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
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
That means the other 92%-98% are meritorious, and this 92%-98%
comprised the 152,400 *substantiated* cases on record for 1993 alone
 (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:
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:
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
relatively rare. An American Bar Association and Association of Family
and Conciliation Courts study concluded that of 9,000
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
"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
careful consideration of evidence in domestic or family violence when
determining custody, allegations of domestic violence and/or child
abuse made during a divorce or custody proceeding are not always taken
seriously. These allegations often are wrongly perceived as false
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
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
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
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
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.