If We Protect Our Children from Strangers, Child Sexual Abuse Will Not Be a Problem

Most sex-offender legislation and public policy (discussed in greater detail in Chapter 11) is based on the notion of stranger danger. Pinning the problem of child sexual abuse on strangers and formulating strategies to safeguard our children from the "bad guys" provide a sense of security and quell fears that our children could become potential targets. But stranger danger is a red herring. As discussed in this chapter, the overwhelming majority of sex crimes against children are not committed by strangers, but by those who are close to them. Often, child sexual abusers are related to their victims. Furthermore, those who are not related become intimately attached to their victims, effectively becoming "like a member of the family."

Child Sexual-Abuse Cases Are Wrought with False Accusations and Exaggerated Accounts

It is true that not all statements made by children are true. It is true that a range of factors, such as types of questions asked, the sorts of ancillary aids used, and the characteristics of interviewers, can seriously decrease the accuracy of children's statements and even lead to entirely false accounts (see generally: Bruck, Ceci, & Hembrooke, 2002). Very few child sexual-abuse prosecutions and convictions, however, come from false allegations. There are low rates of false accusations in child sexual-abuse cases. Jones and McGraw (1987) found that only 1% of a sample of 576 social service referrals for child sexual abuse was based on fictitious accounts. Likewise, a more recent study found a false allegation rate of 2.5% (Oates et al., 2000).

In many cases, false allegations do not originate with the children. Maltreated children (particularly younger children) actually demonstrate a greater sensitivity to lying, in that they display a better understanding of "truth" and "lies," compared to non-maltreated children (Lyon, Carrick, & Quas, 2010). Rather, it has been found that parents are more likely to falsely claim child sexual abuse, often in divorce proceedings and child-custody battles (Trocme & Bala, 2005). This finding, however, must be interpreted with caution because of the danger that it could be used to protect sexual abusers at the expense of children's safety (Jenkins, 2002).

More often, the opposite holds true. Children are more likely to minimize and/ or deny sexual abuse than exaggerate or falsely report it. Studies have repeatedly shown that sexually abused children questioned for the first time are likely to deny the abuse (Lyon, 2007). Moreover, the frequency with which children take back allegations of sexual abuse also confounds this problem. The rate that children take back allegations of sexual abuse varies from study to study—from 4% at the low end (Bradley & Wood, 1996), up to 23% on the high end (Malloy, Lyon, & Quas, 2007). Many factors are associated with why a child might take back an allegation of sexual abuse. For example, it is more likely among children abused by a parent or caretaker, and this is made worse when the child's non-offending caregiver is unsupportive (Malloy et al., 2007). Such cases, therefore, are said to be unsubstantiated, meaning that there is insufficient legal evidence to determine that a crime has occurred. Taken together, the evidence suggests that child sexual-abuse cases are much more likely to be unsubstantiated than they are to be false. Of the 3.8 million children considered in a child maltreatment report in 2012, 58% were unsubstantiated versus 0.2% that were classified as intentionally false reports (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, 2013).

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