A Behavior Analytic Look at Contemporary Issues in the Assessment of Child Sexual Abuse

By Wyatt, W. Joseph | The Behavior Analyst Today, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview
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A Behavior Analytic Look at Contemporary Issues in the Assessment of Child Sexual Abuse

Wyatt, W. Joseph, The Behavior Analyst Today

The assessment of child sexual abuse has largely been ignored by behavior analysts, although behavior analytic theory and methodology, if applied, likely would advance the field. Three classic cases demonstrate historic errors that might have been avoided, had a behaviorally based approach been employed. Functional analytic interpretations are provided for phenomena that have been explored in a representative sample of studies that, though empirical, do not appear in the behavioral literature. Specific recommendations for practice, and a call for greater involvement of behavior analysis, are presented.

Keywords: Child sexual abuse; behavioral assessment; behavior analysis, behavioral assessment of child sexual abuse.


When considering the assessment of child sexual abuse, one may ask, "What are the characteristics of a behavioral approach that make it suited to the task?" The natural science of behavior analysis and the philosophy of behaviorism appear to be well suited to address the assessment of child sexual abuse--especially when examined in contrast to the practices and philosophies that have been heavily relied upon up to now.

To make this latter point clear it is helpful to briefly review several high-profile cases. (See Ceci & Bruck, 1995, for more extensive presentations of the cases.) They demonstrate what may occur when a non-scientific approach is applied to the assessment of sexual abuse in young children, specifically to those aged six and under.

In reviewing the following cases it is important to remember that the majority of reports of child sexual abuse are true. Estimates of false accusations range from 5% to 35% (Bruck, Ceci & Hembrook, 1998). For example, in a Denver study of 576 reports in a single year it was found that 53% were "indicated" (likely true), 24% contained insufficient information on which to make a true/untrue decision, and 23% were "unfounded" (clearly untrue). Within the last group about three-fourths were thought to have been made in good faith, with the remainder thought to have been knowingly false (Jones & McGraw, 1987).

Studies in Michigan looked at true and false allegations of child sexual abuse in divorce cases. One review of 169 cases found that 33% were "unlikely" to be true, based upon Child Protective Services and the court appointed evaluators' opinions, while another review of 215 cases found that 20% were "unlikely" based on extensive (a mean of 62 hours) multi-disciplinary investigation (Faller, 2001).

Thus, the parallel imperatives of child protection and fair treatment of the accused mandate a scientific skepticism about the methods by which reports of child sexual abuse are assessed.

Wee Care Nursery School

Kelly Michales was a staff member at the Wee Care Nursery School in Maplewood, New Jersey, where she was accused of sexual abuse of numerous children. The accusations began when a 4-year-old was having his temperature taken rectally by his doctor and said, "Her takes my temperature."

The child's mother contacted Child Protective Services and the boy was then interviewed by an examiner who used anatomically detailed dolls. The child disclosed that Michales had also molested two other boys, although when they were interviewed they denied it.

At that point the school's staff sent letters to all parents advising them of the disclosures and had a social worker make a presentation to the parents. Many parents, convinced that the allegations were true, placed their children in therapy.

Following many interviews by various professionals (therapists, prosecutors, and mental health professionals hired by the prosecution), twenty children accused Michales of molestation. Many of the accusations seemed incredible, such as that Michales had penetrated them with a sword, smeared peanut butter all over their bodies and licked it off, and had done all of these things at the school although it was open and accessible by parents and staff at all times.

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A Behavior Analytic Look at Contemporary Issues in the Assessment of Child Sexual Abuse


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