More than 20 percent of sexually abused children who disclose abuse later deny the allegations, according to a study by researchers at the USC Gould School of Law and UC Irvine.
The study, published in the February issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, found that denials were especially likely among younger children abused by someone living in the home and children whose mothers were unsupportive.
“The results suggest that sexually abused children are highly vulnerable to various pressures to deny their abuse, particularly when those pressures come from people close to them,” said Thomas Lyon, a professor of law and psychology at USC who co-authored the study.
The study, which looked at a large group of Los Angeles juvenile court cases, is among the first to look at recantations among children who are sexually abused.
“Some researchers have begun to question the assumption made by clinicians and others who work with sexually abused children that children are reluctant to disclose abuse,” Lyon said. “This study supports the classical view � even when children overcome barriers to disclosure, they are still susceptible to pressures.”
The researchers did not find any evidence to support the belief that retraction is a sign that the original allegations were false.
“If inconsistencies mean the child really wasn’t abused, then one should see a relation between inconsistency and other evidence of abuse,” Lyon explained. “We didn’t see any such pattern.”
The study has important implications for how cases of sexual abuse are investigated and prosecuted.
“When a child is at high risk of reversal,” Lyon suggested, “investigators should carefully document the child’s first interview. Videotaping can preserve the child’s story. It might even reduce the likelihood that the child will be pressured by others.”
The results cast new light on doubts raised in several recent high-profile sexual abuse cases about the credibility of child witnesses. For example, the alleged victim and his brother in the Michael Jackson case were impeached by the defense based on inconsistencies and the alleged victim’s initial reluctance to acknowledge that abuse occurred.
“Perhaps they really were lying,” said Lyon, who notes that the young men did not suffer from an unsupportive parent. “But jurors should also be told how difficult it is for truly abused children to maintain their story.”