Friday, April 01, 2005

False Accusations


Although this article comes from England, save perhaps within the confines of prosecution expert testimony in the Michael Jackson trial, we seem to have moved past the day when a child's accusation of abuse was followed by the flat assertion that "kids don't lie about abuse". The article at issue recites,
Children who maliciously claim to have been assaulted or abused by a teacher should be removed from their school and prosecuted, union leaders said last night.

Official figures show that fewer than one in 200 allegations made by children end with teachers being convicted of an offence. But yesterday delegates at the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers conference in Brighton heard how false claims were putting huge pressure on teachers and their families.
It is fair, though, to observe why we don't prosecute kids when their abuse allegations are determined to be unfounded. First, in a "he said, she said" situation, while a claim of abuse may be deemed unprovable it does not inexorably follow that the accusation is false. Second, and far more importantly, strong punishments and prosecutions would put a great deal of power into the hands of the abuser. Third, not without valid reason but with sometimes harmful effect, we have determined that we should all-but-immunize those who report suspected abuse of children, on the basis that it is better to put an innocent adult through an unnecessary (and perhaps maliciously inspired) investigation than to let abuse go undetected.

Within the context of family law, malicious spouses sometimes play the "false allegations" game. The clever ones never make a direct accusation - they collude with others, or manipulate circumstances, such that a report is made while reserving to them an aura of plausible deniability. One case that comes to mind involves a mother who voiced certain suspicions about her husband in a counseling session, which inspired the counselor to make a report to protective services. The counselor was trapped by mandatory reporting laws. The protective services investigation found the allegations to be unsubstantiated. And the mother, in the custody proceedings, was able to deny asking for the investigation and also that she ever made any actual accusations about the father.

I'm not sure that we will ever find a good balance between protecting kids from abuse and protecting the innocent from false accusation. However, where we must choose one or the other, despite the potential for abuse I believe most would still side with protecting kids.

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