“Dad has a big penis” Sweet Bee says giggling and pretending her hand is a penis, while we are horse playing on the bedroom floor.
“EXCUSE ME!” I blurt out.
“Yeah, and then he does this and this” Muppet joins in.
WHAT THE FLYING F%$# ??????? (Excuse my language)
This completely caught me by surprise and I wasn’t sure what to think of this. So many questions and concerns were racing through my head. On the one hand, kids don’t come up with this all by themselves, there is, at a minimum, a foundation of truth. On the other hand, despite all that is ‘wrong’ with Ex, I highly doubt he would sexually abuse the girls.
I quickly changed the subject as I had to think about this and how to approach this delicate problem. Because it is a problem.
It is a huge problem.
The Department of Justice reports that as many as 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys are sexually abused in childhood. That is horrendous. It is also a problem, because it is very controversial, delicate and tricky subject in Family Court.
So why do parents file allegations of sexual abuse with Child Protective Services?
1. Allegations are true
Unfathomable, but a sad reality. Some people look at a child but do not see a child. Unfortunately, approximately 47% of sex abuse occurs by an immediate or extended family member; parents, grandparents, siblings, uncles/aunts, cousins.
Talking with local and national experts, the anecdotal consensus seems to be that about 90% of the allegations of sexual abuse at the onset of divorce are true. These truthful allegations surface at the divorce proceedings because;
- The non-offending parent finds out about the sexual abuse and immediately files for divorce.
- There is long-standing sexual abuse that is revealed only in the context of divorce. The child finally feels ‘free’ to disclose the abuse and the perpetrator will have a much harder time to maintain the secrecy.
- Sexual abuse is triggered by the marital dissolution. A parent either starts to sexually abuse the child to retaliate against the divorcing spouse or because the stress of the divorce results in more impulsive and regressed behavior.
The anecdotal consensus is that the further out from the filing of divorce the parents are, the less likely it is that the allegations are true.
2. Misunderstanding the child, and/or misunderstanding normal child development
The stress of divorce have us on edge, and parents are much more sensitive, even hypersensitive, to the slightest deviation of ‘normal’ and it is easy to take things out of context.
When a 5-year-old girl comes home from Dad with an irritated vagina it raises eyebrows from Mom. However, 5-year-old girls are notorious for not wiping their booty properly and urine is irritating and can cause redness. A pre-schooler does play with his/her private parts, they are on a road of discovery.
A parent involved in a high-conflict child custody dispute, may be ready to jump to premature conclusions without full facts, or fully understanding the development of a child. Alarmed, the suspicious parent, may ask suggestive and leading questions to the child and inadvertently reinforce the suspicion of sexual abuse. And because of the level of hostility, distrust and anger it is easy for a parent to believe the worst about their former spouse.
3. Repressed sexual feelings and desires of the accusing parent
Psychological repression is the psychological attempt by an individual to repel one’s own desires and impulses toward pleasurable instincts by excluding the desire from one’s consciousness and holding or subduing it in the unconscious.
The problem with repression is that it has to find an outlet, and the individual with repressed feelings will ‘act out’. They know, are very aware, that abusing a child is wrong and will not do so themselves, but they are obsessed with the possibility that the child has been or may be sexually abused.
Such a parent may question the child repeatedly, examine genitals following visits with the other parent, and repeatedly take the child to doctors until some professional affirms the suspicion.
4. Mental illness and/or Personality Disorder of the parent
Several researchers have published various studies about the incidences of false allegations of sex abuse and the personality traits of the accuser (Charles V. Ford, K. Ross, G. Blush, H. Wakefield, G. Underwager, etc.). They found that parents making false allegations during divorce proceedings are likely to have personality disorders and/or other psychiatric problems. Approximate 74% of the parents making false accusations had a personality disorder diagnosis, 3% had another mental health diagnosis, while 24% was not determined or free of psychopathology.
In contrast, 70% of the falsely accused were assessed as normal (sound familiar?).
The personality disordered parent is obsessed with hatred and hostility toward an estranged or former spouse. This parent does whatever he or she can to hurt the spouse, and their child becomes a pawn in the ongoing battle. They foster a false accusation as a way to get custody, as a way to punish a former spouse.
The personality disordered parent has blinders on, sometimes not even aware of their hatred, and convinced they are absolutely, undoubtedly right; the abuse is taking place. They are unable to accept that there may be other explanations for the child’s behavior, or the circumstances. In true cases of sexual abuse, the accusing parent often explores all possibilities.
After my initial shock, I had to make a plan to discover what was really going on. I had to weigh my options and approaches. I had to balance between calmly finding the truth and fiercely wanting to protect the children.
Turns out both girls ‘regularly’ walk in on their father when he uses the bathroom and he sometimes walks around the house naked. This is by all means inappropriate behavior, considering the girls are 4 and 8, but not new behavior. With a previous girlfriend, he would walk around her house naked, in front of her then 7-year-old son.
Personality disordered parents are egocentric and have poor boundaries. They can not distinguish between their own emotional, psychological and physical needs, and that of the children.
This was a stressful situation. Protecting the child is also finding the truth in a calm manner, not just immediately calling Child Protective Services. If a parent is over reacting or fabricating an allegation, the child’s emotional health is also threatened. Bresee et al. assert that an allegation of child abuse is clear evidence that the child is at risk, whether or not the allegation can be proved. Wakefield & Underwager (1988) believe that a parent involved in developing a false allegation may not be qualified to be a custodial parent. Many states have (case) laws reflecting this opinion.
True or False?
Here I want to put in a word of caution. There are many studies out there that investigate the incidence of false allegations; some use small samples and some use large samples. None of these studies distinguish between the time of filing the report and the time of filing the divorce.
The smaller, and often anecdotal, studies report high incidences of false allegations. The larger studies report 2-8% of the reports made are deemed false. In approximately 50% of the allegations are found to be true, and 40+% to be ‘undetermined’.
And ‘undetermined’ is just that, they can not find conclusive evidence, it was not properly investigated or even investigated at all. ‘Undetermined’ doesn’t mean there was no sexual abuse, nor that it was a false allegation. It means there is a child in trouble, because abuse is taking place; either by a parent sexually abusing the child, or by a parent jeopardizing the psychological wellbeing of that child by making false allegations.