Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse
Ralph C. Underwager
II. False Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse
A. How many allegations are false?
1. There has been a continuing dispute about the proportion of sexual abuse allegations
that are false, with some professionals claiming they are extremely rare and others
maintaining false allegations have become a serious problem. No one knows how many there
2. The unsubstantiated rate is approximately 60% to 65%.
3. Problems in definition
a. Unsubstantiated does not mean false and substantiated does not mean true.
b. Some writers define false allegation as all allegations that are not true; others
limit the term to deliberate fabrications. Deliberate false allegations are relatively
4. Following the initial extensive screening of reports, at any one time around 400,000
families across the country are under the supervision of child protection. However, a
study conducted for the U.S. National Center of Child Abuse and Neglect found that in
about half of these cases, the parents never actually maltreated their children
5. In an effort to detect all cases of child sexual abuse the absence of highly
accurate evaluation procedures will inevitably result in an increase in the number of
false allegations. The more we try to reduce the number of sexually abused children that
are missed, the more we will misidentify children as sexually abused when they are not.
B. Immediate effects of the accusation
1. Once an accusation is made, often the accused parent is not allowed to see his
child. Sometimes the accused parent is not allowed to see his child for months even though
no determination of guilt has been made by the justice system.
2. The child is often immediately placed in therapy where a therapist, who believes
that abuse occurred, does sexual abuse therapy and solidifies the story in the mind of the
child. This process may also create an account of abuse that never happened.
3. A criminal indictment often, but not always, follows the accusation.
C. Divorce and custody disputes
1. Many professionals believe that the largest percentage of false allegations are in
divorce and custody disputes.
2. False allegations are usually not deliberate fabrications made for advantage in a
a. Instead, an angry spouse in a custody dispute is ready to believe the worst about
her spouse and overinterprets or misinterprets a behavior or comment from the child.
b. Most false accusations are made as a result of questioning by an adult, usually the
c. Deliberate false allegations have been estimated to occur around 15% of the time
(Wakefield & Underwager, 1991b, Theonnnes & Pearson, 1988).
2. There is there is disagreement over just how often this happens, although most
estimates range between 20% and 80% (Wakefield & Underwager, 1991b; 1994a).
3. Some professionals have speculated about possible reasons for a true abuse
disclosure in a divorce and custody dispute.
a. The nonoffending parent finds out about the sexual abuse and decides to divorce the
b. Long-standing sexual abuse is only revealed in the context of divorce.
i. A child who has been threatened with the breakup of the family may tell once this
has already happened.
ii. It is more difficult for the abusing parent to persuade the child to keep the
secret once he or she is not living with the child.
iii. A child may become genuinely terrified at the prospect of spending time alone with
the abuser and therefore tell in order to avoid a visit.
c. The father may begin sexually abusing his child because of the stress and emotional
devastation of the divorce.
4. Behavior changes resulting from the stress of a divorce situation may make children
more vulnerable to influence from the accusing parent and others who interview them. The
behavior changes observed in children whose parents are divorcing may be used as evidence
that a child is abused.
5. Courts in the United States have held that when a parent is involved in the
fabrication of a false sexual abuse accusation against the other parent, custody is to be
given to the falsely accused parent. A false allegation of abuse is sufficient grounds to
transfer custody and, in some instances, terminate parental rights of the falsely accusing
D. Allegations by adolescents and older children
1. This is most likely to happen with a stepfather. The motives for such actions
include anger, the attention the accusation gets, and/or a desire to move to a different
home where the child believes there will be more freedom.
2. For years it was believed that it was extremely rare for a child to fabricate sexual
abuse. But this is no longer the case.
3. Some factors related to false accusations by older children include the discussions
in the media and the schools about good touch and bad touch, incest, and the ready
availability of X-rated videos and cable television, dial-a-porn, etc.
4. When a false allegation is attended to by adults and authority figures, reinforced,
and then repeated several times in telling it to different people, the initially
fabricated event may become subjectively real for the person telling it.
5. Even if the tale is later recanted, the recanted testimony may not be believed
because of the widespread (unfounded and erroneous) belief that a child would not make a
false accusation about sexual abuse.
E. Accusations against teachers, camp counselors, day care workers and others involved
with the care of youngsters.
1. Several cases have been very well publicized. When accusations are widely covered by
the media, there has been a surge in reporting sexual abuse in other facilities.
2. In such cases there is often a predictable evolution of the stories into wilder and
more fanciful accusations.
3. This common progression suggests that repeated interviews tap into an ever deeper
layer of the kind of fantasies children are known to have.
F. Allegations of ritualistic and satanic abuse
1. The allegations of ritual abuse come from two sources
a. Accounts of "survivors" who uncover memories of bizarre satanic ritual
abuse ceremonies during the course of therapy. The alleged abuse is not remembered until
the adult goes into therapy with a therapist skilled in special techniques of recovered
memory therapy, such as survivors' groups and hypnotherapy.
b. Accounts of children who have allegedly been ritualistically abused at day care
centers and other cases involving allegations of multiple perpetrators and many children.
c. These sources have affected one another.
2. Such highly publicized cases have occurred not only throughout the United States,
but around the world, including the Netherlands, Great Britain, Canada, Scotland, New
Zealand, and Australia.
3. Despite hundreds of investigations by the FBI and police, there is no independent
evidence of ritual abuse, animal and human sacrifice, murder, and cannibalism of hundreds
of children by a conspiracy of apparently normal adults who are functional and organized
enough to leave no trace of their activities. There is no corroborating evidence for a
conspiracy of satanic ritual abusers who prey on day care centers and abuse children (see
Bottoms, Shaver, & Goodman, 1996; Rossen, 1989; Victor, 1993; Richardson, Best, &
Bromley, 1991; Lanning, 1992; Hicks, 1991; Nathan & Snedeker, 1995; Wakefield &
G. Several highly publicized cases in the United States have recently been overturned
on appeal as authorities and the legal system realize that the allegations were the result
of flawed investigations and coercive interviews of the children.