Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

False Accusations: Genesis and Prevention

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

False Accusations: Genesis and Prevention

Article excerpt

False Accusations: Genesis and Prevention*

Professionals engaged in trust relationships can become the target of false allegations in courts and ethics committees. An allegation is considered false when it is not possible to establish a direct and clear causal link between actions (or inactions) of the accused and damage sustained by the accuser. Long-term psychotherapy allows a unique setting to observe and document the formation of false allegations in slow motion over time. Expert witness work can be likened to a detailed analysis of a battery of psychological tests in which a profile of abusive experiences spanning a lifetime can be constructed to demonstrate the likelihood that the current allegation is false. In such instances the accuser confuses in transference the perpetrator of past abuse with the person in the present trust relationship. Guidelines for prevention of false accusations in professional practice are suggested.


It is possible for all professionals working in trust relationships to be falsely accused by people with whom they work or have worked. But psychotherapists engaging in long-term depth work are especially vulnerable to being falsely accused since the nature and purpose of this kind of psychotherapy is often to reactivate, for examination in the present therapeutic relationship, the deep and damaging scars left over from past emotional relationships. A close examination of false accusations as they arise in the psychotherapeutic relationship can provide a revealing "slow motion" view of the accusatory process in general as it affects all helping professionals.

A false accusation can be functionally defined as an allegation in which it is not possible to establish a direct and clear causal link between actions (or inactions) of the therapist and damage claimed or sustained by the client. It is often not possible to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the activities of the therapist were exploitative. Since allegations of professional misconduct are so serious and so potentially devastating to the professional, a rigorous burden of proof is essential.


The most puzzling aspect of the false accusation cases I have reviewed as a consultant and expert witness is that the clients seem actually to believe what they are saying against the therapist is true. There is apparent good faith in their efforts to prosecute the therapist as perpetrator of their damage. There is also a seemingly genuine belief that the therapist actually did exploit a client when there is no clear evidence of either damage or exploitation by the therapist. Attorneys are well trained in identifying lies as well as malicious and pecuniary motivations. They know how to gather evidence to expose such devious motivations. In these cases where the client is vociferously certain of the nature of the damage and of the exploitative motives of the therapist and where the client has worked out a set of vividly portrayed scenarios in an effort to prove the alleged abuse or misconduct, attorneys on both sides of the case, as well as the judges all know that something is wrong, but they can't quite get hold of what it is.

Since corroborative evidence is usually meager or lacking altogether as to the falseness of these kinds of accusations, the success of expert witnesses depends upon making a clear and convincing presentation of the way transferences from early developmental trauma typically operate in the therapeutic relationship. Then, drawing upon existing data in the case record (much as one might draw upon psychological test data), the expert witness must be able to show how the accusation in question bears the unmistakable mark of the client's character and/or personal developmental history and how similar accusations are documented in the record through prior interchanges with the therapist, with figures from the past, and with collateral others. …

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