Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse
Ralph C. Underwager
VII. Sexual abuse allegations in divorce and custody disputes
A. Child sexual abuse allegations arising during a divorce and custody dispute present
unusual difficulties (Wakefield & Underwager, 1991b).
1. Changes in attitudes and laws concerning divorce have created an environment that makes
abuse allegations more likely.
2. In addition to no fault divorce laws, there have been changes in custody laws.
3. These changes did not reduce anger and frustrations of divorcing spouses and with the
trend towards no-fault divorce and community property laws, angry and hostile couples have
nothing left to fight over except the children.
1. Mental health professionals and attorneys report seeing more accusations during marital
conflict in the past few years although the increase may be no greater than the dramatic
increase in sexual allegations in general over the past 10 to 15 years.
2. Many people believe that false accusations have become a serious problem in vindictive,
angry custody and visitation battles.
3. Thoennes and her colleagues (Thoennes & Pearson 1988a, 1988b; Thoennes &
Tjaden, 1990) attempted to get an estimate of the frequency.
a. They report that their initial survey and interviews revealed a general consensus that
sexual abuse allegations in custody disputes occur in "a small but growing"
number of cases
b. They estimate accusations of sexual abuse are found in approximately 2% of contested
c. They state that there are approximately one million divorces annually, and of these,
about 55% or 550,000 involve minor children. About 15% of these (82,500) result in court
involvement due to custody and/or visitation disputes. Their estimate of 2% sexual abuse
accusations in 82,500 custody disputes translates into 1,650 cases of sexual abuse
accusations annually within the environment of a divorce/custody dispute.
4. We suspect that their estimate is too low on the basis of the large number of cases
being seen by us and others who have communicated with us.
5. There is disagreement over how many of these accusations are false, although most
estimates range between 20% and 80%. No one really knows how many allegations are, in
C. Professionals should not conclude immediately that an allegation is false just because
it arises in a divorce and custody dispute. Several authors (Berliner 1988; Corwin,
Berliner, Goodman, Goodwin, & White, 1987; Faller, 1990; MacFarlane, 1986; Sink, 1988)
suggest reasons why valid allegations of sexual abuse may not surface until the time of a
1. The nonoffending parent finds out about the sexual abuse and decides to divorce the
2. There is long-standing sexual abuse that is only revealed in the context of divorce.
3. There is sexual abuse that has been precipitated by the marital dissolution.
4. A few writers claim some parents are more likely to begin sexually abusing their child
after the divorce.
a. This may be to retaliate against the spouse or because the stress of the divorce
results in the parent behaving more impulsively. (See Faller, 1990; MacFarlane,1986;
Corwin et al., 1987; Goodwin, Sahd & Rada, 1989).
b. However, there is no empirical quantified support for the belief that a man with no
history of child sexual abuse, who is in the midst of a conflict over custody or
visitations with his children, is likely to react to this stress by suddenly beginning to
sexually abuse his children on visits.
5. If it can be determined that the divorce occurs as a result of the abuse disclosures,
the abuse likely to be true. Sirles and Lofberg (1990) studied 128 families in which
sexual abuse occurred and approximately half of these families ended in separation and/or
D. Factors behind false allegations
1. A false accusation is seldom a deliberate fabrication made for the purpose of obtaining
2. Instead, media coverage of sexual abuse, widespread publication of so-called
"behavioral indicators," and proliferation of child sexual abuse prevention
programs may result in a parent becoming hypersensitive to the possibility of abuse.
3. In an acrimonious custody conflict, the parent may be ready to jump to premature
conclusions when presented with minimal data. Any suspicious circumstances may lead to
suggestive questioning and inadvertent reinforcement of a young child. A parent may be
influenced by a professional who is ready to suggest abuse occurs frequently (Wakefield
& Underwager, 1990).
4. In a bitter divorce, not only is the child likely to undergo significant stress, but
the parents are likely to blame the child's anxiety and distress on the other parent
(Wallerstein & Kelly, 1975 & 1980).
5. However, in some cases a parent can deliberately foster a false accusation as a way to
get custody (Wakefield & Underwager, 1989b). Thoennes and Pearson (1988b) report that
in 15% of the cases they studied, the case worker expressed doubt that the report was
offered in good faith.
6. Gardner (1992) describes a "parental alienation syndrome" in which the child
identifies with the vilifying parent and communicates absolute hatred toward the other
parent. A false accusation of sexual abuse may develop in this situation.
7. Occasionally, a mother who is obsessed with hatred toward the father may bring the
child to the point of having paranoid delusions about the father. A "folie â
deux" relationship may evolve in which the child acquires the mother's paranoid
delusions (Gardner, 1992; Green, 1986; Ferguson, 1988; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1981; Rand,
1989, 1990, 1993).
8. Blush and Ross (1987) propose the SAID syndrome (Sexual Allegations in Divorce) for
false allegations that arise in divorcing families.
a. The accusations surface after separation and legal action begins.
b. There is a history of family dysfunction with unresolved divorce conflict and hidden
c. The female(accusing) parent often is a hysterical or borderline personality or is
angry, defensive and justifying.
d. The male (the accused) parent is generally passive, nurturing, and lacks
e. The child is typically a female under age eight.
f. The allegations surfaces via the custodial parent.
g. The mother takes the child to an "expert" who confirms the abuse and
identifies the father as the perpetrator.
h. The court reacts to the experts information by terminating or limiting visitation.
9. Study on personality characteristics of parents who make false allegations of child
sexual abuse (Wakefield & Underwager, 1990).
a. Compared falsely accusing parents, falsely accused parents and custody only parents.
b. The falsely accusing parents were much more likely than the other two groups to have a
diagnosis of personality disorder such as histrionic, borderline, passive-aggressive, or
c. Wakefield and Underwager (1990) suggest a typology of parents who make or encourage
false accusations of sexual abuse in divorce and custody battles:
i.The highly disturbed individual whose personality disorder interferes with functioning,
judgment, and sometimes the ability to differentiate between fact and fantasy.
ii. The individual (who may or may not have a personality disorder) who is obsessed with
hatred and hostility towards an estranged or former spouse.
iii. The individual who is obsessed over the possibility that the child has been or may be
iv. The individual who reacts fairly appropriately to an ambiguous situation by seeking
guidance from a therapist or physician who suggests abuse occurred.
10. Ross and Blush (1990) also describe typical personality problems in parents making
false allegations in divorce and custody conflicts.
11. But a histrionic or angry parent may have nevertheless discovered genuine sexual
E. Characteristics of false accusations in divorce and custody litigation.
1. Usually a woman accuses her husband of sexual abuse but women can also occasionally be
accused. Sometimes the boyfriend of the mother is accused by the father.
2. The cases generally involve very young children-usually ages 2 to 6.
3. The accusations often surface following some change in the situation, i.e., the father
gets remarried or seeks or is awarded custody or increased visitation by the court.
4. Most of the accusations are made as a result of questioning by an adult, usually the
mother. The adult doing the questioning has often observed one of the alleged behavioral
indicators or has observed redness or irritation in the genitals following a visit with
the father. 5. Sometimes the accusations across time develop into extreme, improbable
behaviors such as anal and vaginal penetration, objects in the vagina, coprophagia
(defecation) and urolagia (urination). There is no corroborating evidence (i.e. medical)
for these allegations.
6. When there is an ongoing investigation or litigation of an accusation, a claim that a
child was abused again on a visitation must include a demonstration that the accused
parent is nonfunctional.
7. If the accusing parent is prematurely convinced that the abuse is real and cannot
"hear" any other possibilities, the allegation may be false (Bresee, Stearns,
Bess, & Packer, 1986; Faller, 1990, Gardner, 1987; Jones & Seig, 1988).
a. Such a parent may may involve the child in multiple examinations, and demand that the
investigation continue, irrespective of the impact the process is having on the child
(Bresee, et al.1986; Rand, 1989, 1990; Schaefer & Guyer, 1988). This may be emotional
b. Sometimes such parents take their children and disappear into an "underground
F. There are no easy answers; each case must be carefully examined on its own merits since
mistakes on either side have very serious consequences for all parties involved.