False Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse

Authors : Mireille Cyr, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Université de Montréal
and Guy Bruneau, École nationale de police du Québec

Note: The content of this fact sheet was taken in part from: Cyr, M. and Bruneau, G. (2008). Assessing false allegations of child sexual abuse. In M. St-Yves and M. Tanguay, eds., The Psychology of Criminal Investigations: The Search for the Truth (pp. 199-228). Toronto: Carswell.


Highlights

  • The number of false allegations of child sexual abuse is lower than the number of children who do not disclose such abuse or who lie by saying that it did not occur.
  • Several factors related to a child’s personal characteristics and environment, as well as to 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, another adult in his or her 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 an array of sources that explore multiple hypotheses can facilitate the detection of false allegations.

 

Sexual abuse against children is overwhelmingly a crime of silence. When that silence is broken, it is often a matter of the child’s word against an adult’s. The stakes are high: failing to believe an abused child or believing a child who has not been abused has heavy consequences for the child, the alleged offender, the non-offender parent and family―and also for the social workers, police officers and judicial authorities concerned.

1) Definition and prevalence

  • 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. According to Poole and Lamb (1998), the term should be reserved exclusively for cases where children explicitly make an allegation that is untrue, that is, where they claim to have been sexually abused even though this never occurred. 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. Obviously, prevalence of the phenomenon varies according to the definition used.

“Failing to believe an abused child or believing a child who has not been abused has heavy consequences for the child, the alleged offender, the non-offender parent and family―and also for the social workers, police officers and judicial authorities concerned.”

  • On the basis of a representative sample of 7672 cases of abuse investigated by child protection authorities in Canada, Trocmé and Bala (2005) noted that only 4% of the 35% of unsubstantiated cases were deemed to be the product of intentionally fabricated false allegations. The rate was slightly higher in cases of sexual abuse (6%) compared with cases of physical abuse (4%), neglect (4%), and emotional maltreatment (2%). However, none of the false allegations of sexual abuse had come from the children themselves.
  • The definition of false allegations should also be extended to cases in which a child has been abused but lies about it. As Van Gijseghem (1991) has pointed out, the rate of false allegations is probably lower than the rate of false denials, that is, cases where children deny the facts or seek to minimize the intensity and frequency of the abuse. Although it is difficult to establish the prevalence of these denials, research has shown that only one third of children who have been sexually victimized reveal the abuse.

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 investigation methods.
  • A child has been sexually abused but lies about the abuse and even denies it.

2) Factors that can lead to false allegations of child sexual abuse

Many factors can lead to false allegations of sexual abuse. Some of these factors are related to the child’s personal characteristics, such as memory and age; others to the child’s environment, such as divorce, the influence of rumour and the fact that the parent does not believe the child; and still others to the socio-legal context, such as questioning and children’s suggestibility, tunnel vision and the person making the allegations.

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. However, several factors can also adversely influence a child’s memory and foster false or inaccurate allegations. These factors include:

  • the child’s capacity to source monitor memories;
  • the time lapse between events and their recall;
  • the child’s lack of knowledge of sexual abuse, which affects how information is stored in his or her memory;
  • the child’s age, which has a bearing on the amount of detail that he or she can retain and recall.

The child’s age

As few studies have considered 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 formulate false allegations. However, when very young children are insistently asked leading questions by a parent, in the context of a divorce for example, they may make allegations of sexual abuse that never occurred.

Divorce

Cases of sexual assault allegations in situations of divorce or child custody disputes are complex and among the most demanding for legal professionals. They are also among the most time-consuming to investigate. Several factors are likely to promote sexual abuse allegations in these situations. For example, amid the disenchantment of marital breakup, divorced parents can convince themselves that their former partners are capable of almost anything, including sexual abuse. An erroneous conclusion reached about the care given to a child, increased physical displays of affection developed because of long absences caused by the divorce, or excessive worrying can cause one of the parents to suspect sexual abuse. Intense questioning of the child can lead him or her to confirm what the parent has suggested and thus to make a false allegation. Such cases are not more common in divorced families than in intact ones, but their assessment is more complex.

The influence of rumour on false allegations by young children

False allegations of sexual abuse are also likely to arise in contexts where numerous children regularly intermingle, such as sports teams, day care centres and schools. In this case, the allegations are spread by rumour, which, according to Rosnow (1991), serves to explain an otherwise unexplained event that generates uncertainty and personal anxiety. Rumour circulates as a function of the credibility of its source. Until more extensive research can be conducted regarding the potential impact of rumour on the development of false allegations, it would be wise to consider this possible impact in cases where several children say that they know one of them is being sexually abused.

Allegations by parents

There is some consensus in the scientific literature to the effect that there is a higher disclosure rate among children whose mother accepts the possibility of abuse, compared with those whose mother refutes the possibility despite third-party confirmation.

“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….This phenomenon is commonly referred to as memory contamination.”

Questioning and children’s 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 and to communication and memory. Most studies have focused on interview-related factors, and guidelines have been suggested on the basis of several consistent findings.

  • Children are more susceptible than adults to influence, and young children are more susceptible 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 difficult to prevent, evaluate and measure.

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 any adverse effects.

“Asking open-ended questions and allowing children to recount their experiences without interrupting them too often with specific questions helps to avoid any adverse effects.”

Tunnel vision

Tunnel vision constitutes the most insidious pitfall in the investigative process. According to Van Gijseghem (1999), 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 endeavour to obtain information from several sources and to analyze all of it in the light of multiple hypotheses.

3) Validating a child’s statement

Once a child discloses and testifies to sexual abuse, social workers, police 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 on the basis of the presence of an emotional component.

Tools such as Criterion-Based Content Analysis (CBCA) have been developed to help professionals in this delicate task. However, research on these tools has found that they lack sufficient accuracy to be considered valid and reliable instruments. Certain factors, such as the poor quality of an interview or reticence on the part of the child to talk about his or her experiences, can lead to erroneous conclusions, regardless of the veracity of the testimony.

Deciding whether allegations of child sexual abuse are true

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. Adults with no training in this area should exercise caution when they receive allegations from a child. The best attitude to take 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. In addition, it is important to write down as quickly as possible what the child has said and to transmit it to the appropriate authorities by filing a report or complaint with youth protection.

Conclusion

The question of false allegations by children is a complex one for which we have only partial answers. Although research to date 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.

In addition, in the absence of a reliable method of lie detection, professionals must adopt rigorous practices and apply proven expertise. Such practices must include a supportive attitude and be adapted to the abilities of children, which vary depending on their age. Only rigorous and painstaking investigations, based on an array of hypotheses and information sources, are likely to reconcile the quest for truth with absolute respect for the child.

Last update: November 2012

References

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