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False allegations of child abuse in contested family law cases: The implications for psychological practice

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Educational psychologists are working increasingly with children who are not only from families where there has been divorce or separation but who are also the subject of contested family law cases. This study investigates 107 children from 72 families in which residence issues had been previously settled but which were subject to ongoing disputes regarding contact or change of residence. Such cases are marked in general by allegations and counter-allegations of each parent in regard to the historical or current conduct of the other. This study considers the frequency of allegations of child physical or sexual abuse in cases of this kind, with a particular focus on false allegations. It also notes the high prevalence of mental health problems among the children involved in the disputes. Implications for educational psychology practice are examined.
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Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 31 No. 3 85
© The British Psychological Society, 2014
THE PREMISE from which most educa-
tional psychologists work with children
and young people presenting with diffi-
culties or describing adverse life circum-
stances is a starting point that may be
described as ‘what you see is what you get’.
That is, it is normally reasonable to assume
that the difficulties as described by the indi-
vidual or others and the life narratives that
support these difficulties may be taken at
face value as representing the facts as under-
stood by the individual who is presenting
them. To put it another way, a normal
starting point would not be to question
whether the individual’s troubled or
disabled presentation was a fabrication or
whether the life narratives being described
had been deliberately falsified.
The situation is very different, however,
for psychologists working in a range of other
settings, particularly for those who act as
expert witnesses for the courts or who assess
individuals in any potentially litigious
context. In these cases the premise that
‘what you see is what you get’ is not a reason-
able starting point. For a whole range of
reasons what is seen and narrated may be
very different from reality, not just in the
ordinary way that an educational psycho-
logist would carefully assess a situation to
understand the real significance of difficul-
ties and life events, but in ways that involve
planned and sustained deception.
It is the fact that there is an interface
between these two working contexts, the
world of normal educational psychology
practice and the world of litigation, that
makes this topic important for educational
psychologists. The most common situation
where this interface is likely to be experi-
enced is that of children and young people
who are the subject of contact and residence
disputes. Such disputes have historically
been a permanent feature of family law
cases. However, their frequency has
increased in recent times, and the issues
arising are encountered in everyday profes-
sional practice to the point where it has
become much more important for educa-
tional psychologists to be familiar with prac-
tice in this field. When the author began his
career as an educational psychologist at the
start of the 1970s approximately eight per
cent of children came from what at that time
was described as ‘broken homes’, that is,
families which had been disrupted by separa-
False allegations of child abuse in contested
family law cases: The implications for
psychological practice
Tommy MacKay
Educational psychologists are working increasingly with children who are not only from families where there
has been divorce or separation but who are also the subject of contested family law cases. This study
investigates 107 children from 72 families in which residence issues had been previously settled but which
were subject to ongoing disputes regarding contact or change of residence. Such cases are marked in general
by allegations and counter-allegations of each parent in regard to the historical or current conduct of the
other. This study considers the frequency of allegations of child physical or sexual abuse in cases of this kind,
with a particular focus on false allegations. It also notes the high prevalence of mental health problems
among the children involved in the disputes. Implications for educational psychology practice are
examined.
Keywords: child abuse; false allegations; family law; contact disputes; mental health.
tion or divorce. The most recent statistics
indicate that, by age 12, that figure has now
reached 45 per cent (Department of Work
and Pensions, 2012).
Neuropsychological malingering and
false allegations of abuse
There are two main factors to challenge the
normal approach of taking presenting symp-
toms and narratives at face value. These are
neuropsychological malingering and allega-
tions of abuse. Malingering is a recognised
factor in relation to psychological, psychi-
atric and medical assessments and it is
supported by an extensive literature. It may
be defined as ‘the intentional production of
false or grossly exaggerated physical or
psychological symptoms, motivated by
external incentives’ (American Psychiatric
Association, 1994, p.683). It is commonly
described as ‘neuropsychological malin-
gering’ because it occurs frequently in the
assessment of cases in which there is a major
neuropsychological context implying some
form of brain injury or dysfunction and in
which specific neuropsychological criteria
for malingering involving neuropsycho-
logical assessments are undertaken (see, for
example, Heilbronner et al., 2009; Slick et
al., 1999). However, the principles of malin-
gering are applicable to psychological assess-
ment with or without a neuropsychological
dimension. External incentives are defined
as including the avoidance of military duty,
the avoidance of work, obtaining financial
compensation, evading criminal prosecution
or obtaining drugs, but any manner of
external incentive, such as obtaining
leverage in pursuing a family law case, is
within the definition. This could arise in
relation to fabricated symptoms in a child’s
presentation, either directly by the child or
by proxy in an adult’s allegations.
There is an established literature on
malingering among young people in late
childhood and adolescence (see, for
example, McCann, 1998). While some may
consider that the skills and sophistication
required for malingering reduce the likeli-
hood of its occurring in younger individuals,
the research literature has demonstrated
over a very long period the capacity of
children to fake believable deficits in psycho-
logical assessment (Faust, et al., 1987, 1988).
Even in relation to young children, Lu and
Boone (2002) present a case study of a child
as young as 9 involved in litigation arising
from a head injury sustained when he was
struck by a car. Neuropsychological evalua-
tion revealed feigned cognitive symptoms,
and marked discrepancies were found
between the test results obtained in relation
to the evaluations for litigation purposes and
tests previously taken in school. The authors
emphasised the need for routine evaluation
of malingering irrespective of the age of the
individual.
It is the author’s experience that while
malingered symptoms of dysfunction are not
uncommon among young people in
personal injury claims, they are not at all
common in cases of alleged abuse. That is,
young people do not frequently fabricate
symptoms that may be understood by
psychologists to be signs that they may have
been subject to abuse. In such cases the
focus turns from the symptomatology (the
actual presentation of the child or young
person) to the narrative presented in rela-
tion to alleged abuse. This is particularly
relevant to family law cases. Where there are
acrimonious contact disputes the research
evidence indicates that false accusations of
child abuse including child sexual abuse are
considerably elevated. For this reason it is
necessary to take account of that as a
possible contextual factor which may influ-
ence the reliability of the children’s narra-
tives. Two related issues arise here. First,
there is the question of whether an adult,
such as one of the parents of the child, is
making false allegations that the child has
been abused, generally by the other parent.
Second, there is the question of whether the
child’s narrative supports a false allegation of
abuse.
While general studies of child sexual
abuse cases do not indicate high levels of
86 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 31 No. 3
Tommy MacKay
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 31 No. 3 87
false accusations or of child coaching (Faller,
2007; Oates et al., 2000), false allegations of
any type of abuse or neglect are higher in
situations where parents separate, where
studies have shown them to be three times
higher than in other cases (Trocmé & Bala,
2005). The more acrimonious the context,
the more this proportion is likely to escalate.
The study by Trocmé and Bala covered
7672 child maltreatment investigations
reported to child welfare authorities in
Canada because of suspected child abuse or
neglect. Consistent with other national
studies of reported child maltreatment, the
data indicated that more than one-third of
maltreatment investigations were unsubstan-
tiated, but only four per cent of all cases were
considered to be intentionally fabricated.
However, within the subsample of cases
where a contact or residence dispute had
occurred, the rate of false allegations shown
to be fabricated rose to 12 per cent.
Method
Sample
The sample for this study was 107 children
(60 boys, 47 girls), age range 1 to 15 years,
who were the subject of contested family law
cases in the Scottish courts. In every case the
question of the child’s residence had previ-
ously been settled, but there were ongoing
disputes regarding contact or pleas for
change of residence. The number of families
involved was 72, and there were, therefore,
144 parties in total, comprising an equal
number of resident and non-resident
parents. Sample selection was limited to
cases where the pleadings were exclusively
about contact and residence disputes, and
cases were excluded if these issues occurred
in special or more complex contexts, such as
child abductions under the Hague Conven-
tion1, national or international relocation,
applications for permanence orders or peti-
tions for adoption. That is, they were repre-
sentative of the common contact and
residence issues that comprise a large
proportion of the cases coming before the
family law courts in the UK and elsewhere in
the world. All cases had been individually
investigated by the author for the purpose of
preparing psychological reports for the
courts, falling mainly in the four-year period
up to the end of 2013. These investigations
in most cases involved study of the back-
ground documentation, interviews with each
of the parents and other key family members
and meetings with and assessments of the
children. In addition, in many cases further
evidence was gathered from schools and
other agencies.
Data analysis
The following quantitative data were
collected: whether the father or the mother
was the resident parent; whether the case
included allegations by either party of
physical or sexual child abuse; which party
made the allegations; whether the allega-
tions had been upheld; and whether the
child had displayed mental health issues to a
level which had required professional inter-
vention. In general these data related to
areas which currently lack clear research
evidence and where there are no known
population parameters. The data were there-
fore descriptive, illustrative and to a large
extent self-defining in terms of the issues
described.
In the case of the data collected on the
mental health status of the children, it was
possible in addition to making general
comment to carry out a nonparametric
analysis by comparing frequency of mental
health problems in children where the inde-
pendent variable was whether or not there
had been allegations of child abuse. This was
done using chi square analysis.
In addition, a vast amount of narrative
data was available in every case. From this
several brief vignettes have been constructed
in order to illustrate some of the key issues
1An agreement among signatory countries to ensure the prompt return of children who have been abducted
from their country of habitual residence or wrongfully retained in a country that is not their habitual
residence.
False allegations of child abuse in contested family law cases
raised in the discussion section. The
children selected for the vignettes are not
only anonymised but are randomly allocated
in terms of the cultural and ethnic back-
grounds they suggest. Only the sex and age
of the child are accurate. In terms of the
narrative given in the vignettes, they are
accurate in all substantive respects. In places,
to avoid identification, it has been necessary
to change the specific details of some factual
circumstances. Cases have been omitted
from the vignettes either because they were
of such a dramatic nature that they would be
easily identifiable by many professionals
working in the Scottish family law system or
because they are still sub judice.
Results
Descriptive data
Of the total sample of 107 children, no alle-
gations of physical or sexual abuse had been
made by either party in 70 cases (65 per
cent). Allegations had been made in 37 cases
(35 per cent). Of these cases, 20 (54 per
cent) were of physical abuse only, 11 (30 per
cent) were of sexual abuse only and the
remaining six (16 per cent) were of both
physical and sexual abuse. The median age of
the whole sample was 8 years (range 1 to 15
years), this being slightly older in cases where
allegations were made (9 years, range 1 to 15
years, compared with 7 years, range 2 to 15
years, where there were no allegations).
In the overwhelming majority of cases
(89 children, 83 per cent) the mother was
the resident parent, with the remainder
divided equally between those where the
father was the resident parent and those
where there was a shared parenting arrange-
ment. Of the 37 cases where allegations of
physical or sexual abuse had been made, all
but two were made by the mother. In both
cases where the father made the allegations
he was the resident parent. When the
mother made the allegations she was the
resident parent except for one case where
the father had residence and one case of
shared parenting.
Of the 37 cases where allegations of
abuse had been made, 26 (70 per cent) were
found in Court or were judged on the best
available evidence to be false. Of the
remainder, the allegations were unsubstanti-
ated in nine cases (24 per cent), while the
remaining two (5 per cent) were upheld.
In five cases (14 per cent of all cases of
alleged abuse, 19 per cent of cases where
abuse allegations were deemed false), there
was evidence that the children had been
coached. These five children were from
three separate families (see Vignette 1).
The results are summarised in Tables 1
and 2. In view of the fact that in the over-
whelming majority of cases the mother had
residence, and that the allegations were
almost always made by the resident parent,
there was no basis on which to present a
further breakdown of the outcome of cases
by resident parent or source of allegations.
There were also no differences in the break-
down in terms of whether the child in ques-
tion was a boy or a girl.
Mental health
From the entire sample of 107 children, 19
(18 per cent) had displayed mental health
issues to a level that they had required assess-
ment and intervention by Child and Adoles-
cent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) or
other mental health services. From the 70
cases where no child abuse was alleged the
number with mental health issues was eight
(11 per cent), while from the 37 cases where
abuse was alleged the number was 11 (30 per
cent).
These data were subject to a chi square
analysis to test whether they were equally
distributed across the two groups. The
results are shown in Table 3.
88 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 31 No. 3
Tommy MacKay
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 31 No. 3 89
Table 1: Contested family law cases by residence and abuse allegations (
N
=107).
Physical or Median Boys Girls Mother has Father has Shared
sexual abuse age residence residence parenting
No 7 years 39 31 56 68
allegations
made
Allegations 9 years 21 16 33 31
made
Total 8 years 60 47 89 99
Table 2: Physical/sexual abuse allegations by source and outcome
(
N
=37; boys 21, girls 16).
Source/outcome of allegations N%
By resident parent 33 89
By non-resident parent 38
Shared parenting 13
Abuse upheld 25
Abuse unsubstantiated 9 24
Allegation deemed false 26 70
Child coached 5 14
Table 3: Child abuse allegations and mental health issues.
Number of Mental health issues χ2
cases fofe
Abuse not alleged 70 8 12.43
Abuse alleged 37 11 6.57
Total 107 19 19 p=0.0326*
* Significant at p<0.05 level
False allegations of child abuse in contested family law cases
Vignettes
The overall data presented in this study,
while illustrating the issues arising and the
frequency of their occurrence, hide the
underlying tragedies which ruin the lives of
so many children caught up in contentious
family law disputes, as well as some of the
case dynamics which are behind the figures
cited. The four brief vignettes provided in
the study may illustrate this.
Discussion
There were four clear findings from this
small study of contested family law cases
referred for psychological reports regarding
contact and residence. First, the number of
cases in which physical or sexual child abuse
was alleged was very high, being approxi-
mately one-third of all cases. Second, the
proportion of these allegations deemed to
be false was also very high, being more than
two thirds of all allegations made. Third,
significant mental health problems were
higher for this group of children than would
be expected in the general population.
Fourth, significant mental health problems
were apparent in almost one-third of all
cases where abuse had been alleged. These
are considered in turn.
The context of false allegations of child abuse
In this sample the number of allegations of
physical or sexual abuse, and particularly of
false allegations, was higher than has
commonly been reported from other
studies. Of 107 children who were the
subject of psychological reports for the
courts in this study, allegations of physical or
sexual abuse had been made in 37 cases, and
26 of these were deemed to be false, with
nine of the remainder unsubstantiated and
two upheld. In contrast, Trocmé and Bala
(2005) spoke of a ‘widespread mispercep-
tion that there is a high incidence of inten-
tionally false allegations of child abuse made
by mothers in the context of parental separa-
tion and divorce’ and they spoke of sexual
abuse allegations in such cases being ‘rela-
tively rare’ (p.1334).
Several factors are of relevance when
considering these diverse findings. First, it
should be noted that figures cited across
studies are very divergent. Many of these are
cited by Trocmé and Bala (2005) in their
own review of the literature. For example,
unsubstantiated abuse reported by child
welfare services typically ranges from 30 to
70 per cent. While it is stated that false
90 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 31 No. 3
Tommy MacKay
Vignette 1
Joseph and Alan were brothers, age 9 and
10, and they had had no contact with
their father since age about 4 and 5
respectively, as their mother moved
constantly from house to house and did
not reveal her whereabouts. The father
sought contact through the courts for
years. The mother replied by saying that
he had subjected the boys to physical
abuse. She demonstrated the fear in
which the family were said to live by
having a complex system of home alarms
and personal alarms, supported by police
advice so that an immediate alert could
be raised if the father traced them.
Several expert witnesses had investigated
the circumstances and reported that the
mother and the boys gave consistent and
reliable accounts of the abuse they had
received, which included one boy being
locked for hours in a darkened cupboard
while the other was being beaten. The
Court finally appointed a psychologist to
investigate the case. The story of the
mother and both boys was found to be
consistent to the point of being identical.
However, when the boys were interviewed
separately and were asked about events
which did not in fact occur, but which
they thought the psychologist knew about
from interviewing the mother, they not
only agreed that these fictitious events
had taken place but readily embellished
them. The children had clearly been
coached and all of the evidence they and
their mother presented was discredited.
Contact with the father, however, was
never restored.
allegations are relatively low it is not known
how many unsubstantiated cases may be false
as there is often not a procedure for deter-
mining and recording this. It is recognised
that false allegations increase substantially as
cases become more contentious, but rates
are still very divergent, ranging from five to
23 per cent, the latter figure from the study
by Bala and Schuman (2000). Second, many
studies, including the large Trocmé and Bala
(2005) study, cover all categories of abuse,
including emotional abuse, and also neglect.
The current study deliberately focussed on
physical and sexual abuse. This was because
allegations and counter-allegations of the
emotional impact of each party’s conduct on
the child and the failures they showed in
parental care are almost endemic in
contentious cases, and at times it is very diffi-
cult to determine a threshold at which these
allegations would constitute abuse or
neglect.
Third, the contexts to which studies
relate are very different. Some include only
allegations that were reported for formal
child protection investigations and others
include only those where there were formal
findings. Many allegations in family law
cases, however, have never been referred for
formal investigation, and in several of the
cases in this study the allegations were
dropped when the psychologist’s report was
produced. In addition, some studies relate to
the initial divorce settlements. These have
lower rates of abuse allegations and often do
not come back to the courts with further
disputes over residence or contact issues.
The current study considered cases which
had originally been settled but which then
came to the courts with ongoing issues,
mainly concerning contact with the non-resi-
dent parent. The source of allegations also
varies widely. For example, cases referred
direct from the police or from social workers
have high rates of being upheld. This study
restricted itself exclusively to allegations
made by one parent against the other.
Fourth, the fact that the cases in this
sample were the subject of psychological
investigations already indicates that they
were likely to include issues which had not
been satisfactorily resolved by agencies such
as those routinely working in child protec-
tion. That is likely to include cases where
there is concern about the validity of abuse
allegations, as seen by the fact that in several
cases the remit included a requirement to
examine and assess the police and social
work Joint Investigative Interview videos.
Finally, it is possible that there is an uneven
geographical distribution of allegations of
child abuse in family law cases internation-
ally. Indeed, Trocmé and Bala (2005)
observe that the highest rate of malicious
false reports in child sexual abuse investiga-
tions was in the UK.
Abuse allegations and mental health
The extensive occurrence of mental health
problems in the general population of
children and young people has been well
documented. The most recent survey of the
mental health of children and young people
in the UK provided an overall prevalence of
about 10 per cent for all children age 5 to 16
years (Green et al., 2005), and these are the
figures that are most commonly cited.
However, it is important to understand how
such figures might best be applied to how
mental health issues in the community are
normally construed. There are two key prob-
lems here. The first is the conflation of the
ideas of ‘mental health problems’ and
‘mental disorders’. The statistics from the
survey by Green and her colleagues are for
those who have a ‘mental disorder’, and the
overall figure is made up of four per cent
with an emotional disorder (such as anxiety
or depression), six per cent with a conduct
disorder, two per cent with a hyperkinetic
disorder and one per cent with a less
common disorder, including autism, tics,
eating disorders and selective mutism (the
extra percentage points being explained by
the number having more than one disorder).
The main category of interest here is the
much smaller group with emotional disor-
ders. The second problem, which works in
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 31 No. 3 91
False allegations of child abuse in contested family law cases
the opposite direction, is that the figures
cited are for those who have met full diag-
nostic criteria for a disorder. However, there
are many young people who would fall short
of receiving a formal diagnosis but who
nevertheless have mental health issues
requiring specialist support, since mental
health needs extend beyond diagnosable
disorders (see Tolan & Dodge, 2005). While
there is no robust estimate of the numbers
who have a mental health issue as we
normally construe it, it is likely to be consid-
erably in excess of the four per cent who
meet full criteria for an emotional disorder.
Whatever prevalence figure is viewed as
the best estimate for the general population,
it is clear from an examination of the sample
in this study that an issue arises in relation to
mental health. The number of children who
have been counted as having mental health
problems is not based on an assessment of
whether they displayed any difficulties at a
level that might merit support, but those
who got to the point of being assessed and
treated by Child and Adolescent Mental
Health Services or equivalent mental health
professionals. The number receiving such
services ranged from the lowest figure of 11
per cent for children where no allegations of
abuse had been made to the highest figure
of 30 per cent where such allegations had
been made. Both figures far exceed any level
at which CAMHS and other such scarce
specialist resources are working with the
general population. Any studies conducted
in this area have also shown that only a small
percentage of the children and young
people who would merit such services actu-
ally receive them. In the UK, studies have
typically indicated that only about one in five
of those who have significant mental health
issues receives services (see, for example,
Davis et al., 2000; Kramer & Garralda, 2000).
In the US, a similar pattern emerges, with all
major reports describing a large gap
between the mental health needs of children
and the supports and services that are avail-
able to meet those needs (Tolan & Dodge,
2005; Tolan et al., 2001).
It is clear, therefore, that significant
mental health issues are considerably over-
represented in the population in this
sample. Two observations may be made in
this regard. First, it is already well established
that divorce and separation are bad for
children. While many children have the
resilience to make good adjustment, the
overall group effects in terms of child
outcomes include economic adversity,
physical ill-health, psychological ill-health,
lower educational achievement, substance
misuse and other health-damaging behav-
iours, conduct disorder, over-representation
in the criminal justice system and increased
risk of later marital breakdown (see
Coleman & Glenn, 2009, for a review). These
authors stress that the adverse effects do not
reflect a period when divorce and separation
were sufficiently uncommon to carry a social
stigma, but have remained just as marked in
recent studies when the situation has
become much more normative. From that
point of view, an elevated figure of mental
health issues in this population might be
expected. However, the levels of such issues
found in this study are in excess of expecta-
tions based on divorce and separation effects
alone. The clear message is that acrimonious
family law disputes are bad for children’s
mental health.
The second observation has to do with
the significantly increased numbers with
mental health problems in cases where alle-
gations of abuse against the child had been
made. It might be claimed that this is only to
be expected and that it would often support
the view that abuse had taken place, since
child abuse of every kind has an adverse
impact on children’s psychological well-
being and mental health (see the research
briefing by Lazenbatt, 2010). However, in all
11 cases of alleged abuse where there were
significant mental health issues the evidence
was that these were false allegations. A study
of case documents and Court outcomes indi-
cates that often the allegations had been
deliberately contrived as a strategy for having
contact terminated. In terms of the effective-
92 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 31 No. 3
Tommy MacKay
ness of that strategy, it was often a highly
successful one.
The message here is again clear. A parent
who makes false allegations of child abuse
against the other parent for whatever
reasons – and the reasons varied consider-
ably, including parents who genuinely
believed contact was not good for the child
but could find no other way to have it
stopped – is likely to damage the child’s
mental health. Sometimes that damage was
of a tragic and distressing nature. Again, an
examination of case documents and of
psychological interview data points to cases
where children were living in fear and alarm
in case they encountered the allegedly
abusive parent (see Vignettes 2 and 3).
Often a process of alienation and demonisa-
tion of the parent took place. Sometimes
there was an overwhelming sense of loss for
the child, for whom a loving relationship was
often suddenly lost, and an already vulner-
able child was left still less supported
through trusting relationships. Mental
health issues in these cases included anxiety,
panic, suicidality, hair pulling at times to the
point of disfigurement and general loss of
confidence and a sense of grief. In summary,
a false allegation of abuse against a parent
has the potential to do substantial damage to
a child’s well-being.
Limitations
Although there were over 100 cases in this
study, the parameters of the data generated
by contested contact and residence disputes
in family law cases dictate the need for very
large samples. In the overwhelming majority
of cases the resident parent was the mother,
this representing the default position in such
cases in the UK courts (Hunt & Macleod,
2008). This meant that, with only nine cases
where the father was the resident parent,
there were insufficient numbers in the
present sample to analyse the data in terms
of the comparative position of resident
mothers and fathers in relation to allega-
tions of abuse.
Caution must also be expressed
regarding representativeness of the sample.
The focus of the study was on contested
contact and residence disputes, so it was not
intended that it should be representative of
all outcomes of separation and divorce,
many of which do not involve such disputes.
However, within that focus there is the ques-
tion of whether the sample is representative
of the target population. First, as noted, all
of these were cases where a psychological
report had been called for, indicating that
there were already issues where the evidence
was unclear. Second, all of the cases were
referred to one psychologist, the author, who
is at times appointed by the Court where a
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 31 No. 3 93
Vignette 2
David, age 11, lived with his mother in a
safe house, an undisclosed address in a
town far from her former home and
husband. This followed allegations of
physical abuse both of mother and child,
and assertions that the aim of the father
was to trace the mother and carry out a
violent vendetta against both her and the
child. As a result David lived in constant
fear that he might meet his father and he
was not allowed to be on his own or out
playing if out of sight of his mother. The
psychologist raised the subject of his
father with him and looked at alternative
constructions of his history, but he
became upset and panic stricken. One day
he saw his father by chance in a motorway
restaurant. Shortly afterwards he had a
total breakdown at home, wrecked the
house and threatened suicide. He had to
be taken into emergency psychiatric care.
While there he requested to meet his
father, did so and was soon restored to a
loving relationship with him. He rejected,
and was rejected by, his mother, and asked
to be resident with his father, and this was
granted. His father, a forgiving man inca-
pable of either revenge or violence,
patiently worked with him until he had
managed to restore David’s relationship
with his mother.
False allegations of child abuse in contested family law cases
case is already known to be unusually
contentious or problematic. That may have
elevated the number where allegations of
abuse proved to be false. Nevertheless, the
vast bulk of the cases analysed were typical of
those requiring psychological reports.
Implications for educational psychology
practice
The findings of this study have implications
not only for educational and child psycholo-
gists working in the specialised context of
family law cases but also for the majority who
are working in generic settings such as
education authority psychological services.
Educational psychologists work with
children and families who are vulnerable.
As noted, children from families disrupted
by separation or divorce are more vulnerable
as a group than others and, as indicated in
this study, those who are involved in
contentious family law disputes are likely to
be more vulnerable still. With separation
and divorce being at a very high level,
bringing a corresponding increase in cases
coming before the courts, it is clear that such
children will not infrequently be among the
vulnerable cases referred to educational
psychologists.
This can present a number of significant
challenges to the psychologist. On the one
hand there is a requirement to take all
appropriate measures to address the child’s
needs, and also to raise formally any cases
where there are reasonable grounds for
suspicion of child abuse. There is an ever-
present danger of failing to identify the
child’s needs, or to stand back on the
assumption that some other agency will do
so. There is also the danger that genuine
cases of child abuse will not be identified,
reported and investigated, although in many
family law cases where abuse has been
alleged there are already investigations in
process. On the other hand there is a
requirement on the psychologist to carry out
valid assessment, taking account of all of the
facts and circumstances, so that any recom-
mendations or interventions are appro-
priate. Often there will be key information
that is not available to the psychologist, but
that would only be made available to profes-
sionals instructed by the courts or other
parties to carry out full investigations. There
may, therefore, be a total or almost total
dependence on information from one party,
namely, the parent in attendance at the
session with the psychologist, yet that infor-
mation may be highly contested and in many
cases may prove to be unfounded. In the
midst of this there is likely to be a vulnerable
and disturbed child or young person, but it
is not possible to assume that the situation as
alleged is the cause of the problem.
94 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 31 No. 3
Tommy MacKay
Vignette 3
Farhad, age 12, had been told that the
reason his mother left with him suddenly
when he was 6 to live with another man
was because his father was a paedophile
who abused him. The case, a very
complex one which crossed Court juris-
dictions, ran for years. A detailed narra-
tive of sexual abuse of Farhad was
discussed frequently with him by his
mother and her partner as the basis on
which he had to be kept safe and away
from his father in an unknown location at
all times. He was told that it was his own
narrative from his early years, and he
embraced it as his own in all detail. He
was also told that his father kept the
contact case going through the courts
because he wanted to get hold of him to
abuse him again. Farhad was fearful of
leaving the house on his own, and for a
long time had been having frequent
sessions with a mental health worker. He
said he would commit suicide if any
Court ordered him to see his father.
When the evidence of the mother and
her partner was finally exposed in Court
as false and deliberately concocted, she
was persuaded to put matters to rights.
Soon Farhad was having good residential
contact with his father and he asked that
his mental health appointments should
be stopped.
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 31 No. 3 95
It is possible in these circumstances for
the psychologist to become part of the
problem rather than part of the solution.
The author has been instructed in many
cases where local professionals have been
called on to provide services, such as support
for mental health issues, but where support
given in good faith has helped to validate a
situation that was based on false allegations,
with the result that the child’s difficulties
have been exacerbated (see Vignette 4). It is
important, given a significant possibility of
false allegations of child abuse in cases of
this kind, that the psychologist should
proceed only on the basis of reliable infor-
mation validated by collateral evidence that
is not dependent on parties supporting one
side of a contested case. Such information
should include evidence of the actual facts
and circumstances of the case, and not
merely evidence of the child’s vulnerability.
In some cases the proper course of action
is not to intervene because of lack of
adequate assessment information. This is a
formal stance taken by some CAMHS and
other services in contested family law cases,
and while all steps must be taken to ensure
that a child’s needs are not overlooked, it is
often better not to intervene at all than to
intervene in a way that is not in fact going to
support the child’s interests. In short, a
balance must be struck which may restrict
the types of supportive intervention the
psychologist might normally take, but which
at the same time allows such vulnerable
children to know that psychologists and
other professionals are seeking to support
them in an appropriate way, while gathering
as much valid assessment information as
possible in liaison with all relevant agencies.
Address for correspondence
Professor Tommy MacKay
Ardoch House,
Cardross,
Dumbartonshire G82 5EW.
Email: criticalsolutions@btinternet.com
Vignette 4
Isla, an only child age 6, had a loving rela-
tionship with both parents after separa-
tion, including residential contact with
her father. Eventually her father found a
new partner. The mother stopped contact
immediately. She also went to see a coun-
sellor in a voluntary organisation because
of her own anxiety and depression. The
father’s treatment of Isla before separa-
tion, not raised as an issue before, was
now construed as having involved physical
abuse, and was used as a justification for
stopping contact. The counsellor asked
for a child protection investigation and
offered to see Isla too. She reinforced with
Isla the discourse regarding abuse, and
began to equip her with strategies to
‘keep herself safe’ if her father ever tried
to make contact with her. Isla became
increasingly disturbed and also developed
a fear of her father. The abuse investiga-
tion proved that the allegations were
without foundation. Progress to a restored
relationship with her father and improved
mental health were only made when the
counsellor’s services were withdrawn and
work done with the mother to support the
child’s interests in a different way.
False allegations of child abuse in contested family law cases
96 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 31 No. 3
Tommy MacKay
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