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A clinical approach to detecting false allegations of abuse in child custody cases.
False allegations of abuse in child custody cases are an all-too-common phenomenon. Typically, one parent accuses the other parent of physical and/or sexual abuse of their child to gain leverage in their court proceeding. Nothing can befuddle or sidetrack a custody case more than an allegation of abuse. This is particularly important 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.
Handling an allegation of abuse is a sensitive and thorny problem for attorneys and judges. All allegations of abuse must be taken seriously. While a strong visceral reaction to an abuse allegation is expected, it can be counterproductive. 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. In essence, evaluation needs to occur before disposition.
Let us 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. And once a custody decision has been issued, modification of it is burdensome and an uphill challenge.
Clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals are often turned to in cases of abuse allegations. The court appoints them to evaluate the parties involved and to make recommendations. Allegations of abuse call for a coordinated effort between the judge, the attorneys, and the court-appointed evaluator.
A clinical approach to evaluating allegations of abuse presented here is based on years of experience with hundreds of cases of abuse allegations. This approach consists of sequential steps that should be taken. The evaluation process is aimed at determining whether 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.
Principles of the Approach
The evaluation of possible abuse must include both parents and the child. Seeing just the child, just the accused parent, or just the accusing parent is not sufficient to understanding the entire narrative. All 3 individuals must be a part of the evaluation process. After all, we want our conclusions and recommendations to be based on full and accurate information. This can only be accomplished with the participation of all 3 individuals
The accused parent is often advised by his/her attorney not to participate in the evaluation process with the psychologist or psychiatrist. This is ill-conceived advice. By doing so, the mental health professional 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 gain 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 is occurring during a child custody case, its validity must be questioned. In fact, there is a significant probability that the allegation is false. It is unlikely that a parent’s first abuse of a child will occur after a child custody case has been opened. 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. But 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 for custody. The motive of the false allegation can be detected by examining its place on the timeline of events.
Children between the ages of 3 and 7 years are easily coached by one parent against the other. False allegations of abuse often include unwitting help from the children. Children want to please their primary parent. They are easily swayed, cajoled, convinced, and brainwashed. It is difficult for them 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 even admitted to by the adolescent in question.
There are 5 common reasons why a parent will lodge a false allegation of abuse against the other parent. There are certain powerful beliefs that an accusing parent will have that lead to the promulgation of false allegations (Table).
If any of these beliefs are discovered, the allegation of abuse is likely to be 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 enough to see through the typical 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. These clues can be pieced together to provide a full understanding of the destructive dynamics at play. Bits and pieces of information will fit together into a detailed narrative that exposes the falseness of the allegation at hand. But, again, the accusing parent will never recant and will never apologize for his/her underhanded attempt at relationship interference.
Critical Points to Keep in Mind During the Evaluation
Once an allegation of abuse has been declared by a parent, the following process should ensue:
1. The Judge should appoint a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist to evaluate the child and both parents. This evaluation must include interviews, psychological testing, and a review of collateral data (emails, texts, recordings, pictures, and others). The evaluator should have access to other independent assessments of the allegation, such as DHR investigations or a forensic evaluation of the child.
2. The clinical psychologist or psychiatrist must be experienced in child custody evaluations.
3. There should be a wait-and-see attitude about the allegation until the evaluation process has been fully completed.
4. 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.
5. Giving a parent temporary custody until the matter is settled may make sense, especially if the child’s physical safety is of acute concern.
6. The evaluation by the mental health professional should be aimed at determining the validity of the stated allegation of abuse.
7. 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.
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 stop future false allegations of abuse.
A false allegation must be considered a form of parental alienation. By being involved in one way or another, the child learns to be dishonest, deceitful, manipulative, conflictual, and blaming. The love the child should have for both parents is compromised and even destroyed by the process of a false allegation. False allegations of abuse must not be tolerated in the court system.
The accusing parent may not be appropriate for primary custody. Even shared custody may not be a good idea. 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.
A false allegation of abuse is serious business. It 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.