Nei casi di alienazione parentale i mezzi con cui il genitore alienante attacca il genitore bersaglio normalmente si limitano a generiche accuse volte a denigrare e svalutare la sua persona di fronte ai figli e al contesto sociale di riferimento. In alcuni casi più gravi però le accuse del genitore alienante possono sfociare in vere e proprie denunce di gravi reati, tra cui a volte sono comprese anche accuse di abuso sessuale sui figli.
Il fenomeno delle false accuse di abuso non è limitato al solo contesto delle separazioni coniugali ed ha una lunga storia. Tanto è vero che negli Stati Uniti esiste una vastissma letteratura sul tema. La più eclatante manifestazione del fenomeno si è avuta con l’isteria collettiva, originatosi negli Stati Uniti nel 1980, denominata abuso rituale satanico (cfr. Wikipedia).
Karol L. Ross e Gordon J. Blush sono due psicologi americani che a partire dagli anni ottanta hanno pubblicato studi su queste tematiche concentrandosi in particolare sui casi di false accuse in corso di separazione.
Le pubblicazioni scientifiche in lingua inglese sono moltissime. Una buona selezione è raccolta dalla rivista Issues In Child Abuse Accusations (ISSN 1043-8823) pubblicata a partire dal 1989 con cadenza annuale dall’Institute for Psychological Therapies.
Un articolo molto noto venne pubblicato nel 1987 e viene presentato qui di seguito. Gli altri due articoli riportati sono stati pubblicati dagli stessi autori nel 1990 sulla rivista Issues In Child Abuse Accusations.
SINTESI DELLE TEMATICHE AFFRONTATE DAGLI AUTORI: Le accuse di abuso sessuale nel corso del divorzio e di conflitto sull’affido dei figli sono divenute un problema per i professionisti che devono indagare questi casi e stabilire se l’abuso si è veramente verificato. Negli ultimi anni ci sono stati sempre più casi di accuse false e l’investigatore deve prendere in attenta considerazione il contesto nel quale l’accusa nasce. La personalità e i comportamenti delle persone coinvolte nell’accusa offrono informationi importanti. Gli autori descrivono tre modelli di personalità riscontrati nei genitori che formulano false accuse: la personalità istrionica, il vendicatore giustificato, la personalità borderline. Per contro il genitore accusato è generalmente passivo, protettivo e manca di caratteristiche da “macho”. I comportamenti dei figli coinvolti nella situazione possono aiutare nel differenziare le vere dalla false accuse.
Le accuse di abuso sessuale formulate in un contesto di conflitto sull’affido dei figli o sul diritto di visita rappresentano una sfida molto difficile per i professionisti. Questi casi sono spesso mal compresi e mal gestiti, e ciò arreca grave danno a tutte le parti coinvolte. I casi che risultano essere falsi sono caratterizzati da una perdita di controllo, solitamente nelle prime fasi della formulazione dell’accusa. Gli autori descrivono i problemi più frequentementi osservati di gestione del caso e formulano suggerimenti su come gestire questi casi in modo più efficace. I professionisti devono essere aperti e sensibili ai diritti sia dei bambini che degli adulti. In assenza di linee guida più obiettive e procedure più efficaci, non è possibile mantenere un controllo significativo sui casi di abuso sessuale.
SEXUAL ALLEGATIONS IN DIVORCE: THE S. A. I. D. SYNDROME
Gordon J. Blush, Ed.D and Karol L. Ross, M.A. – March 1986 – Family Court Review Volume 25, Issue 1, pages 1–11, June 1987
Karol L. Ross and Gordon J. Blush are psychologists and can be contacted at Professional Counseling Associates, 36040 Dequindre Road, Sterling Heights, MI 48317
A 7-year-old female child reported to her aunt that her sister
had been abused by their father during a recent visit with him. She
stated, “Daddy rubbed butter and poured milk on Mary’s pee-pee.” Thus
a chain of events was set into motion that was not resolved until more
than a year later. The aunt told the children’s mother, and the
mother immediately contacted resource people to assist in the
situation. Because of an ongoing divorce conflict, the most immediate
resource person that the mother consulted was her attorney. The
attorney filed a motion in court asking that all contact between the
children and the father be severed until the court could appropriately
assess and evaluate the situation. The children were also immediately
seen by a mental health professional who, after beginning to evaluate
and work with the children, reported to the mother that she believed
there had been sexual molestation, especially of the younger child. A
letter was written by this mental health professional to the court
indicating this without benefit of anything other than the information
reported by the mother and the therapist’s observations of the
children. The court responded by severing the rights of the father,
and he reacted by enlisting the aid of his attorney. For the ensuing
months, the two adults were embroiled in an adversarial court room
process that pitted experts against experts, caused the children to be
assessed and reassessed, and deepened the conflict between the adults.
Ultimately, it was found that the story as related by the older child
was false. Proof positive of this child’s motivation came when, in a
separate and and unrelated incident, she reported to her mother that
she had been sexually molested by a classmate on a school bus. The
similarity of her stories and an investigation by school officials
exposed this child’s pattern to be related not to the truth of the
situation as much as to her pattern of punitive retaliation when she
In working through this particular case, it finally evolved,
under professional intervention, that both of the girls would re-
establish contact with their father. Several years later there has
still been an ongoing relationship between the girls and their father,
and there has been no further complaints of physical or sexual abuse.
A 13-year-old adolescent girl reported that during a visit with her
father he “tickled” her inappropriately and she was sexually
traumatized as a result. No mention of this one isolated incident was
made until several years after the alleged abuse when the girl
complained to her mother that she no longer wanted to visit her father
and his present wife. The mother had, up to that point, been fairly
insistent that the girl do so. The mother offered the explanation of
the “tickling” incident and immediately went to court and requested
the judge’s assistance because the father had “molested” the girl.
The girl herself tearfully lamented to the judge about the incident in
question. However, under further investigation, the girl readily
acknowledged that the incident had happened only once. Further
investigative involvement with this family resulted in the daughter
and the father developing a dialogue in which the girl admitted that
her real reason for not wanting to visit was her anger at him for the
controls that he imposed upon her during her visits and her dislike
for his present spouse. The inappropriate tickling incident
ultimately became the girl’s agenda when the father’s household task
demands upon her sufficiently enraged her to take action to resist
further visits. Eventually, the nonvalidity of the girl’s complaints
were acknowledged by her in conversations with the father.
These are only two of a growing number of incidents in which we
have been professionally involved. They point up the very difficult
task that professionals encounter when involving themselves in the
role of child advocacy, whether it be as professionals in the legal
community, the mental health community, the law enforcement community
or the justice community. More and more reports of sexually abused
children are being made and directly channeled through these agencies.
We readily acknowledge that the awareness of the problem of sexual
abuse of children is increasing. However, we have begun to accumulate
an undeniable amount of information that suggests that there is a
variation on the theme of child sexual abuse to which professionals
should be alerted.
We have labeled this phenomenon the SAID Syndrome which stands for
Sexual Allegations In Divorce. This acronym describes the particular
phenomenon which occurs when a sexual abuse allegation develops within
a pre- or post-divorce context and when a family unit has become
dysfunctional as a result of that divorce process. It is our belief
that when sexual allegations in divorce occur (the SAID Syndrome), an
entirely different set of dynamics and variables may exist. These
Sexual Allegations In Divorce need to be addressed in a discriminately
different manner than the sexual abuse allegations in a non-divorcing
Initially, the data in this paper was a clinical curiosity to us.
However, working in the context of child advocates assigned to a
family services, court-related clinic, we began to exchange
information, compare clinical notes, and work conjointly on some case
investigations, a pattern began to manifest itself.
The clinic setting in which this data has been gathered is that of
a family services clinic that functions primarily as a diagnostic
agency within a circuit court. Investigations are conducted at the
request of judges once a case is determined by the court to be a
matter requiring evaluation on a psychological and social basis.
Primary in the evaluation process are those matters in which custody
and visitation problems exist and wherein the minor children are the
key issue before the court. The investigation procedure mandates
that both parents as well as all minor children over the age of five
participate in the evaluation. Thus, our population consists
primarily of individuals having difficulty during or after marital
transition. We are investigators who are essentially child advocates.
Since judges often have time-related difficulties and other restraints
placed upon their ability to obtain information, our clinic operates
in the capacity of gathering and transmitting any and all pertinent
information about that family as it relates to the issue before the
court. We submit recommendations to the court as well as a written
document reporting the data upon which those recommendations are
During this investigation and evaluation process, it has been our
experience that it is very common for one parent to present an
uncomplimentary picture of the other parent. Each is trying to
present him/herself in a positive light in order to make him/herself
believable and trustworthy in forwarding personal advocacy. Both are
fully aware of the adversarial role into which their divorce
relationship has evolved, and each frequently presents a rather
lengthy list of serious concerns. There are numerous allegations that
parties make against each other in order to “make their case.”
However, what we are beginning to note with alarming regularity is
either the covertly implied or overtly expressed allegation of some
sexual impropriety, misconduct, or abuse on the part of the other
parent involving their child or children. This “ultimate concern” is
appearing more and more, whereas a few years ago we were hearing these
only on rare occasions.
Because of the dramatic increase in the frequency with which this
allegation is occurring and because of the magnitude and gravity of
the allegation, we feel a need to share with fellow professionals the
dynamics we are finding in these particular situations. The
ramifications of these allegations are far more “lethal” for the
individuals involved and the future of the family unit and its
potential to function than are those of most other types of
allegations. Our experience is that often times the alleged
perpetrator find him/herself in a position where suddenly and without
due process either socially or legally, his/her access to the minor
child or children has been terminated by a court order. The
individual finds he/she is unilaterally excluded from an already
disrupted family situation, and this dynamic is compounded by the
social stigma of the sexual allegation. Additionally, in an
increasing number of cases, the perpetrator is also confronted by the
judicial system and then has to contend with the potential of a felony
charge and being drawn into the criminal justice system.
Professionals in positions that cause some of these events to be set
into motion need to reassess and refine their roles in cases where the
SAID Syndrome may be the primary dynamic.
We recognize that our data is drawn from a specialized situation.
We further acknowledge that in many instances the handling of a sexual
abuse allegation is done in an effective, professional, and ethical
way. However, to believe that there are not significant deviations
from the norm is to be naive, incorrect, and possibly dangerous to a
whole system that espouses child advocacy as its primary concern.
Initiating the management of a case based upon misdiagnosis and error
carries many negative implications, including professional liability.
It also raises the issue of challenging the validity of a victim of a
potentially traumatic situation. Our intention is to help fellow
professionals identify when they may be caught in the midst of a SAID
Syndrome. We hope that the communication of our data will reduce and
minimize error factors that could make the child advocate
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
The history of intervention in child abuse cases has been based
upon concepts that are seen consistently throughout the professional
literature as well as through information disseminated to the public.
It is interesting to note how overly generalized and yet firmly
believed they have become by lay persons and professionals alike. It
is difficult to find in the professional literature, articles which
raise the issue that children can and will lie under certain
motivational circumstances. It is treated as if it is unthinkable
that they would ever do so with regard to such a negative experience as sexual abuse.
In a number of pamphlets and educational booklets, the following
“facts” are consistently communicated to the parents of potential
victims of sexual abuse:
Believe the child, no matter how hard it is. (Even if the child made
p the incident, help is needed anyway.) (What everyone should, 1983,
Believe the child. Children rarely lie about sexual abuse. (Health
and Human Services [HHS], 1984)
It is true that children have imaginations and that they sometimes
lie, as do adults, but it is very uncommon occurrence for a child to
fantasize or make up a sexual assault incident. Avoid the message:
“You can’t believe a child, they have such wild imaginations.”
Studies have shown that children seldom lie about sexual abuse.
(Illusion Theater, 1981)
Observe physical and behavioral signs…Extreme changes in behavior
such as loss of appetite. Recurrent nightmares…and fear of the
dark. Regression to more infantile behavior such as bedwetting, thumb
sucking, or excessive crying…Fear of a person or an intense dislike
at being left somewhere or with someone. Other behavioral signals
such as aggressive or disruptive behavior, withdrawal, running away or
delinquent behavior, failing in school. (HHS, 1984)
Information source after information source being presented by
various social and health organizations take on this common message
format. The hazard in these instructional messages is that
overgeneralized statements concerning behavioral signs, which may mean
sexual abuse, can just as realistically be symptomatic of any number
of other problems occurring in a child’s life. Divorce, peer
problems, school related problems, and general developmental processes
are all equally competing clinical hypotheses for such behaviors and
should be treated as such in initial investigative stages. The
dilemma is additionally compounded when concerned parents read what
the “experts” have to say in these generalized ways and then take the
“expert truths” and jump to conclusions to further reinforce their
perception of what has occurred. This is not an easily dissuaded
belief once it has been perceived as truth by the adult who feels
responsible for the safety and well-being of the child. It also
cannot be easily discarded or changed once the child has been
questioned about the incident on multiple occasions.
The literature frequently holds the position that “children do
not lie about sexual abuse.” In their article in a volume of the
JOURNAL OF SOCIAL ISSUES, which in its entirety addresses the topic of
the child witness, Berliner & Barbieri (1984, p. 127) summarize the
findings of Conte and Berliner and of Burgess, Groth and Holmstrom and
they concur with those authors “…there is little or no evidence
indicating that children’s report are unreliable, and none at all to
support the fear that children often make false accusations of sexual
assault or misunderstood innocent behavior by adults. The general
veracity of children’s reports is supported by relatively high rates
of admission by offenders. Not a single study has ever found false
accusations of sexual assault a plausible interpretation of a
substantial portion of cases. Faller (1984, p. 475) states, “…we
know that children do not make up stories asserting they have been
sexually molested. It is not in their interest to do so.” Rush
(1980, p. 155) asserts, “Those who have ever worked with children can
attest to the fact that their perception of their environment and
experience is far more concrete than fanciful. Among the volumes of
literature on disturbed children, the problem of lying is almost never
discussed. Any nursery or grade school teacher will verify that
children differentiate between ‘make-believe’ and reality often more
accurately than adults.” Rush also says (p. 17) “When caught in
behavior which might elicit adult disapproval, children might lie to
protect themselves…” but maintains (p. 156) “But children cannot and
do not make up stories outside the realm of actual experience.”
The problem with this type of reporting in the literature is that it
tends to emphasize the positive findings in those surveys that have
been made and thus tends to ignore any counterposition or situations
under which exceptions might occur. Although almost all of the
articles acknowledge (albeit minimally) the potential for children to
create false reports, practically none of the literature addresses
itself to those circumstances, situations, or conditions under which
this phenomenon might occur. It appears that the professions dealing
with the sexual abuse phenomenon have been simply given a “most
common” dynamic that does occur in accurately reported actual cases of
sexual abuse. This has evolved into an unchallenged “scientific
fact.” There has been no real assistance given to the professional by
pointing out the elements of those cases where the “common truth” may,
in fact, not to be true.
Some of the literature does refute the credibility of children’s
reports about general phenomena as well as sexual abuse in particular.
Goodman (1984, pp. 164-165) offers, “Another problem that can affect
legal outcomes concerns children’s cognitive ability to construct
false reports. Like adults, children sometimes make false reports.
These may be intentional lies…or they may be unintentionally
fabricated or suggested.” Goodwin, Sahd & Rada (1979, reprinted 1980,
p. 37) state, “Despite the recent increase in research on incest, the
question of false accusation has largely been neglected in the
psychological and psychiatric literature. A search of psychological
abstracts for the past ten years yielded only one report…which dealt
with the problem of false accusation.”
Although the reported evidence suggests that the number of false
reports is quite low (a fact consistent with our experience), it is
interesting to note that Goodwin et. al. (p. 41) also report in one
case example a situation highly consistent with one of the several
themes that we are finding to be true of the SAID Syndrome. In this
particular case it is indicated that “…the mother and both daughters
said the accusation was a hoax. They said the girls had been coached
by unidentified older girls to accuse the stepfather in the hopes that
his would make the mother leave him.” The emerging presence of the
SAID Syndrome is also reflected by Goodwin et. al.(p. 43) when stating
“increased enforcement of child abuse laws has made false accusations
a more potent manipulative weapon for children and teenagers.” And
they warn (p. 43) “Failure to recognize a child’s fabrication can
subject the family to unnecessary legal action and unwittingly support
the use of similar manipulative techniques by other susceptible
In reviewing the literature the first formal reporting
of the SAID Syndrome appeared to be made by Kaplan & Kaplan (1981).
In this article they reported (p. 81) “…in the authors’ clinical
practice, they have encountered a situation, not yet reported, which
presents the mental health professional and judiciary with a number of
technical difficulties. The problem arises during divorce and custody
proceedings when a child, for the first time, accuses the parent with
whom he/she is not residing, of sexual abuse. This raises the
possibility that the parent with whom the child is residing has
prompted the child to make the accusation of sexual abuse against the
alienated spouse and non-custodial parent.” Kaplan and Kaplan present
a thorough case history of such a situation and they conclude their
article (p. 94), “In cases where the initial accusation of sex abuse
occurs after parental separation, and refers to a time when the
parents were living together, the possibility that the custodial
parent has prompted the accusation toward the non-custodial parent
must be considered.”
More recently, Benedek and Schetky (1984) in their article
entitled “Allegations of Sexual Abuse in Child Custody Cases” which
was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of
Psychiatry and the Law in October, 1984, report “…we have recently
evaluated several children and families who have made false
accusations of sexual abuse. These allegations arose in the context
of child custody and visitation disputes.” (p. 1) At the same
conference, Schuman (1984) discussed several cases where–in six of
the seven histories summarized–sexual abuse allegations surfaced in
conjunction with “acrimonious divorce litigation.” (p. 11) In this
article entitled “False Accusations of Physical and Sexual Abuse” he
cites Shipp “In some quarters there is such a degree of sensitivity or
outrage about possible child abuse that a presumption exists that such
abuse has occurred whenever it is alleged” and then Schuman warns “It
is possible for a reverse skew to evolve in which incest or other
child sexual abuse can be overperceived and overalleged.” (p. 1)
Further in his recommendations, Schuman advises the evaluators to
obtain information from multiple sources and explains “Domestic
relations cases are unfortunately fertile ground for nonvalid
perceptions and/or allegations of misconduct of all forms.” (p. 26)
Paulson, Strouse & Chaleff (1982, pp. 51-52) further confirm these
finding by cautioning:
It is also important for the interviewer to remember that sometimes
children fabricate incest stories in order to intimidate and blackmail
a parent. This is especially so when resolution of and earlier has
allowed the perpetrator to return home. The young child, aware of the
consequences of a further allegation of incest against the
perpetrator, can use this knowledge to threaten, coerce, and defy
conformity and discipline demands within the family. The socially
precocious, seductive young girl can make normal hugging and kissing
between parent and child grounds for further allegations of
molestation. The stepparent may be jealously seen by the child as
depriving him/her of rightful attention and affection from the
biologic parent. For mothers there is constant anxiety and distrust,
wanting to trust both the child and the parent, yet constantly
suspicious and torn between the child and the
These clinical dynamics that have only just begun
to appear in contemporary literature suggest that children caught in a
frustrating power struggle may opt to attempt to control the situation
via a newly-evolved “offensive weapon”–the sexual allegation.
Probably the most meaningful, clinically sound, socially and legally
acceptable position in this dilemma would be to reframe the problem of
whether children lie or do not lie about these matters. Our position,
based upon our actual investigative experience, is most adequately
reflected in literature by Sgroi, Poter & Blick (1982, p. 39) who
propose, “Every reported case of child sexual abuse must be
investigated to determine if the complaint is valid: that is, did
abuse of the target child actually occur or not? The process by which
this happens is termed validation. It should be conducted in an
orderly fashion by knowledgeable individuals who are prepared to deal
with the consequences of the outcome.” These authors further charge
(p. 39) “every clinician or professional person who works with
children should be aware of the essential elements of validating child
sexual abuse. Investigators or individuals who perform validation of
cases may be personnel of the statutory agencies or clinicians or
both.” Within the text of this article a recommended process for
taking an investigatory approach to the initial allegation is
A similar suggestion, to first investigate rather than
react to the situation is offered by Jiles (1980, p. 61) who states
“…the worker must speak with the child and make some determination
about the validity of the report and gain as much diagnostic
information as possible.” This suggestion that a tempered, rational,
carefully thought out and planned strategy for evaluating the entire
family situation before any decisions are made is the most obvious and
desirable approach for all parties concerned in both actual and false
sexual abuse cases. These proposals which emphasize investigation as
a first step are highly consistent with our perception of the
appropriate attitudes, strategies and techniques which should be
utilized at the very outset of a sexual allegation case.
BEGINNING STRATEGIES FOR DIFFERENTIATING REAL VS SAID CASES
Professional Role Definition
When a sexual allegation of any kind is made, a very necessary
beginning strategy for professionals is to regard their role as
clinician-investigators, not clinician-therapists. If they perceive
that their first and foremost task in intervention is to
therapeutically deal with the impact of the experience upon the child,
they are then focusing their behavior on treatment. Treatment
processes are not consistent with investigative behaviors that demand
objectivity, skepticism, and open-mindedness in gathering data from
all sources involved in the situation.
If a therapeutic orientation is taken before all of the
conditions and variables surrounding the complaint are known, the
therapeutic alignment with the child and/or complaining parent
distorts perceptions of the situation and begins to reinforce the
reported incident as probably being valid. The perceived validity of
the complaint then produces an obligation for the professional to
embrace the “victim’s” position, creating the undesirable potential
for an over-reaction to the situation. When this occurs, elements of
fear, anger, and conflict, which are already in existence, are
This dilemma points out the inherent conflicts that
are produced for the professionals who are called upon to intervene in
these difficult situations. Professional therapeutic training
dictates being empathic with persons seeking assistance. In sexual
allegation situations, the professionals are asked to determine the
validity of the allegations, to provide therapy, and to recommend
steps to resolve the dilemma for the family. The result is that
professionals are asked to do several tasks which are contradictory.
Most “helping” professionals are not highly trained or experienced in
specialized investigative processes. A further compounding of these
conflicting roles for the professional occurs when the justice
community seeks “expert” opinions regarding the “truthfulness” of a
given sexual allegation. Increased use of mental health and
behavioral science people by courts and other dictate that the first
major problem for professionals is for them to differentiate between
their roles of investigator vs. therapist.
Investigative Questioning Sequence
Another important beginning strategy in the SAID phenomenon is
the question sequence for the professional. Of necessity, this
consists of an immediate and complete conversation
with the custodial parent or presenting adult. Structured
interrogation with this person should initially and specifically focus
on the following:
1) Dysfunctional family elements such as a family on the verge of
2) Divorce activity that has already been started.
3) Divorce activity that has been unsuccessfully in progress for some
4) Unresolved visitation or custody problems.
5) Unresolved money issues as it relates to the divorce.
6) The involvement by the parent(s) in ongoing relationships with
Any evidences of the aforementioned “red flag” dynamics are the
professionals’ first clues to the potential of a SAID case. While
phenomenon, these are prima facie evidences that a case is a SAID
phenomenon, the professional who disregards these first red flags is
potentially in error in his/her conclusions.
In addition to maintaining an investigative posture and initially
ascertaining whether there are any divorce elements, there are other
specific dynamics that are the most symptomatic and diagnostic of the
SAID phenomenon. Obviously, the more of these dynamics that one finds
in the entire family situation, the more probable it is that a true
SAID Syndrome exist.
CLINICAL INDICATORS OF THE SAID SYNDROME
Family Events Sequence Leading To The Allegation
The first critical clinical indicator of a SAID case is the point
in time when the allegation is first communicated. In reports of
sexual allegations, we have learned to initially take a close look at
the allegations and to examine and evaluate how they fit into the
chronology of the marital dissolution. The prior family dynamics
including who, what, where, when, and how the allegation first
surfaced are indicators which need to be investigated. We have
learned to carefully examine not only the specifics of what the child
has reported but how this allegation came to be known by the reporting
adult, which child within a family made the allegation and under what
circumstances, and exactly what were the more recent events occurring
within the family relationship pattern when the allegation was
Total Context of Allegation:
The second clinical indicator can occur only when one examines
the whole picture or “gestalt” of the situation; what other legal
actions have occurred at the time, what other legal actions were about
to occur with regard to child support, potential change of custody
maneuverings by the non-custodial parent, or the arrival of a new
relationship bringing the potential of a new adult-parent into the
family constellation. We examine the whole picture and treat the
initial revelations with more of an investigative attention to detail
in terms of sequence of events rather than focusing on one single
dynamic such as the child’s articulations. What everyone has to say
becomes part of the overall pattern more than the issue of factual
versus fictionalized statements. One of our concerns is that
therapists or other intervention “specialists” may become excessively
focused on the truthfulness of the child’s statements or other
isolated information rather than utilizing the investigative method of
looking beyond the child’s articulations to determine the total
context in which the allegation is made.
Personality Profile of the Presenting Parent -Female
A third critical clinic al indicator in the SAID syndrome is the
personality pattern of the reporting parent. When the custodial or
primary parent is the maternal figure, our data suggests that this
individual may show a profile consistent with that of the hysterical
personality. In these instances, this hysterical pattern of the female
usually takes on one of the following configurations:
I) The female emotionally presents herself as a fearful person
who believes she has been a victim of manipulation, coercion, and
physical, social or sexual abuse in the marriage. She has tended to
see herself as a powerless victim of the other parent’s past as well
as present behaviors. She also has tended to see the man as being a
source of physical threat, economic punitiveness and retribution, or
an individual who simply has not understood the physical safety and
psychological needs of the children.
II) Another type of manifestation is the “justified vindicator.”
In this instance, a hostile, emotionally expansive, vindictive, and
dominant female has directly appealed to “experts” in both the mental
health and/or legal communities. She frequently becomes insistent that
formal punitive legal measures be taken via prosecution before
reasonable proofs have been demonstrated. One of the accompanying
phenomena with this type of female parent is that she will frequently
have concurrent criminal action pending with her domestic legal
III) Another personality pattern which requires clinical
consideration is when the reporting adult is possibly psychotic. This
is relatively rare in our experience. However, we have had several
such cases in which the woman initially presented as not being
psychotic. A more detailed inquiry of the allegations concerning how
the incidents took place made it more evident that their functioning
in reality was sufficiently borderline so as to clinically constitute
a psychotic or psychotic-like diagnosis and the allegations had to be
Regardless of whether the female pattern has been that of the
passive, fearful, apprehensive individual, the “justified vindicator”,
or even that of the psychotic, she is emotionally convinced of the
“facts” and will not be dissuaded from her perceptions. The intensity
with which she relates to the world through her emotions significantly
overshadows her use of a rational reasoning or problem solving
approach to the situation. This emotional appeal can become convincing
and very misleading to the inexperienced and/or “well-intended”
Personality Profile of the Presenting Parent – Male
Our data thus far reflects that the parent most often reporting
sexual allegations is the female. This may merely reflect the reality
that, in the majority of cases, the female is the primary caretaking
However, in those instances in which the male becomes the
reporting parent, the following typical pattern has emerged. He is an
individual who usually is intellectually rigid, has a high need to be
“correct,” has been hypercritical of the mother throughout the
marriage, and verbalizes in a number of “nit-picking” ways the
suspicion that she has been a non-vigilant and borderline unfit
mother. He typically makes allegations more against the males with
whom she has become involved rather than necessarily making direct
allegations toward her as the actual perpetrator of the sexual abuse.
The male sees her as the person whose passive or silent endorsement of
the perpetrator is her contribution to that situation. He also makes
statements about the frequency with which she leaves the children
unsupervised, in the care of incompetent or inappropriate babysitters,
or generally “at risk” in the home.
Personality Profile of the Child
The comprehension and clinical understanding of the
child/children is also a critical element in correctly diagnosing the
SAID Syndrome. In SAID instances, the child/children will typically be
found occupying the key position in the adversarial struggle between
the parents who cannot directly communicate with each other. The
adults then communicate excessively through the child/children. As a
result, the child becomes the “communication conduit” making him/her a
part of adult insights, feelings and information which begin to shape
his/her perceptions. These perceptions evolve into positions of
increased control and opportunities to manipulate the non-
communicative parents. Thus, the child/children attain excessive power
which contributes to their loss of behavioral control. The amount of
direction they give to their parents is disproportionate to their
capacity to fully comprehend or appreciate the inappropriateness of
In a number of instances in which we have seen this pattern of
behavior, the child has evolved into a unilateral and arbitrary
dictator (even as early as two or three years of age). We have also
found that younger children tend to align both their rational
or spoken agenda and their emotional allegiance with the dominant
parent and will often “mirror” or “parrot” that parent’s descriptions
and feelings about the situation in question. These younger children
appear to do so for several reasons.
I) They have a limited verbal ability with which to articulate
their own agenda.
II) Their immaturity causes them to be unable to test and
comprehend the reality of the situation in which they find themselves,
i.e., the politics of adult divorce.
Also, these children often reflect one or more of the following
I) They give responses that appear to be highly rehearsed,
“coached” or conditioned.
II) They spontaneously initiate conversation during interview by
quoting the same phrases accompanied with the same affect as did the
controlling parent who presented the complaint.
III) They use age-inappropriate verbal descriptions with no
demonstrated practical comprehension of what they are really saying.
IV) They offer a spontaneous and automatic reporting of the
act(s) perpetrated upon them in the absence of any direct questions
soliciting this specific information.
V) They offer inconsistencies in various aspects of reported
incidents. These variances may involve specifics (who, what, where,
when); frequency (only once or twice, exaggerated to many times); and
subjective perceptual experiences (very frightened, not scared, hurt,
not hurt, etc.)
VI) They lack the appearance of a traumatized individual both
emotionally and behaviorally.
We have also found that as children approach adolescence, they
develop a more vindictive, rather than mimicking, agenda. They tended
to speak in absolutes with exaggerated emotional content. For example,
adolescents, who in a very intense protest, proclaim that they “never,
ever” want to see the other parent because of the perceived wrong that
has been perpetrated in their lives is usually indicative of
something quite different. We have found that with these kinds of
adolescents, the basic agenda is one of not getting their own way.
Another issue may be that the other5 parent has been imposing limits
on them with which they disagree, and they hope to eliminate that
source of frustration by holding to their vindictive agenda. In those
instances in which we have seen adolescents who have actually been
sexually abused, they tend to be far more emotionally constricted,
embarrassed, tearful, traumatized, or sullen as opposed to being
outrageously vindictive and profoundly public in their criticisms of
the allegedly abusive parent.
Personality Profile of the Alleged Perpetrator- Male
Another important aspect of the SAID Syndrome is the diagnostic
profile of the alleged perpetrator. This person demonstrates the
I) He is an inadequate personality with marked passive and
II) He presents a socially naive perception of the adult world.
III) He initially takes a “caretaker” role toward the female
during courtship and the early stages of marriage.
IV) He needs to “earn” love by yielding to the wants and demands
of the spouse.
Because of these dynamics, it is this type of male who typically
finds himself in a relationship with a more dominant female,
regardless of whether her dominance is due to emotional hysteria or
self-centeredness and vindictiveness.
As a result of these dynamics, the adult-male victim is puzzled
and impotent to explain what has happened to him. He is unable to
effectively or appropriately respond to the allegations by the other
adult, the children, or any other person who has been drawn into the
situation. In a relatively helpless and ineffective manner, this
individual, to the inexperienced investigator, can look “guilty”
merely by virtue of his inadequate response. To a more adequate adult
ego, a false allegation such as one made in the SAID Syndrome would
bring an intense and immediate response. In many of these cases, the
inadequate male does not react this way. This creates a surface level
appearance of guilt due to lack of a direct or assertive response on
the part of the alleged perpetrator.
Victimization is further enhanced by virtue of the male’s
immature psychosexual development. This immaturity often creates
behaviors in the marital relationship which are perceived and reported
by the female as being perverse, inappropriate, or just plain “sick.”
In the SAID Syndrome these perceptions by the female will be offered
as “proof” that if her relationship with the man has been disturbed,
then his relationship with the children must now be similar. The
allegations most often made against the male by the maternal parent
include behaviors such as voyeurism, vacillation between his pleading
for and demanding sexual contact, and “inappropriate” sexual behaviors
in the marriage. The inadequate male is also often perceived as the
perpetrator of other inappropriate behaviors with females and
occasionally males. These allegations include innuendos about
involvement with babysitters, neighbors, people at work, etc.
In summary, the males in our data base of SAID cases do exhibit
characteristics similar to those individuals who do engage in the
actual sexual abuse of children. The literature reflects that an
individual who is inappropriately sexually involved with children is
often consistent with the inadequate personality with the same
features of passivity, dependency and immaturity as is the case with
alleged perpetrators in the SAID situations. Because of these similar
profiles, the clinical discrimination between the SAID case and an
actual incest of sexual abuse situation can be very difficult. Again,
this points up the importance of assessing all component elements of a
given situation rather than merely focusing on one dynamic such as an
individual’s personality pattern.
Although the frequency of incidents where the female is the
alleged perpetrator is minimal, we have begun to see an increase in
this type of allegation as well. As indicated earlier, however, the
complaints against the female usually take on the generalized
qualities of her being an “unfit” mother rather than one who is
involved in some kind of sexual abuse of the children./
The Professional as Potential Victim of SAID Syndrome
While the alleged perpetrator is one victim in the SAID Syndrome,
there is another unsuspecting potential victim. This is the
professional who becomes involved in the intervention process. Many
times, after a sexual abuse allegation is made, the presenting parent
immediately takes the child to a therapist or some other intervention
specialist and reports to that person that the child has been sexually
abused. This occurs most frequently via the mother making allegations
against the father. She expresses not knowing exactly what has
occurred but manages to offer information that, because of the serious
social and legal implications, takes on a critical importance to which
the professional must be responsive. All too often, the intervening
professional sees the case on a preliminary basis in a limited and
biased perspective and frequently responds to the presenting parent’s
report rather than viewing the situation as part of the family’s
marital and divorce conflict.
In many of our SAID cases we have heard therapists acknowledge in
retrospect that they could not recall obtaining specific information
regarding the conditions surrounding the complaint of the presenting
parent as it related to the divorce situation. It was not until much
later in the intervention process that the professional became aware
of some of the existing familial conflicts. The entire clinical focus
of the situation all too often appears to be established once the
presenting parent raises even the passing suspicion of sexual abuse.
It has been our observation that the therapeutic community accepts
this “presenting process” and creates a clinical focus on assumed
trauma and thus the need for immediate treatment of the child.
Since most intervention agents and therapists are trained to
believe children and accept what they have to say regarding sexual
abuse, the agents then become potential victims by accepting what the
child has to say at face value. This process of accepting a presenting
complaint as valid and truthful without sophisticated inquiry or
clinical challenge creates the vulnerable expert opinion. Once the
initial distortions are communicated by an expert and reinforced
through further contacts with the child and/or other involved adults,
“facts” are created which then shape the outcome of the situation.
This can occur to such a degree that the presenting parent, the child,
the therapist, social and legal agencies, and any other involved
persons accept this “created reality” that has become the truth. Our
experience in the field investigation and follow-up of SAID cases
reveals that the therapist is reluctant to change his/her perception
once their professional opinion has been formulated. This powerful
influence on the whole situation by the intervention agent is such
that it mandates every effort to arrive at accurate assessments so
that the situation is dealt with effectively. Being “safe rather than
sorry” is not an acceptable rationale for guiding professional
intervention in these situations.
A further concern is that the clinical focus has been so heavily
predicated upon the belief that “children do not lie” so as to make
any other considerations secondary. The ignoring of other information
is often justified in the name of “saving” the child from permanent
traumatic damage. How ironic it is that the intervention agent or
therapist who misdiagnoses a SAID case literally creates a scenario
from which the family may never recover. This damage, once done, will,
in our opinion, perpetuate itself throughout the rest of the history
of the family. It may only partially be undone through skillful
intervention of a qualified family therapist who, under the most
difficult of circumstances, may bring the family members together and
help them understand the dynamics of how the SAID phenomenon occurred.
SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ASSESSING THE SAID SYNDROME
There are certain concepts, policies and procedures that we
believe will be most helpful in assisting intervention specialists
working with sexual abuse allegations. These recommendations are
basically intended to help the professional discriminate between the
cases in which sexual abuse has occurred and those in which divorce
and family dysfunction have created the probability of false sexual
allegations. This differential diagnostic procedure is best
facilitated if the intervention professional considers the following:
Be Aware of the MOST TYPICAL SAID Pattern
It has been our experience that there is a most typical pattern
that exists in the SAID Syndrome. This includes one or more of the
I) The allegation almost always surfaces only after separation
and legal action between the parents has begun.
II) There is a history of family dysfunction with resultant
unresolved divorce conflict. This usually involves “hidden” underlying
issues both spoken and unspoken.
III) The personality pattern of the female parent often tends to
be that of a hysterical personality.
IV) The personality pattern of the male parent tends to be that
of the passive-dependent personality
V) The child is typically a female under the age of eight who
controls the situation. Additionally, this child may show behavioral
patterns of verbal exaggerations, excessive willingness to indict,
inappropriate affective responses, and inconsistencies in relating the
VI) The allegation is first communicated via the custodial
parent, usually the mother.
VII) The mother usually takes the child to an “expert” for
further examination, assessment, or treatment.
VIII) The expert then often communicates to a court or other
appropriate authorities a concern and/or “confirmation”of apparent
sexual abuse, usually identifying the father as the alleged
IX) This typically causes the court to react to the “expert’s”
information by acting in a predictably responsible manner, e.g.,
suspending or terminating visitation, foreclosing on custodial
arguments, or in some other way limiting the child-parent interaction.
The Role of the Professional
Professionals are essentially trained to accept at face value
allegations or statements made by children. Trainers and specialists
who educate the professionals working with children have established
this principle. Thus, the historical precedent which shapes
perceptions has continued as clinical “truths.” To be effective in the
SAID situation, the following guidelines should be kept in mind by the
I) Remain neutral. Maintaining an open and objective clinical
perception of the situation is the most important first step in
guiding one’s own behavior in investigating this dilemma.
II) Be aware of one’s own set of biases. Pre-existing personal
and/or professional biases, e.g., “children don’t lie; it is better to
be safe than sorry;” and other over-generalized principles are likely
to elicit from the professional a behavioral response that may be more
damaging than helpful.
III) Guard against presumption of guilt. Simply because an
allegation is made does not mean that it is automatically true
(especially in divorce situations). Objective listening, unbiased
inquiry, insightful interviewing, and specialized interrogation do not
necessarily exclude the always appropriate professional protocol of
sensitivity to the situation and a general empathic appreciation for
all parties involved.
IV) Be aware of the ramifications of the input made to the court.
Often times professionals are not aware of the impact that a
communication may have on the situation. The effects may include
unnecessary foreclosure of family relationships, exacerbation of
anxiety and guilt for the child, outrage and despair by the accused
perpetrator, false arrest, errant prosecution, and unjustified
punitiveness. It appears certain that at some point in the future,
professionals are going to have to be held accountable for the
allegations that they make, particularly in a public setting.
V) The professional should recognize how their alignment with the
reporting parent’s agenda reinforces the false validity in a SAID
case. Frequently,m the presenting parent will use the “expert’s”
responses to the situation to reinforce his or her perceptions and
feelings of validation and justification.
The Importance of an Investigative
Versus Therapeutic Format
Common sense and critical necessity mandate that one must take
the role of skillful investigator before evolving any other
intervention behaviors in the SAID case. This is because child sexual
abuse allegations in the divorce situation are initially more a
problem of investigation than of treatment. Immediate and absolute
protection of the child/children is not always the most desirable nor
effective crisis intervention strategy. Traumatic disruption may
create irreparable and permanent breaches among family members. The
most critical and obvious investigation process involves interviewing
and interrogating the reporting parent with regard to the current
status of the family as it pertains to the divorce process; past,
present, or future. In addition, specific questions pertaining to the
alleged sexual abuse itself need to be asked: WHAT exactly happened,
WHEN, WHERE, WHY and HOW. The allegation needs to be scrutinized with
intensity and the details carefully discussed with all involved
parties. Professionals are traditionally apprehensive about proceeding
in this manner lest the child be “traumatized.” However, the long
range ramifications of these allegations, if misdiagnosed, can be more
“traumatic” than the stresses of these initial appropriate inquiries.
Without these initial inquiries prior to evaluating, assessing or
working with the “victim,” the intervention specialist is acting
unprofessionally, unethically and naively.
The Collection of Data from Multiple Sources
After ascertaining where the family is in terms of the divorce
process, it is imperative to also gather data from multiple sources
before forming opinions, making recommendations, or developing
treatment plans. These sources can and should include:
The presenting adult
The alleged perpetrator
The child or children
Relatives and other family members who may have played a role
in the process of the transitioning family.
Any other appropriate social agent who may have had contact
with the family, e.g., Friend of the Court investigators, school
personnel, medical or mental health professionals, etc.
Law enforcement personnel
Although many mental health professionals and other intervention
agents may be reluctant to pursue this strategy, feeling it to be
inappropriate or that it may create more chaos and difficulty for the
victim(s), obtaining maximal data is an absolute necessity. The
emotional “loadedness” of sexual abuse issues does not justify an
impulsive, inaccurate, incomplete, or misguided response on the part
of the professional, especially the professional who has the CRUCIAL
It is apparent that the courts have become increasingly reliant
upon the behavioral and social science community for recommendations
in the decision making process of protecting the “best interests” of
children. Therefore, we professionals are obligated to develop a more
effective data gathering methodology ion order to increase our
capacity to assist them in reaching these decisions.
The Necessity of Networking
Another recommendation is for the utilization of interagency and
interprofessional networks. Only through communication with other
professionals who work with sexual allegations, but from different
perspectives, can we really begin to understand the dynamics of
different case patterns. We have occasionally insisted that
professionals from medical, mental health, law enforcement and legal
communities meet in conference to share and discuss information in
some of our SAID cases. As a result, we are convinced that this is the
best way to profit from each other’s expertise.
The Necessity of Sharing Information
Our final recommendation is for fellow professionals to record,
accumulate, and disseminate information concerning SAID cases. Without
continued sharing of data we are professionally vulnerable. The SAID
Syndrome is not a phenomenon in which empirical evidence and
“scientific” research can be directly conducted. Therefore, it is
imperative that we share clinical dialogue to further educate
ourselves to the SAID phenomenon as it occurs within the everyday
settings of our various agencies and practices. Our professional
obligation obviously extends into society as a whole.
Our concern is that evidence suggests an emerging national
hysteria regarding the problem of sexual abuse of children. We believe
the professionals do not want history to reflect that we contributed
to the further distortion of this problem. We must instead
individually and collectively make contributions that directly and
realistically develop effective problem solving processes for families
involved in this dilemma.
Benedek, E.L. & Schetky, D.H. (1984, October) ALLEGATIONS OF SEXUAL
ABUSE IN CHILD CUSTODY CASES. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of
the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Nassau, Bahamas
Berliner, L. & Barbieri, M.K. (1984) THE TESTIMONY OF THE CHILD VICTIM
OF SEXUAL ASSAULT. Journal of Social Issues, 40(2) 125-137
Faller, K.C. (1984) IS THE CHILD VICTIM OF SEXUAL ABUSE TELLING THE
TRUTH? Child Abuse and Neglect, 8, 473-481
Goodman, G.S. (1984) THE CHILD WITNESS: CONCLUSIONS AND FUTURE
DIRECTIONS FOR RESEARCH AND LEGAL PRACTICE. Journal of Social Issues,
Goodwin, J., Sahd, D. & Rada, R.T. (1980) INCEST HOAX: FALSE
ACCUSATIONS, FALSE DENIALS. In W.M. Holder (Ed.) Sexual Abuse of
Children (pp. 37-45) Englewood CO: The American Humane Assn.
(Reprinted from the Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and
the Law, 1979, 6(3).)
Health and Human Services (1984) CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE PREVENTION: TIPS
TO PARENTS (DDHS Publication No. 0-454-460:QL 3) Washington DC: US
Government Printing Office
Illusion Theater’s Sexual Abuse Prevention Program (1981) TOUCH AND
SEXUAL ABUSE: HOW TO TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN Minneapolis MN: Author
Jiles, D. (1980) PROBLEMS IN THE ASSESSMENT OF SEXUAL ABUSE REFERRALS
Sexual Abuse of Children (pp.59-64) Englewood CO: The American Humane
Kaplan, S.L., & Kaplan S.J. (1981) THE CHILD’S ACCUSATION OF SEXUAL
ABUSE DURING A DIVORCE AND CUSTODY STRUGGLE. The Hillside Journal of
Clinical Psychology, 3(1), 81-95
Paulson, M.J., Strouse, L. & Chaleff, A. (1982) INTRAFAMILIAL INCEST
AND SEXUAL MOLESTATION OF CHILDREN. The Rights of Children: Legal and
Psychological Perspectives (pp. 39-63) Springfield IL: Charles C.
Rush, F. (1980) THE BEST KEPT SECRET: SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN.
Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall
Schuman, D.C. (1984, October) FALSE ACCUSATIONS OF PHYSICAL AND SEXUAL
ABUSE. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the American
Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Nassau, Bahamas
Sgroi, S.M., Porter, F. & Blick, L. (1982) VALIDATION OF CHILD SEXUAL
ABUSE Handbook of Clinical Intervention in Child-Sexual Abuse (pp. 39-
80) Lexington MA: Lexington Books, D.C. Heath & Co.
WHAT EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN (1983)
South Deerfield MA: Channing L. Beta Co., Inc.
The above article supplied by National Congress for Men via NCM BBS (602) 840 4752 1200/N/8/1
Edited from previous partial text from HADD, Seattle WA via BBS (206) 742 5089 1200/N/8/1
Sexual Abuse Validity Discriminators in the Divorced or Divorcing Family
Karol L. Ross and Gordon J. Blush*
Fonte: The Institute for Psychological Therapies Issues In Child Abuse Accusations (ISSN 1043-8823) (Volume 2 1990)
ABSTRACT: Accusations of sexual abuse in divorce and custody disputes have become a problem for the professionals who must investigate these cases and determine whether the abuse is real. There have been more cases of false allegations in recent years, and the investigator must carefully consider the context in which the allegations arise. The personalities and behaviors of the persons involved in an abuse allegation provide important information. The authors report on three personality patterns found in falsely accusing spouses: histrionic personality, justified vindicator, and borderline personality. The falsely accused spouse is generally passive, nurturing, and lacks “macho” characteristics. The behaviors of the children involved in the situation can also aid in differentiating true from false allegations.
Divorce has changed in the last decade. A positive change is the goal for the parents to each maintain meaningful relationships with their children, despite their anger and hostility. Multiple disciplines have attempted to inject stability into the divorced family and accomplish this goal. This article is about a phenomenon that is of direct concern to mental health and medical professionals, law enforcement officials, attorneys and judges, and social service personnel. It is a problem involving the physical safety and psychological well being of children. It is a problem that encompasses all aspects of individual and family dynamics. It is the problem of sexual abuse allegations arising within the divorced or divorcing family.
When professionals become involved in investigating sexual abuse cases, they must try to understand a situation where there is usually little (if any) tangible evidence. Indeed, the “experts” and an ever-increasing amount of literature reflect opinions and information that range from divergency to open contradictions. As sexual abuse of children has become a more public issue, there has been an increase in published professional articles and news and media programs along with a proliferation of seminars and other interdisciplinary activities on child sexual abuse. With the raising of society’s conscience about this legal, social, moral, medical, psychological, individual, and family problem, a movement has begun toward a more sophisticated and insightful understanding of this complicated issue.
Of the many aspects of investigation, intervention, and case management, we are most familiar with the situation in which allegations of sexual abuse emerge in a conflicted custody and/or visitation dispute. This article is based upon social, psychological, and legal data gathered during the investigation of sexual abuse allegations that occurred at various phases of divorce, including those made at the time that divorce action began, those made during the time that it took for the divorce to become a legal reality, and those made during the period after the divorce was final. All of these allegations arose in the context of unresolved custody and visitation matters between the divorced or divorcing parties.
The clinical information and research was gathered in a family services clinic of a circuit court setting in Michigan. This clinic functions as an internal department of the court and is primarily involved in investigating unresolved domestic matters appearing before the court. The staff members are clinical psychologists and social workers who function as investigators and child advocates. The primary purpose of these investigations is to advise the judges who must make decisions that may have far-reaching consequences. This task requires the mental health professional to act more as a critical behavioral investigator of the family than as a therapeutic agent. It is in this context that we have seen child sexual abuse allegations in protracted visitation and custody battles.
Sexual Abuse Allegations in Divorce and Custody
Our first such case occurred in 1981. Until then, no similar cases had been seen in the prior nine years of the clinic’s existence. For a few years after 1981, the frequency of this type of allegation increased to the point where it was not unusual to investigate one of these types of cases every several weeks. Since 1984, the frequency has stabilized. It is now commonplace to investigate sexual abuse allegations in divorce situations.
The ultimate question in sexual abuse cases is the obvious issue of whether the abuse has actually occurred. In reality, however, the ultimate question is not the real issue. In any investigation, the ongoing research by the investigator(s) provides information for addressing the ultimate question. Our investigative work with divorced and divorcing families has yielded patterns that we believe help in discriminating, differentiating, and demonstrating whether the allegations are essentially valid and the child is at risk, or whether the allegations are more diagnostic of divorce processes rather than true indicators of actual sexual abuse.
The exaggerated and bizarre content of the allegations that we first began hearing in earlier cases concerned us. Such allegations, which differed from the more common statements by children, caused us to seek assistance from professional literature. A computer search of the available literature revealed only one article (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1981) that discussed sexual abuse allegations in a divorce. This brief clinical article reported a case where sexual abuse allegations occurring in a divorce were found to be false. Since our first search of the literature in 1984, there has been a marked increase in publications on sexual abuse allegations in divorce, including the issue of the validity or falsity or such allegations (for example, Benedek & Schetky, 1984; Besharov, 1986; Coleman, 1985; Gardner, 1985, 1987; Green, 1986; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988).
The recent emergence of this literature is not, in our opinion, purely a coincidence. Other professionals have told us that they also had begun noticing similar dynamics in the divorce process at about the same time we were beginning to see cases involving sexual abuse allegations. The discovery of other professionals, previously unknown to us, who were reporting similar situations, similar variables, and similar conclusions was reassuring. It identified this phenomenon as being something other than isolated incidents or distorted perceptions.
Our data suggest that sexual abuse allegations accompanying divorce began in the early 1980s. The evolution of this phenomenon seems related to some of the social changes that occurred in the preceding decade. This includes the legislative drafting and passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974, which capped an ever-increasing social sensitivity to child abuse, especially physical abuse. The identification and acceptance of the “battered child syndrome” encouraged interest in other types of abuse as well. This concern lead to the establishment of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. This federal program created the demand for individual states to report and investigate suspected abuse, neglect, or mistreatment of any kind. The sudden awakening of society’s conscience to a previously unspoken and unacknowledged concern, created a moral momentum that profoundly affected many different professional disciplines as well as the public.
At this same time, another social evolution was occurring. The family as a stable, nuclear social entity was being subjected to disruption and dysfunction through divorce at a rate that concerned most professionals. Regardless of the reason, marital breakup was becoming a more common experience affecting more people than ever before. Society’s reaction to this was to “decriminalize” the divorce process by enacting “no-fault divorce.” The increased acceptance of divorce is seen in the establishment of support groups, mediation and conciliation services and the orientation toward problem-solving processes for all of the parties involved in the divorce, including the children.
However, the fact that divorce was becoming less stigmatized did not diminish the unresolved conflicts and frustrations between the divorcing adults. While the removal of social stigma and a sense of moral wrong from divorce added dignity and civility to the divorce, it did not address the underlying psychological issues. We believe that human nature still needed a forum where the parties could publicly “prove” their case against the other who had, in some undeniable way, “done them wrong.” The absence of this increased the unfinished business between divorcing persons. Both the type and the intensity of post-decree divorce conflict has, in our experience, increased in recent years. This increased potential for unfinished business, coupled with the desire to be right and vindicated through the “indictment” of the other person, is the underlying motivational factor in the increase in claims of sexual abuse in divorce and custody disputes.
In addition, court systems charged with the responsibility of dealing with issues of divorce (including the protection of the children) are obligated to respond directly and immediately to crucial divorce issues, compared to the petty issues often accompanying domestic litigation. The possibility that a child is at risk because of abuse, especially sexual abuse, forces the court to respond immediately. This is one of the most powerful allegations that a parent can make in a divorce case, dramatically more so than the historically common accusations of marital infidelity, alcohol or drug abuse, lack of economic responsibility, mental illness or other more traditional complaints.
Along with this, child sexual abuse, long over-looked, now permeates everyday community and family life. Educational programs have been created, the media frequently reports (and sometimes exploits) sensationalized accounts of human sexual conduct of all kinds, and, as this decade comes to a close, the general sense is that sexual abuse is epidemic and requires a mobilization of resources. The development of these resources has begun without a great deal of rational forethought or professional planning. This apparent rush to resolve suggests that some of the actions already taken are not necessarily constructive and may contribute to the waging of uncontrolled war in custody and visitation matters.
Behavior and Personality Patterns
It is with this background that we will discuss the patterns in cases where sexual abuse allegations in the divorced or divorcing family are demonstrated to be most likely false. The ability to differentiate probably true from probably false allegations is a necessary function of the investigator, regardless of the investigator’s professional discipline. Any investigation that fails to identify the critical components and elements of a given case can place the family members, especially the younger children, at risk. The failure to reliably differentiate between true and false abuse creates significant risk both for actual victims and for those victimized by false accusations.
As investigators, we rely heavily upon the Gestalt or whole picture concept of comprehending any situation. The context in which the allegations arise provides the basis for seeing patterns. This establishment of patterns is the fundamental validator of any phenomenon and stands in stark contrast to drawing conclusions from only an isolated piece of information, such as a statement that a child makes, a therapist’s perception of what one family member reports, or the behavior of a young child playing with an anatomically-correct doll.
In the whole picture approach, variables examined include those that we originally reported in 1987 (Blush & Ross, 1987). We have found four major areas of investigative concern. We refer to these four areas as “corroborative clusters” of evidence. By carefully evaluating each cluster of information, we develop a cumulative rationale for drawing conclusions about a given case. The four areas are (1) the Gestalt or whole picture concept, (2) the corroborative cluster of sequence, escalation, and timing (what we now refer to as the S.E.T. of a case), (3) the cluster encompassing the personality patterns of the individual adults in the situation, and (4) the cluster of evidences relating to the child or children’s behavior(s), (including what the child says and does, the role that the child has played in the family constellation, and any other current child-related dynamics such as consideration of developmental ages and stages). In cases we have reviewed, crucial and fundamental questions about the situational context in which the allegations arise often are left unasked and thus unanswered.
Here we will focus on two of the four corroborative clusters of evidence: the cluster involving the adult personality patterns and the cluster describing the behaviors of the children. While these patterns, like most other behaviors, are not precisely measurable, they are reliably observable to the skilled investigator who, upon recognizing them, needs to proceed with concern about the face value of the sexual allegations.
Adult Personality Patterns
Invariably, there is a primary presenting adult who brings the child and seeks assistance through some available system dealing with abuse. Most often, this adult is the female custodial parent. The younger the child, the more likely this is. We have found three major personality patterns in these women in cases where the sexual abuse allegations could not be substantiated and and were probably false.
The Histrionic Personality
The first of these clinical patterns seen in the falsely accusing woman is a set of behaviors most consistent with the histrionic personality. This individual presents herself in an anxious, concerned, and nervous manner. She especially communicates a theme of victimization for herself at the hands of her estranged or former spouse. She draws from her own perceptions an expressed fear of continued victimization, not only for herself, but now especially for her child when the child is with the father. When asked to give background information about the marriage, she will often describe situations where she claims that she was manipulated, coerced, and physically or psychologically abused. We have found it especially productive to get a detailed description of this woman’s perception of her sexual relationship. The histrionic female will give detailed anecdotal evidence of prior events and occurrences that sound realistic on the surface. However, her vague, circular, and nonspecific responses are more often descriptive of a feeling-tone impression of the situation rather than of factual details of an actual happening.
Her interpretation of her child’s behavior (especially when the child is the same gender) appears to be an extension of her own feelings. The blending of these feelings with everyday events in her life creates a distorted vigilance that results in unusual and inappropriate sexual concerns. This inappropriateness is especially evident considering the age of the child and the procedures used by the parent to monitor these concerns. Histrionic primary presenting women often acknowledge behaviors such as regular or detailed genital examination of the child before or after bathing, (and especially after having had contact with the other parent), making peculiar requests for detailed and unnecessary medical procedures (without regard for the child’s own experience as part of that medical examination), and/or interrogating the child about any kind of sexual activity (Martin, 1976, Soloff, 1985).
The histrionic clinical pattern is revealed not only by the adult’s report of the marriage and divorce, but by her own developmental, medical, and general social history. The investigator needs to understand a full spectrum of adult dynamics that the spouse making the allegations may have.
Again, in those cases where allegations are most probably false, we have found that the personalities of these women often fit the histrionic pattern. However, under the stressors of divorce, there are two variations in the patterns that this basic histrionic personality can take. One dimension is what we call the ‘justified vindicator.” The other dimension is the borderline personality (up to and including the development of psychosis).
The Justified Vindicator
In the justified vindicator pattern, the presenting female initially offers an intellectually organized, and assertive and justified agenda that can have a sophisticated (pseudo-scientific) sound to it. This woman presents in such a fashion so as to give the appearance of being highly organized in terms of indisputable facts, figures, and expert opinions supporting her evidence. Many of these “facts” will have been acquired from multitudinous contacts with other persons, including a number of professional experts that she may have sought help from in dealing with this “traumatic” situation. This presentation, when taken at face value, gives her the appearance of justified outrage and legitimate concern. They validate her demand for protection or action of some kind.
The most effective way to detect the justified vindicator pattern when the woman comes armed with an unusual array of facts and figures is to carefully seek clarification of each of the details. In so doing, the justified vindicator quickly shifts her communication style from spontaneous and motivated cooperativeness to hostile, negativistic, resistant, and passive-aggressive patterns. Even with the most carefully framed and gentle inquiry, the justified vindicator will shift in both affect and communication style. She will often argue and counter the investigator’s questions with questions of her own. If detail is even slightly focused on, the justified vindicator may challenge the professional competency of the investigator or even question his morals and values.
The justified vindicator often discontinues contact with the investigator who tries to clarify the specifics of the allegations. Not only does the justified vindicator go around the investigator who presses for specificity, she may threaten or actually make complaints to the licensing board, sue the professional, or become confrontive, threatening, or harassing. This woman is a force to be reckoned with. The investigator should never try to engage the justified vindicator in arguments about the merits of his perceptions because there are no merits if the investigator’s perception is at variance with this person. Rather, the alert and effective investigator allows this behavior to occur as part of the diagnostic pattern presented by the justified vindicator. Any investigator who tries to control this person will soon he seen negatively and be disregarded or confronted.
The Borderline Personality
The other major pattern of the spouse making a false accusation is the borderline personality. This individual, by virtue of her basic histrionic propensity and the stress of the divorce, functions in a way that impairs her relationship with reality and creates significant interference with her functioning. The degree to which reality contact is lost depends on the intensity of the stressors on the histrionic person at any given moment.
The adult who functions in this marginal contact with reality is most readily identified by his or her (again, usually “her”) peculiar and bizarre descriptions of historical and anecdotal evidence. Unbelievable and weird phenomena, such as beginning menses at five years of age, having two children without ever having had intercourse with the estranged spouse, and having a name entirely different from her legal birth name are examples of peculiarities that we have encountered in the spontaneous articulations of the borderline personality. When this pattern predominates, a clinical diagnosis of psychotic disorder may be appropriate.
The Falsely Accused Spouse
Also, it is crucial to understand the typical behavior pattern we have observed in the man who has been identified as the perpetrator of the abuse. Our experience is that, all too frequently, conclusions are reached by investigators about this person without benefit of data or evidence gathered from direct contact. In many instances, we have been impressed by the fact that the man is unremarkable in all clinical dimensions. We have reviewed other mental health professionals assessments, both interview and psychometric data included, and concur with their frequently reported findings that there are no significant outward indicators of clinical abnormalities in most of these individuals.
In our earlier cases, one pattern that was often noted and that we still see includes the following characteristics of the alleged male perpetrator: There is a marked lack of highly masculinized or “macho” characteristics. These individuals are typically not socially aggressive, they do not present any particular patterns of intense competitiveness, nor do they typically manifest a sense of anxiety or anger consistent with the dilemma in which they find themselves. Indeed we have been particularly struck by the lack of appropriate distress, given the seriousness of the allegations that have been made against them. They will often articulate a concern about the allegations, but they will also express a kind of naive confidence that somehow the allegations will be understood by others and essentially “seen for what they are worth.” The alleged perpetrator in these matters often will show characteristics of being more “feminized,” i.e., he is a more nurturing, more passive person who has more underlying dependency features and is often benign and child-like in many of his social responses, thoughts, and feelings.
In our earlier work we were initially concerned about these accused males because of their passivity, their child-like qualities, their dependencies, and some of their feminized features. They can appear to be similar to patterns found in individuals who have pedophiliac propensities if they are evaluated superficially or merely by the nature of the allegations. Our concern is amplified by investigations where an isolated psychological assessment via computer-scored cookbook interpretation is used as a primary investigation tool. These “assessments” can provide diagnostic and summary statements that, if interpreted in the absence of the situation in which the allegations arise, can be used as support for the presence of maladaptive psychosexual patterns. However, more recently we have been reassured because of an ever-increasing population of falsely accused individuals for whom the more dominant pattern is the one of the unremarkable person.
Children’s Behavior Patterns
The behavior of the children can produce useful information when investigated within the dynamics and structure of the family situation in which the allegations have occurred. A professional investigator needs to have an adequate experiential background so as to know how children of divorce usually sound and look when caught up in the midst of custody and visitation conflict. Most children, especially those under the age of about eight, display an ambivalence over being caught in the middle of a power struggle in which they are unable to please either of their parents. In cases where sexual abuse allegations have been investigated and found to be the result of unresolved adult conflict rather than of actual abuse, we find that children will show exaggerated patterns of inappropriate behaviors in the following ways:
The child will use verbal expressions and phrases that mimic and parrot the presenting adult’s agenda in the adult’s terms. Inappropriate concerns such as child support issues, property settlements, and other divorce activities not within the child’s understanding are cues that a child is being influenced by one of the adults.
Spontaneous, unsolicited, and markedly exaggerated protests against the non-custodial parent are patterns of behavior in those instances where the allegations are not able to be substantiated. Gardner (1987) in his recent work in the “parental alienation syndrome” describes what we have observed for a number of years. The child communicates an absolute foreclosure against a parent which is is not commensurate with demonstrable or factual proofs of such “horribleness” as described by the child. Exaggerated hate and the expressed desire to “never, ever” see or interact with a parent again indicate conditioning of the child’s perception to that of the parent. Statements that contain “never” and “always” are also the expressions of children who are being used as instruments of foreclosure by the more controlling parent.
The most significant evidence we have found in the child’s behaviors when the allegations are false is when the child describes “horrible” and traumatic events while not appearing to be traumatized. This pattern of not appearing traumatized is a key missing element in how the child presents. A skillful investigator will attend as much to what is missing as to what is present in the child’s behavior.
Hyperassertive claims and exaggerated enthusiasm in statements by the child are often misinterpreted by the naive and poorly trained investigator as evidence that the child must be traumatized. When we have seen children who have actually been sexually abused, (especially by one of their own parents) the children show the classic anxieties, embarrassment, ambivalences, and other clinical behaviors as opposed to the overt enthusiasm and spontaneity that are often present in cases of false accusations.
Although there are other important variables in sexual abuse allegations, we have discussed the patterns we have found to frequently accompany false accusations. The personalities and behaviors of the persons involved in an abuse accusation, especially one arising in a conflicted divorce and custody dispute, provide crucial information. Such information can help the investigator compile useful data to present to the finder of fact. This will help answer the ultimate question as to whether the abuse is real.
Behavior occurring in a dysfunctional family unit becomes, by nature of the context in which is occurs, difficult to investigate. Many investigators and case workers accept isolated evidence taken out of context at face value. In a divorce, however, erroneous conclusions, professional recommendations, and actions predicated upon those conclusions can be as harmful to children as is actual abuse. Resisting the impulse to quickly decide whether the abuse is real is an important step toward gaining more insight into what has actually happened.
It may be argued, especially by the accusing spouse, that the assessment of adult personality and family dynamics is not necessary for protecting the child at risk. The professional who concurs with this argument may be making a mistake. This is especially true where the professional’s conclusions may profoundly affect the intervention by both social and legal agencies.
Undertaking the task of investigative research to determine what has really happened and what should be done is to be placed in a position of powerful influence. The many complex cases that social service and mental health professionals are confronted with exerts great demands on their personal and professional resources. There is minimal investigative information to guide them. Our concern is that much of the information currently used in sexual abuse investigations is limited in its clinical and scientific scope.
In light of social and legal changes surrounding divorce, the investigator needs to first determine whether the investigation is occurring within an intact family or in a divorce or custody dispute. With the recent phenomenon of false sexual allegations, the investigator must evaluate all possibilities to gain a complete and accurate understanding of the situation. Interviewing all family parties, acting the role of investigator rather than of therapeutic agent, carefully tracking the evolution of the present complaint in its historical sequence, and understanding the clinical, social and psychological dynamics of the individuals as well as the collective unit called family, are all necessary for accurate investigations and assessments of these difficult situations.
Benedek, E. L., & Schetky, D. H. (1984, October). Allegations of sexual abuse in child custody cases. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Nassau, Bahamas.
Besharov, D. (Spring, 1986). Unfounded allegations — a new child abuse problem.The Public Interest, 83, 18-33.
Blush, G. L., &Ross, K. L. (1987). Sexual allegations in divorce: The SAID Syndrome.Conciliation Courts Review, 25(1), 1-11.
Coleman, L. (1986, January-February). False allegations of child sexual abuse: Have the experts been caught with their pants down? Forum, pp. 12-21.
Gardner, R. A. (1985). Recent trends in divorce and custody litigation. Academy Forum, 29(2), 3-7.
Gardner, R. A. (1987). The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse (). Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.
Martin, P.A. (1976). A Marital Therapy Manual (). New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Soloff, P. H. (1985). Personality disorders. In M. Hersen & S. M. Turner (Eds.),Diagnostic Interviewing () (pp. 131-159). New York: Plenum Press.
Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1988). Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse ()(). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
Investigation and Case Management Issues and Strategies
Gordon J. Blush and Karol L. Ross*
Fonte: The Institute for Psychological Therapies Issues In Child Abuse Accusations (ISSN 1043-8823) (Volume 2 1990)
ABSTRACT: Sexual abuse allegations arising in the context of a custody and visitation dispute provide a difficult challenge to professionals. These cases are often misunderstood and mismanaged, which does great harm to all parties involved. Cases which turn out to be false are characterized by a loss of control, usually in the early stages of the allegation. Frequently observed case management problems are described and suggestions made as to how to manage such cases more effectively. Professionals must be open-minded and sensitive to both the rights of children and of adults. Without more objective guidelines and more effective procedures, humane and meaningful control of the sexual abuse case is not possible.
We have spent the last decade performing family evaluations and offering custody recommendations as psychologists working in a court-connected clinic in Michigan. Several years ago we began seeing increasing numbers of cases in which sexual abuse allegations arose during custody and visitation disputes. We have now consulted on hundreds of such cases, both within our own court and in others. We have found these cases to be protracted and emotionally difficult to investigate and manage. We have also learned a great deal about both effective and ineffective investigative and case management strategies.
In sexual abuse allegations during a divorce, we have observed a repeated problem — the mismanaged, misdiagnosed, misrepresented, misinterpreted, and misunderstood case. We are struck by how little real information most professionals acquire before an accusation becomes a fait accompli. Professionals who do not clarify and investigate before reaching conclusions and who rush to premature closure are acting irresponsibly and unethically. Professionals who, either wittingly or unwittingly, exacerbate, accelerate, or escalate cases rather than approach the issues in a problem-solving and rational manner are doing grievous harm to all parties involved.
With increasing frequency, the media reports child sexual abuse horror stories of false allegations. What usually is unreported are the details of the specific conditions that created the false stories. In reviewing these cases, we have observed that a critical management agency or individual always contributed to the loss of control of the case, usually in the early stages of the allegations. For example, in the McMartin Preschool Case in California, the Manhattan Beach Police Department, upon becoming aware of allegations from one parent, sent a letter of inquiry to about 450 parents throughout the community. In the letter, they asked the parents if they had any information regarding similar complaints from their own children. Historical perspective shows how community hysteria was triggered by that one central phenomenon — the letter of inquiry. (The mother of the alleged first victim was later identified as having a history of psychosis.)
Other experts also report that the primary investigating agent is frequently the key factor in the loss of control of the case. This agent might be the initial investigator for the child protective services agency in a given state or community. Attorney General Van de Kamp concluded it was a young child protection social worker who was not controlled by either her agency or the sheriff that caused the Bakersfield false allegations. It might also be a police agent or a mental health worker. In Michigan, where most of our data has been collected, it is often a protective services worker, and an employee of the State Department of Social Services.
Individuals who initially receive complaints are in a precarious and difficult situation. We do not necessarily criticize their intentions or good will. However, their investigative behavior is often inadequate, inept and naive. The fault, however, usually does not lie directly with these front line workers. They have often been poorly trained and have learned to investigate these cases with biases based on unfounded beliefs (e.g., children don’t lie; children cannot talk about things they have not experienced; there is an epidemic of sexual abuse). Most of the time they are also over-worked with far too many cases to manage any of them adequately.
In addition, many long-term employees, often rigidly and defensively, hold tightly to their positions. They become argumentative and belligerent when confronted. They appeal to other legal agencies to support them in their pursuit of prosecution once their investigation is challenged. Thus, they become key players in escalating the loss of control. We have little respect for the investigator who arbitrarily, unilaterally, and capriciously pursues personal perceptions without observing a check-and-balance system.
Another key complication arises with therapists. They listen to and accept uncritically innuendo, direct allegation, or other inflammatory information. They quickly become partisans and allies of the complaining parent. They show no awareness of the reality and dangers of transference and countertransference. They often react by single-handedly and directly attempting to control the situation in the name of protecting the child. Their overzealous concern can create disastrous outcomes. They draft hostile documents and cling tenaciously to investigative proofs that do not hold up under scrutiny. They communicate in frightening tones to other adults involved in the situation. They make inflammatory and often exaggerated claims. They advise and admonish authority figures such as judges with extreme and overblown statements.
Despite good intentions and noble purpose, all of these behaviors deserve harsh censure as ill-advised and destructive activities that are inappropriate in the management of these difficult cases. The insistence of mental health agents that they are professionally obligated to take action is certainly understandable. The problem is the arrogance, imprudence, and fervor with which they exercise this obligation.
One of the great umbrellas under which mental health professionals operate is the legal opinion that they may decide something has happened to a child, but they may not specify exactly what happened or who was the perpetrator. However, often by default, the professional accepts the scenario communicated by the presenting adult and covertly or overtly endorses the guilt of the accused. (In sexual allegations in divorce cases, the non-custodial parent is usually the accused.) This clinical license is equally as dangerous as the clinical license of protective services workers which mandates that they cannot be held individually liable for their professional role behaviors.
Another source of management problems comes from classroom teachers and school guidance counselors. They may become involved in the escalation of sexual abuse allegation cases either through their own initiative or by being pulled in by parents or other agents. While they are legally mandated to report suspected abuse, educational professionals are not in a position to contribute to the ongoing investigation. The school is an inappropriate vehicle for these investigations, and it should remain only a reporting agency. However, we find school personnel are far less likely than other agents to send sexual abuse allegation cases out of control.
We have seen much havoc and personal disaster heaped upon alleged victims and alleged perpetrators as a result of case mismanagement. If we were to reveal some of the incredible injustices that have been perpetrated in mismanaged cases, they would likely be discounted as gross exaggeration or perhaps even pure fiction. It is crucial to understand and appreciate the potentially catastrophic results of improperly managed sexual abuse allegation cases. These may include loss of livelihood, personal economic ruin, imprisonment, and severe psychological trauma. Victim and victimizer are often blurred in the frenzied justification of protecting the child. Two books which vividly illustrate the personal devastation caused by case mismanagement in sexual abuse allegations are A Question of Innocence by Dr. Laurence Spiegel (1986) andBad Moon Rising by Dana Ferguson (1988).
One of the more disconcerting aspects of the mismanaged cases is the total lack of awareness by the professionals of what happens to a child if the adults and professionals make a mistake. It is not a benign, innocuous, or innocent experience when a nonabused child is treated by the system as if the child has been abused (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988). A non-abused child is taught to be a victim. A nonabused child treated as if the alleged abuse were real may be trained by adults to be psychotic. In these instances the mismanaged case causes emotional abuse.
The Ideal — A Multidisciplinary Team
We have described case mismanagement as a situation in which individuals, agencies, and/or the system unilaterally take matters into their own hands and fast forward their own perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and ideas without using rational investigative techniques. This approach convolutes the facts of a case, making it exceedingly difficult to ever sort out what, in reality, occurred. In an effort to address and remedy this problem, we have developed an investigation format and strategy. We are convinced that a proper investigation process is the only effective means for controlling and managing these cases.
The most effective approach to case investigations is the formation of a multidisciplinary investigation team that is activated when a sexual abuse allegation first occurs (Schetky & Boverman, 1985). This multidisciplinary team should include members from several communities: medical, behavioral science (especially individuals with forensic and investigative expertise), mental health (individuals with therapeutic and clinical treatment expertise), police (investigative experts), law enforcement (members of the prosecutor’s office), and social services. A social services agent would be charged with facilitation of child care management of the case on behalf of the State.
The multidisciplinary team should first evaluate the allegation in terms of its content and context. It should carefully interview the presenting adult prior to any extensive inquiry of others (including the child). Obviously, if the allegation includes physical evidence (bruises, scratches, inflammation, bleeding, etc.), the medical examination team would immediately evaluate the child. However, the medical evaluation team should do nothing other than carefully observe and record the physical data. Investigative inquiry of the alleged victim during the physical examination is inappropriate and could result in erroneous hypotheses. Interview and interrogation should initially be only with the presenting adult.
If there are any unusual circumstances concerning the presenting adult and the alleged victim, those circumstances need to be identified. The team can then define what aspects of the case should be carefully investigated through interview, interrogation, and documentation; who needs to be interviewed and interrogated concerning which aspects; and who is the most appropriate professional to conduct each aspect of inquiry. An overall game plan needs to be formulated by the investigation team before random, multiple data gathering occurs.
One of the most critical aspects of this game plan is to carefully develop the content of any interrogation of the child prior to that interview. The interview should then be conducted by the most appropriate team member, the entire session should be videotaped, and no one else should repeat the interview. In her work MacFarlane (1986) states that there is a definite loss of information through interview repetition.
Although these recommendations are idealistic, we believe it is important to initiate the discussion of case management with an ideal goal that can be aimed at by the professional community. Many communities claim that they have such multidisciplinary teams in place, but, in our experience, that is not yet true. There are trauma evaluation teams, law enforcement special investigation teams, special mental health units for treatment of alleged victims and their families, etc. However, fully functioning, organized multi-disciplinary investigative teams do not exist. Instead, hap-hazard, rambling, protracted, and adversarial “crazy quilt” configurations are the general rule.
A great deal of innovative and creative activity could be undertaken in the development of such a multidisciplinary investigative team, and we encourage professionals to promote that development. However, in the meantime, we must address the realities that surround existing cases. The following are procedures that must be employed by professionals (regardless of agency affiliation) to prevent out-of-control chaos and disaster.
The Investigation — Beginning Strategies
The First Step
When a sexual abuse allegation is made, the presenting adult should be directly interrogated about the specific nature of the complaint as he or she understands it. Specifically, how did the complainant come to understand or suspect that abuse occurred? Did the person directly observe physical evidence? How did the person observe this evidence? Was he or she bathing the child, “inspecting” the child, getting the child ready for bed, etc.? Using this strategy, we have heard some very peculiar scenarios describing the discovery of physical “evidence.” These can provide first clues and possible red flags to alert the investigator to the possibility of false allegations.
The investigator should then determine if a medical examination is needed. If the presenting adult has observed or believes there is physical evidence of abuse, the medical evaluation should address only those specific evidences reported. The examining physician and other medical personnel should, under no circumstances, directly question the child about what happened. They should merely report what they have observed. They may offer possible interpretations of their findings, but that would be all that is allowed. If the presenting adult does not report physical evidence, obtrusive and protracted medical examination procedures should be avoided. (Keep in mind that there is no agreement that physical evidence provides conclusive knowledge about the etiology of the observed physical signs.)
Once the investigator has arranged for an appropriate medical examination, he or she must immediately ask the presenting adult who he or she believes is the alleged perpetrator. Very skillful probing must be done whenever divorce, visitation disputes, or other domestic problems precede the sexual abuse complaint. The investigator must clarify with as much precision as possible the adult’s perception of what has happened to the child — no matter what that perception is based upon (the child’s report, a non-victim child’s report, etc.).
The presenting adult should also be questioned as to exactly how the knowledge or suspicions first developed. Although it is extremely difficult to pin down this abstract process of identifying cognitive or emotional awareness of the incident, to do so can provide acutely important information. It is important to listen carefully to the articulation of the allegations and note any subtle contradictions, vagueness, or circulatory explanations. These may indicate the need for caution to the professional. All too often, however, the professional immediately sympathizes and aligns with the presenting adult who often appears as traumatized, if not more so, than the child.
If it is alleged that the child has made statements about the abuse, it is important to clarify the circumstances under which these statements were made. Was it a spontaneous disclosure or was it elicited in response from questioning from a suspicious adult?
Interviewing the Child
After these first areas are investigated, the professional needs to obtain initial information from the alleged victim (the child) individually. In sexual abuse allegation cases, this is the most profoundly unreliable area of management by professionals. The very concept of interrogating a child, especially one who has been reportedly victimized and traumatized, is repugnant to many adults (particularly those trained in the mental health discipline of therapeutic intervention). However, by interrogation, we simply mean the act of specific inquiry and specific clarification of information offered by the child.
The interrogator must avoid cuing through body-language signals. Many nonverbal behaviors can influence the child’s responses. The most common is a positive nodding of one’s head while asking a leading question (e.g., an up and down “yes” motion while asking, “Did someone touch you down there?”). Another common practice is the positioning of the interrogator in close physical proximity to the child (e.g., sitting directly next to the child with one’s arm around him or her in a supportive manner, holding the child on one’s lap, or, in some other physical position, cuddling the child). Reinforcing messages are often sent by patting or stroking the child while certain crucial questions are being asked (e.g., “Did someone touch you down there?” while the examiner, with an arm around the child, reassuringly the back or shoulder).
The power of these nonverbal messages is grossly underestimated. Mental health experts should be aware of communication subtleties that occur between humans. Body language influences especially very young children whose verbal capacities are limited by their age and development. They are far more responsive to the physical gestures and cuing of adults than they are to the exact words used by those adults.
The sophisticated investigator also understands the tremendous influence that affective (emotional) tone has in human communication. Investigators who are unaware of emotionally empathic tones (or, for that matter, are even unaware of any of the affective intonation in their verbal communications) risk producing a response bias in others. Again, younger children are especially responsive to the tone of language, and it can carry far more weight than the actual verbal content of a message.
In reviewing audio- and videotapes of investigative interviews with allegedly abused children, our most frequent observation is that the investigator often uses a tone of therapeutic softness and supportiveness to elicit affirmative responses. While this may be understandable, it is unacceptable investigative behavior. We are by no means suggesting a hard nosed or blatantly tough approach. However, the inappropriate overinclusion of supportive and empathic emotional tones in critical questions can distort the child’s response. Interviewers must monitor their own behaviors. If they hear themselves becoming soft and empathic, they must recognize that this leads them away from their obligation to remain detached and rational as they listen to the information offered by the child.
In the interview, another important factor is the verbal content of the communication used in gathering information from the child. The science of human behavior has demonstrated that the way a question is framed and presented strongly influences the response. To understand how critical the formulation and framing of words within a question can be, we need only look at political ballot proposals which ask us to vote “yes” if we oppose the proposal and vice versa.
The infamous leading question is another error. For example, a question such as “Where did Daddy touch you?” forces the child to respond affirmatively in order to cooperate with the interviewer. An objective interviewer would say, “Tell me about your visit with Daddy this weekend.”
We have heard an infinite variety of leading questions used. The most typical include presuppositions by the questioner that force a positive response in order for the child to react “correctly” and gain approval. Melton and Limber (1989) claim that useful information can become contaminated through this power of suggestion. The evaluator who makes the assumption that something is true (because of historical truths, preexisting personal biases, etc.) actually forecloses on any additional clarification that might come from the child’s own version of what happened. The investigator is merely using the child as an extension of his or her own perceptions of what “probably” happened. We cannot stress enough the subtle yet powerful influences of the question-framing process (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988; Underwager & Wakefield, 1989).
Consequences of Multiple Interviews
Once the allegation is made, the initial interview with the alleged victim becomes the most crucial element in the entire investigation. Therefore, the investigator who conducts that interview has great responsibility.
Multiple interviews with the child by different professionals contributes immensely to the loss of control of sexual abuse investigations. Currently however, it is almost impossible to avoid multiple interviews because no uniform procedure governs or limits the interview and interrogation. The best way to eliminate the need for multiple interviews is to conduct the first interview correctly. The common practice of multiple interviews is nothing more than the prolonged abuse of children. Even the use of audio- or videotape cannot replace the basic and fundamental skills of the evaluator who first interviews the child.
Another problem with multiple interviews is that they coerce children (especially those under the age of eight) to expand and compound versions of their initial reports. This may be caused by their perception that if adults keep asking for information, more information is needed. Older children and adolescents may respond to multiple interviews by repeating their previous responses. When asked repeatedly about a phenomenon that they have reported, they merely entrench themselves more firmly in the story. This process of story expansion by younger children and story entrenchment by older children does not contribute to a better understanding of the alleged abuse. Instead, multiple interviews reinforce further distortion and convolution of the facts. Multiple inquiries and multiple retelling of the story prior to completion of a full investigation confuse the evaluation.
Professionals sometimes promote multiple retelling of an incident to rehearse a child for testimony, claiming that this strategy is necessary to desensitize the psychologically traumatized child. However, when this is done before the situation is fully understood, it can jeopardize the integrity of the data.
The necessity for a child to repeatedly retell the “facts” can have far-reaching consequences not only for investigators trying to understand the allegations but also for the alleged victim. A number of experts (Coleman, 1986; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988; Underwager & Wakefield, 1989) now assert that the chronic retelling of a false story constitutes teaching of unreality to the child. Some experts perceive this as tantamount to the teaching of psychosis. While we were not initially concerned with this process in our earlier studies, we now support this clinical tenet based upon our longitudinal experiences with these cases. We have begun to see psychiatric symptoms (sometimes requiring hospitalization) after the child has been exposed to multiple interviews for either investigative or therapeutic purposes.
Negligent investigators of sexual abuse cases overlook important developmental issues that often influence a child’s behavior at a given time. Many investigators are not well schooled in developmental ages and stages and behaviors that typically accompany the developmental dynamics of human beings. Others who should have this knowledge abandon it and focus only on the sexual abuse allegations per se. Some investigators interpret certain kinds of behaviors from the perspective of the abuse incident rather than from that of the overall developmental scheme.
For example, it is developmentally appropriate and normal for a child to engage in psychomotor activity by manipulating objects. Too often, a child’s interaction with anatomical dolls is misconstrued as sexual preoccupation or obsession. The child who quickly undresses anatomical dolls or inserts her finger into an orifice of a doll is not necessarily exhibiting inappropriate behavior. The normal expression of curiosity is improperly perceived when separated from the child’s total behavior. The naive investigator also may quickly seize upon a child’s fascination with body parts and bodily functions and interpret this as evidence of abuse. To exclude the possibility of attributing some of a child’s behaviors to normal developmental processes is untenable. It is the absolute obligation of the professional investigator to operate in an objective, informed, comprehensive manner.
The use of anatomical dolls is a highly controversial investigative and case management strategy. Many times this “tool” is used in the initial investigative contact with the child. In other instances the dolls are introduced after multiple interviews. We have even seen the dolls used as part of a peculiar blend of both therapy and ongoing investigation, regardless of the stage of the abuse allegation case.
The anatomical dolls are a poorly understood and nonscientific technique. The anatomical correctness of the dolls is not established by any objective criteria. There is no evidence that they do what they are claimed to do. Mclver, Wakefield, and Underwager (1989) found that there was basically no difference in behaviors between those children who had allegedly been sexually abused and those who had not in terms of their interactions with the dolls. The minimal existing data concerning the ability of investigators to assess accurate sexual abuse information through the use of anatomical dolls is highly conflicted and controversial. Gabriel (1985) states that there are many behaviors which nonabused children exhibit with the dolls that could easily be misconstrued as diagnostic of sexual abuse.
The dolls typically are used with younger, less verbal children. The developmental cognitive and perceptual processes of very young children are scientifically defined. In the world of make believe, there is no reason to expect doll play by two, three, and four-year-old children to be particularly different with the anatomical dolls than it is with any other play paraphernalia. A therapist’s attempt to non-traumatically investigate the child’s perceptions dictates that dolls must be presented essentially as part and parcel of a game, a play format, or a story telling experience.
The proponents of this method argue they do not use the dolls in this way. They claim that they explicitly define which doll represents which family member and then discuss those specific family members. However, this is nothing more than adults projecting adult interpretation upon young children’s behaviors. To assume that the child is, in fact, construing the situation as we adults would is presumptuous. Considering the leading questions and subtly pervasive behaviors that the adult interrogator may use while engaging the child in anatomical doll play, this strategy is one of the least reliable and least desirable at any stage of case management.
Having the child point to a picture of a boy or a girl is also an ineffective method for validating facts. The presentation of the picture is typically prefaced by an instruction such as “Show me where (identified perpetrator) touched you.” This is followed by questions such as “Did he touch you here? Did he touch you there?” In truth, practically every part of our bodies have been touched in infancy and early childhood by our caregivers. To employ this tactic and to endorse its credibility is professionally naive.
The Guardian Ad Litem
We recommend the appointment of a guardian ad litem for the alleged victim in a sexual abuse allegation situation. We have seen this strategy successfully used in a number of cases. The guardian (usually an attorney) often can suppress potential chaos while remaining outside the ongoing investigation, treatment, or any other process occurring in the sexual allegation situation. While not all attorneys may be enthusiastic about serving in this capacity, it is advantageous to identify those who are so motivated. In several areas, the appointment of a guardian ad litem is becoming a common policy of the court. All professionals who deal with sexual abuse allegation cases can benefit from the guardian ad litem system. If it is not yet available to them, they should consider making such a recommendation to assist in case management.
Case Management — Intermediate Strategies
Some of the aforementioned strategies obviously continue to play an important role as the case evolves into its intermediate stages. However, effective case management in the sexual abuse allegation situation mandates that the previous strategies are used first.
Interviewing the Alleged Perpetrator
Probably the most crucial intermediate management strategy is the effective and thorough interview and interrogation of all the other key players in the situation (Schuman, 1984). After the interviewer has talked to the presenting adult and the child, the alleged perpetrator immediately should be offered an opportunity to not only tell his or her version of what happened but also to answer directly the allegations made by the presenting adult and the child.
The statements of the presenting adult are the foundation upon which to base the questioning of the accused perpetrator. Response to those statements provides insight into dysfunctional family dynamics. Sexual abuse allegations in divorce are more frequently an indication of family dysfunction than of sexual abuse per se. The opportunity for the accused adult to clarify certain dynamics can be extremely productive.
The investigator should avoid merely asking whether the alleged perpetrator did it or didn’t do it. Broader questioning permits an understanding of the entire situation, especially as relates to the dysfunctional family. In most investigations, the accused is not directly confronted or given a chance to respond to the primary investigator. While this certainly saves the investigator a great deal of anguish by avoiding any potential contradiction of “facts” as related by the presenting adult or child, it serves no constructive long-range purpose for the child or for the social system designed to safeguard both adults and children.
The interviewer of the accused should present all of the allegations of both the presenting adult and the child. Many professionals may be ambivalent about doing this, but if done in a rational and effective manner, it not only clarifies the other side of the story but can minimize irrational acting out on the part of the accused. If that person believes someone is willing to investigate and understand his version of the incident, the disclosure acts more as a catharsis, diffuser, and decelerator than as an intensifier of negative behaviors.
When the accused is excluded from the investigation there is likely to be an escalation of negative and self-defeating behavior. Although this is certainly understandable, it does not aid the investigation. Exclusion of the alleged perpetrator from the investigation violates professional objectivity by ignoring half of the adult story. In gathering information, all of the previously mentioned rules for effective investigation must be applied. There is no substitute for good interview and interrogation skills.
As part of an ongoing case management strategy, we, whenever possible, interview and interrogate the accused in the presence of the child or, in many instances, the presenting adult. While we recognize the resistance that many professionals might have to this, we find it to be an extremely useful approach, especially when the alleged victim is an older child or an adolescent.
Just as strategic family therapy demonstrates that problem solving needs to involve all of the key people in a given situation, a complete understanding of the dynamics between the key parties requires their presence together. We are still in the early stages of formulating strategies for using this confrontive modality as a case management procedure. At this point there do not appear to be differences in interviewer behavior in this modality compared to the individual modality. Obviously, all of the rules for effective interview and investigation remain. Forthrightness is essential, and sensitivity to all of the parties’ emotional feelings about the situation is required. Appropriate empathy mixed with appropriate skepticism and direct clarification of specifics are necessary.
One of the most significant outcomes of these confrontive sessions is that many of the escalated and expanded allegations become much more tempered in the presence of the other party. Most important, however, is that the interviewer can observe the interactive dynamics (especially between the adults) which, in the sexual allegations in divorce case, are extremely significant in understanding the context in which the allegations have been made.
Frequently, the presenting adult reports that a young child is frightened of the other parent (the alleged perpetrator) and never wants to see him again. Gardner (1987) describes such exaggerations as “the parental alienation syndrome.” When interviewed individually, the child often reaffirms that position. However, when dealt with in the presence of both parents, the child may change dramatically and show no fears or anxieties. Indeed, he may manifest behaviors that are contradictory to what the presenting adult reports. These kinds of variations of the traditional investigation process constitute positive and potent case management strategies during the intermediate phases of professional involvement.
In addition to interviewing the alleged perpetrator, we also recommend interviewing any significant others involved in the case. This includes present romantic companions if such relationships are part of the present life circumstances. Obviously, if there is a living together situation or a remarriage, that partner can provide helpful information. Grandparents or siblings can also be helpful. Professionals who may have been involved with the parties or other individuals who can provide information about the family’s functioning or dysfunctioning can contribute to a complete understanding of the case.
Merely accepting purported statements made by other persons is not sufficient. For example, a presenting adult might report that he or she initially learned from the child’s aunt that the child had talked about some peculiar incident while visiting the father. This is not enough information to understand the full meaning of what really happened. It is necessary to communicate directly with the conveyor of that reported information and clarify the report. This is especially true when a baby-sitter gives information to the presenting adult.
Indeed, hearsay evidence should be taken only as hearsay and nothing else. Statements allegedly made by teachers, counselors, neighbors, friends, relatives, or anyone else should not be given specific meaning until the investigator clarifies that information from its direct source. Specific inquiry is always the investigative must. It is the only mechanism for controlling the rumor and innuendo of the hearsay.
Other Issues in the Intermediate Stage
Written reports, documents, personal communications, and other “factual” evidences should be reviewed completely, but always in the context of perspective. Investigators cannot accurately understand and interpret the contents of a document unless they have a sense of the author’s perspective, philosophy, and professional role in the situation.
A therapeutic agency acting under the guise of an investigative agency can be one of the most dangerous document producers in sexual abuse allegation cases. While no document should be ignored, neither should the investigator naively accept the content without considering influential variables. These include agency bias, situational context in which the document was drafted, existing biases inherent in the situation (e.g., written by a friend, neighbor, minister, etc.), and any other prejudicial elements. Many of these written documents have no more validity or reliability than does the letter of recommendation solicited from a friend, neighbor, teacher, or employer. The sophisticated investigator always maintains a healthy skepticism toward data from any source.
The investigator should always insist upon physical evidences and proofs whenever the presenting adult claims that such proofs do exist. Examples of such allegations include pornographic pictures, histories of medical and/or psychiatric treatment, previous arrests, and other agency and court involvements. The effective case manager always remembers that allegations in the absence of physical proofs must be considered unsubstantiated evidence.
Another important and ongoing issue is the removal of children from the home in which the abuse allegedly occurred. Obviously, in substantiated physical abuse cases where a child is clearly at risk, removal is imperative. However, we have seen legions of cases in which, with no more than a mere hint of possible problems in the home, children have been immediately and traumatically removed. This tremendous disruption in the continuity of the home environment is abuse in and of itself. We have interviewed many parents who are threatened by professionals that their children will not be returned until the parent permanently disengages contact and/or marital relationship with the alleged perpetrator. We have seen children placed in foster care settings and subjected to numerous unwarranted cruelties in the absence of valid evidence that this kind of drastic action was necessary.
The concept of forced separation seems to validate practically every personal underlying motivation for investigators who rationalize that they are only taking correct and protective measures. Behavioral science and mental health communities have no scientific longitudinal data on the long-range impact of these sudden disruptions of social contacts and relationships. A common pattern in divorce cases is that the professional, acting immediately upon minimal information, recommends to a court official, referee, or judge immediate cessation of contact between the child and the alleged adult perpetrator. This frequently becomes the first step toward a long-range, total, and absolute foreclosure on the alleged perpetrator, regardless of the ultimate conclusions about the initial allegations.
Many investigators use polygraph data as a strategy in case management. The fact that polygraph results cannot be legal evidence in court limits their purpose and value. More fundamental than that are the inconsistencies of polygraph data, which adds to the preoccupation with whether the accused is “guilty.” We have seen individuals who appear to us to be actual abusers pass the polygraph. We have seen other individuals who appear not to be involved in any sexual abuse produce a deceptive or inconclusive polygraph. We have also seen situations in which an individual takes multiple polygraphs and under certain circumstances passed and under other circumstances failed.
Variables such as the competence of of the polygraph operator, his interaction with the accused, presentation of questions, and the testing situation can all affect the polygraph results. All elements of polygraph testing continue to be intensely debated, even among the experts who administer the test. Our experience is that the polygraph does not give reliable information, especially in out-of-control cases when the polygraph is given as an afterthought to investigate “the facts.” We consider polygraph data only in the context of all of the other data.
A consideration is whether the sexual abuse allegation is of such peculiar content and magnitude that it originally seems unbelievable. Some professionals reason that an allegation of exceedingly unusual dynamics, incredible proportion, and astonishing behavioral deviance could never be made up. However, sexual behavior, like all other human functioning, does have some common, usual components and dimensions.
Whenever a reported incident exceeds these usual parameters, the investigator must seek detailed clarification of the content and frequency of the allegation rather than merely accept its bizarre characteristics as validating the accusation. An evolving belief by some professionals is that extreme and bizarre allegations are probably credible evidence of ritual abuse. “Experts” who try to validate these aberrant occult allegations through pseudo-scientific evidence often create public hysteria. Even in the most unique cases, it is the duty of responsible professionals to remain pragmatic and to doggedly pursue legitimate, factual evidence.
Long-range Case Management Recommendations
Several longer range actions should be initiated to help resolve sexual abuse allegation cases. First, there is definite need for revision of the child abuse report laws (Besharov, 1986). Rational input to the federal and state legislative processes is the foundation by which this long-range goal can be accomplished. The social climate that motivated the passage of the current laws must now be tempered with acumen, information, and accurate description of the entire problem of child abuse so that laws may adequately provide an effective network for children who need protection. Revision of the statutes and mandates should not be made on a passionate or crisis-oriented basis. Authorities assisting the legislative process in reformulating and refining the reporting laws should be knowledgeable, insightful, and objective. The current laws were enacted to sensitize society to the dilemma of child abuse and to create vehicles for response. It is now time for transition and refinement. We must develop even more responsive and responsible tools by which society can protect its children.
Sexual abuse allegations cases within ongoing divorce litigation should be investigated expediently, and decisions of the court should be rendered as quickly as possible. The court should put all parties on notice that the case will be monitored, that certain aspects of the family’s functioning will continue, and that there will be ongoing surveillance by an objective outside agency which is legally empowered to supervise certain activities of a family in transition. Agencies and agents charged with these responsibilities must receive and follow clearly specified effective case management guidelines and procedures.
Quality professional education for individuals who deal with these difficult cases is critical. They must receive specialized training in effective interview and interrogation strategies. Currently, most investigators in social and legal agencies have no such background. The lack of appropriate training is an unconscionable flaw in the social service, mental health, and legal communities. It puts everyone at risk: the alleged victim, the reporting adult, the alleged perpetrator, and even the case workers who ultimately suffers from an insidious burnout.
The competent and skillful professional involved in the management of the sexual abuse allegation case must maintain an intense and accurate sensitivity that balances the rights of children with the rights of adults. This perspective is an absolute necessity for humane, civil, and meaningful control of these cases. Inept professional case management has motivated the formation of such groups as VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws) and MARC (Mothers Against the Raping of Children). The rapidly increasing membership in such organizations is an unfortunate commentary on the current operation of the professional community.
All professional disciplines charged with handling these difficult cases share the responsibility for changing the way they are managed. The time has come to discard subjective, emotionally guided passions predicated upon personal feelings and agendas. If we are to operate within a safe and just society, we must cooperatively develop and employ objective guidelines and procedures for effective case management.
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Gardner, R. A. (1987). The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse (). Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.
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