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Friday, October 8, 2010

Three Year Olds "Making Up" Sexual Assaults

Yeah, that's what I have to listen to when I attend Case Review once a month.

Let me give you some context. Case Review brings together county attorneys, police detectives, child protective workers, victim/witness advocates, forensic interviewers, licensed mental health counselors, and forensic pediatricians. Oh, yeah, and me. This team discusses the ongoing juvenile sexual assault cases for the region. Updates are given, the team considers various aspects of the cases, and, ideally, it is ensured that the victims and their families are given as much support as possible.

Generally, this is a positive thing.

The problems arise every month, however, typically out of the mouths of police officers (but, occasionally from child protective workers or county attorneys). Well, they are problems to me, at least, but seem not to be problems to most of the other members of the team.

See, a child discloses first to someone - a parent, a teacher, a counselor. Then, they're interviewed by a forensic interviewer. If this second disclosure occurs, it tends to be taken seriously and some good follow-up work is done. Sometimes, however, during the follow-up work, the police will interview the alleged perpetrator. And, occasionally, for whatever reason, the alleged perp. will give off a "not a pedophile" vibe and/or won't 'crack' under interrogation. If this occurs, the police will often begin to question the integrity of the victim and/or the victim's parents.

In yesterday's case, this means stating that a three year old who is stating that she was digitally sodomized by her father, was probably lying.

Now, I come at cases from a different viewpoint. I believe victims. Period. That is what I am paid for. However, I don't just believe victims because I am told I am supposed to. I believe them because I sit with them and listen to them cry "Why did this happen to us? Is my child ever going to be okay again?". I am asked their questions "How could he do that to my baby? Why didn't I know sooner?" I hear their anger "He betrayed my trust. He hurt my child. This was not supposed to happen." I know in my soul that this is not a matter of a family on a vendetta or a child with an active imagination. All the other signs are there; all the symptoms. The child awakes in the middle of the night screaming for her father to get off of her. This is not fiction: this is reality.

But I am not the police. If that alleged perp. seems credible, if that child doesn't seem like exactly the 'best' victim you could find, the case gets closed. The alleged perp. can continue to find other children to harm. The girl can know that her speaking out results in nothing. The family can feel let down by the system and jaded. And, most likely, visitation will have to continue. The sexual abuse will continue. She was a liar when she was three, so when she tells again at six, at eight, at fourteen...there is less of a chance she will be believed. The courts will tell her mother to stop being so vindictive - that there was no evidence that her daughter was sexually abused - why would she try to keep a child away from her father.

And then, forty years from now, maybe she'll join a different support group I co-facilitate. Not the one for children who have been sexually abused. The one for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The one where their pain stems more from being not heard, from being quieted, from being ignored, than from the sexual violence perpetrated against them. The one where we'll bring in pumpkins at the end of the month to carve, in an attempt to give them back part of their childhood.

It breaks my heart that we err on the side of perps. It breaks my heart that I know of sexual abuse being perpetrated - probably right at this moment - and I can do nothing about it. That is why this job burns people up. We get to see this first hand, case after case. I get to meet them when they are three, and again, each year after that.

They're not making it up. Please believe me that they aren't. This is my prayer to a god who doesn't exist.


  1. I agree it's a safe bet that a 3 year old is not making up that sort of thing. But people tend to allow their hopes, passions, and so forth to overcome their realism.

  2. It's just...it's a mistake with dire consequences. So, it's hard to brush aside.

  3. I think what I would find most frustrating in those circumstances would be the willful blindness of the people who brushed aside the 3 year old's testimony. It's one thing to be wrong, it's another thing to be willfully wrong.

    I don't know if that's quite the best way to express what I'm trying to get at, but your post recalls to me the times I've dealt with someone who is wrong about something and yet not about to change their minds because, on some level, for some stupid reason, they want or need to be wrong.

  4. It's often hard to discern if it is willful blindness - if it's laziness, or some form of bizarre optimism - or if somehow they truly don't believe and truly don't understand.

    I'm not sure which I prefer: willful ignorance or actual ignorance. Both are horrific.

  5. No, a three year-old is unlikely to lie about such things. On the other hand, an estranged parent is far more likely too and they can manipulate their children, especially young ones quite easily.

    I've actually seen that happen in a case of reported sexual abuse of a child. The estranged father, twisted the facts of the matter in order to get custody of his son, uncaring of the horrendous damage done to a third party and his family.

    Sadly, your problem is with "innocent until proven guilty." I can't say as that I blame you; it sticks in my craw sometimes too.

  6. Jonolan, while I automatically believe victims, as I said, it's part of my job description, I do not think I should be the police. I just wish that they took more consideration of the victims, spent more time evaluating the situation, put more stock in the disclosures. But, I realize that I do not belong in the criminal justice field.

  7. That's certainly something, Astasia. I'm actually shocked; few would say what you just did, preferring to want to "change" things for the "better" and damn the long-term consequences.

    Sadly though, the police can't take more consideration of the victims; they're job is gathering evidence that can actually be used in court. Seen kids on the stand? Seen how many cases based upon witness testimony fail?