Common Errors in the Assessment of Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse

Article excerpt

The assessment of child sexual abuse (CSA) allegations is a complex, challenging, high-stakes undertaking. The consequences of sloppy assessments leading to false positive or false negative court decisions are clearly severe. Despite this, many professionals and paraprofessionals who undertake such assessments continue to perform substandard child sexual abuse investigations. This article presents some of the common errors made by CSA investigators and suggests the use of research-based investigative protocols and ongoing training as ways of improving this situation.

KEY WORDS: Child sexual abuse, assessment, investigative protocols.

The sexual abuse of children is a serious and ongoing problem in American society. There is a tremendous cost to victims of such abuse, and the sheer number of allegations places a serious burden on the resources of the civil and criminal justice system. It is important to recognize that the way such cases are investigated can have an extremely important impact on the alleged victim, the alleged perpetrator, as well as the families of those involved. Many states have passed or are in the process of passing lengthy mandatory minimum sentences and procedures for the indefinite civil commitment of those convicted of sexual assaults as sexually violent persons. Often there is no evidence in child sexual abuse (CSA) cases beyond that produced by the forensic interview of the child who is suspected of being a victim of such abuse.

There are a number of reasons for this general lack of hard evidence in these types of cases. First, virtually all acts of CSA are committed in private, so only the alleged perpetrator and the alleged victim know what really happened. Further, many of the acts that fall under the heading of CSA would not be expected to leave injuries or even indications that they had occurred. Examples of these types of activities are fondling, exposure, or acts of oral sex. Complicating matters further, there is medical research that suggests that even acts of abuse that might reasonably be expected to leave physical signs such certain types of penetration may leave no characteristic injuries or signs (Adams, Harper, Knudson, & Revilla, 1994).

As a consequence, a child's statements to law enforcement officers or child protection workers take on a great deal of significance in the context of investigations of sexual abuse allegations. One way of thinking about the potential problems that a poorly conducted interview can produce is to use the analogy of crime scene investigation. If a crime scene investigation is well conducted, it can provide a great deal of information about the specifics of the crime; the investigator may find DNA, fibers, gunpowder residue, and other evidence that will assist in the apprehension of the guilty party and the exoneration of the innocent. On the other hand, poor investigatory technique can degrade the crime scene; samples can be mishandled, objects moved from original positions, foreign DNA introduced, or fingerprints may be wiped away. Once a crime scene is degraded, it cannot be reconstructed. In the same way, well-conducted interviews can do much to assist fact finders in arriving at their conclusions regarding the presence or absence of CSA. Poorly conducted interviews can have tragic consequences; an abused child can be sent back to their abuser, or an innocent man or woman may spend the rest of his or her life incarcerated. And as with crime scenes, once a child's recollections are distorted by poor interviewing techniques, his or her memories cannot be restored to their original state. It is for this reason that it is absolutely essential that such interviews be conducted in a manner that effectively elicits information while minimizing the chances that the child's statements will be rendered unreliable.

It is not my intention to review the voluminous literature that makes it clear that faulty interviewing techniques can produce inaccurate recollections in children, which will be remembered in their distorted form long after the interview has occurred. …