Assessing the reliability of child sex abuse allegations: Protocol for the attorney and forensic practitioner

Child sex abuse allegations commonly arise in criminal prosecutions, child protection matters, and divorce/custody disputes. These allegations are high stakes situations for both children and the accused. This outline provides a framework for assessing the reliability of allegations. It is based on a large evidence based review of the literature.

Context—what is the family/relationship context of the disclosure?

Credibility—how credible are the disclosures in terms of the specific behaviors and situation?

Confirmation-forensic interview: the first forensic interview is usually considered the best evidence, but is subject to a number of qualifications*.

Forensic interviews: Best practice standards–There are national best practice standards for the conduct of child forensic interviews. Was the interview competently conducted by a qualified interviewer? Was the interview protocol based on recommended guidelines (e.g., NICHD interview protocol)?

Chain of custody—to whom was the disclosure made? Has the disclosure changed across time?

Influences—what are potential influences on the disclosure and chain of custody?

Taint/contamination—has the chain of disclosure been contaminated? Is there evidence that other have interviewed the child? Is there evidence that the child have been videotaped by a parent or others?

True allegations—are the allegations plausible, properly documented according to best practice guidelines, is the child a competent witness, can taint be ruled out?

False versus fabricated allegations—is the allegation based on a mistake of fact? Are the allegations fully fabricated?

False versus fabricated allegations—fabricated allegations are often driven by malice

Coaching false allegations: a recognized form of child abuse

Error rates: true positives (it happened), true negatives (it did not happen), false positives (it didn’t happen but the alleged perpetrator is falsely accused: harm to innocent person), false negatives (it did happen but the accused was not identified: harm to child and other potential victims).

Standard of proof and decision error: the lower the standard of proof the higher the false positive rate. The higher the standard of proof the higher the false negative rate.

A CPS determination is the lowest standard of proof and creates a proportionately higher rate of false positives; law enforcement and prosecutors review allegations and make determinations whether they can meet the highest standard or proof (beyond reasonable doubt); judges use a preponderance of evidence standard.

Defendants may find themselves caught in between: prosecutors may not go forward but CPS substantiates the allegations.

Permanent contamination–Both children’s and adult memories may be permanently altered due to contamination. Thus, the child may come to believe that they were abused. This poses a problem for future providers since it provoke a repetitive cycle of allegations.

Admissibility of disclosure evidence. Best practice guidelines dictate that all forensic evidence should be documented in audio or video format.

* child’s age and competency; period of time since emergence of disclosure; pre-interview taint.

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