Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse

Ralph C. Underwager
Hollida Wakefield

Oklahoma, 1995

II. What to Look for in Discovery

A. Investigating a case of child sexual abuse poses a fundamental problem. Many accusations rely on uncorroborated statements allegedly made by a child. In many jurisdictions the law has been changed to allow all manner of hearsay evidence that would otherwise be excluded. This is used to bolster statements alleged to have been made by children.

B. Sexual abuse cases are extremely difficult to defend because the defense attorney must find a way for the finder-of-fact to understand why a child is making statements about abuse if it didn't happen.

C. The issue is usually not whether or not the child is lying. If a child is lying, it most likely will be disturbed early adolescents who have the capacities required for deliberate and willful lying. It will not likely be younger children.

D. The issue is the level, nature, extent, and effects of adult social influence upon children.

E. The investigator should gather as much information as possible about the parties involved and about the circumstances surrounding the disclosure and accusations.

1. Detailed information from the adult who first spoke to the child about the alleged abuse. Any recordings that may have been made of this along with any notes taken by the adult.

2. The nature, timing, and circumstances surrounding the original disclosure, in as much detail and specificity as possible.

3. Detailed information concerning the nature of the allegations along with any changes in these over time. When an account becomes more complex, detailed, specific, and bizarre across time, it is almost always the result of adult social influence.

4. Records or descriptions of any informal contacts between the child and an adult. Is the parent questioning the child, encouraging the child to make drawings, or giving the child information about what someone else has said? Are parents having meetings or talking with other parents, neighbors, or relatives?

5. Records of the actions and decisions of law enforcement, prosecution, and child protection workers. This includes any team meetings, supervisory contacts or consultations, intake interviews, interrogations, and phone calls to or from other agencies, the reporting adult, parents of the child, and the prosecutor. Also look for any sessions which are supposed to familiarize the child with the courtroom or prepare them to testify.

6. Records and documents from all persons who have interviewed the child concerning the contacts. Audio- or videotapes are particularly important.

7. All investigative contacts with any potential witnesses, alternative suspects, and any information gathered about the person accused. Often, interrogations of persons and children that did not produce inculpatory statements are left out or not revealed.

8. Records of any mental health professional who has had contact with the child.This should include progress notes, any testing, and insurance forms. There are times when a diagnosis made in the records is different than that submitted to an insurance company. Some diagnoses are paid for and others are not.

9. Information about the social and family characteristics and history in the family of the child. This includes information such as conflicts over visitations, new boy friends or girl friends of divorced parents, drug or alcohol use, criminal records, etc.

10. Information about the sleeping and bathing habits of the family, attitudes towards nudity, etc.

11. Information about the behavior of the foster parents towards the child. Sometimes foster parents will function as investigators, questioning the child, making notes of the child's behaviors, and reporting what the child may or may not say. Often, the foster parents will keep logs or diaries documenting that they are doing this.

12. Information about contacts between the child and any family members who are discussing the alleged abuse with the child.

13. Information about books, television shows, or school sexual abuse prevention programs that may have influenced the child. There are television shows on cable television that can only be described as X-rated.

14. The psychological characteristics, drug or alcohol use, job history, and any criminal record or prior behaviors in the accused adult that would either support or undermine the credibility of the allegations.

14. Background information on social workers, police, and mental health professionals that will give information about any prior assumptions or biases. Articles, documents, speeches, programs, etc. Check the credentials of mental health professionals. We have occasionally found cases where the experts have falsified their credentials or have graduated from a diploma mill. Licensing boards will have information about reprimands, educational qualifications, and stated competencies.

15. Information about the techniques and methods used by any mental health professionals.

16. Information about the capacities and developmental level of the child.

a. Medical records of the child from any physician, dentist, hospital, or clinic. This is necessary to look for documentation of any behaviors or symptoms that may predate the allegation of abuse.

b. Records of any psychological or psychiatric treatments or evaluations the child may have had in the past.

c. School records, including dates present, absent, tardy, behavioral observations, or teacher evaluations. This should include any day care centers, preschools, or baby-sitters. Consider statements or affidavits from any teachers or day care workers as to the child's behavior, health, and observed interactions with the parents. Often school records contain observations by teachers that are very different from that reported by parents. There is research evidence that teachers reports may be more accurate than parental reports.

d. Information from any credible adults who have had the opportunity to observe the child's behavior with parents, peers, and other adults.

F. The defense attorney should attempt to get a psychological evaluation or interview of the child by a competent psychologist.

G. If a complaining adult is essential to the development of the accusation, as in the case of a mother who is alleging abuse by a father while the child was on visitation, get all information about the complaining adult.


Copyright 1989-2014 by the Institute for Psychological Therapies.
This website last revised on April 15, 2014.
Found a non-working link?  Please notify the Webmaster.