Child Sexual Abuse Disclosures

Child Sexual Abuse Disclosures

by Kristina Nofsinger
Over the years, approaches to interviewing children have evolved as research continues to seek best practice methods. In an effort to avoid mass false positives, reminiscent of the 1980s and 1990s, and to improve the likelihood of full disclosure, interview methods have been tailored to the developmental susceptibility of children (Benia, Hauck-Filho, Dillenbur, & Stein, 2015; Costanzo & Krauss, 2015; Brubacher, Powell, & Roberts, 2014; Lyon, Ahern, & Scurich, 2012; Reitsema, & Grietens, 2016). Lyon et al. (2012) sought to substantiate the value of child disclosures as proof of sexual abuse especially when given spontaneously. By critiquing The Evaluation of Child Sexual Abuse Allegations: A Comprehensive Guide to Assessment and Testimony by Connell and Kuehnle (2009), the researchers were able to address several areas of controversial discussion including the accuracy of child sexual abuse disclosures, the likelihood of abuse among those evaluated, and the need to conduct empirically sound interviews.

Article Compendium

To eradicate any confusion on exactly what is meant by the term “child sexual abuse” (CSA) in this paper, a definition is given from the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA):
The employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or the rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestations, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children (Children’s Bureau, 2010).
In these cases of CSA, physical evidence usually does not exist. The only witnesses are the children themselves and the perpetrators meaning disclosure by the child is paramount (Anderson, 2016; Benia et al., 2015; Brubacher et al., 2014; Lyon et al., 2012; Reitsema, & Grietens, 2016).  Despite the importance, Herman (2009) classified the child disclosure as soft evidence that was often unreliable. Lyon et al. found that Faust, Bridges and Ahern (2009) confused the probability of abuse given disclosure with the likelihood of disclosure given abuse, dubbed the inverse fallacy. Lyon and colleagues defined and described Bayes theorem as the amount one will change their thinking or beliefs when confronted with new information. They found that the accuracy rate calculated by Faust and colleagues was also based on an assumption of base rates and a misunderstanding of the logical implications of the ratios (Lyon et al., 2012). Even if their numbers had been correct, their conclusion was still incorrect.
            The next area addressed centered on the reasons evaluations are conducted and their reliability. Disclosure by a child is most likely to happen with someone they trust, so if it is reported by someone that was told by the child or someone who suspects abuse, it is referred for evaluation (Anderson, 2016; Lyon et al. 2012; Reitsema & Grietens, 2015). Lyon et al. (2012) challenged the perception by Faust and colleagues that interviewers brashly believed every child, therefore confirmed sexual abuse falsely too often. Lyon and associates specifically chose studies conducted on genital touch disclosure for comparison. Evaluating several studies that employed direct questions, dolls, and diagrams, they found that the younger the child, the more likely he/she is to give a false positive report (Lyon et al., 2012). However, younger children are also more likely to disclose than older children and as a result, cannot be written off as unreliable (Anderson, 2016).
The second area to consider is the reliability of the evaluations themselves. The evaluation can be effected by several factors such as age, gender, race, mental health, single or repeated abuse, relationship to perpetrator and interview technique (Anderson, 2016; Benia et al., 2015; Brubacher et al., 2014; Reitsema & Grietens, 2015). The interview is a unique situation for most children where adults are asking questions but cannot help them with the answer. Children will also struggle to recover accurate, detailed memories of the event especially if it has occurred more than once (Anderson, 2016; Brubacher et al., 2014; Costanzo & Krauss, 2015). Children are often susceptible to wanting to please the adult and consequently, will feel pressured to answer questions (Benia et al., 2015; Earhart, Rooy, Brubacher, & Lamb, 2014; Reitsema & Grietens, 2015). Lyon and colleagues cited several studies questioning children on events that never took place. One study conducted both a low and high-pressure situational interview. The conclusion was that low pressure interviews have a much lower false positive rate, yet even the high-pressure interview children did not have significantly elevated false positive rates (Lyon et al., 2012). The conclusion is one shared by many scholars, voluntary disclosure by children is exceedingly indicative of abuse (Anderson, 2016; Brubacher et al., 2014; Lyon et al., 2012; Reitsema & Grietens, 2015).
Most adults, whether professional or lay, understand the difference in memory between a child and adult. Buck, Warren, Bruck, and Kuehnle (2014) found that “…the majority of professionals believe children are quite accurate witnesses, but are likely less accurate than adults” (p.869). Due to the lack of confidence by jurors, judges, and lawyers in the accuracy of children, it is even more important that evaluations be conducted conscientiously (Costanzo & Krauss, 2015). Lyon et al. (2012) addressed the importance of ethical interviews in two parts. First, they disqualified the notion that interviews after disclosure were adding up redundant information. Since the initial revelation was unlikely to be made to a professional and possibly made to a self-seeking parent, the information obtained by the forensic psychologist would not be repeated but rather expanded. Secondly, they examined ways in which interview techniques can increase accuracy. Several currently lauded techniques were vetted for proven efficacy (Lyon et al., 2012). Some of the ways elucidated include interview instructions, open-ended questions, reinforcement, narrative practice, asking for details on a singular event, asking for antecedents to the event, seeking information previously disclosed, source monitoring, and following NICHD Investigative Interview Protocol. All interview techniques described by Lyon et al. (2012) are substantiated by more recently published research including Anderson (2015), Benia et al. (2015), Costanzo & Krauss (2015), Brubacher et al. (2014), Reitsema, & Grietens (2016)
Lyon and partners wrapped up their review by distinguishing their conclusion from Herman (2009). Although both sets of researchers examined comparable information, they used Baye’s theorem to different ends. Herman (2009) examined interview techniques and found great fault with interviewers in differentiating between true and false positives which he took as proof that child disclosures were not a reliable source of evidence (Lyon et al., 2012). Lyon et al. (2012) looked at the disclosures themselves for true and false positive rates. Since a spontaneous disclosure is powerful proof that CSA occurred, the odds prove it to be dependable (Anderson, 2016; Brubacher et al., 2014; Lyon et al., 2012; Reitsema & Grietens, 2015).

Article Assessment.

Lyon et al. conducted a thorough examination of The Evaluation of Child Sexual Abuse Allegations: A Comprehensive Guide to Assessment and Testimony by Connell and Kuehnle (2009). The abstract and title clearly conveyed the tone and purpose of the book analysis.  Excessive jargon was used in places and the explanation of Baye’s theorem could have been more succinct, but overall it was logically organized for the ease and understanding of the reader. While the article was a critique of a book, it was never inflammatory nor disrespectful in disagreement. The review was balanced in that similarities were noted along with critiques citing an extensive list of research. The list of references used within the article not only served to legitimize their stance, but it also affords the reader great opportunity for further research.  However, 45% of the references were before the year 2000. Thus, much of their research has been captured or expanded elsewhere and the newer research would be much more conducive to future studies. The article was found to be free of grammatical, spelling, and citation errors. As all authors have Ph.D.s or are Ph.D. candidates in the field of psychology, their qualifications are appropriately suited for this review.     
Anderson, G. D. (2016). The continuum of disclosure: Exploring factors predicting tentative disclosure of child sexual abuse allegations during forensic interviews and the implications for practice, policy, and future research. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse25(4), 382-402. doi:10.1080/10538712.2016.1153559
Benia, L. R., Hauck-Filho, N., Dillenburg, M., & Stein, L. M. (2015). The NICHD investigative interview protocol: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse24(3), 259-279. doi:10.1080/10538712.2015.1006749
Brubacher, S. P., Powell, M. B., & Roberts, K. P. (2014). Recommendations for interviewing children about repeated experiences. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law20(3), 325-335. doi:10.1037/law0000011
Buck, J. A., Warren, A. R., Bruck, M., & Kuehnle, K. (2014). How common is “common knowledge” about child witnesses among legal professionals? Comparing interviewers, public defenders, and forensic psychologists with laypeople. Behavioral Sciences & the Law32(6), 867-883. doi:10.1002/bsl.2150
Children’s Bureau. (2010). Child abuse prevention and treatment act (CAPTA). Retrieved from
Connell, M., & Kuehnle, K. (2009). The evaluation of child sexual abuse allegations: A comprehensive guide to assessment and testimony. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Costanzo, M., & Krauss, D. (2015). Forensic and Legal Psychology: Psychological science applied to law (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Earhart, B., La Rooy, D. J., Brubacher, S. P., & Lamb, M. E. (2014). An examination of “don’t know” responses in forensic interviews with children. Behavioral Sciences & the Law32(6), 746-761. doi:10.1002/bsl.2141
Faust, D., Bridges, A., & Ahern, D. (2009). Methods for the identification of sexually abused children: Issues and needed features for abuse indicators In K. Kuehnle & M. Connell (Eds.), The evaluation of child sexual abuse allegations: A comprehensive guide to assessment and testimony (pp 3-19, 49-66). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Herman, S. (2009). Forensic child sexual abuse evaluations: Accuracy, ethics, and admissibility. In K. Kuehnle & M. Connell (Eds.), The evaluation of child sexual abuse allegations: A comprehensive guide to assessment and testimony (pp. 247-266)> Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Lyon, T. D., Ahern, E. C., & Scurich, N. (2012). Interviewing children versus tossing coins: Accurately assessing the diagnosticity of children’s disclosures of abuse. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse21(1), 19-44. doi:10.1080/10538712.2012.642468

Reitsema, A. M., & Grietens, H. (2016). Is anybody listening? The literature on the dialogical process of child sexual abuse disclosure reviewed. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse17(3), 330-340. doi:10.1177/1524838015584368

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