Child Contact Disputes Between Parents and Allegations of Sex Abuse (What does the research say?)

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services



This paper is written by a psychologist practising in the area of  clinical and forensic psychology. He has written widely in the area of child sex abuse, including a book entitled “Paedophilia”. He has dealt with many cases of parental alienation where sex abuse by one parent has been indicated. The object of this paper is to try to provide a way of clarifying whether or not sexual abuse has occurred between an adult and a child, especially when implacable hostility exists between the parents who have parted. It is at such times that many custodial parents make allegations of sexual abuse against a now absent parent, usually the father, in order to prevent access. It is important to protect children from actual sex abuse when it has occurred and to prevent this from reoccurring. It is however, equally important not to allow false sexual allegations against a former partner who may have done nothing wrong but carried out his role as a caring and loving parent. In the appendix of the paper there is an inventory which can be used by practitioners to identify true from false sex abuse allegations especially in relation to parental alienation conflicts.

Child Contact Disputes Between Parents and Allegations of Sex Abuse  (What does the research say?)

One of the most powerful weapons used by a hostile or delusional parent against another parent, often the absent father, is to accuse that individual of sexual abuse of a child. This is usually made by the mother, who tends to have gained custody of the child, against the now absent father. This situation occurs as a result of implacable hostility by one parent or both parents against one another following separation or divorce. The objective is to prevent contact of a child with the now absent parent, usually the father, by denying a good parent who is now no longer in the home from sharing contact. This is frequently based on the distorted perception that the individual, usually the mother, has the right to do this due to the hostility she feels towards the now absent parent (Kopetski, 2006).

Expert witnesses, usually psychologists or psychiatrists, are frequently asked by the Court to assess the validity or non validity of sexual abuse allegations made by the custodial parent against the now absent parent. On the whole these allegations tend to be false (Lorandos, 2006). The allegations are frequently underhanded, sick and may be viewed as an extreme form of both parent and child abuse, when it can be proven that no such action occurred. The custodial parent frequently uses this method in order to keep the other parent at bay and to pay that parent back for real or alleged harm that they may have done. Should sexual abuse actually occurred it should be brought to the attention of the child protection services (CPS)(Kalichman, 1999).

In what follows we will consider how the assessment is carried out and what is the evidence which points to true versus false allegations of child sex abuse.
In the appendix of this article will be an inventory that could be helpful in determining of distinguishing between the likelihood or not of sex abuse having occurred. It must be made clear that there is currently no single approach that is totally foolproof. It would appear therefore that it is best never to rely on one test or approach, but to use several techniques simultaneously. This includes the use of inventories, personality tests, interviews, the assessment of documents etc.

How is the assessment carried out

Expert witnesses frequently carry out the assessment on behalf of the courts. Expert witnesses often work differently but it is vital that they are totally independent and have no preconceived notions about either party participating in a dispute. The method that follows describes how one particular Expert Witness, the author of this report, works in determining whether false sex abuse allegations have occurred. His assessment includes:

1.         Assessing statements made by the child, the accuser, and the accused.
2.         Assessing the child/children totally for sexual abuse.
3.         Assessing the accused for the validity of the allegations made against him/her.
4.         Assessing the accuser for the validity of the allegations made.
5.         Assessing parents and the child separately and together in various combinations.
6.         Assessing any other person associated with the conflict, i.e. relative, friends of either parent.

Case illustration

In depth interviews are carried out by both psychiatrists and psychologists. In addition, due to their training, clinical psychologists carry our objective and projective psychological testing. Decisions or conclusions are reached as a result of either evidence which is accumulated from various sources. It should be remembered the alleged sex abuser should be considered innocent unless proven guilty.

This is the approach preferred and recommended by a number of experts (Bernet, 2002; Herman, 2002). The American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry (1997a) and the American Psychological Association (1994) have also published many ways that child evaluations can be carried out. Gardner (1999) also suggested the manner of these evaluations and how they should be carried out.

What determines whether or not child sex abuse has occurred or not occurred?

Factors that determine whether one partner sexually abused a child are:

1.         It  has actually occurred according to the child and/or has been assessed by the other parent or another person correctly.

2.         When the custodial or non custodial parent seeks to denigrate a parent by indoctrinating the idea in the child that sex abuse has occurred. This may be determined by direct comments or exaggerations or statements that are ambiguous and innocent but can be interpreted otherwise. This may be illustrated by an 8 year old girl who came into her father’s bed during a contact visit. When she told her mother about this mother almost immediately assumed that there might have been some sexual abuse occurring because of the animosity she felt towards her former partner.

3.         Sometimes a biased interviewer creates in the mind of the child that sexual abuse has occurred (Ceci & Bruck, 1995), when it has not.

4.         Investigators in the past have use anatomical dolls with very young children. This approach unfortunately has been discredited as to not making a significant contribution toward the diagnosis of sexual abuse having or not having occurred (Everson & Boat, 1994). The same can be said of asking a child to draw a picture of self and family.

5.         False statements of alleged sexual abuse derived from an adult alienator frequently  contains language which can only have come from the alienating parent or other adult person, such as calling the accused parent a “pervert” or using such terms as “he tried to have sexual intercourse with me”.

6.         Some children make statements about having their sexual organs touched by a perpetrator. Only in-depth questioning can lead to how, when and where this actually occurred.

7.         When sexual abuse has occurred, psychological concomitant behaviour can occur including a child who suddenly wets the bed after having been dry for some time. The child’s credibility needs to be tested at all times. There needs to be a great amount of detailed information presented by the child in the “child’s language”. Details need to include what, where, when, how and how often something occurred. The more specific the detail, the more believable the narrative that sexual abuse has occurred.

8.         A child may reveal actual sexual abuse when there is mention and evidence of the perpetrators emphasis on secrecy. Real perpetrators also show gradually, increased intrusiveness over time, and evidence of “grooming” behaviour. This may start with talking, showing non sexualized affection, and be followed by minor sexual touching initially in innocent areas, and eventually sexual touching in more intimate areas. Penetration may not occur at all or for some considerable time and may start with fingers, tongue and ultimately the use of the penis. There is much variation in the kind of sexual abusing.

9.         Sex abuse is not likely to have occurred when the child uses such “borrowed scenarios” or phrases such as “my father sexually abused me”, especially when this is stated by a very young child. Sometimes the child will refer to multiple perpetrators and present inconsistent narratives. The child will then change the story from time to time or forget what he/she has said earlier. False sex abuse allegations can also be demonstrated when the narrative is implausible or far-fetched.

10.       On the whole, sexual abuse having taken place can be believed when the child is hesitant in divulging such information, especially when first interviewed. Children who go on and on, almost relishing the stories of abuse, are likely to have been programmed by an adult to recite almost a litany of events.

11.       Children who have truly been sexually abused feel they have been let down by the abuser and the non abusing parent for not protecting them from the abuse. A child is also likely to be sincere in fearing not only the abuser but anyone for resembling the abuser. Such children are frequently depressed and express a sense of helplessness.

12.       Also important is when the alleged abuse first began, that is, before or after the implacable hostility is manifested between the parents who may by that time be separated, as well as how spontaneous were the child’s revelations. Did he revelation of child sexual abuse occur due to one parent seeking to oust the alleged perpetrator from having good contact with the child after separation and divorce?

13.       Sometimes the child makes false allegations to someone he/she knows dislikes the alleged perpetrator, knowing that the accusations are likely to be believed, even if these accusations are false.

14.       Sometimes a child has done something wrong and will make up a story of abuse having taken place in order to distract a parent from the child’s wrong doing.

13.       Sometimes a child will claim having been abused to gain attention and even praise from a parent or an evaluator for the false revelations having been made (Gardner, 2002; Wood & Garvin, 2000).

14.       Via the campaign of “denigration”, the custodial parent abuses the non custodial parent by encouraging the child to make implausible and dramatic statements of sexual abuse when this has not occurred. Among these examples is when the father is drying a child after a bath and inadvertently touches their body or sexual organs.

15.       Trauma, such as specific dreams and sexualised behaviour of the child, with other adults and/or children may indicate that sexual abuse has occurred. This is especially likely in children who masturbate openly and excessively or attempt to have sex with other children or adults. Unfortunately such behaviour is also manifested by children who have not been exposed to sexual abuse experiences due to imitating what they have seen adults do in their own home or elsewhere.

16.       Accusers of sexual abuse of a child should be intensively interviewed by the expert. If that parent or other accuser manifests no feeling of shame about the alleged abuse but appears to advertise it widely, this could well be a sign that no sexual abuse occurred.

17.       It is frequently highly moralistic individuals who will see sexual abuse everywhere and in most innocent behaviour of the accused. Such individuals may put the idea of sexual abuse into the mind of the child by statements made to the child. This is then likely to lead to the alienation of the innocent party even more than before the allegations of sexual abuse were made. Such individuals will prompt the child to make accusations or exaggerate the actions of the innocent parent such as when they are drying a child after a bath or similar normal and innocent activity.

18.       Actual sex abusers often tend to have some, but not necessarily all, of the following background characteristics:

a)         came from a dysfunctional family and have themselves suffered emotionally or been sexually abused;
b)         they may suffer from low intelligence and even mental retardation and sometimes psychoses;
c)         have a strong deviant sex drive;
d)         are substance abusers (alcohol and/or drugs);
e)         suffer from cognitive distortions – that is they justify their paedophile behaviour as their right to do so;
f)         having psychopathic tendencies – that is low empathy and being deceptive;
g)         are likely to be impulsive;
h)         have poor judgment;
i)          be excessively dominating or passive and hence lack assertiveness;
j)          impaired sexual relationships with adults;
k)         have recently been rejected by an adult sex partner;
l)          they collect child pornography or look at it on the internet;
m)        they prefer occupations where contact with children occurs.
n)         they have committed acts of paedophilia in the past.

Sometimes the Abel Assessment for Sexual Interest (AASI) inventory can be used in discovering the specific traits of alleged actual sexual abusers of children such a diagnostic tool can be helpful in focusing on certain therapeutic approaches for the particular sex abuser symptoms. When the allegations of sex abuse, having been made have been discounted, the false accuser should be held to account. They should face punishment for such damaging accusations towards an innocent parent. Such false accusation are also to be considered a form of emotional abuse for the child due to the child having been faced with harmful, unnecessary questioning. This could be considered grounds for change of custody of the child to an innocent alienated parent. That parent, it must be acknowledged, has suffered considerable worry and distress as a result of the false accusations made by the hostile, custodial parent.

On the basis of intensive interviewing and psychological testing, conclusions can be determined whether there is or there is not likely to be a sex abuse event.

Additional Factors that determine whether the child has good or poor contact with the now absent parent

1.         Whether in the past the child has had a good or poor relationship with the now absent parent. If it has been a good relationship this can be temporarily or permanently destroyed by parental alienation of the resident parent who has total control of the child with the other parent being absent.

2.         Whether the custodial parent actively and sincerely encourages the child to have regular good contact with the child and speaks well of the now absent parent to the child.

3.         Whether both parents behave in a mature and friendly rmanner despite the breakup of their own relationship. This is especially important when they are together and the child/children are present and observe such positive behavior between the parents. This is always in the best interest of the child. This should therefore be encouraged by the expert witness and/or mediator.

4.         When neither parent attempts to indoctrinate the child with negative notions about the other parent (Lowenstein, 2007; Gardner ,1998; Clawar & Rivlin, 1991).

Appendix 1

Basis for real versus false sex abuse accusations

What follows describes likely and unlikely evidence of sex abuse allegations. On the left hand side are the likely sex abuse allegation indicators while on the right side of the page are the unlikely sexual abuse allegations that could be rendered. In Appendix 2  each question from 1-20 can be rated on a 1-10 scale with the higher number representing unlikely sex abuse allegations. The boxes beside each number are for ticking relevant sections.



1. The child alleges sex abuse and describes it giving precise details as to how, when, and where it occurred.


The child has not revealed sex abuse to anyone else but the custodial parent or a relative of the custodial parent. The accuser creates the abuse in the child’s mind and reveals this to authority when prompted to do so.



2. The child has physical signs of abuse -damage to genitals, semen, hair.


There is no forensic evidence and no physical or psychological signs of abuse.



3. Uses appropriate language for a child describing sexual assault.


Inconsistency of reporting of abuse. The child uses inappropriate language when talking about the abuse, which a child would not normally use, but the alienating person would.



4. A child regularly wetting bed after being dry and, showing signs of depression and a sense of hopelessness and is reluctant to talk about the abuse.



The child shows no signs of change in behaviour. There are no signs of psychological disturbance, fears, hopelessness, depression etc.


5. The child reveals that the perpetrator had sworn him/ her to secrecy and made the child promise “not to tell… is our little secret”.


The child appears to enjoy speaking about the abuse and repeatedly does so. The child may have revealed the sexual abuse to someone who is hostile to the alienated parent.



6. When there is evidence of grooming.


When there is no evidence of grooming. The child agrees to the sexual assault allegations to please the alienating parent.



7. The child is hesitant about speaking of the abuse unless prompted to do so.



When the story of abuse is readily told and appears implausible or far-fetched.


8. The child indicates the abuser let him/her down by the statements the child makes.


The child reflects the feelings of the alienating parent and does not really understand how to behave toward the alienated parent. This is often due to the doubts sown in the mind of the child against the alienated parent. These are known as  ‘scare’ tactics.



9. The child is angry for not having been protected from the abuser or others in the family.


The child may be angry that the accused has left the house and left them and wishes to punish the accused (usually the father).



10. The alleged sex abuse was reported before the implacable hostility developed between the parents and not after this has occurred.


False sex abuse allegations tend to be made as a part of the alienating process and not before it occurs.



11. The alleged abuser has come from a dysfunctional background, has themselves been abused, takes drugs or alcohol, or has a strong sex drive.


The alleged abuser has not come from a dysfunctional background, and has not been sexually abused themselves, does not indulge in drugs and alcohol and has a normal or low sex drive.


12. The alleged sexual abuser has previously (in the past) been accused and found guilty of sexually abusing children.


The alleged sexual abuser has never been accused of being a sexual abuser.

Appendix 2

Marking Sheet for Real v False Sex Accusations

Directions:  Please rate from 10-1  the likelihood of each scenario described with 10 being the highest and 1 being the lowest

Evidence of Actual Sex Abuse

Evidence for NO Sex abuse


1. The child alleges abuse by describing in great detail as to who, when, where and how alleged sexual abuse took place, and the story seems plausible.


The child claims to have been sexually abused but provides only general statements with no details being provided and when questioned about when, where, and how it occurred.


2. The child produces physical signs of sexual abuse i.e damage to the child’s genitals, semen or other forensic evidence.



The child provides no physical signs of having been sexually abused.


3.The child uses appropriate language for describing the sexual abuse.



The child uses language which an adult is likely to use.


4. The child is consistent in the report of sexual abuse by providing the same evidence on a number of occasions when interviewed repeatedly.


The child provides inconsistent responses i.e. changes the narrative when repeatedly questioned.



5.The alleged abuser has insisted the child not report what allegedly occurred.



The child reports that the alleged abuser did not try to stop the child reporting abuse.


6. The child does not wish to speak about the alleged sexual abuse unless very much prompted to do so.


The child enjoys  and appears to volunteer talking about the sexual abuse that allegedly occurred, openly to many people.


7.  The child intimates that the sexual abuse made her feel that the person who carried it out let her down by his behaviour.



The child intimates that the sexual abuse did not in any way feel let down in relation to the alleged abuser.


8. The child intimates sadness and anger in that those close to the child failed to protect him/her from the sexual abuse.


The child intimates no sadness or anger about the fact that he/she was abused or the adults around her were not protecting her.


9. The child shows a different pattern of future behaviour as a result of the alleged sex abuse such as being angry and aggressive more than previously, depressed and perhaps wetting bed etc.



The child shows no changes in his/her pattern of behaviour as a result of the alleged abuse claimed by being angry, aggressive, depressed or wetting bed or her/himself.


10. The child made allegations following a crucial change in the parental relationship. That is parental alienation appears to have been associated and could have led to the child sex abuse allegations.



The child made no allegations following crucial change in parental relationships and possibility of alienation.


11. The person who allegedly carried out the offence came from a dysfunctional family.


The person who allegedly carried out the allegation of sexual abuse does not come from a dysfunctional family background.


12. The child makes sex abuse allegations to please an alienating parent.


The child makes sex abuse allegation independent of an alienating parent.



13. The child makes sex abuse allegations as this is based on the implacable hostility between the abusing parent against the non abusing parent.



The child makes allegations of sexual abuse but not based on the implacable hostilities between the parents.


14. The accused of sexual abuse has him/herself been sexually abused in the past as a child.


The accused of sexual abuse has not him/herself been sexually abused as a child.


15. The alleged perpetrator of sexual abuse is addicted to alcohol and/or drugs.



The alleged sex abuser is not addicted to alcohol, drugs or any other substance.


16. The child who makes allegations of sex abuse has him/herself done something wrong and uses the alleged sex abuse allegations as a cover for the wrong doing.



The child who makes the allegations of sex abuse has not done anything wrong and hence is making the allegations independent of covering any wrong doing.


17. The alleged perpetrator suffers from cognitive distortions.



The alleged perpetrator does not suffer from cognitive distortions.


18. The alleged sex abuser has a strong sex drive.



The alleged sex abuser has a weak sex drive.


19. The alleged sex abuser has had difficulty in his sexual relationship with adults.



The alleged sex abuser has had no difficulty in his sexual  relationship with adults.


20. The alleged sex abuser has recently been sexually rejected by an adult person.



The alleged sex abuser has not recently been sexually rejected by an adult person.


21. The alleged sex abuser has a history of paedophile activities.


The alleged sexual abuser has no past history of paedophile activities.



Any remarks:


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Everson, M. D., & & Boat, B. W. (1994). Putting the anatomical dolls controversy in perspective: An explanation of the major uses and criticisms of the dolls in child sexual abuse evaluations. Child Abuse & Neglect, 18, 113-129.
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