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by Dean Tong, MSc.
June 22, 2007

2/3 of all Reports are Unfounded!

With the number of child abuse dispositive reports hovering around the unfounded mark of 67% (Child Maltreatment 2005 data), let us examine what are known as source misattribution errors. Such errors surface in alleged cases of sexual abuse where children have difficulty discerning whether their own memories, or another person’s repeated questioning of the same, are the real source of their information.

Other examples of source misattribution errors are:

* Four year-old Amber told a social worker her daddy put his pee pee on top of her pee pee. What Amber meant was that her father urinated on top of her urine in the commode she forgot to flush. Sadly, Amber’s father was arrested in Florida for lewd and lascivious behavior – a second degree felony

* Five year-old African-American Isiah went to the Emergency Room at a hospital in Atlanta and presented to doctors there with what looked like fresh bruises all over his face. Only after the Department of Family And Children’s Services (DFACS) removed Isiah into their custody did an independent medical expert opine the child suffered from Mongolian Warts or Spots [Read]

* Fifteen month-old Logan was found semi-conscious in his home next to his mother’s paramour, who was babysitting at the time for the child. When paramedics arrived and transported the child to the local hospital they found he had hit his head and suffered a seizure. After many tests were run, doctors opined the child suffered a subdural hematoma, bilateral retainal hemorrhages, and multiple bone fratures – classic signs of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). They called Children & Youth and the Authorities and the boyfriend was arrested at the hospital. In the end, it was found by independent experts that the child suffered from a genetic disorder known as Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI). The State dismissed all charges against the alleged perpetrator.

* Four year-old Eden was examined by colposcopy by an Arizona Sexual Abuse Nurse Examiner because her father allegedly molested her. The nurse found the child’s hymen to be absent and the father was indicted by a grand jury on 8 counts of sexual battery. After review by an independent forensic pediatrician, it was found the nurse was in error as the reason the child’s hymen was not visible was because it was masked by multiple labial adhesions.

Now, here’s my point. While our child protectors are charged by the legislature to protect our most vulnerable members of society – our children – and keep them out of harms way, making mistakes in two of every three child abuse cases is absolutely unacceptable.

Because a child presents to a hospital with erythema (redness) in her lower genital area, is that absolutely sexual abuse? Because a girl presents to the emergency room with vaginitis and a bubbly discharge, is that absolutely sexual abuse? Have we forgotton that other alternative hypotheses and explanations can be viable and accurate solutions to these problems? Have we forgotton to investigate the investigators, review the reviewers and critique the critiquers?

And, what about the other guy? The mistake in identity case? Even if we are correct in proving our hypothesis that a child has been abused, how do we know we have the correct suspect? All too often in cases of he said, she said, and what a young child said, does the former come out the loser. Studies and statistics show in that sexual child abuse cases, more often than not the actual perpetrators are stepfathers and paramours, not biological fathers. Yet, more times than not, it’s father being hauled away in handcuffs.

A lack of education and training in child suggestibility, memory, linguistics, pediatric medicine, child development and child pathology exists among our child protective investigators, sex crime detectives, sexual assault nurse examiners, guardians-ad-litem, therapists, attorneys, judges and legislators. The rise of source misattribution errors in child protection cases leading to unfounded conclusory reports is astoundingly high. Misdiagnoses are legion. A systemic failure to examine alternative answers is pervasive. Errors and mistakes made by professionals in the field in real time are commonplace.

Let’s establish higher standards of education and training in these cases all the way around and let the same be monitored by the AMA, APA, NASW, CWLA, NCJFCJ, ABA, CASA, et al. Let’s create a national task force to examine this 2/3 error rate in these cases and propose working solutions to reduce the same. And let’s take a hard look and consider repealing well-meaning, well-intentioned, but misguided legislation like CAPTA and VAWA, laws that have induced mandated abuse reporters to “err on the side of abuse.”