September 1998: Problems and Sources of Error When Investigating Alleged Child Sexual Abuse, in Alicja Czerederecka, Teresa Jaskiewicz-Obydzinska, Jozef Wojcikiewicz (Eds.) Forensic Psychology and Law. Traditional Questions and New Ideas,. Krakow : Institute of Forensic Research Publishers

8th International Conference ”Law and Psychology”, Kraków September 1998

Problems and sources of errors when investigating alleged child sexual abuse5

Abstract:

The task for the investigator is  to find out if  something bad has happened to the child, who has allegedly been sexually abused. If the answer is yes, the task is to find out what it is  that has happened. The task is not to presuppose ”sexual abuse” and then try to confirm that by helping the child to disclose his/her secret. If a therapist does this with the good intention to help the child the interrogation will be biased.The task for the therapist is not the same as that for the investigator (whether a police, social worker or a psychologist). Knowledge about memory and suggestibilty as well as critical thinking and investigative methods is needed for investigators to avoid confirmatory bias and for therapists to be able to work in the best interest of the child.

Horrible things can happen and do happen to children. We also know that the culture and the time spirit influence what is considered to be damaging for a child. For the last two decades of this century sexual abuse of children has, in the western countries, been focused as the most damaging factor in children´s lives.

It´s a problem to get solid knowledge about the frequency and to discuss the problem because in different countries and in different studies there are different, changed or not good enough definitions of a child (a person under 14, 15, 16, 18 or 19?)and of sexual abuse (rape, touching,sexual suggestion?).

I don´t know when the alarm came in other countries, but in Sweden it came in 1983 when the reported number of suspected child sexual abuse cases was as low as it has ever been since the beginning of the fifties. There was no alarm or any debate in the sixties when the number of reported cases of suspected child sexual abuse was as high as in the beginning of the ninties.

Reported  suspected cases of child sexual abuse 1950-1994.

(child defined as a person under 15, rape not included,  source: Rättsstatistisk Årsbok 1992 and KR info 1995:3)

1950-54                                                    898

1955-59                                                    1002

1960-64                                                    1374                                    No alarm!

1965-69                                                    749

1970-74                                                    525

1975-79                                                    264

Alarm! Influences from US.

1980-84                                                    317

1985                                                         594

1986                                                         523

1987                                                         574

1988                                                         759

1989                                                         971

1990                                                         908

1991                                                         949

1992                                                         1314

1993                                                         1783

1994                                                         1414

______________________________________________________________________

Nearly half of the American psychologists asked by Yapko answered that they agreed strongly or slightly to the statement:

“I believe that early memories, even from the first year of life, are accurately stored and retrievable.”

Since Bartlett 1932 we know that our memory is reconstructive, that is: human memory changes over time and context. You can come to think you have been sexually abused as a child and then think you remember that you actually have been.

The  idea that traumatic experiences can be totally forgotten , repressed, and then, often by help of a therapist be recovered, has no sound scientific or empirical support, but has spread into courts. In a recent criminal case in Sweden the prosecutor claimed about a teen age girl who said that she didn´t remember her father`s sexual abuse from when she was 7-12 years when she was to have intercourse with a boyfriend 13 years old:

”To manage the situation she has instantly after every abuse repressed the event.”

____________________________________

After the beginning of the eighties the reported suspected cases raised for every year until it began to sink again after a peak in 1993.If we take the statistics in Sweden on  the number of reported suspected cases of child sexual abuse to estimate the yearly incidence, we get 0.05 %, and a cumulative incidence, for children under 15 years, of 0.7%.[1]

Two investigations illustrate that a high prevalence and incidence of child sexual abuse can be doubted. In a prevalence survey in Finland[2] (in 1988) 7349 at random chosen youngsters 15-16 years old who were in the last grade in the compulsory school were asked questions about sexual abuse.96 % answered the anonymous questionnarie.

18 % of the girls (3769) responded that they had had sexual contact with someone of the opposite sex at least 5 years older than themselves. Most of these contacts were mutual (free will,love relations, more frequent in the northern parts of Finland).

Scarcely one percent of the girls responded that they had been sexually abused when they had been under 12 years old, abuse defined as:fyscial contact, the partner someone who is not a friend, the event including violence or force. The corresponding frequency for boys was one promille.

0.2 % of the girls answered that they had had sexual contact with their biological father.

0.3 % of the girls answered that they had had sexual contact with their stepfather.

One boy of 3666 answered that he had experienced incest (when he himself was 15 years old and his stepmother was 26 and they were both drunk).

An incidence study was made in Stockholm 1985-1987.It included one third of Stockholm, where the number of inhabitants 0-18 years old during this time period was  42.000. To the six social districts in this area 78 suspected cases of sexual abuse were reported during the period (all suspected cases had to be reported). 14 of these were children in a day care center with one suspected perpetrator.

A team consisting of a psychiatrist and two medical doctors investigated all of the children that ought to be reported to the police according to assessments made by the social workers. There were 41.

After investigation this team identified 10 cases as sexual abuse, after among other things they had measured the girls´ hymen with ”a new, simple and reproductable method” ( this method can be questioned, but that´s another issue).

The team labeled  9 children  as possible victims of sexual abuse.

Let us summarize the incidence figures.10-19 of 42.000 under a period of time of nearly two years gives an estimation of 0.02-0.04 % per year (2-4 people on every 10.000 aged 0-18 every year).The cumulative incidence then accordingly can be estimated to 2-4 individuals to have been sexually abused under their life period 0-18 years.

If we call identified and possible victims  ”verifiable”, and the others as ”unsubstantiated” we get the following result:

Number of cases ”verifiable”:

10 or 19 of all 64 reported cases (or 78 if we include the preschool children),

that is = 13-30 %.

10 or 19 of the 41 cases that were assessed to be reported to the police= 24-46 %

Number of cases ”unsubstantiated”: 54-87 %.

The Stockholm incidence study indicates that there is a high risk, at least 50 %,that  an allegation of sexual abuse has another background than abuse. The figures presented here are based on the analysis I have made of the figures given in the research reports.[3]

The lack of distinction between those who give treatment and those who investigate is a problem. The task for the therapist is to give support for which the  narrative truth is enough. If the client gives a credible impression there is no reason for a therapist to question what is true for to the client. But this subjetive truth is not identical with the historical truth, which is the task for the investigator to try to find by help of sorting out what information is reliable and what is not. Memory is not a reproduction of the past but a reconstruction.In therapy these reconstructions do not have to be corroborated, but in an investigation of alleged child sexual abuse it is necessary.

The result of an investigative technique to detect if abuse has ocurred or not is biased if the investigator preconceives that abuse has taken place and wants to help the interrogated person/the client to remember abuse or to disclose a secret of abuse. Traumatic experiences of sexual abuse cannot, as far as we know know, be separated and totally forgotten – and then later be recovered.

The cognitive method, developed  to help witnesses remember more, can when combined with speculations about repression/dissociation make it legitimate to help those questioned to remember events that have never happened.

Many therapists have already seen it necessary to help children to unburden themselves,to help them to disclose a secret of abuse. Children have been put under pressure by  a leading or hypothetical form of inquiry to help them tell about their secrets – of sexual abuse. This technique, first developed in the McMartin preeschool case in Los Angeles,[4] lays itself open to attack upon the ground that the questions suggest the answers given. When a child is put under pressure it is a risk that the child will say that something has happened which has not in fact occurred.

The problem of overreporting, after the mandatory system had been introduced in the US, was observed by Douglas Besharov, former prosecutor and director of U.S. Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. In 1986 he estimated that two thirds of the reported cases of child sexual abuse were unsubstantiated and warned about the consequences.[5]

Suggestible questioning is a source of error as is lack of knowledge about memory, normal variations concerning children´s genitalia,children´s plays ,children´s drawings,and children´s sexual development.

It can lead helpers to misinterpret a child. Expectations, based on earlier experiences,popular diagnoses, and ”network knowledge” are also sources of error, when they are in different ways communicated to the child. Children and adults can be influenced by before hand- or post event information and by suggestions. There are learning effects and group-pressure.

These sources of error can be discovered if time relations and the origin of the accusations are analyzed. A cautious reconstruction of what has happened is important to avoid human suffering. Confirmatory bias can result in a construction of a reality.

The accused, according to the law, ought to be regarded as innocent until proved guilty. If he/she is not found guilty the social authorities should not treat him/her as guilty, but this is done in Sweden with the motivation that innocence has not been proven, and that the authorities have to give the child protection.

[1] Hellblom Sjögren,Lena: Secrets and Memories. To Investigate Reliability in Sexual Criminal Cases, Norstedts Juridik, Stockholm 1997.

[2] Sariola, Heiki, Uutela,Antti: The Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse in Finland, Child Abuse & Neglect 1994;10:825-833, The Prevalence and Context of Incest Abuse in Finland, Child Abuse & Neglect 1997;9:857-864.

[3]Lindblad,Frank, Ormstad,Kari Elinder, Göran: Acta Paediatr.Scand.1989;78:935-943. Glingvall-Priftakis: FoU Report 103, Stockholm Social Welfare Service (no publishing year, but it´s the same investigation).

[4] Described in Nathan&Snedeker: Satan´s Silence. Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, Basic Books, 1995.

[5] Besharov: Unfounded Allegations – A new Child Abuse Problem, The Public Interest, 1986:83.

/My remark October 30 2014: I do not remember what the text below from 1998 is,  but I think it was my  the raw material for the lecture in Krakow. This text has then  become an article, that it might be interesting for one or two readers to see . That´s why I repeat myself . I regret the overlappings made. So below is what I think was my RAW MATERIAL: /

Problems:

Different, changed or not good enough definitions:

€ of child (a person under 14, 15, 16, 18 or 19?)

€ of sexual abuse (incest, rape etc.)

€ of pedophile

 

Lack of distinctions

€ between those who give treatment and those who investigate

€ between historical truth and narrative truth

€ between reliablity  and credibility

 

Misconceptions concerning above all:

 € Frequency  of child sexual abuse in history

and in our time.

€ Memory and suggestibility

Memory is not a reproduction of the past but a reconstruction. Suggestibility exists and is hard to avoid.

€ Interrogation of children

It is not to help a child to believe that the child has been sexually abused and help the child  to ”disclose” that ”secret.” The task for the investigator is  to find out if  something bad has happened to the child, and if the answer is yes, what  it is  that has happened.

The task is not to presuppose sexual  abuse and then try to confirm that.

€ Signs of sexual abuse.

 

Sources of errors:

  •  Lack of critical thinking, above all criticism of one´s sources,  resulting mostly in confirmatory bias.
  • Lack of knowledge about normal variations concerning:
  • – children´s genitalia,
  • – children´s plays ,
  • – children´s drawings,
  • – children´s sexual development.

Lack of knowledge about  how both children and adults are often influenced by

€ suggestions in different situations,  different times and     contexts (expectations, learning effects, group-pressure,   earlier experiences, trendy diagnoses, ”network knowledge”                   etc.),

€ suggestibility when questioning/interrogating

€ autosuggestibility,

€ before hand- or post event information.

 

Result of the problems and sources of error mentioned:

Reversion concerning the burden of proof.

Instead of regarding the accused as innocent until proved guilty abuse is presupposed if there is an allegation until it is proved otherwise.

Construction of a reality instead of a cautious reconstruction of  the unique family life  in the case investigated.

Human suffering.

Loss in confidence in the legal system, in experts and  professionals.

Authenthic cases and references can be found for those who can read Swedish in my book: Secrets and Memories. To Investigate Reliability in Sexual Criminal Cases, Norstedts Juridik, Stockholm1997. (My remark October 30 2014: One chapter was the only thing I could afford to be translated to English , you can find it here on WordPress.)

 

Prevalance and incidence of child sexual abuse

I will refer two investigations illustrating that a high prevalence and incidence of child sexual abuse can be doubted. The Stockholm study  indicates that there is a high risk, at least 50 %, that  an allegation of sexual abuse has another background than abuse.

A survey in Finland in 1988

Asked:

7349 at random chosen youngsters 15-16 years old who were in the last grade in the compulsory school.

96 % anwered the anonymous questionnarie.

Result:

18 % of the girls (3769) responded that they had had sexual contact with someone of the opposite sex at least 5 years older than themselves. Most of these contacts were mutual (free will, not abuse, more frequent in the northern parts of Finland).

0.2 % of the girls answered that they had had sexual contact with their biological father.

0.3 % of the girls answered that they had had sexual contact with their stepfather. This was, relatively seen, 15 times av frequent as biological father-daughter-incest.

One boy of 3666 answered that he had experienced incest (when he himself was 15 years old and his stepmother was 26 and they were both drunk).

Scarcely one percent of the girls responded that they had been sexually abused when they had been under 12 years old, abuse defined as:fyscial contact, the partner someone who is not a friend, the event including violence or force. The corresponding frequency for boys was one promille.

Source:

Sariola, Heiki, Uutela, Antti:

The Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse in Finland, Child Abuse & Neglect 1994;10:825-833, and

The Prevalence and Context of Incest Abuse in Finland, Child Abuse & Neglect  1997(20);9:857-864.

A community study in Stockholm, Sweden 1985-1987

Time of investigation: October first 1985 – July first  1987.

Area: One third of Stockholm, where the number of inhabitants 0-18 years old during this time period was  42.000.

To the six social districts in this area 78 suspected cases of sexual abuse were reported during this time. 14 of these were children in a day care center with only one suspected perpetrator.

A team consisting of a psychiatrist and two medical doctors investigated all of the children that ought to be reported to the police according to assessments made by the social workers. There were 41.

After investigation this team identified 10 cases as sexual abuse, after among other things they had measured the girls´ hymen with ”a new, simple and reproductable method” ( this method can be questioned, but that´s another issue).

Above that they found 9 as possible victims of sexual abuse. If we call both these categories ”verifiable” and the others as ”unsubstantiated” we get the following result:

Number of cases ”verifiable”:

10 or 19 of all reported cases 64 (or 78 if we include the preschool children),

that is = 13-30 %.

10 or 19 of the  41 cases that were assessed to be reported to the police = 24-46 %

Number of cases ”unsubstantiated”: 54-87 %.

Source:

These figures are taken from Lindblad, Ormstad, Elmér: Acta Paediatr. Scand.78:935-943 and from Glingvall-Priftakis: FoU Report 103 from Stockholm Social Welfare Service (no publishing year, but it´s  the same investigation).

NOTE: The figures above were not presented in the research reports. It´s based on the analysis I have made of the presented figures.

This Stockholm investigation gives the following incidence figures.

Incidence: 10-19 of 42.000 under a period of time of nearly two years gives the estimation of  0.02-0.04 % per year (2-4 people on every 10.000 ages 0-18 every year).

Estimated cumulative incidence: 2-4 individuals can be estimated to have been sexually abused under their life period 0-18 years.

I don´t know when the alarm came in other countries, but in Sweden it came when the reported number of suspected child sexual abuse cases was as low as it has ever been since the beginning of the fifties. There was no alarm or any debate in the sixties when the number of reported cases of suspected child sexual abuse was as high as in the beginning of the ninties. After the beginning of the eighties the reported suspected cases raised for every year until it began to sink again after 1993.

If we take the statistics in Sweden on  the number of reported suspected cases of child sexual abuse to estimate the yearly incidence, we get 0.05 %,  and a cumulative incidence (for children under 15 years) on 0.7 %.

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