Have You Been Contacted by CPS or the Police for "Alleged" Child Abuse or Molestation? Consider These Three Key Points You Need To “Know” And What “To Do” (Or Not Do).
There is a somewhat shared knowledge in our society that some children in ordinary—to—high-risk families are physically or sexually abused. Statistics are hard to come by but generally indicate, on average, that one in four children is subject to physical or sexual abuse, not factoring in the significant problem of human sex-trafficking of children.
However, everyone identifies with an innocent child and sometimes what gets lost in the emotional response to the mere allegation made by a child (or for a child by someone else) is a significant percentage of allegations are false. It is a taboo topic to even question a child’s veracity or that someone would incorrectly or intentionally report child abuse or molestation—and as a result, the lives of innocent adults destroyed by rumors, and unfortunate ones, wind up (wrongfully) criminally charged and convicted of abuse or neglect or have a “True” CHINS fact-finding.
Think not, what is your first thought if you hear someone has been accused of child molesting? Here is what runs through the minds of most people: “Those things are not said and investigated unless they are true”. There is an adage that the only thing worse than being convicted of being a child abuser or molester is being acquitted. The latter leaves the open questions: “Did he or she do it and just get off on a technicality?” or “They must have had the right lawyer”.
This may not seem important to you, but it should be—what happens if you find yourself in that situation today? Precisely, what would you do if you get the call from DCS or the police to be questioned about allegations of harms against a child. . . .
You should know everyday adults who do not even have children—or are even around kids with any frequency---are sometimes alleged to have abused or neglected a child. Would you know what to do (or not) if you get that call or the police and/or DCS show up at your front door today? Your reputation, career, and freedom may well depend on your answer ensuing choices. This blog covers three key points surrounding what you need to know about why false allegations occur and what you should do if you, a loved one, or a trusted friend finds themselves in this situation.
The first point you need to understand is how you became ensnared in this surreal situation in the first place and to then accept that fact and make good choices moving forward. This starts with some basic understanding of the psychology and psychiatry of childhood development, which is extraordinarily complex but factors into false allegations in various ways.
In rudimentary terms, very young children are still developing the cognitive ability to differentiate right from wrong and reality from fiction. This makes them susceptible to making statements that may be more, or less, accurate or based on how they fill in missing pieces of information in situations they are confronted with. This with how adults close them to whom they make such statements react, whether they believe them and, what they do in response may lead to false allegations. To make this developmental point, by comparison, consider the color of stove burner that is “red” that means it is hot; this is far different from the “red” paint on a car.
The red on a stove “red” signals a dangerous situation and the other a stylistic preference of car owners. At first, young children do not understand this difference and are as likely to put their hand on a red car as a hot stove burner. The same plays out for “good” touch and “bad” touch. A child may not know the difference, and then make a statement to a parent, teacher or caregiver viewed as physical abuse or sexual assault. There are many other ways this plays out—a young (or older) child may be harmed or sexually abused and associate it (project onto) with some adult with a similar demeanor, characteristic and believe he or she is identifying the abuser.
All adults are required to report such suspected abuse and neglect, and commit a criminal act if they do not. The report is (normally) made to the CPS’ toll-free hotline. A case starts. By law, DCS and/or law enforcement must investigate every report.
The psychological dynamic plays out in different scenarios with older children. For example, a parent may “brainwash” or coach the child into believing and/or reporting abuse or neglect for a variety of reasons, from the underlying mental illness of the adult or to gain a tactical/strategic advantage in high-conflict custody cases. These are common cases where false allegations of abuse and neglect are made and reported. In addition, certain pre-teen and teenagers make a false report of abuse or molest in response having privileges taken away, such as access to electronics, in a misguided attempt to get out of such punishment.
While you may think cases with older children would be easier to investigate, assess, and close by showing the fabrication, this is often not the case: How do you prove something did not happen, given a credible report by a child or third-party adult? Further, once the false allegation is made and acted upon by the authorities, it is sometimes hard for a child to “put this genie (the allegation) back in the bottle”, particularly given the attention they are given by the investigation process itself. Most of us—adults and children--like attention.
Whatever the psychological trigger, a falsely accused parent, parents, or third party has at risk his/her job, family and freedom when facing a false allegation; and he/she pays tremendous emotional and financial costs by this time the case closes on the false allegation. You simply cannot afford to make the wrong choices if you are accused. Unfortunately, false allegations of abuse and neglect are made and will continue to be made against adults in all walks of life—and those who are not parents or frequently around children--even with the advancement of psychology and technology.
These are grossly simplified explanations of the psychological dynamics underlying false allegations of child abuse or molest and how the cases may spiral out of control—even if they are false. This is the rudimentary psychological framework such allegations arise in and the place to begin is understanding the situation you face to make good decisions about how you move forward.
Driving the psychology underpinning false allegations is the second and equally powerful dynamic you must understand--the social pressure on DCS, law enforcement, and prosecutors to take swift and harsh action against any adult abusing or molesting a child. While all these professionals have some general awareness of this psychology and this social dynamic, there is confirmation bias in all of us driven by this social pressure. Confirmation bias is how we, including those investigating (false) allegations of abuse or neglect, fill in missing pieces.
For example, a police officer investigating a situation he or she is called into may perceive a person fidgeting with and pulling something out of a pocket, at least initially, to be a gun, whereas a passerby may view the situation and what emerges as a medication bottle for an acute medical need. We all fill in missing information based on our life experiences and training. Seeing hardened abusers obviously has an impact on investigators. This helps them cope with the stressors of their job, and makes them effective. However, their tendencies should be clear; an allegation of potential abuse or neglect is probably viewed more as occurring and true than an innocent misunderstanding.
In most cases, there is only one significant protection for the accused used in the investigatory system. This is the forensic interview. In its most basic form, a forensic interview is a single recorded interview with the child with a trained forensic interviewer. The techniques vary with age, but are designed to show the veracity of the child’s situation or inconsistencies in the allegations. This is done by addressing the “incident” with the child in a non-leading way. Generically, the questions posed by a forensic interviewer are framed “what happened?” not “did this happen?”.
Forensic interviews are normally observed by representatives of the agency charged with protecting children, such as DCS and/or law enforcement. You have no input into the forensic process and how the representatives of the government act on assessing the credibility of the child’s story from the forensic interview. Correctly performed, a forensic interview may significantly aid in the allegation being “unsubstantiated” or result in a short criminal investigation with the case closed. However, forensic interviews have many limitations that may not detect false allegations.
When the forensic interview fails to sort out a false allegation, a prosecutor may just let the jury decide your fate. What you do before you get to a jury (or bench) trial may end the case or seal your fate. The same is true for a CHINS filing. How you respond may determine if there is a “true” fact-finding. A “true” finding and disposition may result in you being forced to participate in services or have your parental rights terminated.
Your only other protections are a skilled lawyer to navigate this legal landscape using your constitutional and other legal protections and rights. Make no mistake, you do not get a “do over” if you do not engage these rights to protect yourself. The take away is that innocent people are still forced through the DCS process of CHINS and/or criminally charged (and have a “true” CHINS fact-finding and/or be criminally convicted); this is the legal system we have all created and agree to abide by.
This third piece to addressing false allegations of abuse or neglect against you is your complete use of, and engagement in, the legal system by knowing and exercising all your legal rights. This is where you need and a skilled and experienced lawyer, and why you need one from the beginning. This discussion itself could be an entire blog post. However, here are the basics. The most important is you have the constitutional right to counsel in all civil or criminal inquiries that may have criminal implications before you talk with any DCS investigator and law enforcement. No matter what you are told otherwise, this is your absolute right. Most people do not get a skilled lawyer involved early on because they do not understand the social and psychological dynamics you now do and investigatory process—or they would.
In fact, most people who are falsely accused do what you do in the rest of life—tell the story to explain the situation. There is an innate desire to explain built into us all. Making any statement, without an express reason to do, is always a mistake. Furthermore, from a scientific standpoint, the brain under stress does not accurately (completely) reveal key details in making statements. Failures are not deception, but brain chemistry at work; but failing to reveal a key fact that exonerates you, only to later disclose it, begs the question for the investigator: “If it was so important then, why not say it in your statement?”. The investigator’s thought process then ranges from you are lying to cover the crime or act you have been (falsely) accused of committing to “What else is he/she lying about?”. This just fuels the investigator to believe there is merit to the (false) allegation and the investigation to continue.
There may be a time and place to make a statement in context of an investigation into your actions and circumstances over alleged abuse or molest, but that should be determined and timed by counsel; you have the absolute right to make no statements in a civil or criminal matter that may be incriminating, if that is the legal course that makes strategic sense in your case. This decision should be made after you and your counsel consider many options and courses that are different in every case, such as you conduct your own investigation into the known facts. This may also include a variety of other steps from creating timelines to consulting with various experts.
Ultimately, if you ever receive the call or knock at the door, your first step should be to obtain counsel and make your only statement that you will respond only after you have an attorney. This may not be fair or right, but it is the constitutional system we follow within the legal system that we are bound by and is the envy of the world.
This blog is written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle a wide array of defenses for child abuse and neglect cases in criminal and DCS’ courts throughout the State. This blog is intended for general informational purposes only. It is not legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.