Child abuse claims: new divorce weapon

September 04, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

At one time it was adultery. Then it was drinking, followed by drug addiction or domestic violence. Now, over the past half-dozen years, child sexual abuse allegations have come to be seen as the most powerful "J'accuse" in divorce battles.

The accusations have become so fraught with overtones of sinister gamesmanship that Woody Allen, in fighting recent allegations that he molested his 7-year-old adopted daughter, turned around and charged his accuser, Mia Farrow, of playing "the child abuse card."

"In custody cases, it is the atom bomb, it is the final weapon," said Allen R. McMahon, a Santa Ana, Calif., attorney who has come to specialize in representing parents accused of sexual molestation.

But such high-stakes charges, while sometimes substantiated, are also complicated by both honest and hate-fueled misperceptions, torn loyalties of children and lack of evidence. Many experts say judges have become more skeptical, that the charges can backfire on the accuser and -- whether true or false -- can cause lifelong emotional damage to the children involved.

Social awareness and mandatory reporting have increased estimates of the incidence of sexual abuse in the United States from 1.87 per 10,000 children in 1978 to 15.88 per 10,000 in 1984. At the same time, charges of molestation in custody and visitation disputes have also risen, although researchers say they represent only about 2 percent of the total divorce cases.

Nevertheless, "They assume a dimension far beyond their numbers," said Hugh McIsaac, manager of Family Court Services in Los Angeles County Superior Court's Conciliation Court. "They are very emotional. They take a lot of time. It is very damaging to kids to be in that situation where allegations made are not true and, obviously, very damaging when they are true."

Contrary to popular belief, custody-related molestation charges are no less valid than charges leveled by the general population, said sociologist Nancy Thoennes, of the Center for Policy Research in Denver. Her 1987 study of 169 cases involving allegations of sexual abuse in custody disputes in eight jurisdictions found that about half appeared to involve some abuse, which is similar to the population at large.

Researchers say many charges are based on a misperception of non-sexual behavior.

For instance, "a young child can report 'Daddy took a shower with me.' " said therapist Jay Lebow with Chicago Child Custody Consultants. "Given you have a mind-set that says, 'I think this person has gone crazy and is doing all sorts of abnormal things,' you can digest this information as being a statement of abuse when in fact it is only suggesting what might be very normal behavior. Or Dad sleeps with a 7-year-old daughter during visitation. It's inappropriate, but not abuse."

While the vast majority of those accused of child sexual abuse are men, it is believed that ex-husbands, new boyfriends or other male relatives make nearly as many accusations as do mothers.

"I hesitated because of the fear of being perceived as a vindictive parent," said a 33-year-old Santa Barbara, Calif., father of two who reported his brother-in-law to Child Protective Services in the midst of a custody battle. His children, ages 3 and 4, had repeatedly talked about mutual touching of genitals while taking baths with their uncle. "You don't want to believe this," he said. "But you have to do it. They're your kids and they're so small."

The allegations were never substantiated, he said.

Evaluators admit that the science of assessing child sexual abuse is far from refined.

According to Sacramento, Calif., psychologist Herbert N. Weissman, there are no generally accepted profiles of victims nor abusers. A large percentage of children who have been molested may exhibit no symptoms at all, while unmolested children may have symptoms that can be misattributed to sexual abuse. Other recognized symptoms, such as fear, anxiety, depression, anger, withdrawal, sexual preoccupation and school or sleep difficulties can be traced to normal development. In some cases, the children are imitating behavior of adults they've seen at home or on television.

Because children can be stimulated by the repeated questioning of psychologists, police and lawyers, some experts even suggest videotaping a child's early testimony, as did Ms. Farrow, to avoid the trauma as well as the distortions that the process can produce.

"I think it ruins them for life," said researcher Ralph Underwager, director of the Institute for Psychological Therapies in Northfield, Minn.

"You have taught an innocent child about all manner of explicit and frequently deviant sexual behavior."

Most observers agree that the system is a mess -- either for not protecting children enough, or by trying too hard to lay blame.

"The unspoken tragedy is how public this is and how damaging," Mr. McIsaac said.

He believes the Farrow-Allen dispute cries for mediation, not court proceedings. "It's an interesting story, but think of the damage it's doing to these children. Thirty years from now they will be known as 'the Woody Allen children' and will bear the label for the rest of their lives.

"That in itself is probably the greatest child abuse."

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