COSA Information kit for men subjected to false sexual allegations during child access and custody disputes. 

These Information and Suggestion Kits have been compiled from the suggestions and experience of COSA members plus written material from a number of sources. They are designed to assist those falsely accused of sexual offences in dealing with the social and legal consequences of such allegations. While this material is offered in good faith, COSA accepts no responsibility for the outcome to individuals using this material in to make decisions on how to act.

Associated facts and factors

What to do if you fear you might be falsely accused of sexually abusing your children

What to do if you are falsely accused of sexually abusing your children

Incidence of false allegations

Legal precedents

Associated facts and factors

The majority of cases are allegations made by mothers against their ex-partners (fathers of their children). The mothers tend to be the custodial parents and the fathers those applying for more access or custody. We acknowledge however that mothers or their new partners (the children’s step-fathers) can also be falsely accused.

Factors often associated with mothers falsely accusing their children’s fathers of sexually abusing their children:

a) Mother has long history of anxiety regarding sexual abuse, including:

  • claims she was sexually abused herself a child
  • obsessed in the past that her children were being or might be abused
  • has previously taken the children to health care professionals or social services for assessments for sexual abuse (negative findings)
  • has previously falsely accused others of sexually abusing her children

b) Mother fears she has parenting deficiency which might lead to her losing custody of her children, such as:

  • has been neglecting children ( may be in context of her forming new sexual relationships)
  • history of physically abusing her children
  • unable to control children’s behaviour
  • has psychiatric history previously requiring hospital or out-patient care

c) Separation or divorce proceedings in process, especially if there are unresolved issues regarding money and/or property

d) Father applying for more contact with child (access, joint custody or full custody)

e) Mother has new partner / boyfriend / spouse

f) Father has new partner / girlfriend / wife

What to do if you fear you might be falsely accused of sexually abusing your children

a) Educate yourself about what is known as the SAID (Sexual Allegations in Divorce) Syndrome. Read First Do No Harm: the sexual abuse industry and Ashes to Ashes… Families to dust, false allegations of child abuse: a roadmap for survivors, by Dean Tong, 1996, and other relevant books.

b) Record all possibly relevant information relating to your divorce or access/custody suit.

This might include:

  • details of all potentially relevant contacts / visits / outings with your children (when, where, with whom)
  • anything unusual your children might say
  • anything unusual your partner / ex-partner might say

c) Avoid being alone with the children (ensure an eye-witness at all times)

d) Close joint bank accounts and cancel credit cards

e) Remain living at home wherever possible unless forced to move out by court order (once you leave home, your partner /ex-partner has full control of the children). Record your date of separation (important for matrimonial property decisions)

f) Hire a lawyer expert in dealing with sexual abuse allegations arising during custody disputes

g) Consider immediately applying for temporary custody (especially if there are clear grounds that their mother is unfit to have custody)

h) If your children show signs of psychological / behavioural / physical problems, consider organising an independent referral to a psychologist or doctor. COSA can supply names of experienced and competent lawyers, doctors and other professionals in some areas.

i) Join a support group (COSA or equivalent) which can help by:

  • letting you know you are not alone with this problem
  • help you deal with the emotional consequences of false allegations such as grief, anger, frustration, bewilderment, bitterness
  • pooling information and strategies of how to deal with these issues.

What to do if you are falsely accused of sexually abusing your children

a) Treat all allegations very seriously – do not assume that because you are innocent, common sense and being found not guilty will necessarily prevail

b) Hire a competent and experienced lawyer immediately. The sooner you take appropriate legal action, the greater your chance of maintaining contact with your children; avoiding wrongful imprisonment; and preventing a longer than necessary court battle.

c) If the accusations involve Family Court hearings, then you need a lawyer who specialises in this area; if you are facing criminal charges in the District or High Courts, then you will need a good barrister.

Avoid legal aid if you can because:

  • in general you cannot have the lawyer of your choice and may be allocated one who is inexperienced or not competent in this area
  • legal aid only pays for a few hours’ preparation which is seldom sufficient in these complex sorts of cases
  • you have much more chance of winning at an initial hearing than at an appeal if all goes wrong. It is preferable to give any legal action your best shot at the beginning, as once the court has made decisions, they can be extremely difficult to turn around.

d) Prepare a date – time line of all relevant events in chronological order. Update this often. Keep this information confidential (for you and your lawyer only). Amongst other things, this could include the following:

  • date you and your (ex) partner met; got married
  • dates of birth of children and any relevant circumstances
  • dates and details of significant events (eg birthdays; holidays; outings; starting school; etc)
  • dates and details of all past access visits of children (what you did; where you went; who was with you etc)
  • details of initial allegations (when, to whom, circumstances)
  • dates and circumstances of all interventions undergone by child, such as assessments by doctors, social workers, psychologists, counselling and therapy, police interviews (include name and position of professionals involved, if known)

e) Collect and maintain in an ordered file any relevant documentation which might support the information in your time-date line. Similarly, keep this confidential. Documentation could include:

  • Formal documents (Birth & Marriage certificates; passports)
  • Family records (eg diaries; financial records; school reports; letters and greeting cards; photos; family videos)
  • Medical records of relevant doctor’s visits
  • Records from schools, Children and Young Person’s Service or other relevant services. You may need to use the Official Information Act to obtain some of this material
  • Relevant legal records
  • Supportive affidavits from friends and family

f) Keep detailed records of all relevant events, conversations etc. Consider audiotaping conversations with your (ex) partner, social workers etc but understand that if the other party does not know that you are making the tape, that this cannot be used as evidence in court. Things you should document include:

  • dates and details of conversations with (ex) partner, social workers or anyone connected with the case
  • details of all contacts / visits / outings with your children (when, where, with whom)
  • anything unusual your children might say
  • anything unusual your partner / ex-partner might say
  • details of any cancelled access visits and reasons why

g) Where possible, have a reliable witness at all meetings, interviews and phone conversations. Ideally, after each meeting, write to the person you dealt with, listing the main points discussed and asking for him/her to reply if you have made any mistakes. Send your original copy by registered mail; request a receipt; and keep a copy.

h) Educate yourself about the SAID Syndrome (Sexual Allegations in Divorce) and issues relating to children’s testimony, suggestibility and memory.

i) Join a support group (COSA or equivalent) which can help by:

  • letting you know you are not alone with this problem
  • pooling information and strategies of how to deal with these issues
  • assisting you deal with the emotional consequences of false allegations such as grief, anger, frustration, bewilderment, bitterness.

j) Try to find out if the accusing child has been exposed to possible factors or influences which might contribute to this allegation. These could include:

  • allegation initially not arising from child but a concerned adult who has interpreted the child’s behaviour as "indicating abuse"
  • exposure to a child sexual abuse prevention programme at school or pre-school
  • exposure to other abuse prevention material such as books or videos
  • contact with another child who has recently made a sexual abuse allegation
  • has made sexual abuse allegations against others in the past
  • child has been attending counselling prior to allegation

k) While steadfastly insisting on your innocence and being firm with your requests, maintain a co-operative manner with social workers and other involved in the case. Avoid angry outbursts with (ex) partner, social workers etc as this may be used against you. Be careful of what you say as this may be misconstrued and used against you. Give details of your defence (eg what you were doing etc at the time the events are alleged to have occurred) only to your lawyer. You may find that if you give CYPS or the police information proving that the alleged events could not have happened, that those allegations get dropped and are replaced by others which you might have more difficulty defending.

l) Provide your lawyer with the information he needs to fight your case, including your time-date line; other relevant records and the names and details of potential witnesses and character references. Present this material in a concise organised way to make it easier for him to understand and access.

m) Maintain contact with your child as much as possible. Apply for access (supervised if necessary); send cards and birthday presents etc, talk on the phone if permitted. If supervision is required, consider applying for this to be a family member or friend rather than an agency. If there are serious indications that the child’s mother is not a fit care-giver, make immediate application for temporary custody, arguing that her false belief / allegation that you are a sexual abuser is damaging to your child.

n) Do whatever you can to prevent your child undergoing repeated interventions such as interviews with social workers, police and psychologists; medical examinations; evidential interviews and referral for therapy or counselling for the alleged sexual abuse. Such interventions can lead to a nonabused child being inadvertently trained to give the expected "disclosures".

o) Apply for copies of all relevant documentation especially medical reports, social worker and psychologist reports, counselling / therapy notes and transcripts of evidential interviews. When watching the videotaped recordings of evidential interviews, compare these with the typed transcripts and note any discrepancies.

p) Consider using expert witnesses to analyse the evidential interviews and other records for possible influences, leading questions etc which may have given rise to false allegations. Consider using expert witnesses to challenge the psychological and medical evidence.

q) If you are innocent of all allegations, consider very carefully before agreeing to attending a sex offender’s treatment programme (such as the SAFE or STOP programmes) in order to gain access or custody of your child. Such a programme demands that you confess and express remorse, which is firstly difficult for an innocent person to do, and secondly qualifies you as guilty.

Incidence of false allegations

There is no doubt that many accusations of child sexual abuse are true, especially when alleged in the home (where the potential abuser has the opportunity for ongoing contact with the child alone). However, when allegations of sexual abuse are made during a custody dispute between separated parents (and the accusing parent has considerable motive to hurt or exclude a hated ex-spouse) there is an increased likelihood that the allegations are false (Yates and Musty, 1988; Mikkelsen et al, 1992; Gardner 1992). Some studies have indicated 50% or more of allegations arising in the context of custody access disputes were found to be false (Benedek and Schetky, 1985; Brant and Sink 1984; Green 1986).

There are now large numbers of documented cases, both in New Zealand and overseas, where children who have not been abused have made false allegations, and come to sincerely believe they have suffered sexual molestation when nothing has happened (Brant and Sink, 1984; Benedek and Schetky, 1985; Besharov, 1985; Everson and Boat, 1989; Paradise, 1989; Coleman, 1990). This situation can be as damaging to children as genuine abuse, and they may exhibit the same symptoms of distress and trauma.

Details from specific studies:

Benedek and Schetky (1985). 55% false allegations in custody cases

Besharov (1985). 1975: 35% of child abuse allegations unsubstantiated; 1985: 65% of all reports of child abuse (nation-wide) prove to be unfounded.

Besharov & Laumann (1996). "Nation-wide [USA], between 60 and 65 % of all reports [of child abuse] are closed after an initial investigation determines that they are ‘unfounded’ or ‘unsubstantiated’."

Brant & Sink (1984). 75% false allegations in custody/access cases

Coleman (1990). Rate of false allegations unknown but there is substantial evidence that false allegations are not rare.

Everson & Boat (1989). 4.7 to 7.6% of all reports are false allegations

Green (1986). 36% false allegations in custody cases

Hall (1995). Study examined children’s disclosures of sexual abuse over period of 4 years at Christchurch Evidential Interviewing Unit (CYPS) from 1990 – 1993. Outcome of 1577 children’s interviews were examined. Children’s age ranged from 2 to 17 years. 50% disclosed sexual abuse; 30% no disclosure and no evidence noted; 11% situations not able to be clarified; 7% no disclosure but remained suspicious; 0.2% false allegations. [Note: There is often a differentiation made between substantiated and false allegations – the latter term is used only when there is overwhelming evidence that the allegation was untrue. In this case 30% had no disclosure and no evidence, but these cases are not classified as false allegations.]

Horowitz et al. (1994). Found 16 (9%) out of 181 cases of allegations were highly unlikely. Children who directly made the false allegations tended to be intelligent, members of high socio-economic families, made most serious charge (ie intercourse) against family member.

Paradise (1989). 65% false positives when assessing penetration; 73% false positives when assessing digital penetration.

Useful References:

Benedek and Schetky (1985). ‘Allegations of sexual abuse in child custody and visitation disputes’, Emerging issues in child psychiatry and the law, pp 145-56, Brunner/Mazel, New York.

Besharov, Douglas (Nov/Dec 1985). ‘An overdose of concern: child abuse and the over-reporting problem’, Regulation: AEI journal on Government and Society, 25-8.

Besharov, Douglas J & Laumann Lisa A (May/June 1996). ‘Child Abuse Reporting’, Social Science & Modern Society, 33 (4), 40

Brant and Sink (1984). ‘Dilemmas in court-ordered evaluation of sexual abuse charges during custody and visitation proceedings’, Paper presented at 31st Annual Meeting of American Academy of Child Psychiatry, Ontario, Canada.

Coleman, Lee (1990). False allegations of sexual abuse: psychiatry’s latest reign of error’, Journal of Mind and Behavior, 11, 299-310.

Everson and Boat (1989). ‘False allegations of sexual abuse by children and adolescents, Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 28, 230-40.

Gardner Richard (1992). True and false accusations of sexual abuse, Creative therapeutics, New Jersey.

Green (1986). ‘True and false allegations of sexual abuse in child custody disputes’, Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 25, 449-56.

Hall, Susanne (Feb 1995). Assessing children’s disclosures of sexual abuse, Paper presented at 2nd New Zealand Conference on Child Protection, Christchurch.

Horowitz, J; Salt, P; Gomes-Sschwartz, B; Sauzier, M (1994). ‘Unconfirmed cases of sexual abuse’, in Sexually Exploited Children, Tufts New England Medical Center: Boston, pp 231-244.

Paradise, J (1989). ‘Predicative accuracy and the diagnosis of sexual abuse: a big issue about a little tissue’, Child Abuse and Neglect, 13, 169-76.

Yates Alayne; Musty Tim (Aug 1988). Pre-school children’s erroneous allegations of sexual molestation, American Journal of Psychiatry, 145 (8), 989-92.

Useful New Zealand Legal Precedents.

There are now large numbers of documented cases, both in New Zealand and overseas, where children who have not been abused have made false allegations, and come to sincerely believe they have suffered sexual molestation when nothing has happened. This situation can be as damaging to children as genuine abuse, and they may exhibit the same symptoms of distress and trauma.

Family Court hearing by Judge Inglis

(FP 043 4407 93) in July 1995.

In May 1995 a father had been acquitted by a jury of all criminal charges of sexually abusing his children. He returned to the Family Court in an application for custody of the children. The family Court judge was critical of the way the case had been managed by the professionals involved. His judgement included the following statements:

"The mother has convinced herself that the children have been sexually abused, and this perception was allowed to become part of the fabric of reality of her household" however the judge found that "it is overwhelmingly more probable than not that quite innocent and innocuous actions have been invested with an over-imaginative interpretation which is entirely false."

"It appears customary in (this) area at least to describe a child’s assertion that an incident of sexual abuse has happened as a ‘disclosure’… In the present case, it is said that ‘disclosures’ were made in the evidential interviews, and when one of the children was referred to counselling by a psychologist there was some expectation that in the course of the counselling sessions he might make a ‘disclosure’. Use of the word ‘disclosure’ betrays a process of thought which assumes that what is ‘disclosed’ must have happened as described and must be true. Its use precludes the notion that what is described might not have occurred."

"An allegation does not assume a truth or validity of its own merely because it has been made. In any rational system of investigation an allegation that certain events have occurred constitutes no more than an untested hypothesis. While that hypothesis remains untested, and particularly if it is challenged, it is intellectually dishonest to treat it as though it were valid and as though its validity cannot be questioned."

"Both the father and the children have become victims of serious injustice in the period of nearly 18 months from the start of the investigation to the criminal trial to the present hearing. That injustice was created because of uncritical acceptance and continued official support of allegations which arose in circumstances which demanded immediate, close and critical inquiry into their truth. There is no evidence that any such inquiry was undertaken before the course was set for criminal proceedings and the children were effectively isolated from their father".

The child was examined "by a paediatrician who is active in sexual abuse matters and has become an expert in the field. She found no physical evidence of abuse, but it appears… "arranged for the completion of accident compensation claim forms so that [the child] could be referred for supportive counselling." The judge expressed his opinion that such a referral would have been "inappropriate in the absence of professional judgement that it was justifiable."

The younger son was later incorporated into the same counselling sessions as his brother. This was arranged by a social worker who reported "hopefully so he can be brought to the point where he will be prepared to talk about abuse ". The judge concludes that the younger son’s "allegation of alleged abuse was no more than attention-seeking fabrication, placed in his mind by others at home".

The judge further queried whether it was wise for the ACC-funded counsellor:

  • to become engaged as counsellor for [the 2 boys] on issues of sexual abuse which where disputed and had not been forensically established;
  • become involved in the CYPS case conference as he did;
  • hold himself out as available as an independent psychological assessor for the Court in the present proceedings;
  • act as a specialist consultant for the prosecution in the criminal proceedings against the father;
  • there was at one stage a probability that he might be called as expert witness for the Crown at the trial.

The judge’s specific criticisms of the case included:

  • "The mother’s 1st report of [the child’s] complaint of abuse was accepted uncritically and treated as justifying an immediate evidential interview;
  • It appears to have been assumed that [the child’s] reported behaviour problems were wholly or partly the result of sexual abuse, whereas inquiry from the school would have revealed… there had never been any question or suspicion of sexual abuse until the mother herself raised the point immediately she reported it to the [Children and Young Person’s] Service;
  • Once it was known that the father strongly denied the allegation, the fact of his denial, far from stimulating any further inquiry or investigation, seems to be put to one side on the basis of some assumption that people charged with sexual abuse usually deny it;
  • It was assumed without any critical examination or independent checking, that what [the child] disclosed in his evidential interview must be believed and taken as true;
  • The wisdom of engaging a child in therapeutic counselling under accident compensation auspices on the basis of what the child has said must be true, when it is known that the truth of what the child has said will be contested, is very much open to question;
  • The evidential interviewing methodology was open to criticism including the interviewer using of leading questions at inappropriate points; seriously misconstruing what the child was saying on one occasion without realising her error; and being pre-disposed at least one point to over-interpret a particular situation that developed during the interview, so effectively prejudicing the child’s ability to recount his story in a natural and non-coercive setting;
  • From an early stage of the Family Court proceedings efforts were made on behalf of the father to obtain access to the CYPS files and records. These efforts were met with official opposition, and even at a late stage of the present proceedings an attempt was made to place reliance on the Official Information Act and the Privacy Act… Since the request for information was made by the children’s co-guardian on a matter of importance to the children’s welfare, it is not clear to this Court what ground there could have been for failing promptly to provide the necessary inspection."

High Court hearing by Justice Hammond

(AP 134/94) in April-June 1995.

In December 1994, a Family Court judge rejected allegations of sexual abuse of her daughter then aged 3 by her ex-husband, and awarded custody of both daughters to the father. The mother appealed this decision and the case was heard by in the High Court in April-June 1995 by Justice Hammond. The judge completely upheld the Family Court decision that there was no evidence of post-separation sexual abuse, but that the mother was clearly fixated on sexual abuse and had a "deep-seated (erroneous) belief" that it had occurred.

The judge was critical of the fact that the examining doctor clearly supported the mother in her belief that the daughter had been abused, despite the fact that her medical evidence was "only of the weakest character". He also stated that "those responsible for investigating this matter, had painted themselves into a corner by an explicit denunciation [of the father]… There are few signs that [the girl] has been traumatised by alleged abuse apart from the statements of [the mother] and her supporters".

Family Court custody hearing by Judge Inglis

CYPF 043 00) in February 1996.

A mother had claimed that her ex-husband was abusing and neglecting their four children, currently in his care. The judge stated that the mother "was immovably fixed in her belief that the father had ill-treated and neglected the children and that he continued to do so" despite the fact that CYPS investigations had found her allegations to be without any substance. The judge was of the opinion that the mother had "formed an alliance, in league with [her son], in her continuing efforts to support her conviction that the father was and is an unfit parent.

"The difficulty is that her idea about what is best for [her son] is irretrievably infected by her world of false reality, and what I am satisfied is (at best) an unreliable recollection of past events and a view of the father’s parenting abilities which is unsupported by the results of painstaking independent inquiry". The judge emphasised that there was no possibility of the mother gaining custody of any of the children.

Appeal Court Hearing by Justices McKay, Tompkins & Heron

(CA 371/95) October 1996.

In August 1995 in the Auckland High Court a man was aquitted of sodomising the younger of his two sons but guilty of sodomising the older. The allegations had arisen when the elder boy was attending counselling for a behaviour problem and his counsellor believed that his problems were caused by past sexual abuse. The man spent 14 months in prison awaiting his Appeal. During that period both boys retracted and admitted they only made the allegations under pressure from the counsellor. The man’s ex-wife also made a statement that she believed that the offences had never occurred.

The appeal was heard in October 1996. Both the man’s convictions were quashed on the basis that his son had retracted his allegations both before and since the trial, and was still standing by his retractions. It was also ordered that there should not be a re-trial.

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