She learns that these things are expected and it is okay to say them.  She experiences that she will be rewarded with love, sympathy, and protection, on a personal level.  She is told that she will he helping daddy get needed "help" to prevent him from molesting again.

In the hostile context, particularly where the mother questions the child after every weekend visit with the father, such questioning can have an influential effect on the child in terms of her level of sexual sophistication.  It can also affect her willingness to take the mother's side in a fight where the custody of the child is the mother's desired goal, and perhaps eventually, the child's as well.

The critical factors comprising this risky scenario include the domination by one in a superior position over a weaker person who is dependent on the superior person for continued unpunished existence, and the essentials of life, such as food, shelter, clothing, and emotional peace, particularly the latter. Indoctrination through confrontive, suggestive questioning in a hostile and fearful context provides the necessary information.  This information is later repeated, orally or through drawings, dolls, or "play therapy" devices used to entice a child into reiterating what it is she is supposed to know.

A motive on the part of the stronger to resist losing the possession, loyalty, or control of the weaker represents domination over an enemy.  This, together with isolation and time to work on the dependent one, will result in a succumbing to the will of the stronger, a surrender, an accommodation.  This occurs when the ability to resist is worn down in the interest of surviving in peace.

How effective is this process?

This describes the Korean War situation which gave the term "brainwash" popular currency in 1952, when 22 American POWs, ranking as high as lieutenant colonel, denounced their mother country, turned coat, and refused repatriation.

Other examples: "Stockholm Syndrome," describing hostages of armed bank robbers who held them for several days in a vault while surrounded by police.  Several of the women "fell in love" with their captors.  One later married hers.

Patti Hearst: the kidnapped hostage of a terrorist group, held in isolation for long periods, beaten, and dominated, physically and emotionally, ultimately was "turned."  She then cooperated in their crimes, for which she was convicted of having participated of her own free will.  Her sentence was later commuted, I think, because of reasonable doubt that she really acted of her own free will.

Peaceful intact families, where each parent supports the other in the role of loving parent and protects the child's sense of emotional security, rarely produce children who falsely accuse of sexual molestation.  This is seen most often in warring families where one parent vies for the child's attention and love, and may use the child as a lever for the destruction of the other parent.

In a divorce, the elements of dependence, isolation, hostile context, bitterness, increasingly ruthless fighting, motivation, indoctrination, and time to take effect, are present along with the child's need to accommodate for the sake of emotional peace.  If the price of peace is the destruction of the father, it is not too high for a child disturbed from living in such an anxious, conflicted state, particularly where the mother represents the hope of refuge.

One would think that anything the child says in such a context would be treated as were the statements of the POWs, that is, brainwashed, coerced, not the product of free will, suspect, subject to confirmation by independent, dependable evidence before being accepted.  No corroboration, no faith.

This is not the invariable response.  Numerous are the examples of innocent accused fathers who liken their experience to the Salem witch-hunts, with good reason.

Later, the POWs returned, recanting and acknowledging the indoctrination problem.  Anne Putnam, in 1706, abjectly recanted her Salem witchcraft accusations, in writing and in public, attributing them to adult influence.  Even the judges recognized they had shed innocent blood and prayed forgiveness in their churches.

What stopped the Salem executions was the fact that the newly arrived governor's wife, Lady Phips, having expressed sympathy for the condemned, found herself accused by the children, following which her husband abolished the special court he had established to handle the outbreak of cases.  This effectively put a stop to the prosecutions which were increasingly being questioned as more and more people, mostly women, were being condemned.

In the outbreak we see today, the governor's wife has yet to be falsely accused.  We see sufficient numbers of ordinary people falsely accused to give rise to support groups protesting the medico-legal response to the phenomenon.

Weapons of Choice

In the divorce wars, each on the field of combat has a weapon of choice.

First I should note that I have never heard of a case in which a father sexually abused his child to get back at his ex-wife.  Incest is a differently motivated pathology entirely.  The typical male response to the provocation, frustration, and rage of divorce, is to drink or use violence against his wife, perhaps in the presence of the children, or both.

The wife's weapon of choice is not violence, but the child.  She gets back at the husband by depriving him of the only thing out of the broken marriage he dearly loves, the child.  The child is her leverage to insure cooperation and punishment for a recalcitrant and deserving husband.  If she can point out to the child examples of his misbehavior, she is well on her way toward succeeding in the alienation process.

The role of the mother in developing a false accusation may have causative factors in addition to her own hatred, spite, and desire for revenge.  She may feel guilty for some part she played in the breakup of the family.  She also may achieve three positive emotional gains by succeeding in developing an accusation out of the child's mouth:

First, she secures the "buying-in" of the child to her hostile view of the father.

Second, in the eyes of herself, the child, her family and friends, the mother goes up a peg and the father goes way down, because even if the accusation is not formally acted upon, the stigma becomes part of the family lore, and the father is always seen in some degree as being tainted.  I see this as an attempt to achieve a "status exchange."

Third, what do we naturally do when we feel guilty about something bad we've done?  We relieve the guilt by shifting the blame.  We point out someone who is even more blameworthy.

No matter what misconduct a woman is guilty of, from sex, to drugs, to child neglect, it is not as bad as child sexual molestation perpetrated by the father.  Guilt transference is the first resort of the scoundrel.

A hysterical mother, obsessed with the thought that her children may be victimized sexually by the hated father, is apt to go looking for signs where none exist, and find them anyway.  Experienced child protective service workers have come to expect mothers to bring young daughters in on Mondays following visitation, with redness, rash, or itching precisely because fathers sometimes avoid cleansing the child's vaginal area thoroughly because of a reluctance to touch there.

Psychiatrists are aware of cases in which two people, a mother and daughter, for example, feed off each other's mental abnormality such that they share the same delusions.  It is doubtful that the average child protective service worker or police investigator is competent to detect or rule out such a process during an intake interview.

In the divorce wars, the children's prime weapons are acting out, and accommodating.  No doubt there are many other behaviors as well.  Areas to be investigated to understand the child in a conflicted situation include the relationship to each parent, mental abnormality of the child or parent, conflict in loyalty towards each parent, anxiety over being separated from a different parent twice weekly over visitation, a sense of powerlessness, an undeveloped conscience, such that the child does not know the significance of unreal things spoken or acted out, and the normal attraction that a child has for the opposite-sex parent at various stages of development.  Finally, the child's stage of development, including the ability to accurately perceive, interpret, and recount circumstances of adult significance requires focused attention.

The Causes of the Failure to Detect False Reports

The myth current in Salem, Massachusetts, 1692, was that there was a devil who tormented children through adult intermediaries who were in league with him as witches.  Today's equally malefic myth is that repeated in the brochure of San Francisco General Hospital's child abuse intake unit termed CASARC, for Child-Adolescent Sexual Assault Resource Center.  SFGH is the publicly funded county hospital.  Its brochure states:

"Always believe the child who discloses sexual abuse.  Children NEVER lie about this problem" (Emphasis in original).

An attorney who fancies herself a "child-advocate" (self-proclaimed, often court appointed, and who is now a Juvenile Court referee with decision-making power over suspected cases of abuse) lectures "Children deserve to be believed."

Only truth deserves to be believed, and neither the children nor their advocates have a monopoly on it.  Nonsense to the contrary contributes to the failure to detect falsity even where there is a willingness to look competently, which is rare.

"Looking competently" is difficult to achieve.  It presupposes training.  It requires the opportunity to look, that is uncontaminated access to the child, the mother, and the father.  It requires hard work and a willingness to put aside bias, cant, and emotionalism.  Distractions such as laziness, politics, and lack of funding to provide the necessary time and manpower get in the way.

It is difficult to get at the facts by ordinary investigative means.  Often the facts are not properly developed.  The result is the failure to identify valid and invalid cases, and the tendency to treat more cases as valid than exist.

How bad are the rational failures of inept child-advocates?  I call it the trick mirror approach.  I see it in the arguments over the validity of cases.  The false premise is that the facts support the truth of the child's uncorroborated accusation, but if the facts are otherwise, the accusation is still true.


(1) Consistency in the repetition of the story indicates truthfulness, whereas inconsistency also indicates truthfulness, because the child is disturbed over having been molested.

(2) Timeliness in reporting the distressing event indicates truthfulness, whereas delay also indicates truthfulness, because the child is disturbed and thus reluctant to talk about the unpleasant event.

(3) The presence of graphic details indicates truthfulness whereas the absence of details also indicates truthfulness, for the same reason.

(4) That the child sticks to the story indicates truthfulness, whereas if the child recants, this also indicates truthfulness, because of the disturbing consequences of relating the traumatic experience.

On this latter point, I suspect that some children would sometimes like to extricate themselves from having made a false report, but are not permitted to do so.

(5) If the father confesses, the accusation is true; if he denies guilt, it is also true, because admitting guilt is too shameful in these cases.

Many people acknowledge wrongdoing, including men who have molested children.  There is no reliable study concluding that there is a greater reluctance in these cases than others.  You would expect an innocent man to deny wrongdoing.  That is what you would do if you were falsely accused of anything.

Compounding all of the above difficulties in thinking clearly, California has enacted a statute, and its courts interpret it in a manner insuring that a competent investigation not only will not be performed by the authorities, but will not be permitted on behalf of an innocent accused.

The statute, California Penal Code 1112, was enacted at the urging of women's rights organizations to protect rape victims from being compelled to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, on the ground that it was intrusive, and that men who brought criminal charges were not compelled to undergo the same.  This statute is now applied to prohibit a child psychiatrist or psychologist from interviewing the child in a maternally developed, uncorroborated, charge of incest brought by a child as young as age four, even where obvious signs of disturbance can be cited as preceding the accusation on the part of both the mother and the child.

Not the least of the rational problem areas is the tendency, perhaps unintentionally, to shift the burden of proof to the accused father and to expect him to explain how the mother could have induced the child to so testify, while at the same time not permitting him competent access to the child or the mother.

Prosecutors say, "This kid is good, she couldn't be making this up, she couldn't know about these things."  She could if she were asked about it by the mother.  The mother's denial should be taken skeptically.  In divorce cases, undue influence should be presumed until eliminated factually.

Police and prosecutors ask suspects if they will take a polygraph examination.  If the authorities have to ask, they are acknowledging doubt and they need to prove the case out of the suspect's mouth.  It is not a burden he should willingly shoulder.

There is the tendency to lower the burden of proof to mere nothingness, to have intake workers testify as to what they think they recall the child was saying, in order to spare the supposedly molested child the "additional" trauma of testifying in court, or confronting the person she accuses.

Until these problems are effectively dealt with, we'll see many more false cases before the Governor's wife is accused and a stop is put to the child molestation witch-hunts that crop up with increasing frequency.

I suggest that if the emotionalism is recognized, and put aside, as we focus on a rational, analytical approach, we can distinguish the valid from the invalid cases, and bring fewer false charges.

Thomas Brattle, of Brattleboro, Massachusetts in 1692 was the first to proclaim that innocent blood had been shed.  Shortly after Increase Mather, president of Harvard College, wrote A Case of Conscience, declaring his misgivings about the accusations and what served as proof of them.  In it he uttered his famous dictum: "It were better that a hundred witches go free than one innocent person be condemned."

The prosecution and the removal of a father from his child on the basis of the reasoning criticized here is the shedding of innocent blood.  When a father has been put in jeopardy of his liberty, and wrongfully deprived of seeing his child for years, innocent blood has been shed when the falsity could have been discovered beforehand, but was not.

Selected Bibliography on the Salem Experience

Aymar, B., & Sagarin, E. (1967). Salem witchcraft. In A Pictorial History of the World's Great Trials (Out of Print)(Out of Print) (Chapter 7). New York: Bonanza Books.

Boyer, P., & Nissenbaum, S. (1974). Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Hardcover)(Paperback). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Hansen, C. (1969). Witchcraft at Salem (Hardcover)(Paperback). New York: George Braziller, Inc.

Karlsen, C. F. (1987). The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (Hardcover)(Paperback). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

MacFarlane, A. (1970). Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (Paperback Reprint edition). New York: Harper and Row.

Starkey, M. L. (1949). The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (Hardcover)(Paperback). New York: Time Incorporated, Book Division.

The Salem Witchcraft Papers (3 vols.) (Out of Print) (1977). New York: Da Capo Press. (Verbatim transcripts of the legal documents of the Salem witchcraft outbreak of 1692. Compiled 1938 by the Works Progress Administration. Edited and with Introduction and Index by P. Boyer and S. Nissenbaum.)

Thomas, K. (1971). Religion and the Decline of Magic (Paperback Reprint edition). London.

Upham, C. W. (1959) (2 Vols. Reprint edition). Salem Witchcraft (Hardcover)(Paperback). New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. American Classics Edition. First published 1867.

Weissman, R. (1984). Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th Century Massachusetts (Paperback). Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press.

* Robert Sheridan is an attorney and can be contacted at 735 Montgomery Street, Suite 210, San Francisco, CA 94111.  [Back]

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