Victim Recantation in Child Sexual Abuse Cases: The Prosecutor's Role in Prevention

By Marx, Susan Perlis | Child Welfare, May/June 1996 | Go to article overview

Victim Recantation in Child Sexual Abuse Cases: The Prosecutor's Role in Prevention


Marx, Susan Perlis, Child Welfare


Although not in itself diagnostic of abuse, recanation by a child who has been abused and has disclosed the abuse is a common phenomenon. This article explores reasons for recantation and the problems recantation presents for the continued safety of the child and for the efficacy of child protective services and criminal justice interventions. Practical steps are offered for prosecutors, child protective services workers, CPS attorneys, law enforcement investigators, and members of multidisciplinary teams to prevent recantation of truthful allegations of child sexual abuse.

Jennie S,(1) a 16-year-old girl, lives with her father, Mr. S and her paternal grandmother, Mrs. S. Jennie's mother died when Jennie was three, and Jennie has lived with her father and grandmother since that time. Jennie's grandmother works Monday through Friday, returning home at 5:00 P.M.; after the grandmother comes home, Jennie's father leaves for his job, working the night shift at a nearby factory.

Mr. S began touching Jennie's vagina and chest when she was six. At that time, he told her not to tell anyone or he'd go to jail. The sexual contact escalated; by the time Jennie was 10, Mr. S was putting his penis into Jennie's mouth, vagina, and anus everyday when she came home from school. Through the years, Mr. S both cajoled and intimidated his daughter into secrecy, giving her sneakers and jewelry and threatening to kill her if she ever told anyone about the sexual assaults. Jennie's grandmother often told Mr. S that she felt his gifts to Jennie were extravagant, but he continued to give them to her.

When Jennie was in the tenth grade, a boy from her class asked her out on a date. When Jennie refused to go, Jennie's best friend confronted her, asking her why she wouldn't go out with the boy. Jennie, crying, told her friend about the sexual assaults and begged her friend to keep it a secret. Jennie's friend told their favorite teacher, who talked to Jennie and then contacted the county child abuse hotline.

Jennie stayed after school with her best friend and her teacher. A child protective services worker and police officer arrived and interviewed Jennie. The police officer left the school, went to Jennie's home, and interviewed Mr. S. Mr. S denied the abuse, but could point to no reason for Jennie to lie. He also admitted giving her sneakers, jewelry, and other presents, but claimed that he did so just as any caring father would. When Jennie's grandmother came home, the police officer interviewed her. Mrs. S was shocked. She could not think of any reason for Jennie to make this up, but she was absolutely sure that her son would never do such a thing. The police officer arrested Mr. S and took him to the police station.

Jennie's teacher, her best friend, and the child protective services worker brought Jennie home. When Jennie came in, Mrs. S ignored her. Jennie's teacher, friend, and the CPS worker left. In the next few weeks, Mrs. S barely spoke to Jennie. When Mrs. S came home from work and Jennie was upstairs in her bedroom doing her homework, Mrs. S dusted her son's room thoroughly and then sat on his bed for hours at a time. Mrs. S said to Jennie on several occasions that if Jennie didn't stop these lies, Mr.

would sit in jail forever because no one had the bail money to put up for him. Jennie's grandmother refused to eat her meals with Jennie, leaving the table when Jennie sat down. Mrs. S repeatedly told her to tell the truth, that Mr. S never assaulted her. Mrs. S, who visited her son every other evening in jail, delivered a message from him for Jennie. He wrote her a note saying that he loved her, and that he wanted to come home and be part of their family again. Jennie became depressed and withdrawn.

The third week after the arrest, Mrs. S again asked Jennie to tell the truth, that her father never touched her. Jennie started to cry and said, "O.K. He never did anything. Is that what you want to hear? …

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