How Can the Truthfulness of Children Making Child Sex Abuse Allegations be Established?

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services



The validity or lack of validity of child sex abuse having or not having occurred is complex and difficult. In what follows we will consider: 1) assessing the child making allegations of sexual abuse, 2) the children and their suggestibility, 3) others than child making allegations of child sex abuse, 4) the child who recants after making child sex abuse allegations, 4) cumulative aspects likely to be important in seeking to establish true versus fabricated child sex abuse (points and questions).


As one who acts as an expert witness to the Courts I am frequently requested to draw conclusions on whether or not child sex abuse is likely to have occurred. I have learned to be cautious about certain criteria which have been considered as positive and others as negative evidence of child sex abuse, or not, having occurred. A number of aspects of true versus fabricated child sex abuse allegation made by a child or another, have emerged based on recent research.

As a psychologist I have been particularly concerned with the following areas:

    1. Assessing the child making allegations of sexual abuse.
    2. Children and their suggestibility.
    3. Others than the child making allegations of child sex abuse.
    4. A child who recants after making child sex abuse allegations.
    5. Cumulative aspects likely to be important in seeking to establish true versus fabricated child sex abuse.

Recent research has indicated that there are a number of problems associated with being able to establish with any degree of certainty whether or not child sex abuse has occurred (Bow et al., 2002; Everson & Boat, 1989; Benedek & Schetky, 1987).

  1. Assessing the child

Assessing the child’s clarity, celerity, certainty, consistency and elaborated detail in relation to the child’s description of special behavior related to sexual abuse has been studies by numerous investigators. Also important are is how vulnerable the child is to sexual abuse, and whether the child has any motivation for being likely to claim sexual abuse having occurred when it might not have occurred. Furthermore it is important to ascertain whether the child’s behavior changed following the allegations of sexual abuse (De Young, 1986).

Of equal important is whether specific psychological and/or behavioural symptoms of child sex abuse are present (Poole & Lindsay, 1998). Here included are physical and/or medical evidence that child sexual abuse might have occurred. One of the methods in use in assessing children’s statements is the Statement Validity Analysis (SVA) in the assessment technique seeking to establish the credibility of children allegedly making allegations of having been sexually abused. According to criteria based on content analysis (CBCA) of video tapes of children reporting child sex abuse the average proportion of agreement between raters was 0.75. The CBA varied from moderate to low (Anson et al., 1993).

  1. Children and their suggestibility

Young children aged under 4/5 are likely to be most suggestible to adults influencing them that they have been sexually abused (Quas et al., 2005; Ceci et al., 2002) when in fact this has not occurred, or where the type of abuse has been exaggerated.

After age 4/5, the suggestibility of children can still occur but is less than for the very young child (Goodman et al., 1990). Children therefore are less likely to make false declarations or allegations of having been sexually abused based on being suggestible (Schwartz-Kenney & Goodman, 1999; Saywitz et al., 1991). The manner in which children are interviewed also bears on their suggestibility. Open ended questions and free recall are less likely to lead to a child being influenced towards stating either false of non false sex abuse statements (Quas et al., 2005).

The suggestibility and reliability of memory of a child is frequently an aspect to be considered. Sometimes the seeds of false sex abuse allegations are based on a vindictive parent a following implacable hostility of separation or divorce between the parents. This is to ‘get back’ at the parent, who has left the home and the custodial parent fails to allow the child to have contact with that now absent parent for various reasons (Lowenstein, 2007) claiming the child is likely to be in danger of being sexually abused.

This occurs when the custodial parent wishes not merely to reject, but to ban contact permanently between the child and the absent parent who may have another partner. It also occurs when the custodial parent has a new partner and wishes to oust the former partner from acting as a parent to the child. The new partner is seen as the new parent figure.

The use of the powerful weapon of false allegations of child sex abuse allegedly carried out by the now absent parent, is frequently due to being a vindictive parent. Very young children under the age of 5 are especially suggestible (Ceci et al., 2002) and such a child will accept that sex abuse has occurred when indeed it has not, by being influenced by the custodial parent.

Despite many years of research, there is still uncertainty as to the typical behavior patterns that are always present when a child has been sexually abused (Blackwell, 2005; Johnson, 2004).

Even the reporting of sexual abuse later rather than immediately when it occurs, can only sometimes be considered as conclusive evidence that child sex abuse actually occurred or did not occur (Cossins, 2000; London et al., 2005). Some children who have suffered child sex abuse show no signs of any untoward disturbed behavior, while others do. Some children are difficult to influence by planting in their minds the fact that sex abuse has occurred when it has not (Quas et al., 2005). Other, more suggestible children will respond to strong suggestions of child sex abuse having been experienced by them by accepting such suggestions as true (Cossins, 2000;  Quas et al., 2005).

  1. Other than the child making sex abuse allegations

A study of false abuse allegations when parents are separated resulted in more than one third of the maltreatment statements being reviewed as incorrect. It also found that only 4% of al sex abusel cases were intentionally fabricated. The most common intentionally false allegations occurred as a result of child custody access disputes (12%).

Some parents, (usually the mother) continuously make repeated false allegations of child sex abuse to keep the former partner from having contact with their child. This has been viewed as a form of “Munchausen syndrome by proxy” as well as “parental alienation”. Here the parent needs to feel that the child is damaged and in need of help and unlikely to benefit from contact with the absent parent due to an acrimonious parting between the parents following marriage or a relationship (Scheier, 1996).

  1. The child who recants after making sex abuse allegations

A study of 2-17 year old alleged sex abuse victims noted a recantation rate of 23.1%. Most recantations occurred in relation to parent figures who initially were accused of child sex abuse. This was seen as happening because these children were so dependent on the custodial parent figure (Malloy, et al., 2007).

Explanations of child sex abuse allegations after divorce were studied by Faller (1991) and were considered to be of four types: 1) divorce due to discovery of child sex abuse; 2) long term sex abuse discovered following divorce or separation; 3) child sex abuse allegations resulting from marital break-up; 4) false allegations of sex abuse during or after divorce.

  1. Cumulative aspects likely to be important in seeking to establish true versus false child sex abuse allegations

What follows are relevant factors to be considered when seeking to establish whether or not sex abuse of a child has occurred, excluding physical evidence: 1) Is there a changed behavior after allegation of sex abuse such as, over sexualized behavior, anxieties, fears, bed wetting, soiling, conduct disorders, sleep problems, nightmares or learning deterioration?; 2) What is the suggestibility of the child, with young children being more suggestible than older children over the age of 5?; 3) How consistent is the child reporting the sexual abuse, and did the child recant about the abuse; 4) How did the child elaborate, providing detail concerned with the sexual abuse?; 5) Motivational factors as to why the child would or would not report sexual abuse. How would the child or another person benefit from true or false sexual abuse allegations?; 6) Who instigated the sexual abuse allegation (child, parent, or another)?; 7) Is there implacable hostility between the parents especially due to contact disputes?; 8) What is the timing of the declaration of the child sex abuse having occurred? 9) What is the result of the psychological assessment of the child and/or parents using testing?

As the heading stated it is best to view the nine overlapping areas cumulatively rather than in isolation, when attempting to establish whether allegations of child sex abuse are likely to be true or false. These allegations may be made by a child, or another person on behalf of the child, or by both. Unless there is strong physical evidence (the presence of semen, saliva, physical injuries etc.) and/or admission by the perpetrator there can never be one hundred percent certainty that child sex abuse has or has not occurred. The chances of being more certain in one direction or the other increases cumulatively when most or all of the aspects just covered point to the same direction.


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