Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse
RALPH C. UNDERWAGER and HOLLIDA WAKEFIELD
A. Investigating and assessing cases of alleged child sexual abuse is difficult
1. Ceci & Bruck (1993) describe two distinct positions:
a. Children are highly resistant to suggestion, unlikely to lie, and as
reliable as adults.
b. Children have difficulty in distinguishing fact and fantasy, highly suggestible,
and unreliable as witnesses.
2. These polarities have become solidified and entrenched with each side
distrusting the other. A common ground must be found to get out of the divisiveness
3. We suggest that agreement is possible on the proposition that increased
accuracy of decision making is to the benefit of everybody. As Saks and
Kidd (1980-81) observe:
Through legal decision making we seek to avoid the classic errors of convicting
an innocent defendant or acquitting a guilty one, or finding liability when
there is none or failing to find liability when it is present. Whatever
justice may be, surely it is not error (p. 123).
4. The behavior of the investigators who respond to an allegation of sexual
abuse early in the case is pivotal in terms of how the case progresses and
is ultimately resolved.
5. A faulty investigation may result in innocent children being damaged
and innocent people being falsely charged and guilty people being acquitted
whereas a good investigation is likely to result in an accurate decision
by the justice system.
B. The type of error being made is in the direction of false positives,
that is, of falsely identifying an individual as abused or an abuser when
it is not true (e.g., Altemeier, O'Connor, Vietze, Sandler, & Sherrod,
1984; Caldwell, Bogat, & Davidson, 1988; Gambrill, 1990; Horner, 1992;
Horner & Guyer, 1991a, 1991b; Kotelchuck, 1982; Melton, 1994; Milner,
Gold, Ayoub, & Jacewitz, 1984; Paradise, 1989; Realmuto, Jensen, &
Wescoe, 1990; Schachter, 1985; Starr, 1979; Wakefield & Underwager,
1988; Zeitlin, 1987).
1. Much has been made of the harm to children if there is a false negative
decision, that is, failing to identify a child as abused when it is true.
The claim is that a few mistakes are necessary in order to prevent the harm
2. This ignores the damage done to nonabused children by embroiling them
in false accusations. It also ignores the evidence suggesting that more
children are harmed by the abuse system and by abuse investigations than
are helped by them. It may be that the defense attorney and the defense
private investigator are the only champions a nonabused child has in the
3. This conclusion also ignores the damage done to innocent people who represent
the false positives generated by the system (Armbrister, 1993; Baurmann,
1983; Buckey, Buckey, & Buckey, 1990; Davis & Reppucci, 1992; Luza
& Ortiz, 1991; McLeod, 1989; Prosser, 1995; Prosser & Lewis, 1992;
Robson, 1991; San Diego County Grand Jury, 1992; Schultz, 1986; Weinbach,
1987). C. There is now enough credible scientific knowledge that we can
improve the accuracy of the decisions made. We do not need to continue making
the kinds of errors that have been made up to the present.
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
E. The investigator should gather as much information as possible about
the parties involved and about the circumstances surrounding the disclosure
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
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,
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
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
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.
III. Interviewing children when there are allegations of sexual abuse
A. The child witness
1. Young children are capable of providing accurate and useful information.
2. Jones and Krugman (1986) give an example of a three-year-old child who
accurately described her abduction, sexual abuse, and attempted murder.
3. The problem is that adults do not know how to let children produce the
most reliable information they can (Garbarino & Stott, 1989).
B. The memory of young children.
1. The free recall of children, particularly if they are questioned soon
after an event, can be accurate. However, young children do not produce
much in the free recall situation.
2. Infant amnesia
a. Infant amnesia refers to the fact that adults and older children do not
usually remember incidents from their lives that happen prior to age three
to four (Eisenberg, 1985; Loftus, 1993; Nelson, 1993).
b. This inability to recall events from an early age is a function of the
normal process of growth and development.
c. Although some researchers have reported slightly younger estimates of
how far back adults can remember, these bits of memory cannot indicate genuine
episodic memory, but instead may be the result of educated guesses about
what was likely to have happened.
d. Children build "script" memories during this period of life.
Script memories are those we have for familiar, repeated events like eating
dinner at home or going to the supermarket.
e. The development of narrative accounts is markedly affected by the child
talking with parents who play an active role in framing and guiding their
children's formulation of what happened. This effect is strongest when parents
simply talk with their children about events rather than question them (Nelson,
3. Young children are more suggestible than older children and adults (Ceci
& Bruck, 1993, 1995).
4. Young children are likely to make "source monitoring" errors
(Ceci, Loftus, Leitchman, & Bruck, 1994; Johnson, Hashtroudi, &
a. A source monitoring error is when people mistake events they have thought
about, dreamed about, or been questioned about for memories of real events
that have happened.
b. Preschoolers appear to be vulnerable to source attribution errors when
they are repeated encouraged to think about events that never occurred.
5. Very young children cannot use one object as a representation for another
6. Several facts concerning child witnesses can be said to be generally
accepted in the scientific community (Ceci & Bruck, 1993):
a. There appear to be significant age differences in suggestibility, with
preschool children being more vulnerable to suggestion that either school-aged
children or adults.
b. Children can be led to make false or inaccurate reports about very crucial,
personally experienced central events.
c. Children sometimes lie when the motivational structure is tiled towards
d. Extreme statements (e.g., children never lie vs. children are incapable
of getting it right) are not supported.
e. Even preschoolers are capable of recalling much that is forensically
relevant. C. General principles of the investigatory interview
1. The goal of the interview of a child suspected of being sexually abused
is to obtain uncontaminated data.
2. The problem is not that children cannot give reliable information but
rather that adults do not know how to enable them to produce the information
they are capable of providing (Garbarino & Stott, 1989: Wakefield &
Underwager, 1988, 1994a).
3. The free recall of children is accurate, but they recall less than do
adults (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995; Jones & Krugman, 1986; Lepore,
1991). The less information the child gives in free recall, the sooner the
interviewer will turn to using leading questions.
4. Contamination occurs when the child's recollections become altered through
poor interview techniques, an adverse interview environment, the interviewer's
inappropriate behaviors, or influences outside the interviewer's control
(Ceci & Bruck, 1995; Quinn, White, & Santilli, 1989; Underwager
& Wakefield, 1990; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988, 1989a, 1994a; White,
5. The child's memory of any actual experience may be significantly altered
by the questioning about the incident (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995; Doris,
1991; White, 1990; Clarke-Stewart, Thompson, & Lepore, 1989) and the
child may even develop a memory for events that never happened (Loftus,
1993; Loftus & Ketcham, 1991, 1994; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990,
6. The issue is not whether or not the child is lying. The issue is the
level, nature, extent, and effects of adult social influence upon young
7. Although repeated and/or suggestive interviews and flawed investigations
do not mean that a child has not been abused, they make it very difficult,
if not impossible, to sort out what, if anything, may have happened.
8. The issue is the level, nature, extent, and effects of adult social influence
upon young children. It is through adult social influence that a child can
make statements of sexual abuse that may not be true. The child is unlikely
to be an active participant when a fabricated allegation is developed.
9. Although repeated and/or suggestive interviews and flawed investigations
do not mean that a child has not been abused, they make it very difficult,
if not impossible, to sort out what, if anything, may have happened. The
most well-known examples of this are the Jordan, MN case (Humphrey, 1985,
February) and the McMartin case.
a. Children who have not been abused are treated as though they were and
innocent parents may be prevented from having contact with their children.
b. A coercive and contaminating interview can be used by the defense as
support for the lack of credibility of the child and an actual abuser can
10. Example of actual interview transcript from the McMartin case. The interviewer
is Astrid Heger, M.D.
Q Do you think, do maybe-I'll tell you what. Maybe you could show me with
this, with this doll (putting hand on two anatomical dolls, one naked, one
dressed) how the kids danced for the naked movie star.
A They didn't really dance. It was just like, a song.
Q Well, what did they do when they sang the song?
A They just, went around singing the song.
Q They just went around and sang the song?
A (Nods head up and down.)
Q And they didn't take their clothes off?
A (Shakes head negative)
Q I heard that, I heard from, several kids, that they took their clothes
off. I think that (classmate's name) told me that. I know that (second classmate's
name) told me. I know that (third classmate's name) told me. (Fourth classmate's
name) and (fifth classmate's name) all told me that. That's kind of a hard
secret, it's kind of a yucky secret to talk, of-but, maybe, we could see
if we could find-
A Not that I remember.
Q -another puppet. This is my favorite puppet right here. (Reaching, picking
up and putting on the bird puppet.)
A I get to be that puppet.
Q You wanna be this puppet? Okay. Then I get to be Detective Dog.
A (Makes a sound.)
Q Okay, let's see if we can figure this. Let's see.
A (Grabs the dog puppet's nose that the interviewer is wearing, using bird
puppet's beak.) Q Yeah. Let's be friends. Let's (unintelligible). I know
that we're gonna figure this out-all this stuff out right now. Okay, when
that tricky part about touching the kids was going on, could you (reaching
for marker from can on the table, handing it to girl) could take a pointer
in your mouth and point, on the, on the doll over here, on either one of
these dolls, where, where the kids were touched? Could you do that?
A I don't know.
Q I know that the kids were touched. Let's see if we can figure that out.
A I don't know.
Q You don't know where they were touched?
A Huh-uh. (Slight of head, negative.)
Q (Unintelligible.) Well, I (unintelligible) some of the kids told me that
they were touched sometimes. They said that it was, it kinda sometimes it
kinda hurt. And sometimes it felt pretty good. Do you remember that touching
game that went on?
Q Okay, let me see if we can try something else and-
A Weeeeee. (Spinning the bird puppet on right hand above her head.)
Q Come on bird, get down here and help us out here.
Q (Girl's name) is having a hard time talking. I don't wanna hear any more
"no's." No, no, Detective Dog and we're gonna figure this out.
A No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.
(To musical cadence, spinning bird puppet over head.)
Q Do you wanna not play with the puppets? Would you rather talk to me directly?
Is that easier for ya?
Q Okay. How can I help you?
A (Makes sound.) gosh.
Q (Girl's name), look at me! (Putting puppeted hand on bird puppet.) How
can I help you get rid of those yucky secrets? How can we help you to tell
them, so they can go away and not bother you any more? What would be the
best way that we could help you do that? I don't think the puppets are working
really well. And I think that you're real scared to tell. And I understand
why you're scared. 'Cause I heard all about the threats and all the tricks
that he tried to make the kids be scared so they wouldn't talk. Those were
all tricks, they were lies. They weren't true. None of those things happened
to anybody. And none of that stuff that happened at school were the kids'
fault. That was all the it, Ray's fault, it wasn't the kids fault. And I
know the kids are scared to talk about it, but I need you to tell me. How
can I help you get rid of those yucky secrets? What's the best way for me
to help you do that?
A (Looks upward with pointer dangling from mouth.) (Cody, 1989, p. 28.)
C. Problems in interviews
1. The interviewer is convinced about what happened before the interview
a. Expectancies about an outcome can influence the outcome itself (Dent
& Stephenson, 1979; Darley & Fazio, 1980; Rosenthal, 1976).
b. The interviewer who expects to find abuse is apt to ask questions in
a way to confirm his or her hypothesis (Ceci & Bruck, 1995; Ceci, Leichtman,
& White, in press; Pettit, Fegan, & Howie, 1990; Pfohl, 1979; White,
2. The interviewer ignores the pressure felt by the child to conform to
what the child believes the interviewer wants. The pressure to give some
form of answer may result in demand characteristics to which children have
little resistance (Dent & Stephenson, 1979; King & Yuille, 1987).
3. The interviewer reinforces selected responses of the child. a. A child
is told that she is brave and that "Mommy will be so proud of you for
telling the scary secret" or a child is told that he can play with
a special toy or go for a treat after he tells about the abuse.
b. Children have been promised or given candy, food, beverages, and toys
if they cooperate and answer the questions. Uncooperative children may be
denied access to the lavatory until they finished the interview (Ceci &
Bruck, 1995; DeLipsey & James, 1988; Slicner & Hanson, 1989; Underwager
& Wakefield, 1990). 4. The interviewer does not make it clear to the
child that it is all right not to answer a question if the child does not
know the answer (Warren, Hulse-Trotter, & Tubbs, 1991).
a. Children will give answers to bizarre, unanswerable questions. In a study
by Hughes and Grieve (1980), 5- and 7-year-old children gave answers to
very bizarre questions, such as "Is red wider than yellow?"
b. The pressure to give some form of answer and to discourage "don't
know" responses may result in demand characteristics to which children
have little resistance (Dent & Stephenson, 1979 ; King & Yuille,
5. The interviewer ignores responses that don't fit the interviewer's preconceptions.
6. The interviewer encourages a child who does not say anything in response
to questions to "pretend" with puppets or dolls.
7. The interviewer begins the interview with good touch/bad touch questions
and drawings where the child identifies body parts. This tells the child
what will be expected to be discussed in the interview.
8. The interview is not videotaped or audiotaped. A videotape is the only
means whereby the procedures and data obtained during the interview can
be fully documented (DeLipsey & James, 1988; Herbert, Grams, & Goranson,
1987; Lamb, 1994; Myers, 1994; Raskin & Yuille, 1989; Underwager &
Wakefield, 1990; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988, 1989a, 1994a)
9. Procedures with doubtful or nonexistent reliability and validity are
used in the interview. These unsupported procedures include drawings, projective
tests, and anatomical dolls. a. The APA Council of Representatives (1991)
concluded that neither the anatomical dolls nor their use are standardized
or accompanied by normative data.
b. The use of the dolls can provide a modeling effect and, as they are often
used, can encourage the child to engage in fantasy.
c. Very young children cannot use one object as a representation for another
d. There are no data supporting a differential behavior of abused and nonabused
children when the dolls are used to assess sexual abuse. The studies that
claim to show differences have major methodological shortcomings (Ceci &
Bruck, 1993; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990, 1995; Skinner, Berry, &
Giles, 1992; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990, 1995; Wakefield & Underwager,
1994a; Wolfner, Faust, & Dawes, 1993).
e. Some studies suggest that some nonabused children engage the dolls in
sexual play (Skinner, et al., 1992).
f. We recommend that the dolls not be used. They are controversial and they
are not generally accepted in the scientific community.
g. There are similar problems with books and drawings.
10. Disclosure-based play therapy is used to draw conclusions about abuse.
a. There is no scientific evidence showing any efficacy or utility for play
therapy with sexual abuse victims (Campbell, 1992a, 1992b; Kazdin, Bass,
Ayers, & Rodgers, 1990).
b. The sessions may focus on reenactments and discussions of the abuse and
the behavior of the child in the play therapy sessions is used to form conclusions
about abuse. Play therapy may encourage false allegations (Campbell, 1992a).
c. A major difficulty is the unexamined assumption that play reflects reality
whereas for children play is fantasy (Bretherton, 1984).
d. The therapist providing the therapy may be confusing the therapy and
11. Specific interviewer behaviors that may contaminate children's statements.
a. Open-suggestive questions. These questions are open in nature, but are
suggestive or leading in that they may provide or imply information which
may in fact be incorrect, and may pertain to information or events to which
the child has not previously referred.
Who else was there? (There may not have been others present). Whose house
were you at when the man touched you? (The child may not have been at a
house). What did the other big person do to you? (The other person may not
have done anything). How big was the bed that was in the room? (When there
was no previous mention of a bed).
b. Leading or suggestive questions or statements which supply information
to the child that may be incorrect, or pertain to information to which the
child has not previously referred. Minimal response is required. Does he
hurt you? Does this always happen in your room? Has it ever happened in
daddy's room? Was it you that she caught him doing it to?
Here the interviewer, not the child, provides most of the information.
c. Questions or statements which put the child on the spot, and coerce or
pressure him or her to respond as expected. Questions in this category demand
a response, and may contain stated or implied threats. Commands given by
the interviewer and non-verbal messages can also be used for this purpose.
All of the other children talked to us, and they felt better. Last time,
you told me that they hurt you. Is that true, or not? If you don't tell,
you will feel yucky inside. If you don't talk to us, your mommy will be
very disappointed in you. Tell us what you told your mommy. We can't play
with the game until we finish talking. It's important. We need you to tell
us so other children won't get hurt. You can't go outside until you finish
telling me! Non-verbal behaviors include using a cold or neutral tone of
voice, moving away from the child, avoiding the child's eyes, and ignoring
the child's responses or questions.
d. Various rewards-verbal, non-verbal, and material-which the child receives
for responding as expected.
You're a good talker! Good-That's just right. You're so brave to tell us
all of this! Mommy will be so proud if you tell us. After you talk to us,
then you can have an ice cream cone. If you can tell us what happened, that
icky feeling inside will go away!
Non-verbal rewards can include smiling, touching or moving closer to the
child, head nods, and changing from a cold or neutral voice to a warm voice.
e. Modeling or teaching by the interviewer (often used in conjunction with
dolls, puppets, drawings, or books).
k. Ignoring responses that don't fit the interviewer's preconceptions.
l. Giving false information to the child.
The other children have told me about the naked movie star games. Your brother
told me some things about how Dad hurt you.
III. General principles for conducting an unbiased interview
A. Several professionals have suggested how to conduct an unbiased evaluation
with nonsuggestive and noncontaminating interviews (e.g., Annon, 1994; Daly,
1991; Quinn, White, & Santilli, 1989; Raskin & Yuille, 1989; Slicner
& Hanson, 1989; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988, 1994a).
B. General guidelines for appropriate interviewing.
1. Be aware of your own biases and try to explore all possible hypotheses
about what may have happened rather than focusing on just one. 2. Conduct
the interview in a comfortable room which does not look like a business
office or doctor's office. Keep distracting toys out of sight.
3. Do not sit on the floor with the child. Sit in a chair and ask the child
to sit in a chair.
4. Interview the child alone. The presence of another person may induce
bias, distortions or omissions in the child's account. The error can be
in either direction.
5. Begin by establishing the relationship with the child, getting an impression
of the child's level of development and capacities, and establishing the
child's expectations for what is going to happen in the evaluation. Ask
neutral questions regarding age, school and friends before discussing the
events surrounding the alleged abuse.
6. Make it clear to the child that it is all right not to answer a question
if the child does not know the answer. Tell the child to say "I don't
know" and "I don't remember" rather than trying to say what
he thinks the interviewer might want to hear. It may help to practice with
a question such as "Did the doctor who delivered you wear glasses or
not? 7. When the child is comfortable, ask open-ended nonleading questions
(i.e., "Tell me about your father"). It may take longer to get
useful information but the information obtained is much less likely to be
8. Aim toward encouraging the child to provide a free narrative account
by asking open-ended questions. The free recall of a child is as accurate
as that of an adult; the trick therefore is elicit it and not to alter it
through suggestive, leading questions. Open-ended questions can be repeated
a number of times.
9. Do not interrupt the child's narrative with questions.
10. If closed questions must be asked, only ask them at the end after first
attempting to get a narrative from the child through open questions.
11. Avoid repeating questions other than open-ended. Specific questions
introduce more error. (Poole & White, 1991). When a negative response
is ignored and a direct question is repeated again and again, the child
learns what he is expected to answer.
12. Proceed from the most general aspects to the more specific. Explore
specific areas after the child has mentioned them first.
13. Do not encourage make-believe by saying things such as "let's pretend
you are in your bedroom . . ." or "let's pretend this doll is
you . . ."
14. If the child has difficulty providing specific details, try using nonleading
mnemonic devices. For example, ask the child to view the alleged incident
from the eyes of a camera.
15. Use invitational statements in order to get more details from the child
such as, "And then what happened?" or "Would you please tell
me everything you remember about that?"
16. Throughout the interview, be alert to the cognitive developmental level
of the child.
17. Throughout the interview, test for alternative hypotheses.
18. Do not ask the child to remember what he said to others-parent, social
worker, or police-a couple of days ago. This request means that you are
confusing the child between a prior conversation and the reality of a prior
event of abuse.
19. Minimize cues given to a child about what he is supposed to say. Requests
for details should be about events already disclosed by the child.
20. Use a neutral, friendly tone throughout and avoid pressure or coercion
to give a desired response and selective reinforcement of certain types
of responses. A frequent subtle cue to a child as to what the interviewer
wants is the repetition of a question when the child has already answered
but not in the desired direction.
21. Be aware of your own tolerance for ambiguity and frustration level.
Remain calm and don't show irritation when the child is not responding as
22. Conduct the interview in a way that does not contribute to the emotional
trauma of the child. Know when to stop interviewing. Grilling, coercion,
repeated questioning when a child gives a negative response or says "I
don't know" tells the child that he is not producing what the adult
in authority wants.
23. At some point in the interviews, inquire about possible influences upon
the child that may have taken place prior to the interview. This is important
both in the case of a child who relates sexual abuse and with a child who
recants an earlier story of abuse.
24. At the end of the interview, explore the child's susceptibility to suggestion.
25. Videotape or audiotape all interviews from the beginning. This provides
for fully documented interviews and an accurate account of who said what
can be transcribed. Videotape also permits examination of some of the nonverbal
cues that may be present.
26. Minimize the number of interviews. (However, take the time needed to
do a thorough and reliable assessment.)
27. If there is time pressure, as there may be if a choice about the safety
of the child must be made, get as much reliable information as you can,
and make the choice.
C. Criterion Based Content Analysis/Statement Validity Analysis
1. This is a procedure for interviewing children suspected of being abused
and for analyzing the resulting interview. (See Köhnken & Steller,
1988; Raskin & Esplin, 1991; Rogers, 1990; Undeutsch, 1988.) 2. The
procedure assumes that an account based on a real memory of an actual event
will differ in content and quality from descriptions of accounts that are
based on fabricated, learned, or suggested memory.
3. The procedure requires a relatively complete statement obtained as soon
as possible after the child has disclosed an incident.
4. It is not intended for eliciting the initial report when abuse has only
been suspected because of behavioral indicators.
5. The interview must be designed to obtain a free narrative and leading
questions and suggestions must be avoided, except at the end when deliberately
used to assess the child's susceptibility to suggestion.
6. The entire interview is tape-recorded and transcribed for later analysis.
D. Cognitive interviewing shows promise of increasing accuracy of accounts
(Fisher & Geiselman, 1988; Saywitz, Geiselman, & Bornstein, 1992).
E. Writing the report.
1. After conducting the interview(s), before drawing conclusions and writing
a report, obtain as much information about the child and the reported incident
as possible. (For example, the nature of the disclosure, the situation in
which the allegations surfaced, the personalities of the parties, the number
of times the child has previously talked to people about the alleged incident,
and the nature of such contacts.)
2. Explore possible motives either to deny real abuse or to fabricate abuse.
This is particularly important with older children and adolescents.
3. Review the videotape rather than depending upon your memory. If possible,
have the interview transcribed.
IV. Interviewing a child who has been exposed to multiple interrogations
A. A professional is often asked to assess a case after others have interviewed
the child. If the initial evaluation and interviews have been conducted
by someone else, careful examination of the procedures is necessary in order
to assess possible contamination which has been brought into the case (Wakefield
& Underwager, 1988; White & Quinn, 1988). When children have been
subjected to leading and coercive interviews, the contamination is likely
to have altered their recollections so that it becomes extremely difficult
to sort out the truth.
B. When interviewing a child who has been repeatedly exposed to adult social
influence, the goal is to permit and encourage the most reliable statements
a child can make. C. A child who has been interviewed a number of times
has learned a certain set of expectations about adult behavior and about
the responses the adults reinforce.
1. Most adult interviewers are very task oriented. They aim to affirm what
they believe happened. They are dominant and active and the children are
passive and compliant. The interviewer is serious, intense, and asserts
power and control to keep the child on the task and efforts by the child
to engage in spontaneous play are suppressed and controlled.
2. The oft-interviewed child has learned that when responses are given that
please the adult, there is positive reinforcement. A child gets praised,
sometimes given soda, cookies, access to a special toy, or the ending of
3. When an evaluation is ordered within the context of an adversarial proceeding,
those who have been interviewing the child may teach the child to fear the
D. In this situation, the evaluator must get all possible information about
the child, the accused perpetrator, the nature of the accusations, and the
process the child has endured before interviewing the child.
E. It is helpful to have family picture albums, pictures of the accused
perpetrator, favorite toys, and objects from the child's prior experience.
These items may be used as cues to free recall and checks on the emotional
responses of the child.
F. Wherever possible, observe the interaction between the child and the
accused perpetrator during the evaluation.
G. The aim is to provide an environment that permits the child to be free
from pressure, free for recall, and thus produce maximally reliable statements.
The idea is to break the mental set, change the expectancies of the child
from the earlier interviews, and establish a new system of relationship
for the child.
H. There are two approaches we recommend. The first is genuinely to have
fun with the child and the second is to give power to the child.
I. Specific suggestions for interviewing the frequently-interrogated child.
(Decisions about which of these techniques to use in a particular interview
depend upon the personality of the interviewer and the particular situation.)
1. Start the interview in the waiting room with the very first contact with
the child. If there are adults accompanying the child, do not relate to
them but to the child first.
2. Get into a playful mode as quickly as possible. Act expansive, jolly,
entertaining so that the child can see that you are not like all the other
adults asking questions. Children readily pick up that you are kidding and
can go along with it.
3. Give power to the child. Let the child lead in the responses to your
behavior and then follow his lead. Shift the conversation back and forth,
respecting the child's short attention span.
4. Use a Polaroid camera during the interview. Children respond well to
photographs and to taking photographs.
5. The use of photographs gives an opportunity to check whether the child's
responses include a visual component. A child who has been repeatedly interviewed
may have a learned response of "bad touch" associated with a name
but not a photograph. This suggests that the account has been learned rather
than reflecting a real event.
6. Use unfamiliar toys and objects to check the memory for objects that
7. Permit free recall to see if what may appear to be trivial, peripheral
details are volunteered. When an event occurs in real time, there are always
many other things happening than a central event. We are aware, even if
not focusing upon them, of many stimuli. A cat may meow, a pillow fall off
a couch, or an airplane fly overhead. When an account is being given of
a real time event such peripheral details will emerge.
8. When there is a negative emotional response to the accused perpetrator
and/or familiar objects, when visual cues are responded to, and when details
commensurate with an actual experience emerge, the reality of the alleged
abuse is suggested V. Criteria for judging an allegation
A. Although the justice system makes the determination of the truth or falsity
of an allegation, the mental health professional is often asked to give
B. The reports of suspected child abuse have greatly increased in the past
20 years. The increase has been even greater for reports of child sexual
1. Approximately 60% to 65% percent of all reports of suspected child abuse
turn out to be unfounded compared to 1975 when only about 35% were unfounded
2. This increase in unfounded accusations results from the broadening of
the reporting laws along with the great attention given to child abuse.
3. This dramatic increase in unfounded reports overloads the system and
prevents help from reaching children who actually are being abused. The
protective service agencies are making mistakes on both sides.
4. 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. C. Definitional issues
1. The disagreement over the proportion of false allegations is partially
due to differing definitions of a false allegation. Criteria such as as
substantiation by child protection, a finding by the justice system, the
opinion of a mental health or law enforcement professional, or some combination
of these appear in the literature.
2. The terms substantiated and unsubstantiated create confusion. Unsubstantiated
is not the same as false and substantiated does not necessarily mean the
allegation is true.
3. The category of false allegations sometimes includes all cases which
cannot be substantiated. At other times it is limited to cases in which
the accuser is purposefully deceiving and situations of good faith misunderstanding
are excluded. When an accusation of sexual abuse is false, this does not
mean that it was a deliberately fabricated.
4. If actual abuse is defined in terms of substantiated cases and false
allegations are limited to deliberate fabrications, a study will report
a small number of false allegations. There will be more if a false allegation
is defined as all cases that are not substantiated. There will be a still
larger number if the criteria is the justice system's finding of abuse,
since not all allegations substantiated by social services result in a finding
of abuse by the court.
D. Suggested criteria
1. A spontaneous disclosure made by a young child without evident adult
influence is more likely to be true.
a. Young children almost never initiate false allegations without influence
from an adult.
b. This may be less true of older children and teenagers who have been exposed
to prevention programs or the publicity about sexual abuse.
2. Some writers believe allegations that turn out to be false often involve
very young children (Schaefer & Guyer, 1988; Everstine & Everstine,
1989, Wakefield & Underwager, 1991b, 1994a). 3. The probability of the
a. Knowledge of the behavior of actual abusers is important for evaluating
whether an allegation is true in cases where the accused denies the allegation
and there is no corroborating evidence. If the alleged behaviors are extremely
improbable, then it is less likely that the allegation is true.
b. Investigators and therapists often appear to be ignorant of the real,
actual pattern of sexual contact between children and adults. It is crucial
to think very realistically and practically about what would actually have
to happen in order for the alleged behavior to have actually taken place.
c. Tollison and Adams (1979) describe the general behaviors engaged in by
the pedophile as follows:
Pedophiliac behavior may involve caressing a child's body, manipulating
a child's genitals, or inducing a child to manipulate an adult's genitals.
Occasionally, the behaviors also include penile penetration (partial or
complete--vaginal or anal), oral sex, and any practice utilizing the sexual
parts or organs of a child so as to bring the person in contact with the
child's body in any sexual manner. Pedophiliac acts may be homosexual or
heterosexual in nature and may include touching, caressing, masturbation,
oral-genital contact, and intercourse, as well as pedophilic exhibitionism,
voyeurism, rape, sadism, and masochism....Physical violence to the child
occurs in only 2 percent of instances... (page 326).
d. In homosexual pedophilia, the most common contact is masturbation-done
to rather than by, the boy. This is followed by fellatio. Anal intercourse
is less common.
e. Erickson (1985) and Erickson, Walbek, & Seely, (1988) report that
vaginal and anal penetration is rare in young children and is extremely
painful. It results in injuries and laceration, not stretching of the involved
organ. The molester must have a strategy for muffling the child's screams.
f. Vaginal penetration is more likely with an older child and is more common
in clinical samples compared to community samples (Wakefield & Underwager,
f. Bribery is more common than threat. Threatening a child is the way to
assure the quickest disclosure when the threatening agent is not present.
g. Aggression and violence are not usually part of the behavior. Sadistic,
bizarre, or homicidal forms of abuse occur but are extremely rare.
h. There is no evidence for satanic ritual abuse conspiracies (see section
below on this)
i. In incest, a grooming process is often involved (Erickson et al., 1988;
Christiansen & Blake, 1990).
j. In false cases, the allegations may initially be very vague and not easily
amenable to being verified or refuted.
4. Female child sexual abusers (see Wakefield & Underwager, 1991a).
a. Sexual abusers are primarily male.
b. There are widely different circumstances in which females may engage
in behavior that is defined as "child sexual abuse" and the circumstances
that lead women to sexually abuse children can often be differentiated from
those causing men to do so.
i.One example of this is sexual abuse which occurs in conjunction with a
dominant male and in which the woman plays a secondary role.
ii.Another is found by the retrospective surveys of college men in which
many of the boys reported that they had engaged in the incidents voluntarily
and did not feel victimized.
c. Some of the recent literature which discusses female perpetrators is
likely to have included cases of false accusations which gives a misleading
picture of both the frequency with which females abuse children and the
characteristics of such women. An example of this is the Finkelhor day care
study (Finkelhor, Williams, & Burns, 1988; Finkelhor, Williams, Burns,
& Kalinowski, 1988).
5. Characteristics of the child's statement
a. There is general agreement that valid accounts of abuse will have appropriate
details given the child's age, especially affective and contextual details
and the child's affect will be appropriate to the report (deYoung, 1986;
Faller, 1988; Jones & McGraw, 1987; Jones & Seig, 1988; Köhnken
& Steller, 1988; Sink, 1988a Raskin & Esplin, 1991; Rogers, 1990;
b. If there is strong hatred expressed toward the accused that is based
upon trivial and vague reasons, this may be the result of learning from
the accusing parent rather than from actual abuse (Gardner, 1987).
c. A child who is very eager to talk about the abuse may have learned that
adults reward such talk (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988).
d. Significant contradiction and variation in the story across time, especially
when the account shows that the child has no visual image but is responding
to verbal cues, supports the possibility of the child learning the story
e. However, Ceci and Bruck (1995) found that professionals were unable to
differentiate between videotapes of children describing real events and
children describing events they had learned about through suggestive questioning.
Adult judgments or opinions about the accuracy of children's accounts may
be no better than chance. 6. Personality characteristics of the persons
a. A history of sexual abuse in the childhood experience of an adult involved
in an accusation may produce anxiety, sensitivity, suspiciousness, and readiness
to overinterpret innocuous events.
b. On the other hand, an experience of having been sexually abused may mean
that an adult can pick up accurate signs in the behavior of children and
c. In divorce and custody cases, a personality disorder may increase the
possibility of an allegation being false (Wakefield & Underwager, 1990).
d. The personality patterns of the person accused.
i. If it cannot be demonstrated that an accused person has the pathology
associated with most child sexual abusers, the likelihood of a false accusation
ii. A "normal" personality based on an MMPI or other assessment
techniques does not mean that the individual could not be a sexual abuser.
A significant minority of child sexual abusers have normal MMPIs and appear
iii. The presence of psychological problems does not prove that the abuse
iv. Consideration of the personality characteristics of the accused is particularly
important when the allegations are of highly deviant behaviors.
v. Unusual or infrequent sexual behaviors in the life of the accused does
not necessarily increase the likelihood of being a child molester. An example
is transvestite behaviors which do not increase the probability of being
a child abuser.
7. The behavior of the professionals involved:
a. Conclusions or opinions based on personal experience alone which ignore
the research data are most likely wrong (Dawes, 1989, 1994).
b. There are no scientific data supporting symbolic sign interpretations
of drawings, coloring books, play, and dolls (Underwager & Wakefield,
c. When the professional has done a careful investigation, used accepted
procedures, and considered alternative explanations, the conclusions are
more likely to be accurate.
d. The tendency to make unwarranted assumptions and the failure to consider
multiple hypotheses and to gather as much uncontaminated information as
possible can lead to premature decisions (Mandel, Lehman, & Yuille,
1994). In cases of false accusations professionals often immediately conclude
that an accusation is true (Blush & Ross, 1990).
e. Investigators often do not follow the procedures established by law or
by internal regulations. The presence of procedural errors by the decision
makers increases the likelihood of a mistake being made.
8. A discernible "language game" has developed within the system
for dealing with sexual abuse accusations.
a. Examples are the surplus meaning attached to words and phrases like "touch"
or "hurt," "private parts," "bad touch," or
"felt yucky." b. When children and adults show verbal behaviors
that can be identified as a shared language game, there has been some learning
and a mutual acceptance of the tacit assumption defining the activity. c.
Actual sexual abuse occurring within the customary language of most people
does not require a different language game in order to do it or talk about
9. There are situational factors that increase the probability that an accusation
a. Accusations arising within a divorce/custody dispute.
b. Accusations involving a disturbed adolescent.
c. Accusations about sexual abuse in day care centers.
VI. Allegations of ritualistic and satanic abuse
A. Extent of the allegations
1.The American Bar Association is conducting a survey of local prosecutors
to obtain an estimate of the national incidence of different types of cases
of child abuse. As of early 1991 the preliminary data indicated that about
one-third of local prosecutors have handled cases involving "ritualistic
or satanic abuse" (Victor, 1991).
2. The FBI has investigated over 300 of these cases (Lanning, 1991, 1992).
3. Books by "survivors" and appearances on television talk shows
such as Geraldo Rivera are becoming common.
4. Articles and books in the professional and popular literature have proliferated
in the past several years.
B. The professional community has become polarized in response to such allegations.
C. There are many meanings given to the terms ritualistic and/or satanic
abuse and the lack of a consensus as to what is meant makes investigation
D. The allegations of ritual abuse come from two sources:
1. 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, such as survivors' groups and hypnotherapy.
2. Accounts of children who have allegedly been ritualistically abused at
day care centers, of which the McMartin case is the best known example.
3. These sources have affected one another.
a. A well-known "survivor's" book, Michelle Remembers (Smith &
Pazder, 1980) was used by police and prosecutors in the early 1980s in preparing
cases against people accused of sexually molesting children in day care
centers (Charlier & Downing, 1988).
b. Michelle Smith and other "survivors" met with the parents and
children involved in the McMartin case after the case was reported in the
press (Nathan, 1991).
E. Supportive networks
1.The belief in satanic, ritualistic abuse has been supported by several
volunteer associations of parents and conferences on ritual abuse for police
and child protection workers function as organizing agencies, which promote
the conversion and recruitment of more and more professionals to the moral
crusade, including social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians
and police (Hicks, 1991, Victor, 1991).
2. These professionals then become "experts" on ritual abuse and
disseminate the satanic cult legend to the local level, where they alert
people to the "signs" of ritual abuse in public speeches and small
town newspaper articles.
3. As a result, there is now a vast communication network which disseminates
elaborate assumptions about ritual abuse (Gonzales, 1989; Mulhern, 1991;
F. Survivor's accounts
1. These "survivors" generally first uncover "memories"
of these experiences during psychotherapy.
2. Frequently, techniques such as hypnosis or survivors groups are used.
3. The survivors are diagnosed as multiple personality disorder (MPD)
4. The survivors allege memories of bizarre events, including urine and
feces, ritual murder and torture, cannibalism, and baby breeding.
G. Problems with survivor stories
1. Research with hypnosis indicates that memories retrieved in a hypnotic
trance will contain a combination of fact, fantasy and suggestion that cannot
be accurately determined without external corroboration (Ganaway, 1991,
2. A few therapists are finding almost all of the satanic cult survivors.
This strongly suggests the influence of the beliefs of the therapist.
3. The allegations in these accounts have not been independently verified.
The one careful attempt (Passantino, Passantino & Trott, 1989) to verify
one of these accounts, Satan's Underground, by Lauren Stratford (1988) showed
that the claims were not corroborated.
4. MPD is controversial and cannot said to be generally accepted in the
scientific community (Aldridge-Morris, 1989; Fahy, 1988; Frankel, 1993;
Freeland, Manchanda, Chiu, Sharma, & Merskey, 1993; McHugh, 1993; Merskey,
1992; Spanos, 1994; Wakefield & Underwager, 1994b; Weissberg, 1993).
5. There is nothing in the scientific literature to support the claims of
recovered memory of "repressed" childhood sexual abuse (Wakefield
& Underwager, 1992, 1994b).
6. Such stories are likely the result of the therapy given (Wakefield &
Underwager, 1992, 1994b).
H. Allegations of ritual abuse in day care centers
1. Rumors that satanists were sexually molesting children in day care centers
first attained national attention in the McMartin Preschool case (Underwager
& Wakefield, 1991).
2. Soon after the McMartin case attracted national attention, similar accusations
of ritual sexual abuse swept across the country (Charlier & Downing,
3. As in the survivor's accounts, there has been no evidence found to supporting
the ritual abuse allegations.
4. The allegations come from the way the children are interviewed in these
cases, by interviewers who believe the abuse is real, who attend the same
workshops and conferences, who consult with one another, conferences, and
who then interview children with suggestive and leading questions (Wakefield
& Underwager, 1994b).
5. Some recent interviewing tools contain explicit drawings of ritualistic
abuse (Northwest Psychological Publishers, 1990; Sanford, 1990).
6. The tunnels under the McMartin preschool.
a. There is currently a group of professionals who believe that there was
ritual abuse at the McMartin preschool and that the tunnels under the school
where these activities allegedly took place were found (Summit, 1993, 1994,
b. This claim has been made at conferences and in the sexual abuse survivor
literature and has now found its way into the professional literature (i.e.,
c. However, a careful analysis of the evidence for the tunnels indicates
that there is no good evidence for their existence (Earl, 1995).
I. There are sadistic and disturbed people who abuse and brutalize children.
Some of these people may abuse a child in what looks like or is interpreted
as a satanic ritual, a possibility that becomes more probable given the
current media attention and publicity.
J. However, 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 (Hicks, 1991; Lanning, 1991, 1992; Richardson, Best,
& Bromley, 1991; Victor, 1991).
K. Despite this, many professionals and lay people believe in the satanic
a. A survey of clinical psychologists indicated that 93% of those who had
seen cases of ritual or religious abuse believed the ritual abuse was true
(Goodman, Qin, Bottoms, & Shaver, undated).
b. Although there was convincing evidence for a variety of types of religion-related
abuse (e.g., withholding medical care, abuse by priests, exorcisms), there
was no evidence for claims of satanic cult activity.
H. Attached at the end of the outline is a sample of several multivictim,
multiperpetrator allegations. They are in several other countries in addition
to the United States. These cases all had massive publicity in their geographical
areas, and several have been publicized throughout the world. This is a
limited sample, there are many similar cases. We were professionally involved
in all but a couple of these.
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
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 custody cases.
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 fact, false.
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 divorce.
1. The nonoffending parent finds out about the sexual abuse and decides
to divorce the offending parent,
2. There is long-standing sexual abuse that is only revealed in the context
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 divorce.
D. Factors behind false allegations
1. A false accusation is seldom a deliberate fabrication made for the purpose
of obtaining custody.
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 underlying issues.
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
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
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 paranoid.
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 sexually abused.
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
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 abuse.
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.
VIII. Behavioral indicators
A. Various behaviors and behavior changes are often cited as signs of sexual
abuse in children and adolescents. 1. For example, The Journal of the American
Medical Association (JAMA, 1985, p. 798) includes the following as behavioral
signs of sexual abuse:
a. Become withdrawn and daydream excessively b. Evidence poor peer relationships
c. Experience poor self-esteem d. Seem frightened or phobic, especially
of adults e. Experience deterioration of body image f. Express general feelings
of shame or guilt g. Exhibit a sudden deterioration in academic performance
h. Show pseudomature personality development i. Attempt suicide j. Exhibit
a positive relationship toward the offender k. Display regressive behavior
l. Display enuresis and/or encopresis m. Engage in excessive masturbation
n. Engage in highly sexualized play o. Become sexually promiscuous
2. Such lists have been widely disseminated through the media, pamphlets,
popular articles, seminars and workshop aimed at training or consciousness
3. To spread these claims without appropriate cautions about the limitations
of such information can generate mistakes, confusion, over-reaction, and
over-interpretation. 4. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
there was a great deal of public attention given to the pernicious and destructive
habit of masturbation by children. J. Kellogg, M. D., originator of corn
flakes, produced several books for parents to help them stamp out this evil.
The behavioral indicators parents used then to know if their children were
masturbating are the same behavioral indicators now said to prove a child
has been abused (Legrand, Wakefield, & Underwager, 1989). These beliefs
resulted in serious damage to children including clitoridectomies for young
females and physical restraints for males.
5. It is an error in diagnosis to use non-discriminating signs to make a
diagnosis. If a sign can be caused by 100 different variables, it cannot
to be used to select a single one.
B. Age-inappropriate sexual behavior in children is often claimed to be
a better behavioral indicator.
1. What children normally and naturally do sexually is much more frequent
and involved than most people assume (Best, 1983; Gundersen, Melas &
Skar, 1981; Martinson, 1981). Without knowing what a normal level is, it
cannot be determined what is precocious, greater interest than normal, and
what may indicate abuse.
2. Rosenfeld and his colleagues (Rosenfeld, Bailey, Siegel & Bailey,
1986; Rosenfeld, Siegel & Bailey, 1987) emphasize getting normative
information on nakedness, genital touching and bathing practices before
deciding whether these behaviors support a suspicion of sexual abuse. They
found that genital touching of parents on an incidental basis is not uncommon
even among 10-year-olds.
3. Friedrich, Grambsch, Broughton, Kuiper, and Beilke, R. N. (1991) report
that their normal, nonabused sample of children showed a wide variety of
sexual behaviors at relatively high frequencies.
4. However, Friedrich et al. also found that behaviors more imitative of
adult sexual behavior were unusual. Therefore, if a child is found engaging
in explicitly sexual behavior, such as oral-genital contact, this should
be carefully checked out.
5. But even this does not prove that the child was sexually abused by an
adult. Peer sexual play, inadvertently seeing adults having intercourse,
or access to x-rated video might account for it. D. Behavioral indicators
result from stress in general and are not specific to the stress of sexual
1. These alleged behavioral indicators of sexual abuse are found in many
different situations, including divorce, conflict between parents, economic
stress, wartime separations, absent father, and almost any stressful situation
2. The stress resulting from parents divorcing, particularly if the divorce
is bitter and custody is contested, can result in many of the behavioral
indicators in children.
3. Possible consequences arising from an allegation of sexual abuse-a frightening
and perhaps painful physical examination by a stranger, separation from
one or both parents, possible removal to a foster home, multiple interrogations
by a number of inter-viewers-are themselves the source of significant stress.
4. The base rates of the presence of many such behaviors in normal children,
in troubled children, in non-abused children, and as part of the developmental
process for all children is so high that any attempt to use them as indicating
abuse will result in a high rate of error.
E. In addition, not all sexually abused children are symptomatic subsequent
to sexual abuse (Gomes-Schwartz, Horowitz, & Cardarelli, 1990), so the
absence of behavioral symptoms cannot be used to rule out sexual abuse.
E. Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS) (The following criticisms
apply also to the Sexually Abused Child Syndrome.)
1. The CSAAS was developed and described by a psychiatrist, Roland Summit
(1983). It is used by interviewers to justify their questioning and interpretation
of the responses of children while undergoing an interview.
2. Summit proposes five categories of behavior that constitute the syndrome.
The five are 1) secrecy, 2) helplessness, 3) entrapment and accommodation,
4) delayed, conflicted, and unconvincing disclosure, and 5) retraction.
3. The concepts of this putative syndrome are being used to decide whether
or not a child's statements about being sexually abused are valid or false.
4. There are no scientific research studies that support the validity and
reliability of the CSAAS or the sexually abused child syndrome (Corwin,
5. In spite of the complete lack of validation the syndrome has been adopted
by many professionals involved with allegations of sexual abuse. For example,
the concept of secrecy, that a child who has been abused will keep it a
secret, is used to support the tactic of continuing to pursue questioning
when a child denies abuse.
6. The application of the CSAAS to children's statements means that nothing
they say can count against the belief that abuse happened. Once an allegation
hits a professional who believes in the validity of the CSAAS concept, nothing
can falsify it.
7. Summit (1992) acknowledges that the the CSAAS is a clinical opinion,
not a scientific instrument and admits that its original basis was his experience
consulting with practitioners about incestuous abuse. (Summit did not see
the child victims himself.)
8. Although Summit 1992) denies that the CSAAS is specific to father-daughter
incest, the syndrome has been criticized by others as inapplicable to different
circumstances, such as an accused neighbor, or a baby sitter, or in a divorce
and custody battle.
9. Myers (1993) notes that the CSAAS is a nondiagnostic syndrome because
it does not point with any certainty to sexual abuse and he states that
it should not be used as evidence that the alleged abuse occurred.
10. Courts have generally ruled that CSAAS is inadmissible to prove that
abuse occurred but it has been admitted to rehabilitate children when there
is delayed reporting and recantation (Myers, 1993).
F. It is the consensus of scientific opinion that no specific behavioral
syndromes characterize victims of sexual abuse; therefore the presence of
symptoms cannot be used to demonstrate that abuse or occurred and the absence
of symptoms does not rule it out (e.g., Lamb, 1994).
IX. Medical evidence
A. There is an over reliance on the medical examination.
1. Many parents, social workers, investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys,
therapists, etc. assume that an abused child will show physical signs of
2. In most reported cases of child sexual abuse, however, there is no physical
or medical evidence that a child has been sexually abused.
a. Inasmuch as a considerable portion of sexual abuse involves exhibitionism,
breast and/or genital fondling, and masturbation of the perpetrator, this
finding is not surprising.
b. Therefore, a normal physical exam cannot rule out sexual abuse. B. Uses
of a medical examination.
1. A medical examination ought be done whenever it may contribute helpful
information if a report is not immediately dismissed as unfounded.
2. It is particularly important when the allegations are of abusive behaviors
that are likely to result in physical sequelae (i.e., penile penetration
of a young child).
3. For example, Paul (1977) reports that penile penetration in young children
results in diffuse and widespread injuries including multiple tears and
bruising in the labia, vaginal walls and hymen. The injury will bleed and
the child will experience immediate and excruciating pain. If an accusation
of penetration in a very young child is made and there is no physical evidence,
it is unlikely that the accusation is true.
4. The medical examination must be done as soon as possible since genital
injuries heal rapidly and physical signs will be difficult to detect if
the examination is not performed immediately after the alleged event (Bays
& Chadwick, 1993; McCann, Voris, & Simon, 1992).
5. However, the high level of unquestioning credibility given to what is
presented as medical evidence must be considered in evaluating medical examinations
C. The results of medical examinations for sexual abuse are frequently ambiguous.
1. Base rate studies of nonabused children indicate that many of the findings
often used to support a diagnosis of abuse are found with a high enough
frequency in normals that they do not support an opinion that abuse occurred
(Coleman, 1989; McCann, Voris, Simon, & Wells, 1989, 1990; McCann, Wells,
Simon, & Voris, 1990).
2. Some reported findings, such as lax sphincter tone and the anal dilatation
reflex, are controversial and rejected by many medical authorities.
3. Enlarged vaginal openings
a. Cantwell, in 1983, stated that an enlarged vaginal opening as a single
finding correlates with the reported history of sexual abuse in approximately
75% of 45 cases. She defined an enlarged opening as one exceeding 4 mm.
This assertion is still found in medical reports we have reviewed.
b. Since that time, baseline studies have shown that this conclusion cannot
be supported (Emans, Woods, Flagg & Freeman, 1987; McCann, Wells, Simon,
& Voris, 1990).
c. An examining physician may make statements about the size of the hymenal
opening based on the basis of visual examination alone. The claim of an
enlarged opening obtained by visual examination only is highly questionable.
d. The position the examination is done in will affect the results of the
examination (McCann, Voris, Simon, & Wells, 1990).
e. Paradise (1989) estimates that when the hymenal orifice diameter is used
as a screening test for sexual abuse, there will be 65% false positives
for allegations of penile penetration and 73% for digital penetration.
4. Genital injuries and trauma are often associated with sexual abuse. However,
there can be other causes which must be ruled out.
a. A number of conditions in young girls are associated with prepubertal
vaginal bleeding, including severe vaginal infections and lesions caused
by physical activity such as fence or straddle injuries (Behrman & Vaughan,
b. Falls onto a pointed object and violent splits can cause injuries to
the genital area of young children and the doctor must consider such an
interpretation when looking at genital injuries (Paul, 1977).
5. Sexually transmitted diseases
a. Sexually abused children have contracted gonorrhea, rectogenital chlamydial
infections, herpes simplex, venereal warts and syphilis Such diseases have
been found in the genitals, rectum and throat.
b. However, only a relatively small percentage of sexually abused children
contract these diseases.
c. Although it is rare for sexually transmitted diseases to occur in children
without sexual abuse, it can happen. Therefore, a finding of these venereal
diseases in children does not conclusively establish sexual abuse. But further
investigation for sexual abuse is warranted whenever these diseases are
6. Vaginal discharge and infection.
a. Vaginal discharge and infections often result in suspicion of sexual
b. However, vaginal infections are not unusual in young girls and constitute
the most common gynecological problems of children and adolescents (Behrman
& Vaughan, 1983; Huffman,1958). Most of these infections are not due
to sexual abuse.
c. The premenarchal genitals present a different environment for the growth
of bacteria than do the tissues of adults (Huffman, 1958). The anatomy of
the prepubertal vagina lying close to the anus, lacking the pubic hair and
labial fat pads of the older girl in conjunction with poor hygiene leads
to vaginal infections (Behrman & Vaughan, 1983; Singleton, 1980).
7. Redness, irritation, and/or erythema of the vaginal area
a. Paul (1977) notes that the infantile mucosa is normally much redder than
that of the post- pubescent merely because the epithelium is thinner. This
redness is not the same as the more localized redness due to bruising and
abrasion that can result from attempted penetration. Therefore, such redness
does not indicate that sexual abuse has probably occurred.
b. Excoriation of the skin of the vulval and perineal areas and of the skin
around the natal cleft is sometimes interpreted as evidence of sexual assault.
However, such excoriation is common in small children due to poor local
hygiene, the exclusion of the air by waterproof or nylon panties, or scratching
from worm infestations.
c. Sometimes a vulvo-vaginitis of the Monilia type will be found after taking
antibiotics (Paul, 1977).
8. Erickson (1985) claims that lax sphincter muscles and enlarged openings
in young children do not indicate abuse inasmuch as penetration by an adult
male phallus results not in stretching and laxness but in tearing, mutilation,
D. However, there are now enough data on normal and nonabused children to
classify many findings as normal or nonspecific and others as lying on a
continuum of certainty that sexual abuse has occurred (Adams, 1992; Bays
& Chadwick, 1993).
E. An invariable finding when there has been anal penetration is that the
child will experience pain on defecation for some time afterwards ( Paul,
F. Violent cases of sexual abuse can produce nongenital cuts and bruises
(Woodling & Kossoris, 1981). Sometimes there is abrasion or bruising
of the inner surface of the lips, looseness of the incisor teeth, or even
damage to the frenulum of the upper lip in cases where a very young child
has been sexually assaulted. Such injuries accompany the attempts to muffle
the child's screams (Paul, 1977).
G. Controversial medical techniques.
1. Breo (1984) claims evidence of sexual abuse by emotional reactions of
children while undergoing medical examination (insertion of a finger or
fingers into the vagina or anus, noting apparent laxness of sphincter muscles).
2. A Minneapolis pediatrician uses a technique of inserting her finger into
the vagina and anus and stroking the clitoris in order to elicit alleged
associations with prior experience.
3. Most responsible physicians resist such examinations, claiming they are
medically dangerous and/or unable to yield valid conclusions (Erickson,1985;
Cantwell, 1983; Woodling, 1986).
H. In many instances a medical report claiming to have substantiated abuse
has no physical evidence but is instead based upon the history given to
the physician either by a parent or law enforcement or social work personnel,
an interpretation of emotional expressions of the child, or statements attributed
to the child.
1. There is nothing in the training of physicians that qualifies them for
expertise in interpreting emotions or emotional behavior exhibited by a
2. When a medical report is based upon data other than observed physiological
facts, its reliability is no greater than the subjective capacities and
competence of the person making the examination.
I. There are no data to support the conclusion that the behavior of the
child during the physical exam can give information about whether the child
1. Neither unusual fearfulness nor lack of anxiety during the exam should
not be used as evidence for or against abuse.
2. We have read reports using both of these behaviors as evidence of abuse.
J. The only specific and unambiguous physical findings demonstrating sexual
contact are pregnancy or sperm in the vagina or anus (Krugman, 1989). Each
report stating an opinion that a medical examination conclusively substantiates
a diagnosis of abuse or rules it out must be examined carefully. This is
especially true of those that do not report any physical findings but rely
upon history or interpretations of emotion or behavior.
X. Recovered Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse
A. Claims that traumatic and intrusive childhood sexual abuse was "repressed"
or "dissociated" so the victim had no memories until, with the
aid of a survivors' book or therapy, the memories were recovered.
B. Recovered memories claims have created fierce controversy and massive
polarization in the professional community.
C. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) in was founded in 1992 in
Philadelphia and has been contacted by some 17,000 parents.
D. Recovered memory assumptions
1. Many women have suffered childhood sexual abuse but do not remember the
2. These "survivors" have a variety of symptoms.
3. The "survivor" must be helped to retrieve her memories so she
can process the trauma. Without retrieving the memories, the person cannot
heal and recover.
4. These assumptions are supported by referring to one or more of several
c. body memories, flashbacks, and nightmares
d. multiple personality disorder
5. Information about the therapy that elicits recovered memories comes from
a. Reports of people who have undergone such treatment (Goldstein &
Farmer, 1993; Nelson & Simpson, 1994; Wakefield & Underwager, 1994b)
b. Writings of the therapists who describe their techniques in books, articles,
and workshop presentations (e.g., Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Courtois,
1992; Dolan, 1991; Fredrickson, 1992).
c. Journalists or private investigators who join a survivors' group or go
to a recovered memory therapist and record what happens (e.g. Nathan, 1992).
d. Information obtained by the FMSF questionnaire project. (Freyd, Roth,
Wakefield, & Underwager, 1993; Wakefield & Underwager, 1992, 1994b).
D. Recovered memory techniques
1. These include direct questioning, hypnosis, age regression, reading survivors'
books, attending survivors' groups, free association, massage therapy, dream
interpretation, ideomotor signaling with the unconscious, and expanding
on imagistic memories.
2. In the FMSF questionnaire, respondents also were aware of a variety of
other unconventional techniques, including prayer, meditation, neurolinguistic
programming, reflexology, channeling, psychodrama, casting out demons, yoga,
trance writing, and primal scream therapy.
3. After memories are retrieved, the "survivor" is encouraged
to express her rage at the perpetrator in a variety of ways such as throwing
darts at his photograph, writing him angry letters, or confronting him during
a family gathering. The goal of the therapist is to be accepting, reassuring,
encouraging, and validating of the disclosures.
E. Poole, Lindsay, Memon, and Bull (1995) survey
1. Poole et al. found that 71% of three random samples of doctoral level
therapists taken from the National Register of Health Services Providers
in Psychology (NRHSPP) in the United States and the Register of Chartered
Clinical Psychologists (RCP) in Britain had used techniques to help clients
recover suspected repressed memories of sexual abuse.
2. Out of their total sample of 202 therapists, 25% reported a constellation
of beliefs and practices suggestive of a focus on memory recovery and this
latter group reported relatively high rates of memory recovery in their
3. Poole et al. observe that their findings argue against the claim that
recovered memory therapists are a small group of uncredentialed and untrained
F. Scientific support for the recovered memory claims is lacking.
1. The reconstructive nature of memory.
a. What we remember is a combination of the original encoding of the event,
everything that happens to us since the event occurred, and our current
beliefs and feelings (Dawes, 1988; Loftus & Ketcham, 1991, 1994, Wakefield
& Underwager, 1994b).
b. Reconstructed memories can include detailed and subjectively real pseudomemories
of events that never happened.
c.Therapy involves the telling and retelling of life experiences and the
therapist shapes the telling of the personal history by selectively reinforcing
and validating the client's recollections (Lynn & Nash, 1994).
4. Memories can be shaped, combined with fantasies, distorted, and even
1. Many things that happen are simply forgotten, although many forgotten
events are readily recalled when there are cues.
2. People are seldom able to remember incidents from before the age of 3
or 4 because of the phenomenon of infant amnesia (Eisenberg, 1985; Loftus,
1993; Nelson, 1993).
3. Even sexual abuse may be forgotten-not "repressed," not "dissociated,"
not remembered only by an "alter personality," but simply forgotten.
Not all sexual abuse is traumatic. For many children, the abuse may have
been an unpleasant, but relatively unimportant event in the same category
as countless other unpleasant childhood events (Spence, 1994). Some victims
of less traumatic and intrusive abuse will forget about it until they are
reminded in some way.
H. Memory for documented trauma
1. There is a great deal of information on the reactions of people to documented
trauma, such as fires, airplane crashes, terrorist attacks, automobile accidents,
hurricanes, and being held hostage.
2. Although such trauma victims may report feelings of unreality, detachment,
numbing, disorientation, depersonalization, and flashbacks, they do not
forget the entire event. We were unable to find any studies on children
exposed to trauma and disasters where the children were described as developing
3. Children who have witnessed a parent being murdered are likely to be
troubled by intrusive thoughts (Black, Kaplan, & Hendricks, 1993; Malmquist,
1. Repression is seen as a psychological defense that results in the person
losing all memory for traumatic events.
2. Repression comes from Freudian psychodynamic theory and is seen as an
active, filtering process that is different from ordinary forgetting.
3. The concept of repression that involves the banishment from consciousness
of a series of traumatic and intrusive events that take place in different
circumstances over a number of years has been termed "robust repression"
by Ofshe and Watters (1993).
4. There is no experimental support for the theory of repression; the only
"evidence" comes from impressionistic clinical case studies and
5. In reviews of the literature over many years, Holmes (1974, 1990, 1994)
concludes that there is no reliable evidence for repression. There is absolutely
no support for the concept of robust repression as used in the recovered
1. Dissociation is now most often used to describe the process by traumatic
memories are banished from consciousness.
2. All of us are familiar with minor forms of dissociation, such as daydreaming,
becoming lost in a book, or "spacing out" while driving.
3. Dissociation can be seen as lying on a continuum from such ordinary forms
to pathological forms such as amnesia, depersonalization, and fugue states.
4. However, there are no empirical data supporting a concept of psychogenic
amnesia for a category of events stretching across several years.
5. No one has explained just how traumatic amnesia (or "repression"
or "dissociation") is supposed to work in eradicating sexual abuse
memories. Does the person completely dissociate the abuse and therefore
develop traumatic amnesia immediately following each event? If this is the
case, each new instance of abuse would be like the very first time since
the child would have no memories of any of the previous incidents. Or, at
some point after the abuse stops, does the person suddenly develop total
amnesia for all memories of all of the abuse incidents which had previously
K. Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD)
1. Now called "Dissociative Identity Disorder."
2. The recovered memory proponents assume that most people with MPD were
abused as children. A "protector" personality is believed to develop
and take over for the child, who therefore escapes psychologically from
3. But MPD itself is controversial and many researchers and clinicians believe
there is little empirical evidence supporting MPD as a distinct mental disorder
and that it is heavily dependent upon cultural influences for both its emergence
and its diagnosis (Aldridge-Morris, 1989; Fahy, 1988; Frankel, 1993; Freeland,
Manchanda, Chiu, Sharma, & Merskey, 1993; McHugh, 1993; Merskey, 1992;
Spanos, 1994; Wakefield & Underwager, 1994b; Weissberg, 1993).
4. We believe that MPD is a media or therapist-induced disorder resulting
from the widespread publicity about MPD and sexual abuse, suggestibility
in vulnerable patients, inadvertent shaping and reinforcement from believing
therapists, and social support and secondary reinforcement for the disorder.
L. Although the proponents of recovered memory offer three studies to support
a claim of repressed or dissociated memories (Briere & Conte, 1989,
1993; Herman & Schatzow, 1987; Williams, 1992, 1993), none of these
studies provides any credible scientific evidence to support the assumptions
of recovered memories (see Wakefield & Underwager, 1994b, for a detailed
critique of these studies).
M. Civil Litigation
1. There have been several lawsuits filed based on recovered memory claims.
2. Several states have passed legislation extending the statutory period
in civil cases so that the statute of limitations does not begin until two
or three years after the alleged abuse is remembered and/or after the claimant
understands that the abuse caused injury (Bulkley & Horwitz, 1994; Loftus
& Rosenwald, 1993; Slovenko, 1993).
3. Recently, in trial courts, testimony of recovered memory therapists has
not been admitted into evidence since it does not meet the standards of
Daubert (described in section XII).
4. There have been successful lawsuits against recovered memory therapists
by parents and clients who later retracted their recovered memories. (Gross,
N. Evaluating claims of recovered memories.
1.Without external corroboration, there is no truly satisfactory way to
determine the truth of a given "memory."
2. Daly and Pacifico (1991) suggest gathering the following information:
a. All medical, psychiatric, and and school records of the person claiming
abuse from childhood to the present.
b. Any information concerning relationships with peers, siblings and parents,
or any childhood behavior problems of the person claiming abuse.
c. Any information concerning the sexual history of the person claiming
abuse, including rapes, other childhood sexual abuse, abortions, etc.
d. The nature and origin of the disclosure, in as much detail and specificity
e. Information about any current problems or stresses in the life of the
person claiming abuse.
f. The nature of any current therapy, e.g. whether techniques such as hypnosis
and survivors' groups were used, the training and background of the therapist,
and whether he or she specializes in treating MPD or "recovered"
g. Any books, television shows, or workshops about sexual abuse or rape
to which the person claiming abuse may have been exposed.
h. Any exposure to recovered memory cases though a highly publicized case
in the media or through friends who may have reported that this happened
i. The work history of the person claiming abuse, including any problems
with supervisors or coworkers, especially any allegations of sexual harassment.
j. The psychological characteristics and social and family history of the
accused adult(s), including any drug or alcohol use, sexual history, family
relationships, and job history.
k. Any criminal record or prior behaviors in the accused adult which would
support or undermine the credibility of the allegations.
l. A detailed description of the behaviors alleged to have occurred.
m. Possible ways by which the person making the accusation might benefit
from or receive reinforcement from making the accusation (e.g., a civil
lawsuit, an explanation for why life has not gone well, the expression of
anger for perceived childhood injustices, power over a dominant parent,
attention, acceptance, new friends [in survivor group], etc.).
3. After obtaining the available documents and information, create a chronology
of events. Note information about how the memory returned and how it was
disclosed, the impact of therapy, books, or survivors' groups, etc., any
changes in the nature of the allegations over time, and any possible secondary
4. Some suggestions for evaluating claims.
a. When the allegations are of extremely deviant, low-probability behaviors,
rather than of behaviors more typical of actual abusers, the memory is less
likely to be for a real event.
b. If there are allegations of a series of abusive incidents across time
in different places and situations along with total amnesia for all of these,
the recovered memory is less likely to be true than if it is for a single
highly traumatic incident for which the person may have developed psychogenic
c. When the disclosures progress across time to ever more intrusive, abusive,
and highly improbable behaviors, the growth and embellishment of the story
is likely to represent the suggestions and reinforcement in therapy.
d. If the memory is for abuse that occurred at a very young age, such as
abuse during infancy or under age 3 or 4, the memory is unlikely to reflect
a real event. e. Especially when the behaviors alleged are highly deviant,
the allegations are less likely to be true when they include the mother
and when the person accused has no discernible serious pathology.
f. If the abuse has only recently been "remembered," it is less
likely to be true than if it has always been remembered but the person is
only now disclosing.
g. Memories are especially unlikely to reflect actual events when they only
emerge following therapy with a practitioner who specializes in recovered
h. Although psychopathology in some individuals may well make them more
susceptible to the influence of a recovered memory therapist, the data from
the FMSF survey (Freyd et al., 1993) suggests that many people who recover
memories of childhood abuse are not psychologically disturbed. These data
are consistent with the work of Spanos, Cross, Dickson, and DuBreuil (1993),
who found that subjects reporting UFO experiences were not psychologically
i. Corroborating evidence, such as such as a childhood diary with unambiguous
entries, pornographic photographs, or an uncoerced admission by the perpetrator,
obviously makes the allegations much more likely to be true. Some cases
may have this type of corroboration. Ambiguous evidence, however, such as
a childhood story or drawings now reinterpreted in light of the believed-in
abuse, cannot be used as proof that the abuse actually occurred.
O. Claims of psychological damage.
1. Claims of emotional or psychological damage which assert a single or
unidimensional cause must be evaluated in light of the scientific fact that
human behavior is multicausal and multidimensional.
2. The existence of eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, anxiety, depression,
or low self-esteem cannot be used to support abuse claims since these can
all be caused by a variety of factors (Beitchman et al., 1992, Pope &
3. Contrary to what most people believe, the effects of sexual abuse are
not nearly as severe as is often assumed (Levitt & Pinnell, 1995; Rind
& Harrington, Undated). The effects of physical abuse and neglect are
likely to be more serious and generate more long-term damage (Ney, Fung,
& Wickett, 1994).
4. When family dysfunction is controlled, the effects of sexual abuse wash
out. This is because both extrafamilial and intrafamilial sexual abuse are
closely associated with families that are dysfunctional and pathological
(Alexander & Lupfer, 1987, Beitchman et al., 1991, Harter, Alexander,
& Neimeyer; Hoagwood & Stewart, 1989; Levitt & Pinnell, 1995;
Nash, Hulsey, Sexton, Harralson, & Lambert, 1993; Underwager & Wakefield,
XI. Coerced and False Confessions and Police Deception
A. Importance of confessions
1. It has been estimated that more than 80% of criminal cases are solved
by a confession (Zimbardo, 1967a, 1967b).
2. A confession is the strongest form of evidence; jurors are more likely
to convict on the basis of a confession than anything else, including eyewitness
identification (Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985; Kassin & McNall, 1991).
3. It has been estimated that after after mistaken eyewitness identification,
false confessions are the most common cause of wrongful imprisonment (Brandon
& Davies, 1973).
4. Coerced confessions are no longer extracted by physical violence, instead
they are likely to result from psychological interrogation methods. 5. Jurors
accept subtle interrogation that elicits a nonvoluntary confession and discount
any coercion (Kassin & McNall, 1991).
6. The courts aim at only admitting into evidence voluntary confessions,
but although judges may readily exclude confessions where the coercion is
blatant and direct, they may not recognize and exclude confessions where
the coercion is subtle.
B. Police interrogations
1. Being interrogated by the police is a highly stressful experience.
2. Isolation and confinement can cause a wide range of behavioral and physiological
disturbances including loss of contact with reality (Gudjonsson & MacKeith,
3. Police interrogation "can produce a trance-like state of heightened
suggestibility" so that "truth and falsehood become hopelessly
confused in the suspects's mind" (Foster, 1969, pp. 690-691).
4. When the interrogator is perceived as a legitimate authority, the suspect
may obey instructions and suggestions which would ordinarily be rejected
(e.g., Milgram, 1963).
5. If a person has no experience with arrest and interrogation, he is more
likely to become upset and stressed by the interrogation (Gudjonsson &
6. Police techniques designed to get confessions can potentially undermine
the concept of a voluntary confession.
7. These techniques can be highly developed, psychologically sophisticated,
and extremely effective (Inbau, Reid, & Buckley , 1986; Zimbardo, 1967a).
8. The polygraph may be misused as an interrogation tool to extract a confession.
9. A common approach is to overwhelm the suspect with damaging evidence,
to assert a firm belief in his guilt, and then to suggest that it would
be easier for all concerned if the suspect admitted to his role in the crime
(Driver, 1968, Inbau, Reid, & Buckley, 1986; Kassin & Wrightsman,
10. The most widely used text for training police is Criminal Interrogation
and Confessions (Inbau, Reid, & Buckley, 1986).
a. In 1966 in Miranda v. Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court quoted the 1962
edition to show that police used deception and psychologically coercive
methods in questioning people.
b. The court concluded that interrogation is now psychologically oriented
rather than physical but that the degree of of coerciveness inherent in
the situation had not diminished (p. 448).
c. This current edition continues to actively advocate deception and lying
practices for interrogators to get evidence and confessions.
d. An example is the advice given about questioning a rape victim:
Where circumstances permit, the suggestion might be offered that the rape
victim had acted like she might have been a prostitute and that the suspect
had assumed she was a willing partner. In fact, the interrogator may even
say that the police knew she had engaged in prostitution on other occasions
. . . (p. 109).
e. The U. S. Supreme Court perceived that the sixteen strategies for interrogation
proposed by Inbau and Reid (1962) show three major themes.
i. The first is to re attribute the implications of the situation by shifting
the blame or minimizing the seriousness.
ii. Alternatively, the questioning may aim at frightening the individual
by exaggerating the evidence available, the consequences to the individual,
or stating firmly that the interrogator knows the person is guilty.
iii. The third theme is the emotional appeal to the person being questioned
by showing sympathy, flattery, respect, and appeal to the best interest
of the suspect. These are some of the practices the court found inherently
C. Individual factors
1. Factors encouraging a suspect to make a genuine confession may be similar
to those in influencing a person to make a false confession.
2. Gudjonsson and MacKeith (1982) note that "non-psychotic individuals
ruminating guiltily about such things as sexual deviation may also have
an exceptionally low threshold to confession to things that they have not
actually done" (p. 259).
3. The false confessor may be aware he is not telling the truth or his perceptions
may be distorted or he might even be deluded for a brief period of time.
4. The false confession in all of these situations is an interplay between
the person's mental state, basic personality, intelligence, and all of the
circumstances of the interrogation.
5. Criminal suspects who make confession statements which they later deny
differ from subjects who persistently deny any involvement in the crime
for which they are accused.
6. In our experience with child sexual abuse allegations, there is a subset
of individuals who are accused, interrogated, often jailed, who then produce
a confession of sorts. Later they deny the accusation, retract the confession,
and claim to have been coerced and pressured by the police.
7. Individuals who are naive, suggestible, passive, dependent, and who obey
authorities appear more vulnerable.
8. Gudjonsson and his colleagues have done research on this and have developed
a scale to assess this (Gudjonsson 1984a, 1984b, 1991; Gudjonsson &
9. Kassin & Wrightsman (1985) describe three types of false confessions.
D. Police deception
1. The investigator must be aware of the possibility of misbehavior by police.
2. Explanations for police deception
a. The "rotten apple" concept sees personal pathology or character
deficits as the cause of police misbehavior.
b. The "rotten barrel" concept asserts that it is the environment
and nature of police work that accounts for police misbehavior. Barker (1977)
documented the social support for corruption, the opportunities, and the
socialization practices of police departments.
c. The built-in paradox (Skolnick, 1982). Detecting for a police officer
is a process moving from investigation, through interrogation, to testimony.
The system permits deception during the investigation phase. A detective
may pose as a consumer, a fellow criminal, a panderer, or use informers
and wiretaps. The line between entrapment and acceptable deceit is vague
and unclear. The paradox is that the end of truth justifies the means of
d. The role of interrogator may be powerful enough to produce lying behavior
from anyone who is placed in that role. The Stanford Prison Experiment (Haney,
Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973) showed that in less than a week normal, educated,
mentally healthy young American men could be transformed into either hardened,
dehumanizing, lying guards acting in the same patterns as Nazi concentration
camp guards or passive, dependent, and depressed prisoners by the role assigned
3. While lying is approved in investigation, and viewed as necessary in
interrogation, perjury is not formally condoned. But although the rules
are clear that lying is not permitted in testimony in court, it is generally
accepted that police lie under oath and regularly commit perjury (Barker
& Carter, 1990).
E. Examples of lying by police that we have seen when children are questioned
in child sexual abuse cases.
1. Telling children that other children who have been questioned told of
abuse (Underwager & Wakefield, 1990). This is a form of the interrogation
tactic, "playing one offender against another," advised by Inbau,
Reid, and Buckley (1986) which tells the interrogator to say that another
person has confessed or implicated the one being questioned.
2. Telling children the doctor found proof they had been abused when the
medical examination was normal and there was no physical observation to
support a claim of abuse.
3. Telling children if they told what their parents did they would get to
leave the foster home and go home but if they didn't tell they could not
4. Telling children that Daddy is "sick" and the child should
tell so he can get "help" and not do those terrible things anymore.
5. Telling children mommy or grandma or some other adult told them what
happened or what the child said earlier.
6. Pretending to call Daddy on a telephone in the office and then telling
the child that Daddy said he wouldn't abuse her anymore.
7. Writing a letter to the child and telling the child it was from the accused
perpetrator. The letter told the child to tell about the abuse.
F. Other Types of Police Deception
1. "Fluffing up" the evidence to insure conviction of a suspect
the officer believes to be guilty (Barker & Carter, 1990).
2. McCloskey (1989) lists police lies on the witness stand, police pressure
to coerce false witnesses, suppression of exculpatory evidence, shoddy police
work after a conclusion has been reached about guilt, and falsified forensic
science reports as major factors in wrongful convictions.
3. In the current controversy about the prosecutor's actions toward DNA
researchers, in the Frye hearing, it was documented that the FBI had concealed
scientific data that falsified its reliance upon DNA testing and sought
to suborn witnesses (Scheck & Neufeld, 1991).
4. There is a widespread belief among law enforcement personnel that police
work by the book is impossible is the chief rationalization for lying (Hunt
& Manning, 1991)
5. Lindsay (1991) conducted a series of four experiments which suggest that
police deliberately and intentionally construct biased line ups to assure
identification of a suspect they believe guilty.
XII. Important Court Rulings
A. Maryland v. Craig (110 S. Ct., 3157, 1990)
1. Arose out of efforts to protect the child from the trauma of testifying
by modifying court procedures, such as testifying behind a screen or on
videotape in another room.
2. According to the Supreme Court, if the prosecution moves to have the
child witness testify behind a screen, they will have establish several
3. The requisite necessity finding must be case specific. The trial court
must hear evidence and determine whether the procedure's use is necessary
to protect the particular child witness' welfare; find that the child would
be traumatized, not by the courtroom generally, but by the defendant's presence;
and find that the emotional distress suffered by the child in the defendant's
presence is more than de minimis.
4. This Supreme Court ruling demands that there be an evidentiary hearing,
prior to the trial, at which there will be testimony about the effect on
the specific child of testifying in the presence of the person accused.
5. There is no research separating out the single factor of the defendant's
presence from all other factors in assessing the probable effects of courtroom
testimony on a child. There are no empirical data to support such a claim.
There is no way any competent mental health professional can testify that
emotional distress would be caused solely and alone by the presence of the
defendant (Underwager & Wakefield, 1992).
6. In Akiki, the motion was denied and the children testified in open court.
Later, the transcripts were examined. The children for the most part were
able to testify and did not behave in the way the mental health professionals
had predicted (Montoya, 1995).
B. Idaho v. Wright (110 S. Ct., 3139, 1990)
1. In Idaho v. Wright the court addressed the issue of what kinds of hearsay
are admissible in terms of the Confrontation Clause.
2. The Court set forth a two-part test for determining whether hearsay evidence
may be admitted against a defendant in a sexual abuse case.
a. First, hearsay may be admitted if it falls under a "firmly rooted"
exception to the hearsay rule.
b. Second, if the statement falls under a hearsay exception that is not
"firmly rooted," then the statement is presumptively unreliable
and inadmissible, and will only meet Confrontation Clause standards of admissibility
if it is supported by a showing of "particularized guarantees of trustworthiness."
3. It is difficult to meet the standard of "particularized guarantees
of trustworthiness" without a tape of the interview since without a
tape, there is no way to establish just what transpired in the interview.
C. New Jersey vs. Michaels (642 A.2d 1372, N.J. 1994)
1. New Jersey v Michaels is a decision from the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Kelly Michaels had been convicted of sexually abusing children in a day
care center and was imprisoned for 5 years before her case was overturned
on appeal (see Rosenthal, 1995 for an overview of the case and the issues).
2. The children had been subjected to highly leading, suggestive, and coercive
interviews. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the interrogations of
the children were improper, and given substantial likelihood the evidence
derived from them was unreliable, a pretrial hearing was required at which
the state would be required to prove by clear and convincing evidence that
the statements and testimony retained sufficient degree of reliability to
warrant admission at trial. This hearing is called a "taint hearing."
3. Where the interviews of the child witnesses are leading and suggestive,
the attorney can move for a taint hearing where the state must prove that
the interviews were not leading and coercive and that the testimony of the
child witness(es) would be reliable.
4. In the taint hearing, the state is entitled to call experts to offer
testimony with regard to the suggestive capacity of the suspect investigative
procedures, and the defendant may offer expert testimony of the issue of
the suggestiveness to counter the state's evidence.
C. Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (61 U.S.L.W. 4805, 113 S Ct 2786,
1. The unanimous United States Supreme Court decision dramatically changes
the criteria by which scientific testimony will be admitted as evidence
2. The major criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability,
refutability, or testability. This, in effect, replaces the Frye test (Frye
v. United States, 293 F. 1013) with the Popperian principle of falsification
as the determinant of scientific knowledge.
3. Justice Blackmun identified four factors that the court should consider
in determining whether an expert's opinion is valid under rule 702:
a. Whether the expert's theory or technique has been or can be tested or
b. Whether the theory or technique has been subjected to peer review or
c. What the known or potential rate of error is for any test or scientific
technique that has been employed.
d. Whether the technique is generally accepted in the scientific community.
4. Therefore, general acceptance in the scientific community (the Frye test)
is one consideration, the lack of such by itself does not preclude the proposed
testimony. This will make admissible new scientific evidence that was excluded
5. At the same time, if properly understood and followed, this ruling is
likely to render inadmissible testimony based on such concepts and theories
as the child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome and claims that childhood
sexual abuse has been "repressed."
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