The University Record, September 12, 1994

Allegations of sexual abuse of children in divorce cases probably true

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

Although allegations of child sexual abuse in cases of divorce may appear revengeful, about two-thirds of these accusations probably are true, according to U-M researchers.

“Many people, both professionals and non-professionals, assume a sexual abuse charge made in the context of divorce is very likely false,” says Kathleen Coulborn Faller, professor of social work. “But these allegations are not solely strategies of vindictive spouses to cut off contact between their ex-partners and children.”

In their study of 215 cases of alleged sexual abuse in families that involve divorce, to be published in the Journal of Child and Sexual Abuse, Faller and doctoral student Ellen DeVoe found that about 67 percent of the accusations are probably true, while 21 percent appear to be false or possibly false (the remaining 12 percent of cases involve allegations against a step-parent or baby sitter, not a spouse).

According to the study, in cases where abuse allegations are probably true, three apparent relationships exist between accusations and divorce: discovery of sexual abuse leads to divorce (22 percent of all “probably true” cases); divorce precedes discovery of pre-existing sexual abuse (38 percent); and divorce precedes sexual abuse (40 percent).

Faller says that in situations in which divorce precedes discovery of pre-existing sexual abuse, parents often ignore or do not recognize signs of abuse, and children are less likely to disclose abuse before divorce.

“In these cases, children often keep the secret to prevent marital breakup or stress to the non-abusing parent, or to avoid some consequence of revelation threatened by the abuser, such as punishment, physical abuse, foster-care placement or loss of love,” she says.

Faller notes that the serious emotional upheaval caused by divorce and the loss of structure inherent in married life can lead a parent to sexually abuse children after a divorce.

“Feelings of devastation and anger may cause the parent to use the child both as an object for need-gratification and a vehicle for retaliation against the divorcing spouse, leading to sexual abuse,” she says. “Alternatively, the offending parent may lose control during the emotional distress of divorce and express sexual feelings toward the child.”

The study also found that abuse cases that include medical/police evidence, the presence of witnesses or other victims, or supportive information from those involved are more likely to be judged true.

Likewise, about 75 percent of cases deemed unlikely are based only on a statement from an interested adult and more than 90 percent have no witness or medical/police evidence, Faller says.

“Nevertheless, one cannot be absolutely certain that these cases are actually false,” she adds. “Because sexual abuse is usually a private event, may not cause physical damage and may not be disclosed by the victim, the absence of supporting evidence does not necessarily signal a false account.”

Further, Faller says that of the false or possibly false charges, only one in five is knowingly made, with the rest of the false allegations classified as “misinterpretations.”

“In some instances, a parent interpreted the fact that the child resisted visits to the other parent, or had nightmares or wet the bed around visit time as indicative of sexual abuse,” she says. “In others, the child reported behavior by the accused parent that was interpreted by the accusing person, but not by a clinician, as sexually abusive.”

Faller says that only about one-third of all cases—true or not—are substantiated by domestic relations courts, although many more are confirmed by clinicians.

“For professionals involved in this work, the lack of congruence between their conclusions and court dispositions is often a source of discouragement with the judicial process and of feelings of impotence,” she says. “Frustration with court outcomes is reflected in the formation of national and state organizations of and for ‘protective parents,’ and the evolution of an underground, which will assist parents and their children in flight and in hiding from the enforcement of court orders.

“More generally, the findings of this research point to the need for the professional community to provide more cogent assistance to courts in making the complex decisions associated with divorce and sexual abuse.”