Child Sexual Abuse Allegations: Investigative Approaches and Identifying Alternative Hypotheses

Lawrence W. Daly*

ABSTRACT: Child sexual abuse cases require a creative, thorough, and objective approach.  Preexisting biases, however, often result in misdirected and inadequate investigations that do not serve the interests of either the child or the accused.  A systematic consideration of alternative hypotheses will facilitate a responsible and careful investigation that provides accurate and helpful information.

Developing a broader perspective, understanding and approach to an allegation of child abuse is difficult.  A common downfall is a lack of objectivity and the failure to consider, explore, eliminate and choose the hypothesis which best fits the data.  Investigators often fail to understand the circumstances surrounding the allegation, the reasonableness of the alleged acts, and the numerous alternative hypotheses.

Many professionals think that considering all alternative hypotheses is not necessary since the child's statements are credible and thus sufficient.  This naive belief is one of the major causes of false allegations.  No possibilities, leads, facts, issues, or suggestions from others should be overlooked.  Since the crimes of sexual and physical abuse of children are serious and the punishments severe, a haphazard, inadequate, or simplistic investigation is detrimental to both the child and the accused.

In order to approach any case, the investigator must have a thorough understanding of all relevant facts and issues.  Failure to obtain, review and understand the general to specific information about a case will likely lead to a misdirected investigation without integrity, quality, innovation or depth.

Reviewing the Case Facts and Issues

The investigator should take the following steps before determining which investigative approaches are necessary:

Carefully interview the reporting party concerning what knowledge and understanding he or she has about the facts and issues.
Obtain any and all documents the reporting party may have about the case.
Obtain, review, identify, and understand what information individuals may have about the case.
Obtain, review and understand any resources that are readily accessible.
After the above is completed, reexamine all the information obtained to date.

After completing this initial discovery phase of the case facts and issues, the initial approach to the case in chief is planned.

Case Analysis and Case Action Plan

A careful case analysis is necessary for an effective and successful investigation.  The case analysis gives the investigator and client a breakdown of the case and identifies areas that should be addressed.  It provides a basic understanding of how the case looks after the persons, records, and issues are identified.  Anyone should be able to pick up the case analysis and, upon reading it, understand the key aspects of the case.

The categories generally utilized in a child abuse allegation are:

bulletOther Witnesses
bulletChild Protective Services
bulletPolice Personnel
bulletFoster Homes
bulletMedical Personnel
bulletDay Cares
bulletSuggestions and Approaches (Case Action Plan)

Once the case analysis has been completed, the case action plan is developed.  The case action plan prioritizes the specific tasks and general investigative approaches documented during the review of the case.  It is used in developing the alternative hypotheses and approaches to the case in chief.

Hypotheses/Approach: The Need to Look for Alternatives

In the past decade, many professionals maintained that children do not lie about sexual abuse and do not have the knowledge to provide details of sexual behavior unless they have been abused.  These simplistic beliefs are not supported by empirical evidence.  They exist among professionals who have limited investigative experience and knowledge and a perspective that lacks objectivity about children's abilities as witnesses.  Such beliefs will result in omission of important information and mistaken conclusions about the case.

Each alleged crime of child physical and sexual abuse is unique.  Because of the individual characteristics of each case, the investigative methods must be creative and cover every aspect of the general and specific allegations.  The investigator should begin formulating hypotheses and approaches from the beginning and continue until each piece of information, element, issue, and fact concerning the allegations has been obtained, identified and corroborated.  Failure to use innovative and creative approaches and ignoring other possibilities and explanations is simply dangerous and likely to lead to a conclusion based on opinions and preexisting biases rather than on fact.

It is not the job of the investigator to be judge or jury, but rather to gather and document information.  It is not the role of the investigator to determine which of the final hypotheses is the "correct" one; this ultimate question is the function of the finder of fact.  The role of the investigator is to look at all reasonable hypotheses and provide information concerning how well they fit the available facts.  Understanding this will provide a check and balance system that will reduce the potential for reaching conclusions based on hunches, opinions, and biases rather than providing helpful information based on careful fact-finding methods and creative techniques.

Defining a Hypothesis

The investigator must learn the basic elements of a hypothesis and an approach. A "hypothesis" is defined as:

An assertion subject to verification or proof, as:
A proposition stated as a basis for argument or reasoning.
A premise from which a conclusion is drawn.
A conjecture that accounts, within a theory or set of coherent beliefs, for a set of facts and that can be used as a basis for further investigation.
An assumption used as the basis for action.

Defining an Approach

An "approach" is defined as:

bulletTo come near or nearer in space, time, or magnitude.
bulletTo come close to in appearance, quality, condition, or other characteristics; approximate.
bulletTo make a proposal to; make overtures to.
bulletTo begin to deal with or work on.
bulletTo bring or draw closer.
bulletThe method used to deal with or work on.
bulletThe method used in dealing with or accomplishing something.
bulletA way or means of reaching someone or a destination; an access.

Three Phases of Hypotheses

There are three phases the investigator must process through before coming to the final hypothesis.  These three phases are the initial, alternative and final hypotheses.

The Initial Hypotheses and Approach to the Case

In order to properly approach a case, many hypotheses must be identified and prioritized before creating a specific approach and case action plan. Steps to be followed to develop hypotheses are:

Review all the materials in reference to the case in chief.
Identify all of the sources of information through all of the resources identified in the case analysis.
Set in motion basic investigative responsibilities such as obtaining backgrounds on the alleged victim, witnesses, professionals, and listed experts.
Identify and evaluate the position of the opposing party and the experts. Consider and compare this to the evaluation and approach of the case.
Understand completely what acts are being alleged by the opposing party. Once these acts are identified, the hypotheses should begin to form.

The initial hypotheses provide multiple avenues, choices, and theories to begin the investigation. This should be the staring point for a creative and imaginative structuring of ideas and hunches that are either supported or refuted by the facts of the case.

Alternative Hypotheses

The alternative hypotheses create avenues for exploring other possibilities that have developed as the initial hypotheses either gain strength or are eliminated.  Although alternative hypotheses are often overlooked, they are crucial in the evaluation and examination of the evidence.  During this stage, the investigator should begin eliminating unsupported hypotheses and build upon those that do have support.

The original case action plan must be reexamined in terms of the information that has been gathered to date.  A revised case action plan should then be organized and put into place.

Final Hypotheses

The final hypotheses complete the investigation.  The process of elimination that began with the alternative hypotheses now comes to a conclusion.  The relevant facts will have passed through the building and balancing stages and either created final hypotheses or completely eliminated from consideration the initial theory of the case in chief.  The investigator may be torn between many hypotheses, but the case theory should be limited to one or two hypotheses.  This is not as easy task.

Checks and Balance — Methods to Keep the Investigator Focused on the Facts

Throughout the three hypotheses phases, there must be a systematic way to ensure that the hypotheses under consideration are based on supported material and relevant information rather than on preconceived biases.  This entire process must take place with an open mind.  The hypotheses created must be examined with "the reasonable man standard" — that is, if the hypotheses are reasonable and make sense, it is likely that most reasonable individuals presented with the facts would agree that the approach and hypotheses are proper. The hypotheses should be examined with the following criteria:

1.     Objectivity: The hypotheses must be approached with an open mind.  An objective investigation promotes reasonableness, integrity, and credibility.  The mission is one of finding facts rather than of confirming preconceived ideas.
2. General to specific ideas: The hypotheses should first be identified, developed, and considered from the most general information, facts, and issues.  The specific information, facts, and issues should then be considered.
3. From everyone's viewpoint: The hypotheses should be seen through the eyes of all of the witnesses experts and opposing counsel.  The investigator should ask:
bulletIs it reasonable what the witnesses allege they know, saw, felt or heard?
bulletDoes the information being provided by the witnesses ring true?
bulletDoes the information make sense?  Is it logical?
bulletIs the information consistent with the information, facts, and issues?
4. The full circle: The process of elimination should narrow the focus to one or two hypotheses, moving towards the center of a circle.  This approach eliminates, adds, and reduces all the possibilities and explanations.  This should be seen as moving from left to right, corner to corner, ultimately advancing to the middle of the circle, which should contain the final hypothesis.
5. Intellectual honesty — built in checks and balances: The case must be an honest evaluation of the information, facts, and issues.  If a check and balance system is not incorporated, the investigator may fall victim to preconceived biases and ideas.
6. Thoroughness: Each hypothesis must be explored thoroughly.  The above criteria are useful in creating and eliminating hypotheses until one or two final hypotheses are determined to be the most reasonable.

Three Case Studies

Read each of the following cases and create initial hypotheses, alternative hypotheses, final hypotheses and a case action plan.  While you are reading the case studies, be creative and force yourself to come up with your own hypotheses about what may be the bases for the allegations.  Even if your initial hypothesis appears compelling, still go through the steps of considering all possible alternatives.

Case Study #1

Jamie is a 5-year-old female.  She is a possible victim of sexual abuse.  The alleged perpetrator is her father.  The following is a summary of the case facts:

Jamie's father and mother have been married for ten years.  The relationship appears to be amicable.  Recently, there have been several arguments between Jamie's parents about the hours Jamie's father is spending at work.  Although both parents work, Jamie's father has been working a lot of overtime lately.  He states that the overtime is mandatory.  Jamie's mother calls her husband's employer and ascertains that he has not been putting in the hours he has claimed he has been putting in.  Jamie's mother thinks back to the past few weeks and realizes that her husband has been coming home with alcohol on his breath.  The other thing she remembers is waking up and finding her husband in bed with Jamie without any clothes on.  She thought that Jamie's behavior had been peculiar since that night.

An interview of Jamie by her mother occurs.  In the interview Jamie alleges that her father touched her on the outside of her pajamas in the vaginal area on the evening he slept with her.  She states the touching woke her up.  She told her mother when she woke up to the touching, she rolled over and went back to sleep.

At this point the mother stopped the interview and called the police.  Jamie's father is contacted at work by the police.  He denies that he ever sexually touched his daughter and that the charges are ridiculous.

Based on the above case facts, what hypotheses and ultimate approach would you most likely take in reference to this case? Possible hypotheses and approaches are:

Initial Hypotheses and Questions to be Investigated

bulletJamie's father may have sexually molested her.
bulletWhy didn't the mother recognize the alcohol on her husband's breath until after finding him in bed with her daughter?
bulletThere is a possibility that the father is having an affair.  Otherwise why would he have to lie?
bulletThe father was drunk.  Did he know what was going on and did he touch his daughter?
bulletSomething else happened with Jamie.
bulletThe father is lying for a reason.  Which reason and why?
bulletThe father was drunk and touched his daughter while intoxicated.  Accident only, not sexual in intent.
bulletThe father was drunk and touched his daughter sexually.
bulletJamie is mad because her father spends so little time with her so she made up the touching.
bulletThe mother suspects the father of having an affair and is trying to punish him so she made this up.
bulletNothing happened in bed.
bulletThe mother found her husband in bed with Jamie and is afraid something happened so she pressured Jamie to make allegations.
bulletThe mother is jealous because her husband doesn't spend much time with her so she is trying to get back at him.

Case Action Plan (Approach)

bulletConduct a background check on both parents.
bulletInterview neighbor(s).
bulletInterview the father's employer.
bulletDetermine where the father had been drinking.
bulletInterview the bar to determine how much he drank and the time span.
bulletDraw up a chart of events.
bulletDetermine when all of this began, i.e. drinking, coming home late, touching incident.
bulletMake diagram of the bedroom.
bulletInterview the child.
bulletDetermine alcohol level of father.
bulletDetermine what the arguments/conflicts were about.
bulletDetermine the peculiar behavior of Jamie.
bulletDetermine when the father went to bed prior to the incident.
bulletInterview the employer of the mother.
bulletInterview teachers or day care.
bulletInterview anyone to whom the child disclosed the information.
bulletInterview friends of the child.
bulletHave the child medically examined.
bulletObtain all of the family's medical records.
bulletObtain all of the family's counseling records.
bulletGet sexual deviance evaluation for father.
bulletGet psychological evaluation for mother and Jamie.
bulletInterview other siblings or relatives.

Alternative Hypotheses

bulletJamie could have been sexually touched at school, or by neighbors, uncle or cousins.
bulletNothing happened.
bulletFather touched her vaginal area by mistake.
bulletFather has a severe alcohol problem.
bulletMother was sexually abused and is overly suspicious.
bulletMother suffers from psychiatric disorder and misinterprets events.

Most likely Final Hypotheses

bulletThe father is having an affair and the mother wants to punish him, or the husband is lying for a reason.
bulletThe father is innocent.
bulletThe father has an alcohol problem.
bulletThe father committed the sexual abuse.

Case Study #2

Sally is a 9-year-old female.  She is alleging that her neighbor and best friend's father sexually assaulted her.  The following is a summary of the case facts:

Sally lives next door to her best friend Sara.  They have been best friends since Sally moved into the neighborhood three years ago.  Sally generally spends the majority of her time at Sarah's house.  Sarah's father generally arrives home before Sally leaves for home.

There have been no arguments between Sally and Sarah's father and there have been no incidents of negative discipline.

A week ago Sally was playing with her friend Jean at her house.  They were in Sally's bedroom playing with their Barbies.  As Sally's mother walked past the bedroom door, she heard Sally tell Jean that Sarah's father is a rapist.  After Jean went home, Sally's mother brought her into her bedroom and asked her why she thought Sarah's father was a rapist.  Sally began to cry.  Sally's mother asked Sally if Sarah's father had touched her inappropriately.  Sally said, "He touched me in my private area."  At this time Sally's mom told her she was proud of her for telling her and that they needed to tell someone who could protect her and Sarah.  Sally and her mother went to the police station and Sally was interviewed by the police.  Sarah's father was contacted by the police and denied all of the charges.

Based on the above case facts, what hypotheses and ultimate approach would you most likely take in reference to this case? Possible hypotheses and approaches are:

Initial Hypotheses and Questions to be Investigated

bulletSarah's father did sexually molest Sally.
bulletSarah's father molested Sarah and Sarah told Sally about it.
bulletSarah's father molested Sarah in front of Sally.
bulletSally made the story up.
bulletSomeone else molested Sally and she is afraid to say who did it so she blamed Sarah's father.
bulletSally's father sexually molested Sally.
bulletA male relative of Sally's molested her.
bulletA male friend or relative of Sarah's father molested Sarah, who told Sally about it.
bulletSally's mother stated that she was proud of Sally for her telling her about the incident therefore making Sally feel good about what she did.
bulletSally stated that Sarah's father is a rapist when most likely she doesn't understand exactly what occurs in a rape.
bulletThe mother immediately asked if she was touched inappropriately instead of getting Sally's response first.
bulletWhy did Sally disclose such information to Jean?
bulletWhat does Sally think a rapist is?
bulletWhy did Sally state that Sarah's father was a rapist?

Case Action Plan (Approach)

bulletDo a background check on Sally's parents.
bulletConduct a search for prior residences and interview neighbors.
bulletIndicate the workplace of Sally's parents.
bulletConduct a child interview of (indicate facts):


bulletIndicate whether Sally has had prior counseling.
bulletMake a diagram of the room.
bulletArrange for a medical exam, depending on length of time.
bulletConduct interviews of old and new neighbors of Sally's.
bulletIndicate movies that Sally's family views.
bulletConduct interviews of Jean's and Sarah's families.
bulletConduct interviews of work associates for both parents.
bulletIdentify the time span of how long they were together each day.
bulletIdentify if the father and Sally were ever alone.
bulletIdentify how many children were present after school with her every day.
bulletSpeak with teachers (old and new) of Sally.
bulletObtain school records.
bulletIndicate why Sally's parents moved.
bulletIndicate whether Sally's parents ever have had counseling.
bulletDo a pattern of growing up:

Parents divorced?
Lives with what parents?
Has she ever run away or thought about it?
Was she ever a victim in the past?
Has she ever alleged this before?

bulletDetermine exactly to whom Sally first disclosed the information.
bulletDetermine if Sally has ever sexually acted out.
bulletDetermine what time Sally and Sarah get out of school.  What tasks do they perform when they get home?

Alternative Hypotheses

bulletSally thought her mother wanted her to say she had been touched.
bulletSarah's mother wanted revenge and told Sally to say these things.
bulletSally has seen her parents' pornographic videos and is parroting what she heard.
bulletSally has been reading books about rapists.
bulletSarah's father is guilty.
bulletSarah fabricated the story.
bulletThe initial interview was suggestive and leading, causing an unintentional false disclosure.

Final Hypotheses

bulletSally was molested by Sarah's father.
bulletThe initial interview conducted by Sally's mother was suggestive and leading, causing an unintentional false disclosure.

Case Study #3

Katrina is a 13-year-old female.  She is alleging she was sexually assaulted by two brothers who picked her up hitchhiking.  The following is a summary of the case facts:

Katrina was picked up by two brothers, Mike and Bill, as she walked east on Portland Blvd.  She willingly got into the truck and was driven to the home of three of her girlfriends.  At the girlfriends' house, she picks up clothing and tries to get one of her girlfriends to come with her.  This does not happen.

She was ultimately and voluntarily taken to Mike and Bill's house, where she drank three wine coolers and several glasses of hard liquor.

She was a runaway and had been so for three days prior to Mike and Bill picking her up.

At bedtime, she went to Mike's room and slept with him.  She alleges that she was forced to have sexual intercourse with Mike.

After they had sexual intercourse, she alleges she was taken into Bill's bedroom where Mike put her into bed with Bill.

She said, she fell asleep but awoke to Bill having sexual intercourse with her.

She then fell back to sleep.  She awoke the next morning, took a shower and was taken to school.  Later that afternoon she reported to her school counselor that she had been raped by Mike and Bill.

Based on the above case facts, what hypotheses and ultimate approach would you most likely take in reference to this case? Possible hypotheses and approaches are:

Initial Hypotheses and Questions to be Investigated

bulletKatrina voluntarily had sex with both Mike and Bill and then felt bad about it afterwards.
bulletKatrina was raped by Mike both times but was too drunk to know who she was with the second time.
bulletKatrina consented to sex with Mike the first time and Mike raped her the second time.
bulletKatrina didn't have sex with either Mike or Bill but made the story up to get attention from her family.
bulletKatrina was in trouble at school and made the story up to deflect attention away from this.
bulletKatrina consented to having sex with Mike the first time and later was raped by Bill.
bulletHow did Katrina know that she slept with the other brother?
bulletKatrina was sexually involved with someone else but transferred the blame to Mike and Bill.
bulletKatrina didn't feel right about what happened and decided to get even with the two boys.
bulletKatrina was in too deep for her age.
bulletKatrina is a teenage runaway with serious problems other than from this incident.
bulletDoes Katrina have problems with truthfulness?
bulletKatrina voluntarily went to the residence and then was unsure of what to do.
bulletKatrina wanted to have friends at any cost.
bulletKatrina had far too much alcohol for her age and size.  She really wasn't sure what was happening.
bulletDoes Katrina have problems with alcohol?
bulletIs Katrina sexually active?
bulletKatrina was too young and naive to know what was going on.
bulletKatrina had too much to drink and dreamt the rapes.
bulletKatrina needed someone to blame for her problems.

Case Action Plan (Approach)

bulletBackground check on Katrina and family.
bulletDetermine if she slept with anyone prior to this incident.
bulletDetermine if she has had prior counseling.
bulletDetermine reason for running away.
bulletDetermine alcohol use history.
bulletInterview Katrina's friend's.
bulletInterview both brothers.
bulletInterview Katrina's parents.
bulletInterview the girlfriends that she saw that night.
bulletInterview Katrina's teachers.
bulletInterview the counselor to whom Katrina disclosed the information.
bulletGet diagram of the rooms and hall.
bulletDetermine whether her family has had any counseling.
bulletDiagram of the directions and roads that she took for the hitchhiking.
bulletMake up a schedule of events.
bulletGet medical examination on Katrina for sperm culture.
bulletGet blood tests on both brothers.
bulletAttempt to determine blood alcohol content in Katrina.

Alternative Hypotheses

bulletKatrina was raped twice by the same person.
bulletKatrina was raped by both Mike and Bill.
bulletKatrina was not raped.
bulletKatrina was a victim of sexual abuse, too drunk to perceive any incident, but it was not a rape.

Final Hypotheses

bulletKatrina was raped by one person.
bulletKatrina voluntarily slept with Mike the first time and Mike raped her the second time in Bill's bed.


Each case of child abuse allegations presents individual characteristics, nuances, and specific facts and issues.  It is the responsibility and primary role of the investigator to find the facts that support the most reasonable hypotheses.  The investigator's role must be that of an objective fact finder whose mission is to conduct a thorough and credible investigation.  Any and all hypotheses that could possibly fit the facts must be considered.  As the hypotheses are being processed, the focus of the investigation becomes more specific and directive.

A proper case management method is imperative.  The case analysis and case action plan are two proven methods that provide direction and insight.  By using this case management system, hypotheses which have no validity or credibility and fail to pass the reasonable standard test will be eliminated, culminating in one or two final hypotheses.

Although the above case studies may yield other possible hypotheses, the examples illustrate the benefit of systematically considering alternative hypotheses.  The investigator should approach child abuse allegations with the understanding that anything is possible.  This permits an objective and open-minded investigation that aids the finder of fact and serves the interest of both the accused and the child.

* Lawrence W. Daly is the director of Daly Consulting & Investigations, 600 First Avenue, Pioneer Building, Suite 313, Seattle, Washington 98104.  [Back]

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