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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 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%, as approximated based on multiple studies.[1][2][3][4] 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.[1][5]

Types of false allegationsEdit

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 are divided into three categories:[1]

  • An allegation that is completely false in that the events that were alleged did not occur;
  • An allegation that describes events that did occur, but were perpetrated by an individual who is not accused, and in which the accused person is innocent. When a child makes this type of allegation it is termed "perpetrator substitution";
  • An allegation that is partially true and partially false, in that it mixes descriptions of events that actually happened with other events that did not occur.

A false allegation can occur as the result of intentional lying on the part of the accuser;[6] or unintentionally, due to a confabulation, either arising spontaneously due to mental illness [6] or resulting from deliberate or accidental suggestive questioning, coaching of the child, or faulty interviewing techniques.[7] 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" for the wider range of false accusations in which suggestive questioning may have been involved.[8]

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.[9]


Denial of child sexual abuse by the accused, or by others, is common and its reality is not easily accepted.[10][11] Reporting rates may also be substantially below actual rates of abuse as many victims do not disclose their abuse,[12][13] which may result in an overrepresentation of false allegations due to the inaccurate estimation of actual cases of abuse.[14] 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.[8] 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.[8] A 1992 meta-analysis suggests that false allegations represent between two and ten percent of all allegations.[6]

False reports are more common in custody disputes.[15][16][17] Children appear to rarely make up false allegations of their own accord[18][19][20] 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).[7]

False retractionsEdit

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.[21][22] False retractions are less common when the child receives timely and appropriate support following the statement of the allegation.[22]

Effect on the child and the accusedEdit

Allegations of sexual abuse can be inherently traumatic, even when false.[23] A person falsely charged with sexual abuse often faces 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.


  • Witch Hunt is a documentary produced and narrated by Sean Penn about the Kern County child abuse cases (2008)
  • Goodbye Daddy (Farvel Far) is a documentary about false incest charges in Denmark (Danmarks Radio, 2006)

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Ney, T (1995). True and False Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse: Assessment and Case Management. Psychology Press. pp. 23–33. ISBN 0876307586.
  2. Hobbs, CJ; Hanks HGI; Wynne JM (1999). Child Abuse and Neglect: A Clinician's Handbook. Elsevier Health Sciences. pp. 197. ISBN 0443058962.
  3. Schetky, DH; Green AH (1988). Child Sexual Abuse: A Handbook for Health Care and Legal Professionals. Psychology Press. pp. 105. ISBN 0876304951.
  4. Bolen, RM (2001). Child Sexual Abuse: Its Scope and Our Failure. Springer. pp. 109. ISBN 0306465760.
  5. Robin, M (1991). Assessing Child Maltreatment Reports: The Problem of False Allegations. Haworth Press. pp. 21–24. ISBN 0866569316.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Mikkelsen EJ, Gutheil TG, Emens M (October 1992). "False sexual-abuse allegations by children and adolescents: contextual factors and clinical subtypes". Am J Psychother 46 (4): 556–70. PMID 1443285.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Maggie Bruck; Ceci, Stephen J (1995). Jeopardy in the Courtroom. Amer Psychological Assn. ISBN 1-55798-282-1.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Irving B. Weiner; Donald K. Freedheim (2003). Handbook of Psychology. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 438. ISBN 0471176699.
  9. Aronson E; Tavris C (2007). Mistakes were made (but not by me): why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts. San Diego: Harcourt. pp. 127–157. ISBN 0-15-603390-9.
  10. Summit, RC (1998). "Hidden victims, hidden pain, societal avoidance of child sexual abuse". In Wyatt GE & Powell GJ. Lasting Effects of Child Sexual Abuse. SAGE Publications. ISBN 080393257X.
  11. Bentovim, A (July 17 1993). "Why do adults sexually abuse children?" (pdf). British Medical Journal 307 (6897): 144–145. doi:10.1136/bmj.307.6897.144. PMC 1678329. PMID 8343739. Retrieved 2007-12-31.
  12. Finklehor, D; Araji S (1986). A Sourcebook on Child Sexual Abuse. SAGE Publications. pp. 18; 280. ISBN 0803919352.
  13. Kendall-Tacket, K; Meyer WL & Finklehor D (1993). "Impact of child sexual abuse: a review". Psychological Bulletin 113: 164–180. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.113.1.164.
  14. Adshead, G (1994). "Looking for clues - A review of the literature on false allegations of sexual abuse in childhood". In Sinason V. Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse. New York: Routledge. pp. 57–65. ISBN 0-415-10542-0.
  15. Template:Cite doi
  16. Green, A. (1986). "True and false allegations of sexual abuse in child custody disputes.". Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry 25 (4): 449.456. doi:10.1016/S0002-7138(10)60001-5. PMID 3745724. Retrieved 2008-01-01.
  17. Template:Cite doi
  18. Green, A. (1986). "True and false allegations of sexual abuse in child custody disputes.". Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry 25 (4): 449.456. doi:10.1016/S0002-7138(10)60001-5. PMID 3745724. Retrieved 2008-01-01.
  19. Template:Cite doi
  20. Template:Cite doi
  21. Faller, KC (1989). Child Sexual Abuse: An Interdisciplinary Manual for Diagnosis, Case Management and Treatment. Columbia University Press. pp. p130–131. ISBN 0231064713.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Schetky & Green, 1988, p. 66.
  23. Stahl, PM (1999). Complex Issues in Child Custody Evaluations. SAGE Publications. pp. 47. ISBN 0761919090.

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