How Common are Wrongful Allegations of Child Abuse?
Why is it so important to know how many allegations of child abuse are wrongful?
Why accurate information is vital to decision makers
Beliefs about the prevalence of wrongful allegations of child abuse influence decision makers. Incorrect knowledge of the prevalence of wrongful allegations could cause ‘confirmation bias’. Confirmation bias occurs ‘when people seek out or evaluate information in a way that fits with their existing thinking and preconceptions’. Confirmation bias could influence a jury, they may give less credence to evidence that the defendant is innocent if they have a prior belief that wrongful allegations are rare.
Confirmation bias might have a stronger influence when cases rest solely on the testimonies of the complainant(s) and defendant without any corroborating evidence such as DNA samples or witnesses. Concerns about confirmation bias and other factors that can influence the verdict of a jury have also been expressed in an article by Willmott and Boduszec in the Justice Gap. Additionally, the belief that wrongful allegations are rare could bias the thinking of those investigating allegations of child abuse. They may give more weight to evidence in favour of the complainant because that would fit in with their belief that false allegations are rare.
Even if someone is not convicted they will be subjected to disciplinary hearings and risk assessments at their place of work, and again if there is a preconception that wrongful allegations occur rarely, the outcome for the accused may be more likely to be unfavourable.
Finally, policy makers may be less likely to put into place legal safeguards that would reduce the risk of innocent people being convicted if they believe that wrongful allegations and therefore wrongful convictions are rare.
So how common are wrongful allegations?
The short answer is nobody really knows. The long answer is a lot more complicated.
There are serious problems in determining how frequently wrongful allegations occur because there are many different ways of defining what constitutes a wrongful allegation. At one end of the spectrum a wrongful allegation could be defined as being one where innocence is proven, perhaps by a cast iron alibi or video evidence. However, innocence is notoriously difficult to prove in cases of child sexual abuse, particularly when the alleged offence took place many years before. If allegations are only classified as wrongful when there is proof of innocence, then of course wrongful allegations will appear to be rare.
Alternatively, we have the other end of the spectrum where the researcher could count all those who have not been convicted as being the victim of a wrongful allegation. Of course being found not guilty in court does not prove that a wrongful allegation was made. Therefore this definition of wrongful allegations would overestimate their prevalence.
In between these two extremes are many other possibilities. For example, those who have been arrested but not charged could be counted as wrongfully accused. Alternatively, an allegation dismissed by an internal investigation in the workplace and not reported to the police could be counted as wrongful. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers surveyed their members in 2015 and found that around 50% of recent allegations of wrongful behaviour towards their pupils were dismissed after investigation by their place of work, without being reported to the police.
Once a decision has been made on how to define a wrongful allegation there is still the problem of defining the total number of allegations made (true and false). There are a number of different possibilities. The total number could be defined as all the complaints of abuse that were made to an institution, such as a school. It could also be defined as the total of cases referred to social services, or the total number of complainants who went to the police. Only when the total number of allegations and the number of wrongful allegations has been defined and measured can a percentage can be calculated.
Different definitions give different figures
The point of this discussion is to show that figures produced by different studies can give very different results and this can be due to the way in which the parameters are defined. This in turn can cause much misunderstanding when various advocacy groups, either for the victims of abuse or the victims of wrongful allegations, state what they believe to be the prevalence of wrongful allegations.
Professor Steve Herman (2016) argues that about 25% of uncorroborated reports of child abuse made to paraprofessionals in a study of 1,249 cases in 1989 in the USA were wrongful allegations. He had to make various estimates in coming to this figure, and others may disagree with him. I think it is fair to conclude that even if there are errors in this estimate, it is likely that the number of wrongful allegations is substantially higher than the usually quoted figure of between 2 – 8% (also based on the same 1989 study).
So where does this leave us? There is an urgent need for more research into the prevalence of wrongful allegations of child abuse. When comparing current estimates it is of the utmost importance to know how the figures were obtained. Finally, wrongful allegations may not be so rare as previously thought and if this is true, those who investigate and decide the fate of those accused of child abuse deserve more accurate information.
Herman, S., 2016. Reducing harm resulting from false allegations of child sexual abuse. In: R. Burnett, ed. 2016. Wrongful allegations of sexual and child abuse.