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A false allegation of child sexual abuse is an accusation that a person committed one or more acts of child sexual abuse when in reality there was no perpetration of abuse by the accused person as alleged. Such accusations can be brought by the alleged victim, or by another person on the alleged victim's behalf. Studies of child abuse allegations suggest that the overall rate of false accusation is under 10%. Of the allegations determined to be false, only a small portion originated with the child, the studies showed; most false allegations originated with an adult bringing the accusations on behalf of a child, and of those, a large majority occurred in the context of divorce and child-custody battles. Another possible motive is revenge by the person making the allegation against the accused person. There is also evidence that the UK (and formerly the New Zealand) systems of paying substantial compensation to alleged victims and their parents without requiring proof of the allegation, can provide a motive for making false allegations.
When there is insufficient supporting evidence to determine whether an accusation is true or false, it is described as "unsubstantiated" or "unfounded". Accusations that are determined to be false based on corroborating evidence can be divided into three categories:
A false allegation can occur as the result of intentional lying on the part of the accuser; or unintentionally, due to a confabulation, either arising spontaneously due to mental illness or resulting from deliberate or accidental suggestive questioning, coaching of the child, or faulty interviewing techniques. Researchers Poole and Lindsay suggested in 1997 applying separate labels to the two concepts, proposing the term "false allegations" be used specifically when the accuser is aware they are lying, and "false suspicions" (weasel word phrase; dissimulation) for the wider range of false accusations in which suggestive questioning may have been involved.
False accusations can be prompted, aggravated or perpetuated by law enforcement, child protection or prosecution officials who become convinced of the guilt of the accused.
Disconfirming evidence can lead to cognitive dissonance on the part of these individuals, and lead them to deliberately or unconsciously attempt to resolve dissonance by ignoring, discounting or even destroying the evidence. Once any steps are taken to justify the decision that the accused is guilty, it becomes very difficult for the official to accept disconfirming evidence, and this can continue during appeals, retrials or any other effort to revisit a verdict.
Denial of child sexual abuse by the accused, or by others, is common and its reality is not easily accepted (though such a denial should never be interpreted as evidence of guilt). Reporting rates may also be substantially below actual rates of abuse as many victims do not disclose their abuse, which may result in an overrepresentation of false allegations due to the inaccurate estimation of actual cases of abuse. Of the millions of reports of child sexual abuse each year to state protective agencies in the USA (including both substantiated and unsubstantiated reports), there is no formal determination as to what portion of those represent false allegations.
Findings of multiple studies performed between 1987 and 1995 suggested that the rate of false allegations ranged from a low of 6% to a high of 35% of reported child sexual abuse cases[verification needed]. Experts have argued that the reason for the wide range of differences in the rates resulted from different criteria used in various studies. In particular, a lower rate was found in studies that considered false allegations to be based on intentional lying, whereas the higher rates were reported in studies that also added unintentional false allegations resulting from suggestive questioning. A 1992 meta-analysis suggests that false allegations represent between two and ten percent of all allegations.
False reports are more common in custody disputes. Children appear to rarely make up false allegations of their own accord but will make false allegations if coercively questioned by individuals who believe abuse has occurred but refuse to accept children's statements that they were not abused (as was common practice during the satanic ritual abuse moral panic).
Wrongful allegations involving alleged child victims may not be confined to sexual abuse. A prominent British paediatric neuropathologist, Dr Waney Squier, made headlines in 2011 by stating she believed that ‘half or even more of those who have been brought to trial in the past for SBS have been wrongly convicted'.
False retractions of accusations by children who have been abused are suggested to occur for one or more of several reasons: out of shame or embarrassment, fear of being sent to a foster home, due to the reaction of adults leading them to feel their behavior was "wrong" or "bad", a desire to protect the perpetrator who may be a close family member, fear of destroying the family, coaching by an adult family member insisting the child withdraw the accusation, and more. False retractions are less common when the child receives timely and appropriate support following the statement of the allegation.
According to support group Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers (FACT), in 2000 there was a 90% conviction rate for alleged child sex abusers as compared to just 9% for cases of adult rape. In the UK, all the post-1970 court cases that are recognized as authorities on evidence of disposition "concern charges of sexual abuse of minors". In 1991, the House of Lords judgment in Director of Public Prosecutions versus P significantly lowered the barrier to admission of similar fact evidence of disposition to commit a crime.
This, combined with the police practice of "trawling" for child abuse victims using door-to-door interviews and the potential for monetary compensation, has created opportunities and incentive for false allegations to occur:
Normally, an allegation of a criminal offence has to stand or fall on its own merits: if a witness accusing someone of sexual abuse was sufficiently credible, or could adduce supporting evidence, then an abuser would be convicted. Until 1991, multiple allegations against the same person could only be held to be mutually corroborating if there were 'striking similarities' between the alleged crimes, indicating a criminal's 'signature,' a distinct modus operandi. But the judgment removed this protection. In effect, the courts have accepted the idea of 'corroboration by volume'.
In 2002, the Home Affairs Select Committee (Fourth report, 2001/2), which dealt with police trawling practices and referred to the 'enormous difficulties' faced by those accused of child sexual abuse, recommended that the requirement for similar fact evidence to be linked by 'striking similarities' be restored in cases involving allegations of historical child abuse. However this recommendation contradicted the Government White Paper Justice for All (2002), which proposed lowering the threshold for the admission of similar fact evidence still further. [clarification needed]
Allegations of sexual abuse can be inherently traumatic to the child when false. People falsely charged with sexual abuse often face numerous problems of their own. The heinous nature of the crime leveled at them often evokes an overwhelming sense of betrayal. In highly publicized cases, the general public has a strong tendency to summarily assume the accused is guilty, leading to very serious social stigma. The accused, even if acquitted, risks being fired from their job, losing their friends and other relationships, having their property vandalized, and being harassed by those believing them to be guilty.
In 2001 there were 18 support and lobby groups extant in the UK "set up to redress the injustice suffered by those who, they claim, have been wrongly convicted in abuse cases". Groups currently active in the UK include False Allegations Against Carers and Teachers (FACT), False Allegations Support Organization (FASO), People Against False Allegations of Abuse (PAFAA with SOFAP), and SAFARI.
Allegations of sexual abuse are always serious and can be traumatic, even when they are false. The lasting effects that such accusations have on families and children can be devastating. There is increased risk that a child will be alienated from the other parent.