A System Out of Control: The Epidemic of False Allegations of Child Abuse

By Armin A. Brott


A System Out of Control: The Epidemic of False Allegations of Child Abuse -- By Armin A. Brott

Before 1973, child abuse--particularly sexual abuse--was rarely reported to authorities and frequently covered up. But that year, then-Senator Mondale sponsored legislation that took a new approach. Federal matching funds became available to states that set up child abuse detection, prosecution, and prevention programs. The results were startling. From 1976 to 1993, the total yearly number of child abuse reports grew from 669,000 to over 2.9 million. During the same period, the annual number of reports of sexual abuse grew from just 21,000 to over 319,000.

Undoubtedly, the increasing number of reports has saved thousands of children from harm. However, there have been some rather disturbing side-effects. In 1975, 35 percent of all child abuse reports were unsubstantiated--a percentage that, although high, was perhaps understandable given the Mondale Act's emphasis on bringing even suspicions of abuse into the open. But by 1993, the percentage of unsubstantiated reports had reached 66%. And in divorce cases, many experts estimate that between 75 and 80 percent of allegations of child abuse are completely false.

So what accounts for this alarming rise in false allegations? "There's a complex network of social workers, mental health professionals, and law enforcement officials that actually encourages charges of child abuse--whether they're reasonable or not," says Dr. Richard A. Gardner, a clinical professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University. In effect, the Mondale Act, despite its good intentions, created--and continues to fund--a virtual child abuse industry, populated by people whose livelihoods depend on bringing more and more allegations into the system.

In divorce cases, allegations of abuse can come up in a variety of ways. For some women--and studies have shown that nearly 95% of the accusers are women--making an accusation of child abuse is the perfect weapon. "It's simple, fast, and guaranteed to achieve the desired result," says Anne P. Mitchell, a defense attorney in San Jose, California. "In one fell swoop, she can get her husband completely out of her and the children's lives, and assure herself complete custodial control. And in one fell swoop, she can completely destroy the man's life, and any semblance of a normal relationship between him and his children."

Several studies have shown that women who deliberately make false allegations are obsessed with hurting their husbands as much as possible. They'll frequently coach their children into making statements against the father, and will shop around until they find a therapist, a doctor, or some other professional who will support their claims.

But not every accuser is determined to destroy her spouse's life. Today, child abuse is on everyone's mind and under the stress of a divorce, people frequently overreact to ordinary symptoms--like diaper rash and bruises--and jump to premature conclusions. In this type of situation, the concerned mother will usually try to get some advice from a therapist, physician, or child protective services worker.

But whether a false allegation of abuse is made maliciously, or out of genuine concern for the welfare of a child, the result is the same for the accused. Unlike the usual "innocent until proven guilty" thing you hear about on Perry Mason, when it comes to child abuse, the accused is guilty until he proves himself innocent. "And that's not easy," says attorney Peter Firpo of Walnut Creek, California. "By the time a man hears he's been accused, his children have probably been seen by therapists or child protective services officers who see their role as to 'validate' the accusation." And things move pretty quickly from there: the instant the allegation is made, the father's contact with his children is cut off completely and an investigation begins.

In most states, child abuse investigations are supposed to be handled jointly by law enforcement officials and by local Child Protective Services workers (they're called different things in different states, but for consistency, we'll use the term "CPS"). In general, police officers have received extensive training in investigative techniques and, at least ostensibly, are neutral. Most CPS workers, on the other hand, don't even make a pretense of neutrality. "They're advocates who seek to promote the welfare of their patients," says Dr. Lee Coleman, a child psychiatrist and frequent expert witness in child abuse cases. "They're taught to believe and support their clients-- no matter what those clients say."

Dr. Gardner, who has over thirty years of experience evaluating allegations of child abuse, notes that many CPS workers refer to themselves as "validators"--a term that at best raises questions about their objectivity. "They of course hold that 'children never lie about sexual abuse,' and they accept as valid every statement a child makes that might verify sex abuse."

The "believe the children" idea was popularized by Dr. Roland Summit in an influential article in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect in 1983. Summit wrote that "children never fabricate the kinds of explicit sexual manipulations they divulge in complaints or interrogations." Summit, who developed his theories without the benefit of any kind of scientific evidence, also claims that denial of abuse is itself frequently a sign of abuse. "If a child suspected of being abused is unable to volunteer information, it must be elicited with warm reassurance and specific, potentially leading questions."

But victims are worthless without perpetrators. So to tie the two together Summit offers this observation: "Unless there is a special support for the child and immediate intervention to force responsibility on the father, the girl will follow the 'normal' course and retract her complaint."

These approaches to child abuse allegations are based on the assumption that abuse took place--an assumption incompatible with the role of investigator, who is supposed to be neutral and determine whether a crime was committed. Nevertheless, despite their biased orientation, CPS's role is to determine the guilt or innocence of an accused father. This unfortunate scenario is further complicated by the fact that the police--the one potentially neutral voice in an investigation--often rely heavily on CPS's conclusions. In San Diego, for example, a Grand Jury probe found that detectives "will integrate elements of the social workers' investigation into their own reports, instead of performing an independent investigation."

In 97% of the cases where the police conduct an actual investigation, they are not able to substantiate the allegations, so no criminal charges are filed. But to the dismay of the thousands of men falsely accused each year, this doesn't mean that the investigation will end, or that they'll be able to see their children again anytime soon. Even after the police drop the criminal investigation, CPS can still conduct its own. And to help them do so, the courts have given them incredibly broad powers.

For example, CPS workers--armed with nothing more than an allegation, and without a court order or a hearing--can force parents and children into therapy for an unlimited amount of time, can compel an accused man to take lie detector or other "diagnostic" tests, and can deny a father access to his children--even if he has a court order allowing such access. "These are people who, at least for a limited amount of time, are given an enormous amount of power over somebody else. And they routinely abuse that power," says Dr. Melvin Guyer, a psychiatry professor at the University of Michigan and a practicing attorney.

As part of their "investigation," CPS will frequently send a child for evaluation to an outside mental health professional selected from a court-approved list. While a skilled therapist should be able to weed out obviously false charges, by and large, the therapists to whom CPS refers children are all too willing to confirm what may actually be false reports.

In some cases, they are simply afraid to rule out abuse. To be eligible for Federal funding under the Mondale Act, every state has passed laws requiring certain people (doctors, therapists, teachers, etc.) to report suspected abuse to the proper authority. To back up this requirement, these "mandated reporters" are subject to fines or imprisonment for not reporting. "As a result, everyone's on the defensive--they're afraid that if they don't make a report, they'll be deemed criminals if they inadvertently put a child back in the hands of a real abuser," says Dr. Gardner.

This fear often leads child abuse evaluators to outlandish--and tragic--conclusions. In a series of studies, Dr. Guyer and several other University of Michigan researchers presented to a panel of mental health professionals the synopsis of an actual case--one in which the researchers knew the allegation had been false. The following facts were presented: the mother had alleged abuse based on her discovery of a bruise on her two-year old daughter's leg and of a single pubic hair (that she thought looked like the father's) in the girl's diaper. Four medical exams of the girl had shown no evidence of abuse. In addition, two lie detector tests, a police investigation, and even a CPS investigation, had cleared the father. Based on this evidence alone, 76% of the professionals recommended that the father's contact with the daughter be either highly supervised or terminated altogether. Several of these "child abuse experts" even managed to conclude that the girl had been sodomized as well as subjected to cunnilingus.

In other cases, a false report of abuse is quickly confirmed because the therapist, like the referring CPS worker, is a validator who has already made a decision before hearing what all the parties--including the father--have to say. When Dr. Gardner, who has reviewed hundreds of cases of alleged child abuse, asked various "validators" why they did not interview the father as part of their evaluation, he was frequently told, "[The father] would deny it anyway so there's no point in my seeing him," or "My job is not to do an investigation; my job is only to interview the child to find out whether the child was sexually abused."

Validators also tend to rely heavily on "behavioral and emotional indicators of abuse," which include: acting out, bed-wetting, changing attitudes about certain foods, nightmares, whining, temper tantrums, thumb-sucking, or behavior that is overly compliant or overly fearful. But these supposed "indicators" of abuse are so common, they could apply to just about anyone. "Any normal child might at some point in childhood exhibit one or more of these behaviors and thereby risk being perceived as an abuse victim," writes researcher Ross Legrand. Furthermore, many of the abuse "indicators" can also be attributed to stress and anxiety--exactly what would be experienced by a child whose parents are in a bitter divorce.

But by far the most powerful incentive to rubber-stamp an abuse charge is financial. Therapists appearing before the San Diego Grand Jury, for example, testified that they fear removal from the approved list (and, of course, a corresponding drop in income) if they "oppose the recommendations" of the CPS department. Therapists who do dare to disagree openly with the CPS worker's opinion risk "never getting to see their patient again."

In February 1992, Rob Will went to court to demand that his wife--from whom he'd been separated for several months--allow him to see his children. Instead of getting what he wanted, he heard his wife's attorney announce that she and her client had just filed a complaint with the Division of Family Services, accusing Rob of molesting his two daughters. "I looked over at my wife, wondering what was going on," says Rob. "But she just laughed and asked 'Having fun yet, dear?'" An investigation began and three outside therapists were brought in to assist. After interviewing Will, his wife, and his alleged victims, two of the therapists concluded that Rob was innocent--and were both removed from the investigation. Then, a new, "neutral" evaluator was brought it, who turned out to be the supervisor of the clinic that employed the therapist who had already proclaimed Rob's guilt.

Private "validators" have additional ways to turn abuse charges into money. In California, for example, the Victim/Witness program will pay directly to a licensed therapist up to $10,000 per child for counseling--as long as the child was alleged to have been abused. An additional $10,000 is available to counsel the child's mother. The only catch: to get their therapy paid for, the child victim and her mother must see a therapist from an approved list. Guess who directs the mother to a therapist who would be best for her and her child? CPS, of course.

All it takes to start the funding process is a police report or a child abuse report containing an allegation of abuse. No proof that the allegation actually took place is required. "Just because there wasn't a conviction, doesn't mean a crime wasn't committed," says Curt Soderlund, an official with the California state agency that manages the Victim/Witness program. "If someone believes she's been a victim, we don't have the right to question that." To collect a regular government paycheck, the therapist need only provide an occasional progress report, claiming that counseling is still necessary because the patient is still suffering from the trauma of having been abused. Thus, a therapist who might otherwise be honest enough to say that a child hasn't been abused, would not want to risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

But Victim/Witness payments don't last forever. So some therapists have found other sources of long-term funding: the alleged victims' fathers. About nine months ago, Nick O. called the therapist who was "treating" his daughter to get a status report. "She told me that her work with my daughter was done, but that she was going to keep her in therapy 'in anticipation of an unpleasant custody battle.'" Nick's daughter, who was three when he was accused, has been in therapy for over two years. "If I were some poor shmuck on the street who didn't have a dime to my name," Nick speculates, "this would have been over a long time ago."

A typical CPS investigation may also involve referring the alleged child victim for a medical exam. Some doctors, too, seem inclined to support the "findings" of the CPS workers. Like therapists, doctors may confirm abuse because they're afraid not to. And like therapists, they have financial incentives--if they don't back CPS up, they will no longer be called upon to perform evaluations.

But unlike therapists and CPS workers, who may substantiate an abuse claim based only on their opinions, doctors must generally document their reasons. However, "in medicine, statements made by patients or family are generally taken at face value," says Coleman. "So when a mother or a CPS worker sends a child to the doctor and says 'I think she's been abused by her father,' the doctor will frequently make a diagnosis of abuse based on this 'history.'"

Because sexual abuse rarely leaves any physical signs, a physical exam is not likely to give a doctor much to go on. However, a typical doctor's report will say that although no indication of abuse was found, the examination was "consistent with abuse." "Technically, there's a kernel of truth there," says Dr. Coleman. "But what gets ignored is that a normal physical exam is also consistent with no abuse. Saying 'consistent with abuse' is simply a fraud--it's language designed to help the prosecution without adding anything to the investigation."

Other times, doctors may file misleading or ambiguous reports, with disastrous results. In one disturbing case, Dr. David Gemmill, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Ohio, conducted an examination of a girl alleged to have been abused. In his report, Gemmill claimed to have found a "suspicious looking scar" in the little girl's anus. However, in a later review of the slides that he himself had taken during the exam, Dr. Gemmill admitted that, in fact, "there is nothing that looks suspicious." But the damage had already been done: the girl testified that the reason she believed her father had abused her was because she believed she had this scar.

Gemmill testified in court that other factors he relied on to determine that the girl had been abused--her recurring urinary tract infections and an asymmetrically-shaped hymen--have been shown to be common in non-abused children.

"Nevertheless, there are doctors still basing their opinions on this type of medical misinformation," says attorney Peter Firpo. "And men are in prison because of it."

Many CPS workers (and other child-abuse evaluators) attempt to conceal their biased methods of conducting investigations. Take, for example, their resistance to video- or audio-taping their interviews with allegedly abused children. "Just a few years ago, CPS actually advocated taping because they never even considered that what they were doing was inappropriate," says Dr. Terrence Campbell, a consulting psychologist to the Macomb County, Michigan courts. "But when other people finally got a chance to see the tapes, they saw that zealous 'professionals' were distorting the children's memories by asking leading questions. So now, there's less taping than there was even five years ago."

But even when tapes are made, they're generally inadequate. "They almost never start at the beginning of the interview, and it's usually clear that a number of interviews have already been done," says Dr. Coleman, who has reviewed over 1,100 hours of taped interviews in the cases he's worked on. "Sometimes, they interview a child until they feel they've got the child ready to say something. Only then do they turn on the tape."

One might conceivably compensate for the absence of a video- or audiotape by keeping complete, contemporaneous notes of the interview. This, however, rarely happens. Kentucky CPS worker Lisa Palmer, for example, says she makes no attempt to record her interview subjects' statements word-for-word, taking down only the "highlights." Then, after generating her final reports--in which she relies on her memory to fill in the gaps--she destroys her notes. Palmer thinks some of her co-workers do the same.

When CPS workers have finally assembled the conclusions of the outside therapists and medical professionals, they prepare for the court a report, which will generally touch on such items as whether the child should be allowed contact with her father, and whether continued therapy is required. Not surprisingly, these reports are frequently filled with incorrect, misinterpreted, or even fabricated evidence against accused men.

"CPS workers very selectively look through an enormous amount of data, pick out just those things that are consistent with their opinions, and ignore anything that might show that the guy is innocent," says Dr. Guyer. In San Diego, for example, therapists told the Grand Jury that CPS workers "frequently distort reports they have been given about patients," and, if the therapists disagree with the CPS worker, their recommendations "may not even appear in the report to the court."

As part of his attempt to prove his innocence, Rob Will subjected himself to a lie-detector test, extensive psychological evaluations, and a penile plethysmograph (an exam that purports to determine whether a man is a pedophile by wiring his penis to a machine and measuring his responses while he's looking at pictures or listening to recordings of various sexual scenarios--some involving children, some not.) All these exams concluded that Rob had done nothing wrong. In fact, one examiner reported that based on the evidence, Rob "may have been falsely accused." He recommended that CPS "look for possible motives for falsely accusing Rob, such as protecting some other perpetrator... or an attempt on the part of his ex-wife to secure total control over their children and preclude Robert from any contact with them."

In her report to the court, the CPS worker completely ignored the examiner's recommendation, the "no deception" reading on the lie detector test, and the reports of the two outside therapists who believed Rob was innocent. Instead, she relied exclusively on the daughter's "disclosures made to others," and on the daughter's "behavioral and emotional indicators." Confidential progress notes from the daughter's therapy, however, reveal that these "disclosures" included such comments as "nothing really happened," that she was "sad" about not being able to be with her father, and that "mommy" had told her to tell things to the therapist. These "disclosures" were also conspicuously absent from the CPS worker's report to the court.

The case of Alicia W., a girl who was allegedly raped by her father, provides an even more disturbing example of the lengths to which CPS will go to "prove" abuse occurred. During one videotaped interview, Alicia was asked by a CPS worker, "With whom do you feel safe?" She clearly answers, "My mom, dad, and brother." But in the official transcript of the tape, her response appears as, "My mom and brother." Later, Alicia's "statement" was used by several other people--including the CPS worker and the head of the medical clinic that examined the girl--to "prove" that she didn't feel safe with her father. "The best that can be said is that these people heard what they wanted to hear," say independent investigators who recently reviewed this case. "The worst is that they committed perjury."

CPS's influence also extends to the courts. Because of the huge backlog of cases family law judges usually deal with at any time, many counties allow "referees"--temporarily appointed officials (usually attorneys)--to listen to the facts of a case and present their findings to a judge for signature. But many referees owe their jobs--and their two- or three-hundred-dollar-an-hour fees--to the continued support of CPS workers. The San Diego Grand Jury found, for example, "there is a strong perception that referees are hesitant to go against the recommendations" of CPS and that evidence contrary to CPS's position "is either excluded or ignored."

Clearly, the fear of making a mistake, combined with the financial incentives and total immunity provided by the Mondale Act, go a long way toward explaining the high number of false charges of abuse and the child abuse industry's willingness to go along with them. But some people feel that perhaps the most compelling explanation is our society's deep-rooted anti-male bias.

"There's this feeling out there that men are inherently violent and abusive, and that women and children need to be protected from them," says Dr. Guyer. "There's also an expectation that if a man hasn't already abused his children, it's only a matter of time until he does, and therefore, he shouldn't have access to them. To people who think that way, making a false allegation of abuse doesn't seem so outlandish."

Given the obvious corruption and even malicious nature of some CPS investigations, one might expect that they'd be sued quite often. But this is not the case. To be eligible for Federal funding under the Mondale Act, states must pass laws protecting their mandated reporters from prosecution. "This was a pretty well-meaning provision, and it gave many people the confidence to come forward," says Dr. Gardner. "But the same immunity protects people who are making frivolous and even completely fabricated accusations."

A recent court case demonstrates what a powerful protection this immunity can be. Dr. David Chadwick examined a one-year old boy and failed to recognize that the child was exhibiting symptoms of a congenital brain defect. Instead, Chadwick insisted that the child was "suffering from injuries of a nonaccidental nature which could only have resulted from a violent shaking or a fall." When the boy died a few days later, Chadwick noted that the death had been "caused by a blunt injury to the side of the head."

A few weeks later, Chadwick sent a letter to the District Attorney's office, expressing his opinion about the infant's death, and urging that the parents' other child be removed from the home. The DA agreed. Outraged, the parents hired a lawyer and an independent medical expert to review the autopsy. As a result, the parents were cleared of all charges.

When the parents sued the doctor, however, the judges threw the case out, finding that even if Chadwick had committed "malicious acts" in filing his reports, he could not be held liable for doing so. The court concluded that the absolute immunity from civil or criminal liability enjoyed by mandated reporters applies not only to mistaken or negligent reports, but even to "reckless, or intentionally false reports."

Unlike mandated reporters, ordinary people (such as vindictive ex-wives) who make false allegations can be fined or imprisoned. But as a practical matter, this rarely ever happens. "You have to prove malice, and that's almost impossible," says Kim Hart, director of the National Child Abuse Defense and Resource Center in Holland, Ohio.

While anyone wrongly accused of a crime may suffer (legal fees, incarceration, etc.), those wrongly accused of abusing their children suffer far more. Nick O., for example has spent over $150,000 so far defending himself. Bankruptcy, unemployment, stress, health problems, alcoholism, and even suicide are not uncommon. Once accused, many men are often afraid to be alone with their--or anyone else's--children. Even men who haven't been accused, having heard about the devastation an abuse charge brings, have become afraid of being affectionate with their own children out of fear that somehow, someone will misinterpret what they're doing and they'll be dragged into the system.

Most falsely accused men find themselves in a kind of Catch-22. Despite never having been charged with any crime, they're kept away from their children because CPS continues to believe that they're guilty. The only possible way to get to see their kids would be to be exonerated in court. But because they've never been charged...

Not being able to clear one's name in court has other effects. Whenever a child abuse report is made, the alleged offender's name is entered into the Child Abuse Central Index, a national database of sex offenders. Anyone applying for a license (real-estate, child care, etc.) or undergoing a background check, will show up in the CACI as a suspected sex offender. "And when it comes to child abuse, suspected is as good as guilty. Unless a man is found not guilty in a criminal trial, or unless CPS reports that the allegation was false, the accused's name will stay on the list for life," says Hart.

Obviously, if a child has really been abused, he or she has suffered horribly. But the child put in therapy to deal with the trauma of an abuse that never happened may suffer at least as painful a fate. "Often the therapist actively fosters expressions of hostility and vengeance against the innocent parent, which may result in permanent alienation," writes Dr. Gardner. And even those rare men who are able to prevail against the false allegation may never be able to reestablish a loving relationship with their children.

Child abuse is a terrible crime, and those who abuse children should be severely punished. But in the our zeal to pursue offenders, we have inadvertently created a system that itself abuses the very children we're trying so hard to protect.


If you or someone you know has been falsely accused of molesting a child, get yourself a lawyer immediately. If he or she urges you to plead guilty to the offense (or to a lesser crime) "just to get things over with," get another lawyer immediately. You should also contact one of the following groups:

[email protected]

Armin A. Brott