The Whole Truth: Restoring Reality to Children's Narrative in Long-Term Incest Cases

By Feiner, Leslie | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

The Whole Truth: Restoring Reality to Children's Narrative in Long-Term Incest Cases


Feiner, Leslie, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


I. Introduction

M.B., a fifteen-year-old girl, states that one night, after living with

her stepfather for over six years, she engaged in an act of sexual

intercourse with him.(1) Although she claims to have submitted to him out

of fear, she concedes that he neither forced nor threatened her that

night.(2) A short time after making her allegation, she runs away from

home, refusing to speak to police for over two weeks.(3)

Her stepfather denies her accusation, despite being found passed

out in her bed. He states that he had gotten very drunk in a bar,

come home and stumbled into the wrong room.(4) Indeed, by the time

the case comes to trial, the State stipulates that he had been to the bar

in question, gotten drunk, and even had sex with a woman he met at

the bar.(5) Why, he asks, would he then have sex with his stepdaughter?

Although an inquiry might naturally focus on the question of

which story to believe, the criminal justice system asks a much

narrower one at trial: Is the complainant's story believable beyond a

reasonable doubt? To answer that question, jurors would strictly

scrutinize M.B.'s narrative of events in light of their own ideas of what

is credible.(6) Such scrutiny would likely center on the incongruity of

M.B.'s passive acceptance of her stepfather's unprecedented

solicitation. Even though statutory rape and incest cases do not require force

on the part of the defendant or lack of consent on the part of the

victim, a fact-finder is likely to believe that the "normal" fifteen year

old in M.B.'s position would show some signs of shock, surprise or

resistance. M.B.'s failure to do so, coupled with her subsequent

avoidance of the police, would likely undermine her credibility with a jury.

Jurors scrutinizing such a narrative today would also deliberate in

the current atmosphere of disillusionment regarding the credibility of

child victims in sexual abuse cases. Despite the public's education

and acceptance that sexual abuse is prevalent in family settings,(7) some

writers have recently described a child abuse "hysteria."(8) Children,

some say, will independently fabricate claims of sexual abuse to

control,(9) to punish,(10) or to cover up their own promiscuity." Some

psychoanalytic experts still argue that children fantasize,(12) and it has

become increasingly accepted that parents can elicit from their

children false allegations of sexual abuse where child custody is in

dispute.(13) Several widely publicized courtroom trials have also taught

the public to suspect allegations that children have made against

daycare workers.(14) Thus, despite an increased recognition that child

molestation is a pervasive problem in society, there is also a clear message

that the main, and often only witness to this kind of crime,(15) may not

be credible.

Given this societal background, the incongruities in M.B.'s story,

and the lack of evidence corroborating her charge, it would not be

surprising to see this defendant acquitted. And yet, M.B.'s narrative

describing her stepfather's conduct and her own behavior might not

be incongruous or implausible at all. For it has become well-accepted

in the psychiatric community that children subjected to repeated acts of

sexual abuse will not struggle or resist, but will accommodate to such

abuse over time, becoming passive and seemingly accepting of

repugnant sexual acts.(16) Indeed, the phases abused children pass through

and the coping behaviors they develop to adjust to repeated sexual

abuse has come to be known as the "Child Sexual Abuse

Accommodation Syndrome. …

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