Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse

Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse

Ralph C. Underwager
and
Hollida Wakefield

Hungary
October, 1996

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 actually are.

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 infrequent.

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 (Besharov, 1985).

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 custody dispute.

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 mother.

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 offending parent,

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 parent.

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 & Underwager, 1994b).

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.

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