Child Abuse Allegations: Sorting Out Lies Versus Truths

False allegations of abuse during a custody battle can seriously harm children. Here's how psychiatrists can separate fact from fiction.

About half of marriages end in divorce, and approximately 6 out of 10 divorces involve children. Even when amicable, a divorce is a difficult situation. However, divorces can be tumultuous, and children often pay the price. One way this is manifested is in false allegations of abuse in child custody cases. Typically, one parent accuses the other parent of physical and/or sexual abuse of their child to gain leverage in their court proceeding. This tactic can be particularly impactful because judges tend to award primary physical custody to the parent who made the allegation, even if the accused parent’s actions are not substantiated. Thus, false allegations can be a powerful weapon to limit or deny custody and/or visitation in a vindictive manner.

Although a strong visceral reaction to an abuse allegation is expected, it can be counterproductive. Similarly, a rushed response can make the situation worse. In contrast, a wait-and-see attitude leaves the door open for a thorough evaluation before a disposition is decided upon.

To be clear: False allegations of abuse are a form of parental alienation. Alienation involves the concerted effort of one parent to undermine the other parent’s relationship with their child. Nothing could be worse than a custody decision that is based on a false allegation. To make matters worse, once a custody decision has been issued, modification of it is burdensome and an uphill challenge.

The clinical evaluation is an important part of proceedings in which allegations have been made. A successful case requires coordinated efforts among the judge, attorneys, and a court-appointed evaluator, who is often a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist.

Principles of the Evaluation

The approach outlined in this article is based on years of experience with hundreds of cases of abuse allegations, and it consists of sequential steps. The evaluation process is aimed at determining if an allegation of abuse has occurred or not—in other words, whether the allegation has been fabricated by a parent with the intent of sabotaging and harming the other parent.

For obvious reasons, the evaluation must include both parents and the child to understand the entire narrative. All 3 individuals—the accused parent, the accusing parent, and the child—must be a part of the evaluation process. After all, we want our conclusions and recommendations to be based on full and accurate information.

The accused parent is often advised by their attorney not to participate in the evaluation process. This is ill-conceived advice. By doing so, the mental health professional evaluator will be deprived of critical information that can shine a light on the falsity of the claim. Otherwise, all the information will be coming from the accusing parent, whose allegation will hold greater weight if it is not disputed.

It is always a good idea for the child in such a case to be seen for an independent forensic evaluation. This would be in addition to the child’s involvement with the court-appointed evaluator.

If this is the first allegation of abuse, and it occurs during a child custody case, its validity must be questioned. In fact, there is a significant probability that the allegation is false, as it is unlikely that a parent’s first abuse of the child occurs after the child custody case has been initiated. Thus, if a parent does not have a history of abusing the child, it is not likely that the first abuse is occurring during the legal proceeding.

A series of allegations against a parent during a child custody proceeding is also a major red flag. An accusing parent often believes that multiple allegations against the other parent are more convincing to a judge than a single allegation. However, repeated abuse of a child during a circumscribed time period—during a child custody case, for example—is quite improbable.

Detecting a false allegation is easier with the use of a timeline. Marking the major occurrences in a child custody case can show the specific sequence of events. A false allegation of abuse may occur during the custody case, and not before. It may also occur in response to legal action taken by the other parent. For example, if a mother files for full custody of her child, this sets the stage for the father to report a false allegation of abuse against the mother with the hopes that the allegation will derail the mother’s quest. The motive of the false allegation can be detected by examining its place on the timeline of events.

False allegations of abuse often include unwitting help from the children. Children aged between 3 and 7 years can be easily coached by a parent to testify against the other. Because most children want to please their primary parent, they are easily swayed, cajoled, convinced, and brainwashed. It is difficult for children to know the truth once a parent has coached them extensively. False allegations can involve older children and teenagers as well, but their coaching is more easily transparent and adolescents may even admit to it.

There are 5 common beliefs that motivate a parent to lodge a false allegation of abuse against the other parent (Table). If any of these beliefs are discovered, the allegation of abuse is likely false. Detecting these beliefs in a parent requires careful interviews over several sessions. A parent will never admit to fabricating a false allegation. The clinician must be skilled to see through the defensiveness, deceitfulness, and/or distractions of an offending parent.

Harmful and false beliefs by the accusing parent can also be detected through interviews with the child and the accused parent. Usually, the child or the accused parent will provide critical clues as to the accusing parent’s belief system. Bits and pieces of information will fit together into a detailed narrative that exposes the falseness of the allegation at hand. Remember, the accusing parent generally does not recant nor apologize for their attempts at relationship interference.

Understanding the Process

Once an allegation of abuse has been declared by a parent, there is a process that should ensue.

First, the judge should appoint a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist to evaluate the child and both parents. This evaluation must include interviews, psychological testing, and a review of collateral data (eg, emails, texts, recordings, pictures, etc). The evaluator should have access to other independent assessments of the allegation, such as Department of Human Resources investigations or a forensic evaluation of the child.

The psychiatrist or clinical psychologist must be experienced in child custody evaluations. Similarly, there should be a wait-and-see attitude about the allegation until the evaluation process has been fully completed. In other words, no assumptions or decisions should be considered until all the facts and information have been collected and assessed. The evaluation by the mental health professional should be aimed at determining the validity of the stated allegation of abuse.

During this time, attorneys should not respond to an allegation of abuse by filing motions for dramatic or extreme action, such as obtaining full custody of the child. However, granting a parent temporary custody until the matter is settled may make sense, especially if the child’s physical safety is of acute concern. Similarly, the attorneys must not try to sabotage the evaluator in order to win their case. The evaluator’s conclusions and recommendations should be given strong weight in the judge’s final decision.

Implications of the Evaluation

A false allegation of abuse by a parent should be met with firm consequences, such as a fine, supervised parenting time, court-ordered counseling, and/or loss of primary custody. Swift and decisive consequences will dissuade future false allegations of abuse.

The accusing parent may not be appropriate for primary custody. Even shared custody may not be appropriate. A parent’s willingness to fabricate an allegation of abuse against the other parent is a poor prognostic indicator. It is not simply an accident or a mistake. A false allegation is an intentional and purposeful attempt to undermine the child custody proceeding.

Similarly, the false allegation has implications for the future well-being of the child, and a false allegation should be considered a form of parental alienation. This experience, especially if they are asked to take an active role in the allegation, teaches the child to be dishonest, deceitful, manipulative, conflictual, and blaming. Furthermore, the love the child should have for both parents is compromised and potentially destroyed.

A false allegation of abuse is serious, and it must not be tolerated in the court system. Based on the consequences, a false allegation represents a psychiatric emergency. As such, it must be handled and dealt with in a direct and timely manner. A child’s mental health and well-being depend upon it.

Dr Blotcky is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Alabama. His forensic practice focuses on child custody and alienation cases. He is also a clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.