Frustrations of Inquiry: Child Sexual Abuse Allegations in Divorce and Custody Cases

By Goldstein, Seth L.; Tyler, R. P. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Frustrations of Inquiry: Child Sexual Abuse Allegations in Divorce and Custody Cases


Goldstein, Seth L., Tyler, R. P., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


When a marriage disintegrates, the partners often change from allies to enemies. They can become bent on winning and employ tactics designed to crush the opposition despite the casualties. All too often, their children get caught in the cross fire.

Sometimes, allegations of child sexual abuse arise in the context of divorce and custody cases. A study of 9,000 families embroiled in contested divorce proceedings found that 1 to 8 percent involved allegations of child sexual abuse.(1) Unfortunately, the warlike atmosphere inherent in divorce often discredits valid claims. Though rare, false allegations of abuse do occur. Another study revealed that out of 169 cases of alleged child sexual abuse arising in marital relations courts, only 14 percent were deliberate, false allegations.(2) This means that the overwhelming majority were legitimate reports.

Sexual abuse allegations that surface during divorce or custody cases cause more frustration for law enforcement investigators than any other because of a lack of evidence, possible biases, and the acrimony between partners on the verge of divorce. Indeed, the stakes are high - an improper allegation may ruin the reputation of an unjustly accused person; at the same time, a valid allegation that goes unrecognized may subject a child to continued abuse.

Investigators often forget they have a fourfold responsibility in these cases. First, they must determine whether the child is at risk. Then, they have an equal duty to determine if the accused is responsible or innocent. When investigators decide out of hand that insufficient evidence exists to establish that the accused committed the act, they have not conducted a complete investigation. Instead, they must seek evidence to either prove or disprove the allegations.

Third, investigators must distinguish a valid allegation from one that may have resulted from a parent's misguided but honest belief that a child was abused. Finally, they must consider whether the allegation is a malicious complaint made solely to gain an advantage in a divorce or custody settlement. Each scenario requires a different course of action. Although the unique concerns associated with these types of cases make them more difficult to solve, investigators can follow certain guidelines to uncover the truth behind the allegations.

INVESTIGATIVE OBSTACLES

Time Constraints

Competent investigations of sexual abuse allegations take an exorbitant amount of time. Moreover, shrinking budgets and changing priorities have reduced agency staffing levels, leaving fewer people to handle these investigations. …

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Frustrations of Inquiry: Child Sexual Abuse Allegations in Divorce and Custody Cases
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