Sexual Abuse Prevention Programs: Can They Cause False Allegations?1
James J. Krivacska*
ABSTRACT: Current child sexual abuse programs may promote the
perception in many nonabused children that they have been abused.
This paper demonstrates how false allegations arising from CSAP programs
are inevitable and gives several anecdotal examples. The problem may
be especially serious when a child is involved in a divorce and custody
situation. Approaches to reducing false allegations are discussed.
The 1980s saw an explosion of reports of sexual abuse of children borne
largely out of increased public awareness and acceptance of the occurrence
of such abuse, and more aggressive identification and investigation
tactics of child protection agencies. With reported prevalence rates
in the adult population as high as 38% of all adult women (abused prior to
age 18), prevention of child sexual abuse has taken on a crisis
perspective, despite the lack of hard data supporting either the reality
of such high rates, or the effectiveness of prevention measures.
The proliferation of child sexual abuse prevention programs has led
many authors to suggest the need to critically analyze and evaluate the
effects and effectiveness of such programs (Gilbert, Berrick, Le Prohn
& Nyman, 1989; Kraizer, 1986; Leventhal, 1987). A detailed
review and critique of current approaches to child sexual abuse prevention
is not possible here and the interested reader is referred to several
other works which provide such an analysis (Gilbert, et al., 1989;
Krivacska, 1990a; Reppucci & Haugaard, 1989).
Within the past few years, concern has arisen over the potential for
some accusations of sexual abuse to be false, particularly when evolving
from a divorce or custody dispute. Gardner (1987a) describes in
considerable detail factors which may contribute to the likelihood that an
allegation of sexual abuse is false. In fact, Gardner developed a
rating scale which may be used by an evaluator to ascertain the likelihood
that a given allegation is true or false (1987b). Of the reports
made of child abuse, perhaps the largest proportion consists of those in
which a determination as to whether abuse actually occurred could not be
made (Besharov, 1986).
Relatively little, however, has been written about child sexual abuse
prevention programs and the potential such programs might have for
generating false allegations of sexual abuse. This paper suggests
that such potential is very real and may promote, in many children, the
perception that they have been or are being abused when, in reality, such
abuse is not occurring.
Many professionals have difficulty accepting that such an outcome may
result from child sexual abuse prevention (CSAP) programs, particularly
given what appears to be a good deal of face validity to the
programs. However, the face validity of many programs is based on an
adult perspective of sexual abuse and derives from adult models of rape
prevention and empowerment (Tharinger,. Krivacska, Laye-McDonough,
Jamison, Vincent & Hedlund, 1988; Swift & Levin; 1987); a model
which makes no sense when applied to children. Additionally, CSAP
programs frequently ignore critical developmental issues (particularly for
young children) in the areas of cognition, language, concept formation,
learning styles, perception, perspective taking, morality and sexuality
CSAP Programs as Identification Instruments
From their inception, the overall focus of sexual abuse prevention
programs has been prevention, not identification of abuse (Anderson,
1986). Unfortunately, CSAP programs as they are currently being designed
and implemented are highly unlikely to prevent any sexual abuse of
children. Most such programs teach children about their bodies and their
right to refuse touch which invades their privacy. Typically this
message is conveyed in one way or another as "No one should touch
your private parts except for medical or hygienic reasons."
Children are taught various actions to take should someone attempt to
touch their genitals, undress them, or engage in some other statutorily
prohibited sexual behavior between an adult and a child.
The CSAP programs consider a child interrupting and reporting such
abuse as preventive. However, the sexually abusive approach (whether
it be verbal solicitation or physical contact) is itself an abusive
act. While possibly less serious than if the abusive act had
continued without interruption, a child who has been approached in a
sexually abusive way has been sexually abused (with the approach itself, a
prosecutable offense). True prevention requires that the child not
be approached in a sexual manner.
Some authors have spoken of increasing a child's competence (Finkelhor
refers to it as the front of invulnerability) so that the child is less
likely to be approached in a sexually abusive manner. A program
which promotes such invulnerability or competence may be considered a
primary prevention program. However, a program which teaches
children how to respond after having been approached or experiencing the
initial stages of sexual abuse is not a prevention program, but an
identification program. In all such programs, the child is
instructed to tell someone of the abuse, another indication that such
programs serve primarily the purpose of early identification.
Once one accepts the conclusion that CSAP programs serve an early
identification purpose, the next question is the accuracy of these
programs as identification devices. Specifically, all identification
or assessment devices have a known or unknown error rate. As an
identification device, CSAP programs may result in one of four outcomes.
1. The child may accurately discriminate a sexually abusive event as
sexually abusive (true positive);
2. The child may inaccurately discriminate a nonsexually abusive event
as sexually abusive (false positive);
3. The child may accurately discriminate a non-sexually abusive event
as nonabusive (true negative);
4. The child may inaccurately discriminate a sexually abusive event as
nonabusive (false negative).
The probability of each of these four results occurring may be
statistically determined using a classification decision model (Wakefield
& Underwager, 1988) and is linked to the accuracy of the
identification instrument (in this case the CSAP Program) and the base
rate of the event to be discriminated (in this case the incidence rate of
child sexual abuse). Base rates of sexual abuse have remained an
area of controversy for some time. For the sake of this
illustration, a base rate of 15% will be assumed. It is impossible
at this time to determine how accurate CSAP programs are as identification
instruments, however, two estimates will be compared. The first,
80%, represents an extremely high accuracy rate (exceeding that of many,
more standardized psychological measures), and the second rate, 60%, is
more likely consistent with reality. Given these two variables, two
tables can be designed illustrating the probability of a child correctly
discriminating an event.
As the tables illustrate, with an 80% accuracy rate CSAP programs will
generate slightly more false positives than true positives. In other
words, slightly more children are likely to misperceive a non-sexually
abusive event as sexually abusive than correctly perceive a sexually
abusive event as sexually abusive. When one assumes a 60% accuracy rate,
nearly four times as many children will misperceive a non-sexually abusive
incident as abusive than will correctly perceive a sexually abusive
While the actual degree of false positives is hard to determine given
lack of validated data on either incidence rates or accuracy rates of CSAP
programs, false positives will inevitably occur. This leads to two
questions: 1) What factors contribute to the degree to which CSAP programs
assist children in making accurate discriminations of adult behavior, and
2) Why has there not been a torrent of allegations arising from CSAP
programs (most of which, by this analysis, would be false).
With respect to the second question, one needs to once again consider
incidence and prevalence rates.
For example, to sustain a prevalence rate of 15% (of adults abused as
children) in the adult population, the yearly incidence rate of sexual
abuse must be at approximately 1% of the total childhood population.
New Jersey as an example, in 1988 there were approximately 1,500,000
children under the age of 18 in New Jersey (New Jersey State Department of
Education, 1989). In that same year, the Division of Youth and Family
Services (the state child protection agency responsible for investigating
child abuse allegations) substantiated 1,681 reports of sexual abuse (Leusner,
1990) representing .1% of all children in New Jersey. To sustain an adult
prevalence rate of 15%, however, would have required approximately 15,000
cases of sexual abuse. Thus, one might argue that only 1 in 10 cases of
sexual abuse is being reported in New Jersey. Two characteristics of the
1,681 substantiated cases need to be pointed out. First, DYFS data does
not permit an analysis of how many of the 1,681 resulted from a child
making a complaint, and second, the cases reported to DYFS are likely to
be the more severe, long-standing forms of sexual abuse.
With regard to false positives resulting from CSAP programs, one should
not conclude (in the case of 60% accuracy) that 60% of child reports of
abuse will be false (340 of 430 reports made). In reality, many children
will self-identify as being abused and choose not to report (for both the
true positive and false positive conditions). These rates apply only to
the child's self-identification, and do not infer a one-to-one
correspondence between that self-identification and actual reports made.
Given that most children who are sexually
abused make no report of that event, it is just as likely that children
who are not sexually abused but believe they might have been would also
rarely make a report.
Anecdotal examples of false positives are beginning to be collected and
span a wide range of childhood experiences. Kraizer (1986) reports a case
of a child who chastised his father for patting him on the behind as he
went up to bed, because the child had learned that the buttocks were a
private part of the body. I have received numerous reports, including one
of a school teacher who described two of her first grade students coming
to her after attending a sexual abuse prevention program, and confiding to
her that they had been "sexually abusing" each other, because
they had, on occasion, engaged in peer sex play with one another. They
were now reporting the "abuse" as required by the program.
Another parent reported that her six-year-old daughter came to her in
hysterics after being tickled by her three-year-old brother. She had been
taught in school that tickling could be bad touch, and that she was to
report any bad touches to the school. She was frightened that she might be
taken away from her mother if she reported this "bad touch" as
required by the school program. Each of these stories, and the many
others that have arisen from CSAP programs, represent a false positive in
which the CSAP program has served an identification function.
What factors contribute to the degree of accuracy of CSAP programs as
identification instruments? False positives result from two phenomena,
misinformation and misinterpretation (Krivacska, 1989). When a CSAP
program presents information which is inaccurate, vague or misleading, or
which is presented in a manner inconsistent with the child's developmental
levels, misinformation has occurred. Concepts commonly found in CSAP
programs include the Touch Continuum, Secrecy, Intuition, Body Rights,
Empowerment, Preventive actions, and Telling (Conte, Rosen, Saperstein,
& Shermack, 1985; Tharinger, et al., 1988). Most of these concepts are
poorly conceptualized and defined, lack discriminative capacity, and are
grounded in false assumptions about children's capabilities (Tharinger, et
For example, empowerment theory has been applied to child sexual abuse
prevention. However, empowerment implies choice, responsibility and
competence (Dunst & Trivette, 1987; Fox, 1984; Rappaport, 1981).
programs proscribe any choice (the child is told what to do), presume
competency (even for three and four year olds), and deny responsibility
(the child is not at fault for either the abuse or the child's failure to prevent it).
Furthermore, the attempt at empowering children
places the child in the position of having to contend with a world which
does not recognize empowered children. To ask a child who has been
spanked, as one CSAP program does, to confront his or her parents and tell
them they should not spank him or her, is asking too much of a child and
places responsibility for empowering children on the child (Krivacska,
Misinterpretation may arise from several sources, including limited
cognitive development, poor instruction on the part of the trainer or
teacher, and limited understanding of sexuality. With respect to the
latter, most CSAP programs assiduously avoid any mention or reference to
sex. Contrary to what many in the field propose, child sexual abuse is not
borne of power inequities between adult males and children, but of a
sexual disturbance on the part of the perpetrator. In an adaption of
theoretical models of rape, attempts have been made to explain sexual
abuse of children by arguing that such abuse represents an adult's
exercise of power over a child with sex as a tool. There are no research
data to support this assumption. Empirical evidence on perpetrators
clearly indicates that the overriding motivation for the abusive act is
sexual, with power as the tool for gratifying sexual needs (Krivacska,
Consequently, sexual abuse is abuse of a child's sexuality and the use
of a child's sexuality to satisfy adult needs. In an attempt to avoid
controversy over sex education, CSAP programs are trying to teach children
about abuse without talking about what it is that is being abused. Children are sexual beings and have sexual feelings and experiences.
Research dating back to the 1940s clearly demonstrates that children have
sexual lives (Gebhardt & Johnson, 1979; Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin,
1948; Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin & Gebhardt, 1953; Reevy, 1973). Ignorance of this fact poses a great danger to children exposed to sexual
abuse prevention programs. Rarely is any attempt made to distinguish
sexual abuse from such normative behaviors as masturbation, peer sex
exploration, or non-sexual incidental genital contact with adults. Consequently it is not surprising that anecdotal reports, such as the two
first grade boys "confessing" to having "sexually
abused" each other, are occurring.
Implications of CSAP Programs as Identification Instruments in Divorce
or Custody Cases
When a child thinks that he or she may have been abused by an adult,
the child is engaging in a first level screening of adult behavior. Thus, children are being given a primary
responsibility to screen adult behavior and determine what is abusive and
what is not.
The implicit and, at times, explicit assumption of CSAP programs, is
that the first level screening by children should be considered accurate;
that children will not lie about abuse (Stone, 1986). Ignored, however, is
the issue of whether a child can make a mistake, with the consequence that
all reports must be taken at face value. Furthermore, this view ignores
the possibility that a child may be questioning an ambiguous behavior
which may or may not be abusive.
Adults receiving reports of child abuse from the child represent a
second level of screening of child abuse. However, in theory, virtually no
screening takes place since judgments are not permitted at this level of
investigation. In most states, child abuse reporting laws specify that
adults receiving initial reports of child abuse are not to make judgments
or attempt to investigate the merits of the accusation, but rather make a
direct referral to the local Child Protective Services (CPS) agency.
in theory, adults to whom a child has raised the issue of abuse (based on
confusion over ambiguous contact) are required to report the alleged abuse
rather than working with the child to clarify whether the child's
experience constituted abuse. Therefore, both true and false allegations
are frequently passed on unchanged to the third level of screening, the
The reliability of the screening that takes place at the first level
(the child making a determination as to the intent of an adult's behavior)
is sufficiently low so as to result in a substantial number of false
accusations by children. In reality, we know that second level screeners
(frequently teacher and parents) do indeed make judgments which reduce the
number of referrals to level three (CPS). However, there is at this time
no research or evidence to suggest whether true cases of abuse are more
likely to be let through and false allegations to be caught at that level,
or whether true accusations and false accusations are equally likely to be
passed along. In other words, there is currently no information about the
reliability of screening and identification of abuse at the second level
either. In either event, a number of false allegations will clearly be
passed on to the CPS agencies.
When a child is involved in a divorce or custody case, the role of the
parent as a second level screener takes on a different meaning. Frequently
such parents, particularly mothers, rather than screening out ambiguous
experiences prior to CPS referral, may act upon vague statements from a
child about a very ambiguous contact. Their actions may include both a
report to CPS and the reinforcement (to the child) of the view that he or
she was indeed abused (rather than providing the clarification which the child may have sought).
process by which this has been observed to occur has been detailed
elsewhere (Gardner, 1987a).
Conclusions and Recommendations
As long as CSAP programs are going to serve either the implicit or
explicit function of identification, they will result in false accusations
of child abuse. It is often argued that it is better to have more false
positives than false negatives when you deal with an issue so critical to
a child's well being as child abuse. However, that does not absolve one of
the responsibility of doing whatever is possible to reduce the number of
false positives that are encountered. Several factors inherent in CSAP
programs are apt to increase the likelihood of false allegations without
any appreciable gain in the reduction of the number of false negatives.
CSAP program developers would do well to consider what we know of child
development and learning theory and engage in systematic and rigorous
evaluation of their programs to determine the impact they are having on
children and correct any misinterpretations that may arise as a result of
the CSAP programs. The main sources of such misinterpretations should be
especially targeted for modification. Reduction in the use of abstract and
vaguely defined concepts, abandonment of the empowerment model applied to
children, incorporation of age-appropriate sex education, and honest
communication of benefits and risks inherent in CSAP programs to parents
and program users (schools, in particular) will go a long way toward
reducing the likelihood of a false allegation arising from a CSAP program.
Most sources of misinformation in CSAP programs protect or insulate the
program from criticisms by parents (the avoidance of use of sexual
terminology in order to avert labeling of CSAP programs as sex education),
or an abdication of adult responsibility (to bring about the changes
necessary in society to promote overall child welfare). The placement of
such a burden on children is unjustifiable, and will ultimately damage
children and hamper efforts to prevent abuse of children.
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