Thomas Kennedy, a father accused of raping his then 11-year-old daughter, was convicted but eventually freed when the child came forward with the truth. This dramatic story– its origination being with a false accusation by a child – is not at all uncommon in the child welfare context.
I’ve seen many cases dealing with child sexual abuse disclosure, and I know that no two cases are the same. Sometimes children are coached to make abuse disclosures. Other times, children’s ambiguous statements are interpreted erroneously to suggest some sexual inappropriateness by a parent or caregiver. Interviewers, whose bias prompts further “disclosures” by the child who aims to please the adult by “telling” his story, then ferret out the child’s statements. The ease of implanting false memories in young children can be referenced in the book, Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children’s Testimony.
In Mr. Kennedy’s story, his daughter later came forward and recanted the allegations. Luckily, her recantation was believed, and he was released from prison. However, this isn’t always the case. In fact, the prosecution often characterizes recantations as a “falsehood,” relying upon Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS) as an explanation.
Consequently, even when a child recants their story, accused parents may remain jailed…
CSAAS is a non-diagnostic syndrome developed by Roland C. Summit in 1983 to describe how sexually abused children respond to abuse. He posits that abused children disclose abuse because they want it to end, but later recant the disclosure as a means of undoing the unforeseen effects of their actions, i.e. the incarceration of a parent, separation from siblings, weekly counseling, and meetings with multiple members of law enforcement and child welfare authorities. Consequently, even when a child recants their story, accused parents may remain jailed and/or severed from all contact with the child as a result of the initial allegation – even if it was all a fabrication.
The impact of a false sexual abuse disclosure is long ranging and often affects the whole family. Many times, the non-accused parent is placed in a position of validating the abuse disclosure – whether it is believed or not. If the non-accused parent does not support the child’s accusation, they face potential removal of the child from their custody because child welfare authorities allege that their failure to believe the child is harmful in and of itself.
The siblings of the alleged child victim also suffer. At times, unless the non-victim sibling accepts and recognizes the abuse, they may be subjected to weekly therapy where they are repetitively assured that their parent is a bad person who sexually assaulted their sibling, when no such thing ever occurred.
The issues surrounding child sexual abuse disclosure, recantation and prosecution, are complex, with no easy answers. We, as a society, must do better at seeking to not only protect our children, but to also prosecute only those true perpetrators of abuse.
What do you think about the Thomas Kennedy case?