Sexual Abuse Evaluations in Young Children: Why It Takes an Expert to Determine If Children Are Telling the Truth or Fabricating Allegations of Sexual Abuse

TASA ID: 1385

The statistics are alarming. One out of four children will be exposed to sexual abuse during childhood. Both boys and girls are susceptible to the wide range of sexual abuse that can occur. We know that most of the abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts.

However, there are a significant number of cases in which a child has made allegations of sexual abuse that may not be true.

The frequency of false allegations of sexual abuse by children and adolescents is of significant legal and clinical importance. Many professionals in the field of child sexual abuse are more skeptical of child claims of sexual abuse than ever before. Research on false allegations and recantation of sexual abuse has produced significant evidence related to how and why children make false allegations.

In assessing the credibility of young children's allegations of sexual abuse (2-7), clinicians need to know how the dynamics of sexual abuse interviews affect disclosure, what situations are most commonly associated with fictitious allegations, and how the child's developmental stage affects disclosures. Understanding these issues allows for clear decision-making. Therefore, it is critical that an expert in the field of sexual abuse in young children evaluates the credibility of children's allegations of abuse.

Most false allegations derive from one or more of the following: (1) children submitting to suggestion by authority figures, caretakers, parents, siblings, extended family members, and therapists, (2) "pseudo memories," memories in which children create memories to fill in the gaps (3) high conflict divorce (4) children who have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy. These children may have predisposing psychological or neurological disorders that make it difficult for them to accurately report on their environment. For example, research done by Alexander, Goodman, Schaaf, Edelsteing, et al. (2002), revealed that children with lower than average cognitive abilities have more pseudo memories than children with higher cognitive skills. Therefore, in assessing the validity of a child's allegation, it is imperative that the child's cognitive abilities be assessed.

Coaching by caregivers, parents, family members, or friends, can significantly alter a child's memory and can create false allegations. Coaching may be intentional or unintentional. For example, a mother may have read a book to her 2 year old about good and bad touch and then asked the child if anyone had every touched him or her in their privates. The child may offer a false response in order to please the parents or to get attention. The parents may then, unwittingly, reassure the child and offer the child a reward for telling the truth.

Research by Lyon, T.D., Malloy, L.C, et al. (2008) concluded that children from the ages of 4-7 were susceptible to coaching, such as encouragement for making certain statements, rehearsing false reports, and repeated questioning.  They concluded that coaching significantly impaired the accuracy of children's statements.

Studies done by Faller, K.C. (2007) determined in their analysis of Incidence Reports of abuse in Canada, that 4% of the children intentionally made false allegation and of this population, 6% were false allegations of sexual abuse. The non-custodial parent (usually fathers) was most likely to be targeted as the perpetrator in these cases of false reporting. Although this number may seem low, the number of fathers who are falsely accused of sex abuse is significant.

False allegations of sexual abuse also arise in the context of high conflict divorce and in cases where there is an alienated parent. (See "Sexual Abuse Allegations in the Context of High Conflict Divorce" in the TASAnet.com Knowledge Center.  Studies have confirmed that a large percentage of cases where there are false allegations of child abuse occur in the context of parent alienation. (Kopetsk, L.M. Rand, D.C. & Rand, R 2006).

In evaluating children's allegations of abuse, it is imperative to understand children's cognitive capacities during different stages of their development. Memories in pre-operational children (under the age of 7) are often distorted and limited. Fictitious details are often produced in order for the child to have closure and to please the adult. Preschool children engage in magical thinking and have a limited concept of cause and effect. Therefore, they may disclose memories that appear incongruent and impossible.

What makes the task of evaluating children's allegations so challenging is that children who make false allegations often act as if the abuse actually happened. A parent will report that the child is having nightmares, wetting the bed, crying, and acting out in destructive ways toward themselves and others. And while these behaviors certainly are indicative of a child who is crying out for help, they may not be a result of abuse.

By fabricating sexual abuse, a child begins to believe that he or she has been abused and begins to act out. The internal conflict and stress that occur when a young child makes false allegations is often enough to send him or her into a traumatic state. Detectives, social services, therapists, and caregivers question the child repeatedly, and the child is overwhelmed by the conflict that is created when truth and lies are indistinguishable.

Therefore, it takes a trained eye to be able to distinguish between trauma that has occurred as a result of bona fide abuse, and the trauma-like behaviors exhibited by a child who is emotionally overwhelmed, confused, angry, and anxious.

Parents, teachers, and therapists report many incidents of abuse. Often the child's therapist can provide important information about the child's behavior in therapy; however, he or she is not in the position to evaluate the accuracy of the child's statements. A trained professional who has experience in assessing the validity of children's allegations of abuse, is essential these cases.

About the Author

The author conducts sexual abuse allegations on children as young as 2. Her expertise is in preschool children, but she is also experienced with school age children and adolescents. She has twenty-eight years of experience in working with abused children and has written numerous articles, appeared on national television as an expert in child sexual abuse, and has published a book. She is trained in identifying parent alienation, and has acted as an expert witness in child abuse cases throughout the country.

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.

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