By Tammi Pitzen, Executive Director of The Children’s Advocacy Center of Jackson County
Recently I read a Letter to the Editor in a publication produced in Jackson County regarding false allegations of sexual assault and felt compelled to provide some clarification around some of the information that was written in the editor’s response.
I am not responding to the comments about whether or not the allegations were sufficiently investigated because there are many things that go into investigation and prosecution of a case — and the decision making that goes along with it.
The information presented is not enough to draw a conclusion, but I did want to respond to the notion that most sexual assault allegations are false.
There is a fantastic article written in The Voice, a publication by The National Center for the Prosecution Of Violence Against Women. The article, False Reports: Moving Beyond the Issue to Successfully Investigate and Prosecute Non-Stranger Sexual Assault, written by Dr. Kimberly A. Lonsway, S. Joanne Archambault and Dr. David Lisak, addresses this very notion that most rape allegations made are false.
In this article, it points out that most statistics reported in many articles are not based on research that could be considered credible. Most are published opinions based on either personal experience or a non-systematic review of investigative files or other information with unknown reliability or validity.
I really want to focus on child sexual abuse and what we know about the false reporting rate.
The research in many cases is not totally reliable because most research is based on child protection cases or cases investigated by law enforcement. I say it is not totally reliable as there is a person with their own set of values and judgment making a decision around whether a child’s statement is a false report.
I would also point out that just because there is not enough evidence to prosecute or make an arrest, it does not mean an allegation is false.
It just means that there is not enough evidence to prove it without a reasonable doubt.
Let’s talk about that for just a second. Contrary to what you see in weekly television sitcoms, there is not a lot of evidence left in most cases of child sexual assault that can be retrieved and processed. Why is that? Most cases are not reported right away and so the evidence disappears down the drain in a shower, bathtub, washed away in the clothes washer, or otherwise disposed of. It generally will come down to a child’s word against an adult’s word.
Children do lie, about a lot of different things. However, it is usually to get themselves or someone they love out of trouble, not to conjure up allegations of sexual abuse.
I think that we all need to remember what children give up when they report sexual abuse.
Many times they are taken out of their home. Many times they have to change schools because their family is no longer able to live in their home for various reasons. Many times no one believes them. Many times they are blamed, ridiculed, and abandoned by their closest loved ones.
In my years as a Forensic Interviewer, it was more likely that children would come in and lie to cover up what had happened — than to lie about something happening.
They would deny it happening in the face of actual evidence stating otherwise. (This other evidence would be the confession of the offender, photographic evidence, or other eye witness accounts.)
Another consideration to make is whether or not the child falsely reported or if the adults making the report on the child’s behalf misunderstand what the child was reporting. As a professional working in the field for many years, I always hope this is the case. In fact most professionals investigating these cases always hope for this.
Our legal system is based on the notion that one is innocent until proven guilty. That notion is what drives the decision making process in whether to prosecute a case or not as well.
I have had these conversations with detectives and prosecutors over the span of my career. “I know something happened. I believe the child. But can I prove it “beyond a reasonable doubt?” I have received feedback from juries over the years in cases in which they did not convict. They said, “We believed the child, but there was no evidence to support it.”
These cases are tough. People draw a hard line on what they believe and what they don’t.
Most times it is easier for the adults to believe that the child is lying. It would be too horrible to think otherwise.
Most of the research that I read on the subject of false reporting of child sexual abuse reports any where from 2% to 9% of reports are false reports, with the higher rates being in child custody cases and in cases involving older children.
Keep in mind that it is hard to find clear scientific research that very clearly can say that a report is false, because the only way to prove that — is to prove that a child knowingly and maliciously made false reports, and I am not sure there is a way to prove that. Even if a child comes back and recants what they had reported before, that is unreliable. It is unreliable because many times children come back and try to undo what is happening. Their intention was for the abuse to stop, not for someone to go to jail.
If you want to read actual research on the rates of false allegations here are the journal articles that I was able to find with the help of a digital librarian:
Oates, Kim R; Jones, David P.H.; Denson, David; Sirotnak, Andrew; Gary, Nancy; Krugman, Richard D. “Erroneous Concerns About Child Sexual Abuse.” Child Abuse & Neglect, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 149–157
Trocme, Nico; Bala, Nicholas “False Allegations of Abuse and Neglect When Parents Separate.” Child Abuse & Neglect 29 (2005) 1333–1345
Everson, Mark D, PH.D.; Boat, Barbara W, PH.D. “False Allegations of Sexual Abuse by Children and Adolescents.” J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc Psychiatry, 1989, 28, 2:230-235.
Lisak, David; Gardinier, Lori; Nicksa, Sarah C. “False Allegations of Sexual
Assualt: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases.” Violence Against Women, 2012 16: 1318-1334.
Bala, Nicholas, MC; Mitnek, Mindy; Trocme, Nico; Houston, Clair ,“Sexual Abuse Allegation and Parental Separation: Smokescreen or Fire.” The Journal of Family Sutdies (2007) 13, 26-56.
Bussey K, Lee K, Grimbeek EJ. Lies and secrets: Implications for children’s reporting of sexual abuse. In: Goodman GS, Bottoms BL, editors. Child victims, child witnesses: Understanding and improving testimony. Guildford; New York: 1993. pp. 147–168.