Delayed Allegations

Some professionals claim that children are more likely to delay reporting than to tell immediately after abuse has occurred. In support of their opinion, these professionals often cite a 1991 study by Sorenson and Snow. Ceci and Bruck’s ‘Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of children’s Testimony’ published by the American Psychological Association is generally recognized and accepted as the definitive text in the area of child sexual abuse. Their criticisms of the Sorenson and Snow (1991) study warrant careful consideration. On page 34 of Jeopardy in the Courtroom, Ceci and Bruck (1995) cite Snow’s testimony in State v. Bullock (1989, p. 175):

Q: “But she denied it to you and you just basically told her you had better go talk to somebody else because I don’t believe you.”

A: “It wasn’t that I told her that I don’t believe her, she got very upset and she felt like couldn’t with me there … I didn’t believe any of these kids when they told me it didn’t happen” (p. 34).

Commenting on Snow’s testimony, Ceci and Bruck (1995) indicated:

“There is also some concern regarding at least one of the author’s objectivity. Her courtroom testimony appears to suggest that she at times believed that the children were abused regardless of what they told her” (p. 34).

Another American Psychological Association definitive publication by Poole and Lamb (1998) (Investigative Interviews of Children: A Guide for Helping Professionals) advises caution when interpreting the Sorenson and Snow (1991) study. On page 71 of the text, Poole and Lamb (1998) indicate:

“Other data suggest that delayed and gradual disclosure [of sexual abuse] in the face of specific abuse questions is characteristic of children who have not previously disclosed, but who are repeatedly interviewed by adults who suspect abuse.”

Poole and Lamb (1998) further indicated:

“A frequently cited article is a retrospective analysis by Sorenson and Snow (1991) of case files concerning children referred for therapy. Sorenson and Snow reported that three fourths of these children denied abuse initially and that they often moved into tentative disclosure before making a full disclosure. A large proportion of these children were questioned about abuse on the basis of very weak evidence, however, such as time spent with an alleged abuser (28%) or sexual behavior that was believed to be inappropriate (14%), and it is unclear how many children disclosed accurate accounts of abuse under repeated questioning” (p. 71).

Recanting Allegations

Some professionals claim that children who have been sexually abused often recant their allegations.  Those who make these claims cite data published by Gonzalez, Waterman, Kelly, McCord and Oliveri (1993). They reported that 27% of 63 children in therapy recanted disclosure of day-care sexual and ritualistic abuse. The Gonzalez et al. (1993) study, however, obtained its data from children involved in the McMartin pre-school case. The allegations of abuse in this case were never substantiated, and jurors involved in the case rejected the claims.

A 1987 study found only an 8% recantation rate among 309 validated sexual abuse cases. A 1996 study found that among 234 validated cases of sexual abuse, 5% of the children denied the abuse, and only 3% recanted their earlier reports (Bradley & Wood, 1996). Therefore, although a small percentage of youngsters do appear to disclose their abuse reluctantly, with a smaller percentage subsequently recanting their disclosures, the overwhelming majority of children appear to maintain their claims and never deny them once they are questioned (Bruck, Ceci, & Hembrooke, 1988; Ceci, Kulkofsky, Klemfuss, Sweeney, & Bruck, 2007).

Bruck, Ceci and Hembrooke (1988) reported interviewing 26 highly trained child protection workers. These workers “not only stated that recantation was part of the normal process of disclosure, but they also indicated that research strongly supported their belief” (Bruck, Ceci, & Hembrooke, 1988, p. 138-139). Unfortunately, then, child protection workers are too often unaware of the objective data demonstrating that recantation rarely occurs in known cases of child sexual abuse.