Sexual Abuse Allegations and Parental Separation: Smokescreen or Fire?

Article excerpt


If allegations of sexual abuse of a child are made after parents separate, the challenges of resolving custody and visitation issues are greatly increased, with the abuse allegations overshadowing other considerations. These are high conflict cases, anti settlement may be very difficult (or inappropriate) to arrange. The involvement of a number of agencies and professionals, with overlapping responsibilities and potentially conflicting opinions, may complicate the resolution of these cases. A significant proportion of allegations of child abuse made in the context of parental separation are true, but this is a context with a relatively high rate of unfounded allegations. While some cases of untrue allegations are due to fabrication, more commonly unfounded allegations are made in good faith. Preexisting distrust or hostility may result in misunderstandings and unfounded allegations, especially in cases where the children involved are young and the allegations are reported through a parent. Some cases of unfounded allegations may be the product of the emotional disturbance of the accusing parent. This paper discusses how parental separation affects the making of child sexual abuse allegations, with particular emphasis on how separation may contribute to unfounded allegations. Recent research is reviewed, and national data from Canada on allegations of abuse and neglect when parents have separated is presented. Legal issues that arise in these cases are discussed in the context of American and Canadian case law. The authors discuss factors that can help distinguish founded from unfounded cases. The paper concludes by offering some practical advice about the handling of this type of case by mental health professional, judges, and lawyers.

Keywords: evaluation of child sexual abuse allegations; sexual abuse allegations after parental separation


Parental custody and visitation disputes are emotionally charged and difficult for parents, children, and professionals. (1) If there are allegations of child sexual abuse, the emotional tension, bitterness, and complexity of a case are inevitably heightened. These cases are very distressing for parents and children, and challenging for the professionals involved: lawyers, judges, child protection workers, police, physicians, and mental health professionals. While there is no doubt that abuse is harmful to children, the making of an unfounded allegation can also be damaging, resulting in an intrusive investigation, and ultimately affecting the child's relationship with the wrongly accused parent. Not infrequently in an unfounded allegation case, the child may come to believe that abuse occurred, exacerbating the negative effects of the relationship breakdown.

A significant proportion of allegations of child abuse made in the context of parental separation are unfounded. In some cases the accusing parent may be deliberately fabricating the allegation; however, it is more common for accusers to honestly believe what they are alleging, even if the allegation is unfounded. Preexisting distrust or hostility may result in misunderstandings and unfounded allegations, and in some cases unfounded allegations may reflect a mental disturbance on the part of the accusing parent. It must also be emphasised that many abuse allegations made in this situation are true. While there are legitimate concerns about the possibility that accusing parents or children may be lying or mistaken, those who have abused children usually falsely deny or minimise their abuse.

In most cases there is no clear forensic evidence that can prove or disprove the allegation, and there may be a welter of conflicting claims. Investigations of abuse allegations in the context of parental separation are especially difficult because the alleged perpetrator will often have legitimate reasons for touching the child. The determination of whether touching was 'sexual' may require an assessment of intent and circumstances; it may be very difficult for an investigator or judge to make that assessment based on the evidence available. …


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