False Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse
- The number of children who make false allegations of sexual abuse is lower than the number of children who do not disclose or deny having been sexually abused.
- Several factors related to a child’s personal characteristics and environment, as well as to the interviews conducted to investigate sexual abuse allegations, may lead children to make false allegations.
- The way in which a child is interviewed by a parent, an adult in their social network (e.g., teacher, neighbour), or a socio-legal professional about a case of alleged sexual abuse is one of the most studied and strongest predictors of false allegations.
- At present, there are no reliable tools or methods for detecting whether a child has made a false allegation. Only a rigorous investigation based on various sources that explore multiple hypotheses can facilitate the detection of false allegations.
For children, sexual abuse is overwhelmingly a crime of silence. When that silence is broken, it is often a child’s word against that of an adult. The stakes are high. Not believing a child who has been sexually abused has enormous consequences for the child, the child’s family, and the alleged perpetrator, as well as for the social workers, police and legal authorities involved.
Anyone who believes or has reason to believe that a child (under the age of 18) is being sexually abused is required to report the situation immediately to their local Director of Youth Protection (DYP). The DYP will evaluate the report and, if accepted, determine which services to implement to support the child and their family.
Definition and prevalence of false allegations of sexual abuse
There is no consensus in the literature on what is meant by “false allegations”, a term used to describe a range of phenomena involving children.1 According to Poole and Lamb (1998), the term should be reserved exclusively for cases where children explicitly make an allegation that is untrue, namely, where they claim to have been sexually abused even though this never occurred.2 However, the term often encompasses situations where parents or neighbours harbour suspicions that turn out to be unsubstantiated upon investigation or that are based on a misinterpretation of a child’s comments or behaviour, whether sexual abuse has been alleged by the child or not. Some authors also include investigations or reports that lead to unfounded allegations, regardless of the source of the report.3 Obviously, the prevalence of the phenomenon varies according to the definition used.
Using a representative sample of 7,672 cases of abuse investigated by child protection authorities in Canada, Trocmé and Bala (2005) observed that 31% of cases were unfounded but in good faith, while only 4% of cases were deemed to be false allegations that had been intentionally fabricated. The rate was slightly higher in cases of sexual abuse (6%) compared with cases of physical abuse (4%), neglect (4%), and emotional abuse (2%). However, none of the false allegations of sexual abuse had come from the children themselves; rather, they came either from a relative, an acquaintance or someone else.4
Moreover, the definition of false allegations should also be extended to cases in which a child has been abused but lies about it. The prevalence of false allegations is probably lower than that of false denials, i.e., the number of child victims who deny the facts or try to minimize the intensity and frequency of the abuse. Although it is difficult to determine the incidence of these denials, research has shown that only one third of children who have been sexually victimized reveal the abuse. The few studies that have focused on retractions indicate that children recant disclosed sexual abuse in 4% to 23% of cases.(5) Recantations are more frequent in younger children, in children who have been sexually abused by their parent, and in those who are not supported by the non-offending parent. Furthermore, the prevalence of retraction varies according to whether the interview is conducted in a formal or informal setting, and according to the number of interviews.6
In summary, the term “false allegations of child sexual abuse” can refer to the following situations:
- A child explicitly makes a false allegation of sexual abuse;
- Parents or neighbours harbour suspicions that turn out to be unsubstantiated upon investigation, whether sexual abuse has been alleged by the child or not;
- The allegations are the result of inadequate investigative techniques;
- A child has been sexually abused but lies about the abuse and even denies it.
Factors that can lead to false allegations of child sexual abuse
Many factors can lead to false allegations of sexual abuse. Some relate to the child’s characteristics and others to their environment or to the socio-legal context.3
Factor categorie: Child’s characteristics
|The child’s memory
|The child’s age
The child’s memory
Young children have relatively accurate long-term memories of events they have experienced and can provide a report of these memories under favourable conditions.7 However, several factors can also adversely influence a child’s memory and foster false or inaccurate allegations. These factors include:
- the child’s ability to identify the source of the information stored in their memory;
- the time lapse between events and their recall;
- a lack of knowledge of sexual abuse, which affects how information is stored;
- the child’s age, which affects the amount of detail that they can retain and recall.
The child’s age
As few studies have examined what role the child’s age plays in false allegations, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions regarding this variable. The available data seem to suggest that adolescents are more likely than children to deliberately make false allegations, given the many cognitive abilities required to lie (e.g., working memory, executive functions, inhibition control).8 However, when very young children are insistently asked leading questions by a parent, in the context of a divorce or separation for example, they may make allegations of sexual abuse that never occurred.
Factor categorie: Environment
|The influence of rumours
Cases of sexual abuse allegations in situations of separation, divorce or child custody disputes are complex and among the most demanding for legal professionals and the most time-consuming to investigate.9 Several factors are likely to promote sexual abuse allegations in these situations. Indeed, with the disenchantment that follows marital dissolution, separated parents may become convinced that their partners are capable of just about anything, including sexual abuse. A misinterpretation of the routine care given to the child, an increase in physical displays of affection developed due to the long absences caused by the separation, or inordinate worry may lead one of the parents to suspect sexual abuse and, following intense questioning of the child, to lead the latter to confirm these suggestions and thus to make a false allegation.3,9 These cases are slightly more frequent (4.7% to 15%) and more complex to assess than cases identified within intact families.10
The influence of rumours
Other contexts where numerous children regularly intermingle, such as sports teams, daycare centres and schools, are likely to be conducive to the spread of false allegations of sexual abuse. This propagation of false allegations can be explained according to the phenomenon of the rumor which, according to Rosnow (1991), is created to explain an event that is not known to people in general, but which gives rise to uncertainty and a feeling of personal anxiety linked to the situation. The extent to which a rumor circulates depends on the credibility of the rumor’s source.11 Until more extensive research can be conducted regarding the potential impact of rumour on the development of false allegations, this hypothesis should be considered in cases where several children claim that they know one of them is being sexually abused.3
Factor categorie: Social-legal context
|Questioning and suggestibility
Questioning and suggestibility
Questioning a child about sexual abuse in a socio-legal context or more specifically during a police investigation interview is a complex task involving several factors related to the child’s suggestibility, to communication, and to memory. Most studies have focused on interview-related factors, and guidelines have been recommended on the basis of several consistent findings:3
- Children are more easily influenced than adults, and young children are more easily influenced than older ones.
- Interview-related factors such as interrogation style (open, direct, leading, suggestive), the interviewer’s emotional attitude (intimidating, judgmental, supportive), and the child’s understanding of the task at hand can all influence the accuracy of the answers provided by children about events they have experienced.
- As source monitoring of information is poorly developed in young children, any discussion of, or questioning about, sexual abuse before an official investigative interview can etch itself in their memory. The same holds true of any other questioning that occurs outside the official investigative process, whether during or after. This phenomenon, commonly referred to as memory contamination, is not only difficult to prevent, but also to assess and measure once it has occurred.
These findings urge interviewers to exercise caution when interviewing children and to formulate their questions in such a way as to minimize suggestibility. Asking open-ended questions and allowing children to recount their experiences without interrupting them too often with specific questions helps to avoid influencing them.
Tunnel vision constitutes the most insidious pitfall in the investigative process.12 Investigators who approach a file with preconceived notions have a tendency to ask questions that confirm their beliefs. To avoid falling into this trap, professionals (police officers, social workers, prosecutors) must work to obtain information from several sources and to analyze all of it in the light of multiple hypotheses in order to avoid preconceived notions.
Validating a child’s statement
Following a child’s disclosure and testimony of sexual abuse, the social workers, police officers and prosecutors who received the testimony must determine whether the facts reported are true. According to Poole and Lindsay (1998), observations made about the child during an interview with a police officer or social worker are not reliable for determining whether the child is telling the truth or not. Given the wide range of emotional reactions and behaviours of sexually abused children and the difficulty of differentiating between the child’s reactions to the alleged abuse and those to the interview process itself, it is highly problematic and speculative to assess the validity of allegations based on the presence of an emotional component.13
To help professionals in this delicate task, several tools, such as the Criterion-Based Content Analysis (CBCA), have been developed. However, research on these tools has found that they lack sufficient accuracy to be considered valid and reliable instruments.14 Certain factors, such as the poor quality of an interview or reticence on the part of the child to talk about their experiences, can lead to erroneous conclusions, regardless of the veracity of the testimony. Other authors suggest a range of factors to consider when assessing cases, including the disclosure process, potential parental and peer influence, the quality of the investigative interview, and the details reported by the victim.15 These criteria should be empirically validated.
Determining the veracity of allegations of child sexual abuse
It is not up to the adult who receives a disclosure of sexual abuse from a child to determine whether the allegations are true or not; it is up to trained socio-legal professionals, who must base their decision on a set of criteria. Adults with no training in this area should still believe the child, and be cautious in their reactions and attitudes when receiving the disclosure. The best attitude to adopt is to listen to the child without interrupting or asking too many direct and specific questions about the nature of the acts committed; this will help to avoid contaminating the child’s memory. It is also important to write down the child’s words as quickly as possible, so that they can be passed on to the professionals concerned when a report is made to the DYP or when a complaint is lodged. It is also important not to promise to keep the child’s secret.
The issue of false allegations by children is a complex one for which we have only partial information. Although research suggests that false allegations are rarely made intentionally and are more often made by adolescents and adults than by children, it is important to always consider that sexual abuse allegations may be untrue. It is also important to bear in mind that children who have been sexually abused are not always prepared to disclose the abuse.
Furthermore, in the absence of a reliable method of lie detection, professionals must adopt rigorous practices and apply proven expertise. Such practices must be adapted to the abilities of children, which vary depending on their age, and include a supportive attitude.7 Only rigorous and painstaking investigations, based on multiple hypotheses and information sources, are likely to reconcile the quest for truth with absolute respect for the child.
- (O’Donohue, W., C. Cummings et B. Willis (2018). « The frequency of false allegations of child sexual abuse: A critical review », Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, vol. 27, n° 5, p. 459‑475.
- Poole, D. A., et M. E. Lamb (1998). Investigative interviews of children: A guide for helping professionals, [en ligne], Washington, DC, American Psychological Association, <https://www.apa.org/pubs/books/431711A> (consulté le 30 janvier 2023).
- Cyr, M., et G. Bruneau (2007). « L’évaluation des fausses allégations d’agression sexuelle chez l’enfant », dans Psychologie de l’enquête criminelle. La recherche de la vérité (p.221-253), Québec, Yvon Blais, p. 678.
- Trocmé, N., et N. Bala (2005). « False allegations of abuse and neglect when parents separate », Child Abuse & Neglect, vol. 29, n° 12, p. 1333‑1345.
- Malloy, L. C., A. P. Mugno, J. R. Rivard, T. D. Lyon et J. A. Quas (2016). « Familial Influences on recantation in substantiated child sexual abuse cases », Child Maltreatment, vol. 21, n° 3, p. 256‑261.
- O’Donohue, W., L. T. Benuto, R. N. Fondren, L. Tolle, A. Vijay et M. Fanetti (2013). « Dimensions of child sexual abuse allegations: What is unusual and what is not? », Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, vol. 13, n° 5, p. 456‑475.
- Cyr, M. (2023). Recueillir la parole de l’enfant témoin ou victime : De la théorie à la pratique, 3e édition, Paris, France, Dunod.
- Talwar, V., et A. M. Crossman (2012). « Children’s lies and their detection: Implications for child witness testimony », Developmental Review, vol. 32, n° 4, p. 337‑359.
- Bala, N. M., M. Mitnick, N. Trocmé et C. Houston (2007). « Sexual abuse allegations and parental separation: Smokescreen or fire? », Journal of Family Studies, vol. 13, n° 1, p. 26‑56.
- Ferguson, C., S. Wright, J. Death, K. Burgess et J. Malouff (2018). « Allegations of child sexual abuse in parenting disputes: An examination of judicial determinations in the Family Court of Australia », Journal of Child Custody, vol. 15, n° 2, p. 93‑115.
- Rosnow, R. L. (1991). « Inside rumor: A personal journey », American Psychologist, vol. 46, n° 5, p. 484‑496.
- St-Yves, M. (2014). « La relation dans l’entrevue d’enquête : Cinq règles fondamentales », dans Les entrevues d’enquête : L’essentiel (p.1-22), [en ligne], Cowansville, Québec, Éditions Yvon Blais, p. 364, <https://store.thomsonreuters.ca/fr-ca/products> (consulté le 30 janvier 2023).
- Poole, D. A., et D. Lindsay (1998). « Assessing the accuracy of young children’s reports: Lessons from the investigation of child sexual abuse », Applied and Preventive Psychology, vol. 7, n° 1, p. 1‑26.
- Vrij, A. (2005). « Criteria-based content analysis: A qualitative review of the first 37 studies. », Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, vol. 11, n° 1, p. 3‑41.(15) O’Donohue, W., L. T. Benuto et O. Cirlugea (2013). « Analyzing child sexual abuse allegations », Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, vol. 13, n° 4, p. 296‑314.
Mireille Cyr, Ph. D, Department of Psychology, University of Montreal
Maude Lachapelle, Scientific Advisor, INSPQ
Dominique Gagné, Scientific Advisor, INSPQ.