False Allegations of Abuse

Not as Common as the Father's Rights and
False Allegations Groups
Want the Public to Think

By Trish Wilson, © 1998, revised 2002.
All rights reserved by author

"Who ARE These People???!???"

Father's rights groups and false allegations of abuse groups such as Abuse Excuse, The A-Team, WITCHHUNT-L, and Victims of Child Abuse Laws (VOCAL) insist that the vast majority of domestic violence and child abuse allegations made by women, especially those made in the context of divorce, are malicious fabrications. Specious syndromes such as Parental Alienation Syndrome, Malicious Mother Syndrome, Lying Child Syndrome, and various "legal" approaches to "estrangement" have been promoted in order to give the misleading impression that the medical and legal communities believe that false allegations of abuse are running rampant. None of these "syndromes" is recognized by the AMA or the APA as a valid medical condition. The "legal" angle was preferred by fathers' rights groups and individuals who see that the medical angle is losing its effectiveness in the court setting. When a mother is accused of alienating her children from the father during a divorce proceeding should she attempt to bring child abuse or domestic violence to the courts' attention, she and her attorney should bring the following studies into the courtroom to show the flimsy nature of syndromes designed to condemn mothers.

These studies also show that only approximately 2% (a few studies report a range of 2 - 8%) of all cases of allegations are in fact false. Men's and fathers' rights groups prefer to lump unproven yet most likely true allegations of abuse into the bona fide false allegations category. Since a great number of these cases are very difficult to prove, the Men's Lobby doctors up its "false allegation" figure with unproven cases. In the eyes of the Men's Lobby, "unproven" equates with "false."

Myth: Mothers frequently make false allegations of sexual abuse in divorce cases in order to gain advantage in custody litigation.

Fact: "On the basis of research that has been conducted so far, it is difficult to support an assertion that there are high rates of false allegations of sexual abuse consciously made by mothers in divorce situations." [Faller, Kathleen Coulborn, David L. Corwin, and Erna Olafson, "Research on False Allegations of Sexual Abuse in Divorce," 6 The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children Advisor 1 (Fall 192) p.9.

Fact: "[F]alse charges are infrequent, and every allegation must be taken seriously." [Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, "The Sexual Abuse Allegation Project: Final Report" (1988)]

According to the two best and largest studies on the subject, false allegations of sexual abuse are rare -- in the range of 2 to 8 percent [1,2]. That means the other 92%-98% are meritorious, and this 92%-98% comprised the 152,400 *substantiated* cases on record for 1993 alone [3] (and, bearing in mind that child sexual abuse is a highly *underreported* crime, these are just the cases we know about).

1. Thoennes N, Tjaden PG: The extent, nature, and validity of sexual abuse allegations in custody/visitation disputes. Child Abuse & Neglect 14: 151-163, 1990.

2. Everson MD, Boat BW: False allegations of sexual abuse by children and adolescents. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 28: 230-235, 1989.

3. McCurdy K, Daro D: Current trends in child abuse reporting and fatalities: The results of the 1993 annual fifty state survey. Chicago: NCPCA, 1994.

Father's rights and false allegations groups claim that mothers frequently take advantage of the opportunity in custody disputes to maliciously and falsely accuse fathers of child sexual abuse. In fact, a splitting of households often gives the father both uninterrupted access to the child and the stress to move him beyond his reticence. Custody disputes in which the father has visitation thus provide two of Finklehor and Araji's four conditions for child sexual abuse to occur (the other two being emotional congruence to and sexual arousal to children). In addition, Everson and Boat found that 17% of the false sexual abuse allegations arose during a custody dispute leading to an age-averaged false allegation rate in custody disputes of 0.8%.(.17x4.7%). (D. Finklehor and S. Araji, J. Sex Research 22, 145 (1986)) (Finklehor, D. Araji, S., _Child sexual assault_) (J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry 28, 230 (1989), Everson, M.D. Boat, B. W.)

Finally, the extensive study of 1,249 allegations by Everson and Boat found a false allegation rate of 1.6% for children under 3 years of age, 1.7% for children aged 3 to 6, 4.3% for children aged 6 to 12, and 8% for adolescents (for an age-averaged rate of 4.7%). (Everson and Boat, J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry 28, 230 (1989).)

The study of 142 cases by Faller gave a 3% false allegation rate. (K. C. Faller, Childhood Abuse: An Interdisciplinary Manual for Diagnosis, Case Management and Treatment (Columbia University Press, New York, 1988).

A study by Jonathan Horowitz found a false allegation rate of 8% for 181 older children (children over 8 years of age.) (Jonathan Horowitz, professor clinical psychiatry at Boston University, unpublished manuscript, 1984.)

Jones and McGraw found that false allegations by children represented 2% of the 439 allegations they studied (false allegations by adults gave an additional 6%). (David P. H. Jones and J. Melbourne McGraw, J. of Interpersonal Violence 2, 27 (1987).)

Contrary to myth, allegations of sexual abuse in custody proceedings are relatively rare. An American Bar Association and Association of Family and Conciliation Courts study concluded that of 9,000 custody-visitation disputes, that fewer than 2% involved allegations of sexual abuse.Moreover, they found that allegations arising in post-divorce cases were even more likely to be valid. (Association of Family and Conciliation Courts Research Unit, "Allegations of Sexual Abuse in Custody & Visitation Cases: An Empirical Study from 12 States," at 15-16 (March 1988).

(Back to Tong.)

Frequency of Divorce-Related Sex Abuse Allegations: Not True

Quoted from a report of a study by J. Pearson, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit organization established in l991 to research and evaluate a variety of family law and child welfare issues, from article published FAMILY LAW JOURNAL, Summer l993, Vol 27, No 2 copyright American Bar Association Family Law Section.

"Media accounts, anecdotal reports, and small clinical studies that focus on contested custody cases with sexual abuse allegations have fostered the perception that these problems are rampant and are new common weapons in the divorce arsenal.

"To assess the incidence, nature, and validity of such allegations, we had mediators and court evaluators in eight domestic relations courts keep track of all sexual abuse cases. Of the more than 9,000 families served, less than 2 percent also involved allegations of sexual abuse. The percentage range was from 1 percent to 8 percent. These patterns were consistent with findings obtained in an independent investigation conducted in the Oakland court during l985-87 where incidences of 5 and 6 percent of contested cases were discovered.

"Hence, while these allegations might be increasing, they are hardly rampant. Other popular conceptions were also called into question by this study. For example, these cases are not limited to accusations against fathers. Indeed, mothers accused the child's father in only half the cases. The rest involved third parties, mother's new partners, stepfathers, and others.

"Nor did we find that sexual abuse allegations in contested cases were more likely to be unfounded than in cases in the general population. In half the cases with allegations, abuse was believed to have occurred, in 33 percent no abuse was believed to have occurred, and in 17 percent no determination was reached by either a court evaluator or CPS worker. Even when the allegation was unfounded, most of the experts we interviewed believed the reports were made in good faith.

"Finally, cases involving allegations made by mothers against fathers were equally likely to be perceived as valid as allegations made by fathers against mothers. Allegations that were not founded tended to involved younger children and single rather than multiple episodes with no prior abuse or neglect reports. These are precisely the types of cases that tend to be judged unfounded when sexual abuse allegations occur in the general population. Like visitation denial cases, sexual abuse allegations are extremely vexing. As a result, their impact on the court system remains disproportional to their incidence."

Rita Smith (NCADV) & Pamela Coukos (PCADV), "Fairness and Accuracy in Evaluations of Domestic Violence and Child Abuse in Custody Determinations", The Judges Journal, Fall 1997, Pp. 38-56:

"(...)Although both common sense and the prevailing legal standard dictate careful consideration of evidence in domestic or family violence when determining custody, allegations of domestic violence and/or child sexual abuse made during a divorce or custody proceeding are not always taken seriously. These allegations often are wrongly perceived as false because they are asserted in a contentious environment and because of the widespread myth that parents fabricate domestic violence and child abuse allegations in order to gain an advantage in court. When combined with the misuse of psychological syndrome evidence, the perception that a parent has fabricated the allegations often results in unfair retribution against the reporting protective parent. (...)

Using unscientific "syndrome" evidence can have serious consequences, and according to the American Psychological Association, in domestic violence cases, "psychological evaluators not trained in domestic violence may contribute to this process by ignoring or minimizing the violence and by giving *inappropriate pathological labels* to women's responses to chronic victimization." (APA, Report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family, 40 (1996)) The protective parent's mental "impairment" can be used to portray her as a less fit parent, and justify granting custody to the batterer. She may have to attend on-going mediation or marriage counseling with her abuser, endangering her further. In a worst case scenario, the diagnosis can result in the protective mother's loss of the child to foster care and even the ultimate termination of her parental rights. This can result in placement of the child back into the custody of the abuser, endangering the child further.

Unscientific syndrome theories also feed on a serious misperception of the rate of false accusations. In its Report of the Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family, the APA confirms that, "false reporting of Family violence occurs infrequently... reports of child sexual abuse do not increase during divorce and actually occur in only about 2 percent to 3 Percent of the cases... even during custody disputes, fewer than 10 percent of cases involve reports of child sexual abuse (APA Report, 12). If Parental Alienation Syndrome were as common as Gardner reports - 90 percent of his caseload - then the reporting of abuse should be much more prevalent. Furthermore, the overall reported rates should be dramatically higher in cases where custody is an issue as compared with the general population of families. But studies examining this comparison do not find significantly higher rates of any abuse allegations raised during divorce or custody proceedings. (Cheri Wood, "The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Dangerous Aura of Reliability", 27 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 1367-8, n. 7 1994) Moreover, these studies find only a very small rate of fabricated allegations in this context. (Nancy Thoenes & Patricia G. Tjaden, "The Extent, Nature and Validity of Sexual Abuse Allegations in Custody/Visitation Disputes", 14 Child Abuse and Neglect 151, 161-2 (1990) As the APA documents, "when objective investigations are conducted into child sexual abuse reports that surface during divorce or custody disputes, the charges are as likely to be confirmed as are reports made at other times." (APA Report, note 8 at 12)

MYTH: Restraining Orders Are Easy To Get.
All A Woman Need Do Is Lie Or State That She Is Afraid,
And She Can Force An Innocent Man Out Of His Own Home

The WBA Law Journal
May, 1999, Vol. III No. 1

Why Attorneys Should Routinely
Screen Clients for Domestic Violence

By Pauline Quirion, Esq.


In the recent landmark decision, Custody of Vaughn, the Supreme Judicial Court has observed that "[t]he very frequency of domestic violence . . . may have the effect of inuring courts to it and thus minimizing its significance." A 1994 study of batterers based on the database used to track restraining orders concluded that:

    [t]he high frequency with which RO's [sic] are issued might lead some skeptics to assume that these orders are granted too easily for minor offenses and almost any man is at risk of being a defendant. The data from the new RO database in Massachusetts reflect otherwise. Men against whom RO's have been used are clearly not a random draw from the population. They are likely to have a criminal history, often reflective of violent behavior toward others.

Research suggests that false reports of family violence occur infrequently. Although many believe that women especially will lodge false charges of child abuse or battering against their spouses in an effort to manipulate or retaliate, the rate of false reports in these circumstances is no greater than for other crimes.

Most batterers minimize and deny the frequency and severity of their abusive conduct. Similarly, victims often underreport and may minimize the abuse. They may be embarrassed or fear that disclosure will lead to retaliation by the abuser, financial hardship or personal stigma. In addition, some practitioners fail to appreciate that abuse cuts across all class lines and stereotype abuse victims as primarily indigent. These dynamics make it easy for an untrained practitioner to gloss over information pointing to domestic violence and which may be relevant to a client's case or continued safety.

Reported in The Boston Globe
New England News Briefs
January 29, 2001

Judge dismisses men's rights suit

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by a men's rights group alleging that Massachusetts probate court judges - who deal with divorce, custody, child support and restraining orders - are biased against men. The lawsuit, filed in September by six divorced men and a fathers' rights group called the Fatherhood Coalition, was dismissed by US District Judge Edward F. Harrington, who said they had failed to show that they had been deprived of their constitutional rights. Harrington said judges are immune from being sued.

Canadian Study Finds That Most Bona-Fide False Allegations of Abuse Are Made By Men

National Post Online

Thursday, May 27, 1999

False claims of child abuse rampant: study
Custody battles: 30% of allegations in cases examined unprovable or false

Sarah Galashan
National Post


In the largest study of its kind in Canada, Nicholas Bala and John Schuman, two Queen's University law professors, looked at 196 custody hearings across the country. The research showed 71% of sexual abuse allegations were brought by mothers, whereas fathers initiated only 17% of the accusations. The rest were the result of concerned grandparents, siblings or partners who, as well as the parents, often sought aid from a child protection agency.

Of female-initiated allegations, just 1.3% were deemed intentionally false by civil courts, compared with 21% when the man in the failed relationship brought similar allegations.

More on this study:

Are Allegations of Sexual Abuse That Arise During Child Custody Disputes More Likely to Be False?
An Annotated Review of the Research
Bala, N. & Schuman, J. (2000). Allegations of sexual abuse when parents have separated.
Canadian Family Law Quarterly, 17, 191-241.

Canadian Family Law Judgments: Nicholas Bala and John Schuman, two Queen's University law professors, reviewed judges' written decisions in 196 cases between 1990 and 1998 where allegations of either physical or sexual abuse were raised in the context of parental separation. Only family law cases were considered; child protection and criminal decisions were excluded.

The study showed that the judges felt that only a third of unproven cases of child abuse stemming from custody battles involve someone deliberately lying in court. In these cases, the judges found that fathers were more likely to fabricate the accusations than mothers.

Of female-initiated allegations, just 1.3% were deemed intentionally false by civil courts, compared with 21% when the man in the failed relationship brought similar allegations.

The cases involved 262 alleged child victims (74% of them alleged sexual abuse). Thirty-two percent of these children were under 5 years of age, 46% were 5 to 9 years of age, 13% were 10 or older; for 9% the age was not specified. About 71% of the allegations were made by mothers (64% custodial and 6% non-custodial), 17% were by fathers (6% custodial and 11% non-custodial), 2% were from grandparents or foster parents. In about 9% of the cases the child was the prime instigator of the allegations. This study found that fathers were most likely to be accused of abuse (74%), followed by mothers (13%), mother's boyfriend or stepfather (7%), grandparent (3%) and other relatives, including siblings (3%).

A judicial finding on the balance of probabilities (the civil standard) that abuse occurred was made in 46 cases (23% of all cases). In 89 cases, the judge made a finding that the allegation was unfounded, while in 61 cases there was evidence of abuse but no judicial conclusion that abuse occurred. In 45 of the 150 cases (30% of the cases where abuse was not proven) the judge believed that it was an intentionally false allegation.

In the 89 cases where the court found that the allegation was clearly unfounded, the accusing party lost custody in 18 cases, though this was usually for reasons not directly related to the making of an unfounded allegation of abuse.

In only one case was the accuser charged (and convicted) for false reporting (mischief) in connection with the false allegation, though in 3 other cases the accuser was cited for contempt of court in connection with denial of access. In the 51 cases where abuse was proved on the civil standard, access was denied in 21 cases, and supervised in 16. The abuser was criminally charged in only 3 of these 51 cases.

Note: This study may not be representative of all cases where abuse allegations are made after parents have separated, as in cases with strong evidence of abuse, the perpetrator is likely not to contest the issue of abuse in family law proceedings. This study may, however, give a good sense of the cases that are likely to be litigated in the family courts.

Greg Kershaw, spokesman for Fathers Are Capable Too, is critical of the current system which allows for false allegations because of limited repercussions.

But the tragic reality, insisted Prof. Bala, is the number of allegations that do prove true. While 30% may have been either unsubstantiated or deliberately false, 70% of the cases were considered by the civil courts to warrant needing protective measures to be taken in favour of the child's safety.

But for "someone who's going through this, and it's a false accusation, it pretty much destroys their lives," Mr. Kershaw said.

"Unfounded" and "Unsubstantiated" Do Not Mean "False"
(Back to Canadian study.)

The Male Lobby claims that the vast majority of accusations of child sexual assault are false. Figures cited include 60-65% and 30% (per the Canadian report cited above). The 60-65% figure is Besharov's estimate of the number of unsubstantiated reports of all types of child abuse. He says, "For some [types], such as educational neglect, the unfounded rate seems to be higher." The corollary is that for all other types, including sexual abuse, the figure is somewhat lower.

An unsubstantiated report is one that has not yet been proved. (Douglas J. Besharov, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, private communication (1990)). He defines unfounded or the equivalent unsubstantiated reports as those "that are determined to merit no further action, but gives no guidelines as to how and by whom this merit is to be established." See also Family Law Quarterly 17, 151-172 (1983). Besharov, Douglas J.

"[W]hile allegations might be increasing, they are hardly rampant... [and] these cases are not limited to accusations against fathers. Indeed, mothers accused the child's father in only half the cases. The rest involved third parties, mothers' new partners, stepfathers, and others.

Nor did we find that sexual abuse allegations in contested cases were more likely to be unfounded than in cases in the general population. In half the cases with allegations, abuse was believed to have occurred, and in 17 percent no determination was reached by either a court evaluator or CPS worker. Even when the allegation was unfounded, most of the experts we interviewed believed the reports were made in good faith." [Pearson, Jessica, citing AFCC/Research Unit, Allegations of Sexual Abuse in Custody and Visitation Cases: An Empiracal Study, Report for National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect (1988); Nancy Thoennes & Patricia Tjaden, The Extent, Nature, and Validity of Sexual Abuse Allegations in Custody/Visitation Disputes, 14 Child Abuse & Neglect 151 (1987).]

"Children at Risk: The Sexual Exploitation of Female Children After Divorce"
By Robin Fretwell Wilson
Cornell Law Review, 86 Cornell L. Rev. 251, January, 2001


Unlike unsubstantiated reports, deliberately contrived allegations are much less rampant.

The important distinction between unsubstantiated reports and deliberately fabricated ones helps explain the stark disagreement between estimates of "unfounded" reports wielded by participants in debates over the merits of these allegations. Supporters of the reporting system emphasize deliberate fabrications, while detractors stress the rate of unsubstantiated reports

Instead, "[s]tudies of allegations of abuse report very low incidence of untrue allegations." Allegations in custody disputes have a similar track record. A recent study found that sexual abuse allegations in contested custody cases are no more likely to be unfounded than those in the general population. Collaborative Lawyers Southeast Florida


Except as otherwise noted, all contents in this collection are copyright 1996-2009 the liz library. All rights reserved.
This site is hosted and maintained by Send queries to: