Child Sexual Abuse and Divorce

An expanding body of literature on child sexual abuse and media coverage and the public declarations by adult survivors all suggest that child sexual abuse is an ugly elephant in the room, a major deviation from the way family life should be. Sexual abuse of children has become the subject of great community concern and the focus of many legislative and professional initiatives. That child sexual abuse happens every day is more than many people can accept.

Allegations of child abuse frequently surface in divorce battles when angry spouse fight for custody of their children.

According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), an estimated 9.3 percent of confirmed or substantiated child abuse and neglect cases in 2005 involved sexual abuse (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007). This figure translates into over 83,800 victims in 2005 alone (USDHHS, 2007).

Child sexual abuse (CSA) allegations happen in divorce custody disputes.

In a 1990 study of 9,000 divorces in 12 states, CSA allegations were made in less than 2% of contested divorces involving child custody, according to the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. No reliable national study documents either an increase or decrease in CSA allegations in custody disputes since 1990. In the 1990 study, these allegations were made by

> Mothers accused fathers in 48% of cases.

> Mothers accused stepfathers or others in 19% of cases.

> Fathers accused mothers in 6% of cases ·

> Fathers accused stepfathers or others in 16% of cases ·

> Third parties accused fathers, mothers, or others in 11% of cases

Determining which allegations are false is often extremely difficult, and few reliable studies on this topic are available. The incidence of intentionally false reports generally appears to be 5% to 8% of all cases.

In their article “Sexual Abuse Allegations in Divorce and Custody Disputes,” Hollida Wakefield, M.A. and Dr. Ralph Underwager describe the complications and difficulties arising from allegations during divorce or custody conflicts. “Most professionals believe that the highest percentage of false allegations occurs in this circumstance, but there is disagreement over just how many of these allegations are false.  In evaluating cases of suspected sexual abuse, the professional must remain open and objective, carefully examine each case, and take an empirical stance.  Assessment and evaluation must be done with rigorous adherence to the highest standards of the profession, and professionals must attend to the characteristics of real versus false allegations.  They must not immediately dismiss an allegation as false because the parents are in the midst of a divorce but must also guard against presuming guilt and aligning themselves with the reporting parent’s agenda.”

The large-sample study cited above found that CSA allegations in custody disputes were substantiated about as frequently as all other CSA allegations. “Unsubstantiated” and “unfounded” do not mean “false.” They mean, “Not enough evidence to make a determination.” Cases may be unfounded because the caseworker has no time to investigate, or the alleged victim is too young to testify, or the suspicion has been reported previously and determined to be unfounded, and is not re-investigated.

Other studies suggest that even more children suffer abuse and neglect than is ever reported to child protective services agencies. Statistics indicate that girls are more frequently the victims of sexual abuse, but the number of boys is also significant.

Sexual abuse includes sexual intercourse or its deviations and offences that involve sexually touching a child as well as noncontact offenses and sexual exploitation that harm – indeed, devastate — a child’s well-being.

Touching sexual offenses include fondling, making a child touch an adult’s sexual organs; and penetrating a child’s vagina or anus no matter how slight with a penis or any object that doesn’t have a valid medical purpose. Non-touching sexual offenses include engaging in indecent exposure or exhibitionism, exposing children to pornographic material, deliberately exposing a child to the act of sexual intercourse and masturbating in front of a child. Sexual exploitation can include engaging a child or soliciting a child for the purposes of prostitution and using a child to film, photograph or model pornography.

These definitions are broad. In most states, the legal definition of child molestation is an act of a person—adult or child—who forces, coerces or threatens a child to have any form of sexual contact or to engage in any type of sexual activity at the perpetrator’s direction.

Sexual abuse extends far beyond childhood because it robs children of their childhood and steals their trust. It creates feelings of guilt and self-abusive behavior, and it can incubate antisocial behavior, depression, identity confusion, loss of self-esteem and other serious emotional problems. It can also lead to difficulty with intimate relationships later in life. The sexual victimization of children is ethically and morally wrong.

In many cases, the child victim may be the only witness and the child’s statements may be the only evidence. In such cases, the central issue sometimes becomes whether the child’s statements can be trusted. Some child welfare experts feel that children never lie about sexual abuse and that their statements must always be believed. According to Douglas Besharov in The Future of Children, “Potential reporters are not expected to determine the truth of a child’s statements. As a general rule, therefore, all doubts should be resolved in favor of making a report.” He continues, “A child who describes being sexually abused should be reported unless there is clear reason to disbelieve the statement.”

Child sexual abuse cases can be very difficult to prove largely because cases where definitive, objective evidence exists are the exception rather than the rule. The first indicators of sexual abuse may not be physical, but rather behavioral changes or abnormalities. Unfortunately, because it can be so difficult to accept that sexual abuse may be occurring, the adult may misinterpret the signals and feel that the child is merely being disobedient or insolent.

The reaction to the disclosure of abuse then becomes disbelief and rejection of the child’s statements.

Sexual abuse is usually discovered by direct disclosure (e.g., the victim, victim’s family member or parent seeking help makes a statement), or by indirect methods (e.g., someone witnesses the abuse to the child, the child contracts a sexually transmitted disease or the child becomes pregnant)

Sometimes the child may be so traumatized by sexual abuse that years pass before he or she is able to understand or talk about what happened. In these cases, adult survivors of sexual abuse may come forward for the first time in their 40s or 50s and divulge the horror of their experiences.

“Mistakes on either side regarding allegations of child sexual abuse have significant and long-lasting ramifications for all parties involved.  Much attention in the professional and popular literature has been given to the plight of the abused child who is not believed, may be pressured to retract, and may not be protected from an abusing parent.  Therefore, some professionals assert that they choose to “err on the side of the child” by not taking any chances when abuse is alleged.  However, when a false accusation is judged to be true, the child is also hurt.  The nonabused child has been subjected to a process of interrogation and often to sexual abuse therapy that is confusing and potentially iatrogenic.  The relationship with a formerly loved parent may be irretrievably damaged.  If the adults make a mistake and treat a nonabused child as if the child has been abused, the consequences can be long-term and disastrous.  The need to improve the accuracy of adult decision-making in this area cannot be ignored.

“There are no easy answers.  These cases are extremely difficult for everyone.  Professionals must remain open and objective and attend to what is known.  They must carefully examine each case and not immediately dismiss an allegation as false because the parents are in the midst of a divorce.  But they must also guard against a presumption of guilt, and resist aligning themselves with the reporting parent’s agenda,” write Wakefield and Dr. Underwager.


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