Sexual Abuse and Due Process Abuse

In recent years I have seen false allegations of physical and sexual abuse made to gain advantage in the workplace, schools, and divorce and custody conflicts.  I have also seen psychology -- which has refined methods for determining the truth in these emotionally fraught charges -- distorted and ignored in order to favor the accuser.

As a forensic psychologist, I provide reviews of documentary evidence in allegations of sexual abuse.  One such review involved Bill, who married a young woman named Marilyn a few years ago.  She brought to the marriage a four-year-old son, Jimmy, who had been fathered by an abusive boyfriend.  A year into the marriage, Marilyn started staying out all night and buying revealing clothes.  She changed her marital status on Facebook to "complicated" and demanded $10,000 in cash from Bill.  The couple separated and eventually filed for divorce.  Some months later, Marilyn alleged that Bill had molested Jimmy during a weekend visit.

The infamous McMartin preschool trial marked the beginning of a new era in child abuse accusations, from a dark shame-ridden secret to a public legal ploy.  Thirty years after the McMartin witch-hunt, the same problems that propelled that case remain: accusations (sometimes fantastic) leading to prosecutions without reasonable evidence, lack of consequences for the party making the false allegations, and biased investigations that fail to apply the best psychological methods.

In my early teens I attended the wake of a friend's mother who had been murdered by her father.  In those days it was much harder for women to leave abusive relationships.  Greater ease of divorce and understanding of domestic violence have contributed to a decrease in spousal murder rates, and bringing child sexual abuse into the open has been a great advance.

But successful political and social movements tend to replace one set of prejudices with another.  Feminism imbued American consciousness with a bias that heterosexual males are abusers, rapists, and child-molesters -- or at least that they secretly want to be.  So in relationships between heterosexual men and everyone else (women, children, and the variegated contemporary sexualities), the heterosexual male is the usual suspect and all others the presumptive victims.

Despite a ubiquitous coarsening of sexual morality and awareness, anyone (usually a woman) wishing for revenge or involved in a legal dispute can devastate an adversary with an accusation of sexual abuse.  There is little incentive not to make false accusations.  They are free for the accuser and must be taken seriously by the police, the court, and child protective services.

Back to our case.  Marilyn claimed that Jimmy had reported sexual abuse by Bill.  The allegations were somewhere between implausible and impossible for a four-year-old to have made.  Nevertheless, before starting their investigation, police knocked on Bill's door, charged him with lewd conduct against his stepson, confiscated his computers, and hauled him to jail in handcuffs.

Bill was plunged into a nightmare -- a weekend in jail, finding a lawyer, a bail hearing, court appearances and continuances, psychological evaluations, polygraphs, disgrace in the workplace and church, a restraining order to "protect" Jimmy, and the near-ruination of his life savings to pay for it all.

The investigation began with a forensic interview of Jimmy, after Bill's arrest.  Here, psychology could have helped to begin uncover the truth.  However, a video of the interview revealed that the interviewer appeared to believe that Bill was guilty.  She ignored each of the following established guidelines and instead gathered "evidence" to support her a priori conclusion.  

Child Forensic Interview Guidelines

  • Avoid suggestive or leading questions
  • Avoid stereotype induction
  • Avoid positive and negative rewards
  • Clarify uncertain or implausible answers
  • Test child's ability to tell truth from untruth
  • Ask age-appropriate questions
  • Avoid repetitive questions
  • Avoid interrupting responses

The written report of the session with Jimmy concluded that Bill was an abuser.  It included passages such as "Client displayed discomfort verbally acknowledging step-father touched his wee-wee instead used nonverbal indicators in play therapy."  Actually, the interviewer, a bachelor's level counselor, had asked, "When your Daddy touched your wee-wee, did he say anything?"  The videotape shows a little boy playing with a toy truck who doesn't seem to comprehend the question.  He ignores the interviewer and walks from the room while she is talking at him.

The initial forensic interview becomes foundational in these cases.  However, in this case, the report, not the video itself, was used as evidence.  That report described Bill as "the perp," and his name was entered on a county registry of people suspected of sexually abusing minors.

In this county, the child protective service is a private nonprofit agency, but for all practical purposes it is an arm of the state, funded through government grants, working closely with police and courts.  The agency uses a "preponderance of evidence" model rather than "reasonable doubt" in reaching its conclusions.  But that is all the more reason to apply the best psychological investigatory methods.  An investigator who assumes guilt is looking for a "preponderance of evidence."  In Bill's case, the interviewer declared Bill to be a sex offender after a 45-minute interview of a non-responsive kindergartener.  She then recommended long-term abuse recovery therapy for "the victim."

Sexual abuse allegations are, de facto, prosecuted under administrative law until they go to trial.  During this often lengthy period of hearings, judges are guided by the local child abuse "experts."  In this case, the expert counselor recommended that Jimmy not be "potentially re-traumatized" by contact with any other mental health professional, and the judge agreed.  But in (perhaps understandably) erring on the side of protecting Jimmy, due process for Bill was again compromised.

It takes months of unbiased investigation to understand these cases, using a combination of extensive interviews of all parties, lie detector tests, and psychological testing using normed instruments verified for reliability and validity.  None of these techniques is infallible, but together they provide reliable insight into these cases.  In our adversarial system of justice, these investigations become the responsibility of the accused, as the taxpayer-funded state is cranking through its systems to establish guilt.  Bill was among the fortunate who can afford such a protracted and expensive defense.  Even still, he had to fight motions by the prosecutor to quash the evidence he was gathering.  Eventually, after a hellish year, even the prosecutor doubted Marilyn's accusations, and Jimmy's "sex abuse recovery therapy" was discontinued.

There was talk of suing Marilyn, but there was no guaranteed outcome, and Bill wanted to spare Jimmy and move on.  For Marilyn, the benefits of making false allegations -- attention, playing the part of a sympathetic victim, the satisfaction of revenge, advantages in the divorce settlement, with the state footing most of the bill -- outweighed the risks.

Bill's story does not end here.  Rather than drop the charges, the prosecutor offered a deal: plead guilty to misdemeanor assault, and jail time and probation would be waived.  Such prosecutorial face-saving is common.  Bill refused the deal, and as of this writing two months later there has been no word from the prosecutor.  Meanwhile, Bill continues to live under shadows, including restraining orders.  He is still trying to get his name removed from the county child protective services suspect registry.

In Judeo-Christian morality, it is wrong to sexually exploit children, and we are living in a better world because we talk about it and report it.  It is always right to resist normalizing the sexualization of young children.  False allegations are not the way to do it.

Deborah C. Tyler can be reached through  All names have been changed.

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