Sexual Abuse Allegations in the Context of High Conflict Divorce

TASA ID: 1385

It is without question that high conflict divorce wreaks havoc on not only estranged parents; it does immeasurable and long lasting harm to children. These cases clog the courtrooms and frustrate everyone involved. There is no simple answer, for once the wheels of marital anger and retaliation round their way into the judicial system, they pick up momentum and grind the mental health down of the people we should care about most; our children.

In the context of this battle-ridden arena comes another factor that not only heightens the conflict, it causes grave concern for the welfare of the children: allegations of sexual abuse. According to recent studies, 40% of cases involving sexual abuse accusations were divorce and custody cases, and in three-fourths of these cases, there was no determination of abuse by the legal system. 

Why is this occurring? To begin, let's review the definition of the alienated child. This child comes from a high conflict divorce, has chosen one parent over the other, seems to have little empathy and caring for the alienated parent, refuses contact with him or her, and engages with the favored parent in a campaign of denigration against the alienated parent. It's more complicated than mere brainwashing, for it involves the complex dynamics between the parents and the child, the nature of the parents' continued battles, and is manifested according to the age, temperament, and living situation of the child. Thus, in the context of alienation, it is not uncommon for children to misperceive actions taken by the alienated parent as abuse, parrot what they think the favored parent wants to hear, and over time, actually believe that they are being abused. Children are not difficult to convince. And when they are caught in the battle zone, they become miniature soldiers, spying, reporting, and obeying the "officer" in command.

Thus, in this context, it is not hard to imagine why outcries of mistreatment would occur in  high conflict situations.  Sexual abuse is hard to verify. In 90% of the investigated cases, there are no physical signs to corroborate the allegations, and children are difficult witnesses, especially those under the age of five. Therefore, this issue has become a hotbed of contested opinions, the players often being social services, the police department, the legal profession, and various other experts, who offer their opinions. Is it any wonder  these cases rotate endlessly in the courts and liquidate precious financial and emotional resources that should be spent on the child?

To make matters worse, most of these cases involve mental health professionals often hired by the attorneys to help determine the credibility of these allegations. A proportion of these professionals do not have the necessary background on the alienated child to fully understand its implications. Therefore, these professionals may make a judgment based on their alliance with an alienating parent, and in some instances, studies demonstrate that the child's therapist may inadvertently reinforce the child's allegations against the alienated parent.

The cases cited in law reviews are mixed in regard to parent alienation as a defense against sexual abuse allegations, since, as in most aspects of psychology, there is often not enough hard evidence to substantiate parent alienation as a bona fide condition. Therefore, whether it is allowed in court as evidence is not always guaranteed.

Another important aspect to examine when there are allegations of sexual abuse in a high conflict divorce is the nature of the child's reactions and behaviors. Children who believe that they have been sexually abused and have been exposed to repeated examinations, interviews, and the probing of the alienating parent, cannot only begin to exhibit sexual behaviors commensurate with sexually abused children, but begin to believe that the abuse has actually occurred. And if you factor this in with an inexperienced therapist, the conclusions will often sway toward validating the allegations.

What can be done in these difficult cases? Certainly lawyers, mental health professionals, judges and social services have battled these cases out in court, and in many cases there is no satisfactory resolution. The finding of parent alienation results in either the child being removed from the custody of the alienating parent, with the child being placed with the maligned parent, or there is a finding of sexual abuse, and the child is prevented from having contact with the alienated parent. And with such heady decisions on the table as whether or not a child has been sexually abused, if one errs in either direction, this decision can be detrimental to the child.

A number of safeguards must be in place in order to establish the credibility of sexual abuse allegations in the context of high conflict divorce. First, a professional must be obtained for the child, who not only has extensive experience in sexual abuse, but also understands fully the various factors that exist in parent alienation. During the evaluation period, the professional should have contact with both parents on an equal basis. Parent-child interactions, and observations of the entire family should be made. There are clear indications of a child who has been coached, and a savvy therapist will notice these immediately.

There are subtle differences between a child who endured bona fide sexual abuse and a child who has been coached to believe this has occurred. Remember that in both cases, the child can evidence symptoms of trauma and appear as if he or she were exposed to sexual abuse. However, bona fide sexual abuse does look different. The sexually abused child, for the most part, will be reluctant to speak about the abuse, and when he or she does, it is often short and cryptic. However, there are certain consistent details that will remain. Further, bona fide sexual abuse does not often change in frequency and intensity. The child's story will remain fairly consistent.

It is also important to evaluate the intensity of the child's reactions to the allegations. Bona fide sexually abused children will have a variety of emotional responses ranging from sadness to anger and guilt. They often miss the parent who has abused them and long for some type of reconciliation. (Yes, children do love a parent even if he or she has abused them) The alienated child, on the other hand, remains a staunch foe of the estranged parent, wishes to have nothing more to do with him or her, and is uncharacteristically free of any guilt for his or her anger at the parent. Further, with the alienated child, the story of abuse will escalate to immense proportions, and as the allegations keep flowing, so does the confusion as to whether this could really be happening.

Professionals in the system need to work together in these cases. The legal professional, social services, and therapists should be educated as to the nature of the alienated child, and in this way, better decisions can be made as to the disposition of the child.

Child sexual abuse is a horrible crime, and it is important that we listen to children as the first step in preventing this. However, in many of the cases of high conflict divorce, it has been used as a weapon to alienate a child from a parent, and this is unfortunate for it complicates our task of keeping our children safe.

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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