In every case of alleged sexual abuse, the mental health expert must approach it with an open mind. All possible hypotheses should be explored; tunnel vision must be avoided. It is imperative to consider all available evidence to either corroborate or refute the claim of sexual abuse. While most claims of sexual abuse are true from a statistical standpoint, some are lodged falsely and must be exposed. In a child custody case, a parent’s custodial time can be lost if the allegation is not debunked. In a criminal case, a parent’s very freedom is at stake since incarceration is a probable penalty.
There are several red flags that point to a false allegation of sexual abuse by a child. These include:
1. In a forensic interview, a sexually abused child is typically anxious, scared, worried, conflicted, ambivalent, and prone to recantations. In contrast, a child who is calm, cool, collected, and smooth may be fabricating the allegation of abuse. While this rule of thumb holds true, there are of course exceptions.
2. A timeline of events and actions will often reveal a fabricated allegation. An allegation of sexual abuse that occurs within days or a few weeks of a major event can reflect a fabricated story. For example, I had a case where an allegation of sexual abuse occurred within 72 hours of a husband asking for a divorce. The wife was shocked and scared of losing custody of their 3 children. The allegation of abuse was lodged to gain leverage in the child custody battle that was imminent.
3. If the first allegation of sexual abuse occurs during a divorce and/or child custody proceeding, a fabricated story should be considered. If multiple allegations are made during the proceeding, that is a huge red flag for fabrication.
4. If it is well-established that a child is being manipulated or coached by a parent, that child’s allegation of sexual abuse against the other parent must be scrutinized. As mentioned earlier, children and teens are easily manipulated by a parent and can be unwitting participants in a false allegation claim.
5. If the parent in question does not have a prior history of inappropriate sexual activity, criminal behavior, or serious substance abuse, it is more likely that the current allegation of sexual abuse is false.
6. If the child or a member of the family has a history of making previous similar allegations of abuse against others, it is more likely that the current allegation claim is false.
7. Some children, especially younger ones, will believe sexual abuse happened to them if they are repeatedly asked leading questions by a parent, investigator, or evaluator. Children want to please authority figures and will take their cues from them. In such circumstances, very young children have a difficult time distinguishing fact from fantasy.
8. Sometimes a parent will misconstrue or misinterpret what a child says and then magnify it into an act of sexual abuse. This happens with younger children most often. For example, if a father touches a young child’s “private parts” while giving a bath.