Research on Children's Sexual Abuse
Children often fabricate stories of sexual abuse.
Date: Sat, 6 Jul 1996 01:05:21 -0400 (EDT)
From: Men's Health Network (mensnet@CapAccess.org)
Article in its entirety from the New Zealand Herald p.24 29 May 1996
(Auckland-based, New Zealand's largest daily newspaper)
Research on Childrens Sexual Abuse Fibs Goes to NATO Forum Children often
fabricate stories of sexual abuse. Alan Samson reports.
WELLINGTON - Ground-breaking New Zealand research indicating that many
children fabricate stories of sexual abuse when questioned by adults is
before an international forum in Paris.
The research by the mainstream Hamilton psychologist Dr Jane Rawls and
financed by the Law Foundation, received publicity when she presented her
findings to the Law Society's conference in Dunedin this year.
Dr Rawls told how a team of lawyers, police and psychologists got an
unpleasant surprise when it assessed a study group of 30 five-year-olds -
seven reported they had been sexually abused.
All 30 had been in the care of one man. The seven told of genital touching,
the man putting his hands under their upper clothing, of his touching their
bottoms and making them touch his.
The revelations were an unpleasant surprise because the assessment team knew
there had been no abuse. The children had invented the incidents. Their
every moment with the man had been videoed.
The youngsters had been taking part in what was intended as a routine study
into children's disclosures under questioning.
Dr Rawls has a private practice as a child and clinical psychologist in
Hamilton, and as a specialist report writer for the Family Court and a
consulting expert witness in the High Court.
She says she was amazed at what the study showed. Depending on the way
questions were asked, the children's accuracy of recall about a range of
situations at their first set of interviews ranged from 13 per cent to nil.
For some of the children, these errors seemed harmless, including climbing
ladders, going to other rooms, having other children present, wearing
elaborate costumes and tickling with feathers.
What was frightening was that errors appeared to evolve with repeated
interviews and, for many, were first reported when diagrams of body parts
The belief that children do not lie - or get it wrong - when alleging sexual
abuse has been shaken internationally by much-publicised examples of
wrongful arrest and imprisonment.
But a near-absolute trust in the child persists among many abuse workers.
The trust-the-child theory holds that children do not lie to get someone
into trouble, only to get out of trouble.
The research by Dr Rawls, finding that responses to questions are often
wrong and that many children invent stories of inappropriate touching,
throws more doubt on the wisdom of acting on child claims without
The research has been criticised by the Children and Young Persons Service
for its methodology and lack of rigour.
But Dr Rawls, in Europe to present her research to a NATO conference in
Paris, says she is willing to have her work critically evaluated by those
with a thorough understanding and experience in research methodologies.
Dr Rawls says she was not trying to replicate or assess service procedures.
My intention is not to work against the efforts of [service] interviewers
because I, like them, am concerned about child welfare. I fear that message
is getting lost.
Interview questions were either closed (Did he touch you on the ?), open
(What happened?) or a mixture of the two. Those who got it most wrong
were children who were asked closed questions.
The children took part in a series of four videotaped and observed sessions
in which a male adult, a research assistant called Trevor, played a
dressing-up game with each child.
There was appropriate touching when items such as hats and jewellery were
worn, and sometimes the child was asked to keep a minor secret. A
body-parts diagram, similar to those used in evidential interviews, was used
in the second interview to make the child's reporting easier for him or her.
When the children were interviewed for the first time about the initial
dress-up session, open questions resulted in an average accuracy of 32 per
cent correct, the mixed questions 20 per cent, and closed questions 9 per cent.
Questions about the last dress-up produced accuracy levels for open
questions of 13 per cent, mixed 4 per cent and closed 0.
Nearly one-quarter of the total sample (24 per cent) reported inappropriate
adult-child touching, although there had been none. Three reported genital
touching, two also referring to touching under their upper clothes. Two
more children reported that the adult touched their bottoms or they touched
the adults bottom. Two others reported mutual touching under clothing.
Children's diagram markings to illustrate touching was found to be
No child volunteered his or her secrets. But when asked to disclose them,
23 per cent always declined, 27 per cent sometimes described them accurately
and sometimes did not disclose, 20 per cent consistently provided accurate
accounts, 10 per cent gave some true and some false accounts, and 3 per cent
no accounts or a false one.
Seventeen per cent described fictional events that included inappropriate
touching and said they were the secrets.
Dr Rawls also found that only 40 per cent of the five-year-olds could, after
varying degrees of exposure to examples, provide an acceptable definition of
truth, lies and promises.
Dr Mary Dawson, a managing psychologist at the South Auckland Children and
Young Persons Services specialist services, has responded to Dr Rawls
research by saying that artificial interviewing departs from accepted
Questioning children about a non-threatening series of games, she says, is
very different from interviewing for clarification of statements already
made and assessed as strongly indicating the possibility of abuse.
The evidential interview, Dr Dawson says, is intended to clarify abuse
details; generalisation from experimental findings involving recall of
non-threatening events cannot be safely applied to childrens recall of
The responses Dr Rawls gleaned from the use of body diagrams illustrate the
danger of a non-trained interviewer failing to follow proper guidelines.
From Athens, Dr Rawls said every effort had been made to meet obvious
This research did not aim to assess evidential interviewing procedures.
If, however, my research is of some use to them [the childrens service]
then that would be a welcome and positive outcome.
Stuart Birks, K.S.Birks@massey.ac.nz
-Courtesy Fathers HOTLINE (DADS@Fathers.org)
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