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Child abuse books


Chapter 9

An alleged victim of child sexual abuse, whose father successfully fought the allegations and was awarded sole custody of his children, made several telling statements in an interview she granted me for this book.

…They need to be aware that it hurts the kids the most. The mothers think they’re hurting the other parent, but they’re really not, they’re hurting the kids. It hurts the parents a little bit, but that’s not going to stop them from living. They’re already grown-up, they know the facts of life and stuff. The kids don’t really have a way to know what’s going on and that basically destroys a part of their life and I think that’s wrong…

Mary was five years old when her mothers used false allegations of child sexual abuse, citing instances of oral sex involving Mary and her sisters, to block her father’s motion for a change of custody.

Now sixteen, Mary has been living with her father for eight years and, in the interest of other children who are or may be potential victims of false allegations brought during a custody battle, she agreed to speak out about her feelings. We asked Mary, more or less as an expert witness speaking in the true best interest of the children, for her feelings, her opinions, her thoughts on the issue of false allegations of child sexual abuse and its effect on the children involved.

Mary’s messages to mothers, fathers, social workers, and mental health care professionals are probably more valid and more valuable than the most learned dissertation on this subject from a degree-bearing specialist.

…Basically, the mothers or fathers — whoever thinks about making false allegations — tell them to think twice. It’s a stupid thing to do and it hurts. It hurts more and different people than they know…

In Mary’s case, not only did the allegations cause questions and, in fact, fear of her father, but Mary truly dislikes her mother because of the lies that involved her entire family. There is a rift between Mary and her sisters, and Mary doesn’t know if it will ever be healed. She doesn’t trust women in general although, fortunately, she is close to her step-mom who has, over the past eight years, proven herself to be a person deserving of trust and respect. Mary’s trust in authority figures has been seriously undermined, partly by the fact that the counselors and therapists — people with authority — worked with her mother to perpetuate the lies.

As a result of the lengthy, consistent, and intense attempts to substantiate her mother’s accusations, Mary knows a permanent seed of doubt has been planted. Although she sincerely loves and trusts her father, Mary admits that a doubt will always be there. She doesn’t think the question of whether it happened or didn’t happen will ever go away, and is learning to accept that this is something she may always have to deal with in her life.

…Tell the fathers to talk to their kids. Not directly about that, but about things that are related, like how not to lie and how to tell a truth from a lie. Try to have fun with the kids so they can tell the truth from a lie, don’t let them be able to have ideas planted in their heads by other people…

…Fight for your kids, but don’t say bad things to them about their mom. My dad didn’t say bad stuff about Mom. I think, if he had, it would have made me mad and I’d have hated him as much as I hate my mom now…

…Tell the mothers it’s wrong. They’re teaching the kids bad values, bad thoughts… destroying their trust…

Today, Mary says she’s very careful who she is friendly with, let alone who she dates. Lying is totally abhorrent to Mary, and what a person is like “inside” is critical to her. Because of her mother’s allegations and the actions of primarily female social and mental health care workers, Mary readily admits that she doesn’t hold women in very high regard and frequently wishes she was a man. She feels most women need to make themselves worth something and would like to have more respect for herself than most women seem to have. With a maturity unusual at the age of sixteen, Mary candidly admits that it may be wrong for her to feel that way, but right now she can’t help it, it is the way she feels.

…Tell the caseworkers, counselors, and therapists not to take sides. They do take sides, all the time — the mother’s side. Don’t tell the kids what happened, what to do. Don’t dwell on the accusations. Listen to the kids and help them deal with it, work with them. Don’t act like another parent. You’re supposed to be a friend, someone to help us…

In Mary’s case, she says she felt like it was her against the world — against her mother who was, in fact, physically and emotionally abusive to the girls; against her father, whom she hadn’t seen for four and a half years and couldn’t remember; against the social workers and therapists, who kept asking the same questions, repeating the same accusations, raising the same issues, and questioning her dad’s actions.

…Why, she asks, would people keep asking these questions? They kept repeating them over and over and finally, I thought, My God, maybe he did do that and I don’t remember. What’s a kid supposed to think? Even though you don’t remember and you don’t know that it happened, it gets planted, the doubt, the question is there. It makes me sick…

We asked Mary what it felt like to be in the middle, to know her parents were fighting over her.

…We see in our minds that our parents are in a fight, they’re trying to get back at each other and you think they’re fighting to get custody of you just to try to get back at one another more than they’re fighting because they want you in their home. We really didn’t know if they were fighting because they really wanted us with them, or fighting just to fight each other. It’s stupid…

…When Dad won, we thought he’d won against our mother, not a fight for us…

In Mary’s case, even though life was abusive with her mother, the children were truly scared of their father. They hadn’t seen him for four years, as a result of his ex-wife’s efforts to discourage and later prevent his custody attempts, Mary had been a year old when he left home and the girls had heard nothing good about him. They were the spoils of war, going to a victor about whom they knew nothing except what their mother had told them.

Mary’s mother fought to regain custody of the children after they moved in with their dad. Mary’s recollection of that period is that she and her sisters felt their parents were still fighting each other and that they, the kids, were simply the rope in an on-going tug of war.

Unfortunately, Mary’s situation is no more unique or unusual than the four case studies presented at the beginning of this book.

Because of their age and vulnerability, the children find themselves being manipulated by a number of different, and often unfamiliar, adults. The accuser often brings in a host of supporting witnesses from agencies, hospitals, and schools and uses various means to substantiate the claim.

Children can be taught to say various things, which may or may not be true, as a result of either direct teaching or subtle teaching through reinforcement such as verbal responses and encouragement, body movement, and facial expressions. Discussions of the incident between the child and mother, the child and friends or other family members can serve as an effective learning process, reinforcing the child’s knowledge and recital of a contrived event.

As a general rule, children seek to give the answers they think are desired, rather than deal with facts that may get negative reactions. Through the use of facial expression, body movement, or verbal responses, an interviewer can make it plain what type of answer gains approval and what gains disapproval. A strongly-biased interviewer can shape a child’s response by reinforcing the child with smiles, hugs, and “good girl” statements when the answers are what the interviewer wants to hear.

Children placed in this situation become pawns in a game which they don’t understand, a game they shouldn’t be expected to understand, let alone be forced to play. It is not unusual, in divorce situations, to find one parent pitted against the other, often making negative remarks and accusations in front of the children. In these instances, children are torn — loving both parents, wanting to be loyal to both parents, wanting to please both parents. In the case of child sexual abuse, the accusing parent has made it clear that the other parent is bad and is to be blamed.

A false allegation of child sexual abuse places a child in an intolerable situation: They don’t want to hurt Daddy; they don’t want to lie; they don’t want to disappoint Mommy or make her angry. Placing a child in this position is itself child abuse at its worst.

Children are easily coached and easily manipulated, especially when they are emotionally and physically dependent upon the accusing parent for all their needs. During the course of an investigation of child exual abuse, the child is expected to go through the same questions and exercises, time after time, to satisfy everyone’s requirements for testimony. By the time the child has been exposed to the same round of questions and the same round of coaching over a period of weeks, it is not difficult to convince the child that the incident actually occurred. He or she has a tape recorder going in his or her mind, giving the responses that people want to hear and receiving the praise they’ve come to expect for being “a good girl” and helping us so much. Even though he or she may not be convinced, the question, the doubt is planted and will remain throughout his or her life, as Mary has pointed out.

In the Colorado case, all three of Rick’s children were placed in therapy and “treated” for sexual and physical abuse, starting as soon as Marsha made the allegation. These children became victims of the system and victims of their mother’s vengeance, not victims of child sexual abuse. They were and still thoroughly confused. They were separated from their father, denied any contact at all, and are now having to learn to know him again. They have a stepfather whom they are required to call “Dad,” while instructed to refer to Rick by his first name. They don’t understand their mother’s attitude and are trying to cope with what she did. Meantime, they have been treated like victims and made to feel like victims, losing much of their childhood trust and dreams and pleasures in the process.

Forcing a child to lie, or to accuse a parent whom they love, may well cause permanent and irreparable harm to the child who is, in all probability, unable to cope with the situation. We recognize that the adult who has been accused has tremendous difficulty accepting and adjusting to the accusation. Why can’t we recognize what the situation is doing to the young child?

The Connecticut Bar Association’s Guidelines for Courts and Counsel states, in connection with custody cases, “… counsel should act to move the proceedings toward conclusion as speedily as possible, since undue delay in the resolution of the custody or visitation dispute is rarely in the best interest of the child. The minor will suffer more than any of the adults as a consequence of the anxiety of uncertainty.”

Unfortunately, it seems that few social service workers, prosecutors or family court judges, in Connecticut or anywhere else, appreciate the validity and importance of this directive.

In cases involving allegations of child sexual abuse, where the allegation is made by one parent against another, the case customarily deteriorates into a series of interviews of the minor child, and attempts by the accuser to introduce hearsay statements into evidence.

We are routinely asked to believe that children do not lie. Research has indicated that, in cases of divorce and custody disputes, the child is often affected by the psychological functioning of the accusing adult and adult agendas, which impose their ideas upon the children, making the children pawns and victims of the directive adult, who is using the allegations and the child as a weapon.

A. Matthew Miller, in an article in the Family Law Commentator, made the following comments:

“Too often the child is the innocent victim of the failure of the marriage and becomes a mere pawn between parents competing for the love and loyalty of the child… Unfortunately, a custodial/residential mother with vengeful attitudes may perceive the child’s relationship with the father as the only means of getting even.”

A child usually reflects the emotional responses of the adult with whom the child resides. A child’s ambivalent feelings for the non-custodial parent may well be the result of the influence of the custodial parent, or the child’s emotional perception of that parent’s feeling for the non-custodial parent. The child’s need to please and be loved by and accepted by the custodial parent creates a dependency or identification with that parent. Rarely is testimony of the mother, child, or social services people carefully reviewed to determine the extent, if any, of the mother’s bias, interests, or anger. As it currently operates, the system encourages manipulation of the child by the custodial parent, provides support for the accuser, and is an effective aid in assuring maternal custody.

What happens when the allegation is proven false? The child has probably still been subjected to endless interrogation and often sexual abuse therapy that is confusing and probably emotionally damaging. He or she may have been taught the role of victim. A young child has probably learned a great deal about explicit and deviant sexual behavior long before they would normally have had that type of exposure.

Too many social workers and mental health care workers approach an interview with the belief that, if the child said it or the mother said the child said it, then it must be true — the child has been molested. The child is given positive feedback when he or she provides the sought-for answers, i.e. say “yes” and Mommy is proud of you. Negative feedback and contradictions result from his/her denial of any abuse. Say “no” and the child is asked, “Is this one of the yucky secrets? Is this a scary secret? Were you told not to talk about this?”

If a child says he was abused, he’s telling the truth. If he says he wasn’t, he’s lying, seems to be the theory practiced by many social workers. This belief is clearly documented in The Real World of Child Interrogations, Underwager and Wakefield, 1990.

Social workers and mental health workers can “train” a child to believe he or she was molested. If the child continues to maintain nothing happened, they may say that other children say it did. They may attempt conjecture: “Do you think it might have happened?” They may use anatomically correct dolls and ask the child to pretend something happened and to show them how it happened. They have now given the child an opportunity to play or fantasize. If the child is at all interested in the enlarged genital areas of the anatomically correct dolls, they have proof of molestation.

The potential of harm for the children involved in these cases was recognized over ten years ago. In January of 1978, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect made the following statements in the Federal Register: “Sexual abuse of children, especially in cases of incest, is perhaps one of the least understood and, consequently most mishandled forms of child mistreatment . . . There is often as much harm done to the child by the system’s handling of the case as the trauma associated with the abuse…care must be exercised, lest the very social intervention employed produce the very outcomes that are feared.”

The theory that children don’t lie about sexual abuse, because they haven’t the knowledge or experience to create such claims, totally ignores the fact that children can be taught to parrot almost anything and coached to relate stories both true and false. This is, unfortunately, why they are such a valuable tool when guided by a manipulated parent and assisted by overzealous and untrained social workers. The child is the victim of the system.

The prosecutor in Larry Spiegel’s case made the following statement regarding the validity of his daughter’s statement: “If you ask a child the right questions, you get the truth.” More accurately, in cases of false allegations involving young children, if you ask the “right” questions, leading questions, closed-end questions, you can get the answers you want.

A child who is being used by a parent as a pawn in the game of custody and child support is daily and hourly subjected to the obsessions and attitudes of that parent as well as to the questions and attitudes of the therapist, who will generally operate from the assumption that the child has been accused. Over a period of time, this type of exposure results in the child either becoming convinced that he or she was, in fact, abused, that something bad happened when they were with Daddy, or the child carrying forever the question, the doubt, about what really did or didn’t happen, as we have seen with Mary.

In the case of Mark Doe in Texas, not only was his son subjected to therapy for non-existent abuse, but one of the conditions of his divorce settlement was that his son be placed in a state-approved institution, totally removed from his family, for intensive evaluation and therapy. Mark had a choice: he could agree to the hospitalization of his son or the psychologist for the state would recommend that all three of his children be placed in foster homes. Although the charges of sexual abuse had been dismissed, he was placed in a situation of forcing all of his children into a completely foreign environment, or going along with the requirement of therapy for himself and hospitalization for his son. The child, at the age of three, became an extreme victim of the manipulations of his wife’s attorney and the state Social Services system, being placed in an institution designed to treat disturbed adolescent or prepubescent children.

In reviewing Mark Doe’s case and the actions and activities of the therapists and hospital involved, Dr. Underwager and Wakefield made the following comment: “When a non-abused child is treated by adults as if the child had been abused and adult pressure and influence is used to produce statements from a child about events that did not happen, this is an assault upon the child’s ability to distinguish reality from unreality.”

In instances where the child becomes caught up in the agency system, his or her denial may well lead to some well-intentioned but misguided social worker interpreting his play, his dreams, or his behavior on his behalf, depicting that he is, indeed, an abused child. If he continues to deny the abuse, the child will be given more “counseling.”

One father, charged with child sexual abuse when he attempted to gain custody of his three-year-old daughter now has supervised visitation, eight hours, every other week. The judge, in ruling on the case, concluded there was insufficient evidence of abuse, but suggested that the girl had been conditioned to fear her father by months of therapy. He ordered the therapy ended. At a recent visitation, the little girl leaned over from her coloring book and whispered, “You put your penis in my bottom.”

“No, I didn’t, darling,” he responded.

“Mama says. We talk about it at home a lot.” With that statement, his daughter turned back to her coloring book and nothing more was said.

During a psychological evaluation of another three-year-old, following several months a therapy for alleged child abuse which had elicited more and more sophisticated and wide-ranging admissions from the child, the psychologist at the University of Michigan Family and Law Program made the following observation. “This `therapy,’ although meant to be helpful, has been continually sexually stimulating to her. Each of these charges is the product of continuing interviews and therapy and who knows what.” In referring to use of the dolls to determine what had happened, he pointed out that children are curious as well as suggestible and compliant, especially with an adult whom they seek to please.

In the William Smith case, the victimization of the children is on-going. These two children were old enough to realize what was happening and, as they have grown older, have steadfastly denied any wrongdoing on the part of either their stepbrother or their father. In spite of psychological examinations and recommendations to the contrary, the children remain in their mother’s custody. Both children are totally baffled by the fact that they must live with their mother and are not allowed to see their father. They are confused by the fact that their mother is lying, they have told everyone that their mother is lying and how she told them to lie, yet no one listens to these two small voices.

In this instance, while there was no physical abuse, Dr. Hill of Ross Associates pointed out that the emotional abuse of having to tell lies, to select one parent over the other and to experience an ongoing uncertainty about their future home and lifestyle may have serious effects on their future mental health. She expressed concern about the lengthy court process to which they were being subjected and the conflicting messages they were receiving from their mother and numerous “helping” professionals who were attempting to manipulate the court system for their own vested interests.

In a review of the children’s psychological well being, done two years after the allegations were made by their mother against their stepbrother and, subsequently, their father, Dr. Janice Hill of Ross Associates included the following statements.

“Beginning with the Women Together Shelter experience, Janice and Johnny have been subjected to numerous interviews, physical and mental status examinations with police, physicians, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, psychologists, attorneys and victim advocates. While such investigations may have originated in the best interest of these children, and should have addressed the original complaint of sexual abuse and custody, unfortunately the legal complexity of this case, the numerous vested interests of the parents and the “helping” professionals have resulted in doing further damage to the emotional well-being of these two children. In fact, the Guardian indicated on August 8, 1985 that this therapist’s report was essential to the Court’s Award of Custody. To date, however, the therapeutic findings of this therapist have not been requested, in spite of well over one and one-half years of consistent and intensive therapeutic involvement with these children.

“To summarize, Johnny and Janice Smith have been subjected to a series of traumatic events:

  1. Disruption of their intact family;
  2. Changes in temporary custody, living environments, academic opportunities;
  3. Intensive and intrusive investigations of alleged sexual abuse by multiple social service, law enforcement and civil justice systems personnel;
  4. Parental indoctrination to falsely accuse family members of these serious charges;
  5. Parental pressure to establish family loyalty and, most importantly;
  6. Child protection service providers, both social services and legal services that have exacerbated their emotional well being rather than protect it.

“It is imperative, then, that a speedy resolution to the custody issue be enacted to truly and finally serve in the best interest of these children. Continued prolongation of this matter on the part of the Court would represent a travesty of justice and simply, but tragically, demonstrate to these minor children that our system to protect and assist children is woefully inept…Finally, the best interests of these children could indeed best be served when they are given the opportunity to speak for themselves to the greater authority of the court.

A psychological evaluation was done at the University of Michigan Family and Law Program, involving Bernie, his ex-wife and their three-year-old daughter. Because of an innocent question asked by the ex-wife during a medical examination, the doctor had reported to Social Services that she suspected possible sexual abuse and charges had been filed by the agency. His daughter had been put in sexual abuse therapy for several months to allow her to “deal with” and “provide information about” the alleged abuse. Over a period of months, the child had reportedly alleged a variety of instances of sexual abuse.

At the end of over five hours of evaluation, the psychologist made the following observation: “This `therapy,’ although meant to be helpful, has been continually sexually stimulating to her.” He noted the escalating allegations. “Each of these charges is the product of continuing interviews and therapy and who knows what. This evaluator sincerely doubts any of the…acts took place, let alone all of them.” He also criticized the continued use of anatomically correct dolls in her therapy. “It is important to remember that children are curious. Children are suggestible and compliant, especially with a parent and those adults whom they seek to please and protect.”

The preceding evaluations indicate that there may be long term ramifications to the children as a result of being involved in the allegations, the investigation and the almost automatic therapy process. Mary can tell us clearly that these fears are well founded.

…I’d had more sex education by the time I was six than you can imagine. With the help of the dolls, I could name every part of the body. They spent all that time talking about it and they’d bring out the little dolls and point to the parts of the body and stuff…

And now it’s ten years later and Mary should be dating boys and giggling with other girls and exploring the natural curiosity we all experience during our teenage years regarding sex and its fascinating mysteries. Instead, Mary could probably teach her peers almost anything they want to know.

…I don’t like anything that has to do with sex. I mean, people talk and they say how great it is and I’m, like… Yuck!

The physical and emotional effects upon a true victim of sexual abuse are enormous. We have yet to fully comprehend the emotional, mental, and sociological effects upon a child who is coerced into playing the victim of a false allegation of child sexual abuse. Can we, as parents, social workers, mental health care professionals, attorneys, judges, legislators, and caring adults in the general population justify continuing experimentation with our children to find the answers?

Mary’s comments clearly illustrate that it is the children who are the true victims of false allegations of child sexual abuse. The agencies and mental health workers win; the attorneys win; one of the parents wins. The children always lose.