South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

Allegations of child sexual abuse

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Accurate and truthful disclosures, false allegations, and false denials

Child sexual abuse is not new. However interest in determining the veracity of child sexual abuse allegations, particularly by legal professionals, academic researchers and the media, is new. It is a controversial issue that has sparked considerable debate both within academia and by the general public. The depth of feeling is illustrated by special issues of academic journals being devoted to the topic(1) and by media accounts that highlight the plight of innocent victims who are not believed as well as those who are falsely accused of sexual abuse.

In this article, recent challenges to the reliability of children's testimony are discussed. Increasing concern over possible false allegations of sexual abuse by children has led to a spate of laboratory studies that demonstrate the conditions under which children report false information. These studies show that the accuracy of children's reporting is reduced when they are repeatedly interviewed in misleading ways. A simple solution to increase the reliability of children's testimony is to avoid asking misleading questions. Reasons for this not occurring are examined. For many child sexual abuse victims, disclosing the abuse is traumatic, and therefore interviewers resort to suggestive questioning procedures to elicit information about the abuse. Two models that have been proposed to describe the difficult process of disclosing sexual abuse are presented. Although they provide valuable information about the difficulties children encounter with such disclosures, the models offer little guidance as to how to facilitate disclosure. To redress this limitation, a recent model of disclosure proposed by Bussey and Grimbeek(2) is extended here. Unlike the other models, this model is concerned with developing and evaluating the efficacy of interview techniques for facilitating accurate and truthful disclosures. Particular attention is also paid to issues of suggestibility. This model further departs from the other two models of the disclosure process in that it is concerned both with children's false allegations of sexual abuse as well as their false denials of it. False allegations, in this article, refer to allegations of sexual abuse which did not occur and false denials refer to denials of abuse which did occur. Finally, children's secret keeping is examined to understand why children withhold information.


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