When divorce includes allegations of child sexual abuse, it is the ultimate divorce bomb. This article talks about the mindset of our child protection system and provides some advice on what to do if a parent is accused of child sexual abuse.
By Dean Tong, Certified Forensic Consultant
Divorce is a life-altering experience for a man and a woman. And, when said divorce includes children and high-conflict litigation, the legal battle can turn into a full-blown war. When the gloves come off and punches are thrown, allegations surface, including heinous and reprehensible allegations. Nobody likes a child abuser, and especially someone who would sexually violate or exploit society’s most vulnerable and precious resource, our children. Yet, contentious divorces do include one parent accusing the other of child abuse – even child sexual abuse. Some are true. Many are unfounded or even false. It’s been called divorce’s atomic bomb – aka the ultimate weapon – and that is the false allegation of child sexual abuse.
Divorce’s Atomic Bomb: Child Sexual Abuse
In 1987, Psychologists Blush and Ross from Michigan called the high-conflict divorce that contained unsubstantiated child sexual abuse complaints – SAID – or Sexual Allegations In Divorce. He said, she said, and what a child said. Hearsay, by definition, is an out-of-court statement made for the truth of the matter asserted, and is, generally speaking, legally inadmissible in Court. But, Rule 803 provides “exceptions” to the “Hearsay Rule,” and one of those exceptions is the excited utterance or outcry from an alleged child victim who’s been sexually abused. In other words, if a child accuses a parent of sexually inappropriate behavior, even if there’s no forensic medical evidence to corroborate the child’s disclosure, the accused can be arrested, prosecuted, and if convicted in Criminal Court face possible life in prison and lifelong sex offender registration. And, the possible wounded innocent can face termination of his/her parental rights in Juvenile Court. SAID cases represent the most egregious and acute form of parental alienation, which is psychological or mental child abuse.
SAID cases involve pre-school children, usually ages three to six. These children are the most suggestible and impressionable and are easily wielded as pawns, weapons, and tools by parents in protracted divorces, parenting time disputes, and custody battles. Studies have shown (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995, 2000) that it’s not difficult to convince a child to say that the man (or daddy) touched their pee-pee when it never happened. Most cases are not representative of malicious coaching by disgruntled parents. Most unsubstantiated cases may be the result of a lack of source monitoring by well-meaning child protection professionals, and the same result in source misattribution errors.
The mindset of our child protection system is that children do not lie, cannot be mistaken about sexual assault, and must be believed and protected at all costs. Combine that with the Hearsay Rule, the fact that 95% of all child sexual assaults are negative for medical findings and trauma, and the fact that all family and juvenile court judges must rule in the child’s best interest, and a parent et al wrongly accused of child sex abuse is not an uncommon phenomenon. More times than not it’s fathers and stepfathers who are wrongly and sometimes falsely accused of child sexual abuse. But, in today’s world where Judges oftentimes err on the side of caution, on the side of children, mothers can be wrongly accused, too, of failing to protect children, coaching children to falsely accuse the other parent of sexual abuse, and Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (now called Pediatric Condition Falsification), et al.
The Investigation Process
Mandated reporters, such as teachers, guidance counselors, doctors, nurses, and therapists, et al are required by State and Federal Law to report any reasonable suspicion of child abuse to Child Protective Services (CPS) and/or the authorities. In this writer’s State of Florida, mandated reports of child abuse can be called into the hotline 1-800-96-ABUSE, and from there dispatched out to local Department of Children and Families (DCF) child protection workers. Child abuse investigations, when conducted, and not screened out, occur within 2 to 24 hours from receipt of the calls.
While CPS’ policy and procedure manuals and state statutes do make mention of false child sexual abuse reports; most child protection investigators and police officers are neither educated nor trained enough in the niche area of false child sex abuse investigations to be able to discern critical SAID factors such as the timing of allegations, case dynamics, the young and suggestible child whose statements may appear rehearsed without contextual details, and a parent who will not accept no for an answer and who suffers from a fixed and rigid belief system.
So, it’s incumbent for CPS, police, and others involved in an alleged child sex abuse to not contaminate the crime scene, the child. In other words, if five-year-old Stacy tells her mother or her kindergarten teacher she was touched inappropriately, only a few open-ended questions should be posed by the adult to the child. For example, Stacy, can you tell me what happened? Can you tell me about that? Can you tell me more about that? The government’s investigative agents will transport the alleged child victim to the Child Protection Team (in Florida) for a forensic interview, and she will be forensically interviewed by a trained interviewer that will capture their interview on DVD. Said child forensic interview should be conducted (as should the anogenital rape examination, if necessary) within three days of the child’s outcry.
There are only about a half-dozen jurisdictions in the USA that employ the evidence-based best practices child forensic methodology known as the NICHD. The National Institute for Child Health & Human Development (NICHD) located in Bethesda, Maryland published their first study in 2000. They opined the best method to extract spontaneous, reliable, and trustworthy statements from a child interviewee is to ask her/him open-ended questions; tapping into their implicit memories for free narrative information via their autobiographical free recall. The NICHD is a fully structured protocol that avoids leading, suggestive, direct, repeated, and negative stereotype induction questions which can taint and adulterate information from a child. Methodologies such as APSAC, RATAC, and National Children’s Alliance (NCA) are semi-structured methods that allow the use of questions to a child that can contaminate the same.
Oftentimes, in cases of alleged child sexual abuse, CPS will recommend the child victims enter into a Sexual Abuse Treatment Program (SATP). Relative to young children, this equates to Child-Centered Play Therapy (CCPT), of which there are two types – Directive and Non-Directive Play Therapy. Play Therapy entails the child playing with anatomically detailed dolls, puppets, drawings, and sand trays. The problem is in pre-adjudication child sex cases, this well-meaning psychotherapy can be misguided as it potentially treats a non-abused child as a sexually abused victim. And that’s tantamount to a child receiving chemotherapy or radiation before a lab or physician has diagnosed said child with cancer. As in medicine, psychotherapists should be cognizant to first do no harm. They can trigger Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs) in children.
How to Defend against False Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse
When a person is accused of the unthinkable – child sexual abuse – that person is presumed guilty until proven innocent. And while this maxim is against what’s recognized in our Constitution, this is the allegation of child sexual abuse. Next to Murder 1, the allegation of child sodomy or capital sexual battery of a child is the worst an accused individual can face.
So, how does a wounded innocent accused of child sexual assault prove a negative? Don’t talk to CPS or the authorities without counsel present. Don’t submit to a police polygraph or CVSA. Don’t answer your cell phone if the caller is unknown, restricted, or private since it could be the authorities conducting a “confrontational call” to try and induce you to confess to something you didn’t do. Create a timeline or journal by dates and events in the word processor of your computer. Save your resources, because competent help in this area of law is sparse and inexpensive.
The accused should voluntarily submit to a psychosexual risk assessment from a psychologist. This includes a mental status examination, clinical interview, and day of psychological/psychosexual testing. The gold standard child sex test is known as the Abel Assessment for Sexual Interest (AASI) and it’s a SAID case you’ll want to take the AASI-3 (www.abelscreening.com) which screens the accused within the dynamic of a divorce and custody battle. Experts are looking to see if the accused shows sexual interest to pre-pubescent children in a SAID case, or not, and what his cognitive distortion scale turns out to be. Cognitive distortions are justifications that genuine pedophiles or child molesters employ to try and beat the rap. We’re looking for a Cognitive distortion scale of less than 25% closer to 10% for an individual who is not trying to hoodwink everyone. Other scales from other tests can depict a psychopathic deviate individual, lying, and defensiveness, et al.
Other experts may be necessary for the accused and his/her lawyer to opine in the areas of ano-genital rape examination studies, cognitive-developmental child psychology (child suggestibility and memory), proper handling v. mishandling of child protective investigations, and de novo/de facto psychotherapy of alleged child victims of abuse, et al. I do believe in these cases the best defense is an aggressive offense.
Dean Tong is a Certified Forensic Consultant, nationally certified child forensic interviewer, author, and expert who has worked on high-conflict child abuse and/or custody cases since 1995. Tong has testified in cases as an expert in 15 states and has consulted in cases from all 50 states. He has appeared as a media commentator for FOX News, Court-TV, CNN, and MSNBC in some of this country’s highest-profile cases such as JonBenet Ramsey, Michael Jackson, and Kobe Bryant. www.abuse-excuse.com
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