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Study Finds Higher Risk of Child Sex Abuse Allegations in High-Conflict Divorces

No divorce is easy. Some divorce cases, however, have obstacles and challenges that go beyond the norm. A high-conflict divorce could involve high emotional stakes, valuable assets or issues such as domestic violence. According to a recent study by the Technical Advisory Service for Attorneys (TASA) Group, high-conflict divorces could also come with a greater risk of allegations of child sexual abuse. One spouse may falsify these allegations, however, to win the custody battle. Learning to recognize the difference between credible allegations and false allegations is critical in a high-conflict divorce case.

Sex Abuse Allegations as a Weapon in High-Conflict Divorce

Allegations of sexual abuse are surprisingly common in divorce and custody cases. Recent studies referenced in the TASA Group article state that 40% of all child sexual abuse accusations arise in divorce and custody cases. In 75% of these cases, however, investigators found the accusations to be unfounded. Rather than exposing a genuine case of child sex abuse, a parent may bring a false accusation against his or her ex-spouse as a weapon to try to win custody of the child.

Allegations of child sex abuse during a high-conflict divorce can be difficult to validate or discount. The nature of a high-conflict divorce often leads to parental alienation, in which one parent causes the child to disconnect from the other parent. Parental alienation can lead to the child becoming dependent on one parent, listening to that parent’s version of events, mimicking that parent’s sentiments against the other parent and believing the parent’s allegations of abuse – even if abuse never occurred in actuality.

Psychological manipulation from one parent can lead to the child refusing contact with the other parent, or even accusing the parent of sex abuse that did not happen. The TASA Group states that it is frequent for a child of a high-conflict divorce to misconstrue one parent’s actions or behaviors as abuse, especially if that is what the child thinks the other parent wants to hear. Eventually, a manipulated child may even start to believe he or she did suffer sexual abuse.

Signs of Genuine Child Sexual Abuse

Parental alienation in a high-conflict divorce is a factor in why allegations of child sex abuse occur so frequently in these types of divorces. Verifying whether sex abuse actually happened can be difficult. Children can prove unreliable witnesses, especially in cases involving psychological manipulation. It may take police officers, social service workers, psychological experts and other professionals to verify allegations of child sex abuse.

  • Anger, frustration or emotional outbursts
  • Regression, such as suddenly going back to bedwetting
  • Knowledge of sexual topics that is inappropriate for the child’s age
  • Not wanting to be around certain adults
  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as nightmares or flashbacks
  • Excessive fear, worry or anxiety
  • Physical signs, such as genital injuries or trauma

Professionals will also pay attention to the adult accused of child sex abuse for signs that could validate the allegation. These signs could include trying to be the child’s friend rather than parent, failing to respect boundaries, touching the child without permission, giving a child gifts without reason or expressing an odd interest in the child’s sexual development. A child in a high-conflict divorce may see a therapist to help verify sexual abuse.

If an investigation finds evidence of genuine sexual abuse, the parent may face criminal charges as well as losing custody of the child. The courts will generally order no contact between the child and parent. If investigators find evidence of parental alienation and psychological manipulation rather than true sexual abuse, the courts may remove the child from the custody of the alienating parent. The sensitive and critical nature of this decision can lead to a lengthy high-conflict divorce case, often requiring input from several experts on child sex abuse.