Establishing the truth in either situation is the number one worry for childcare practitioners, a conference in Dublin heard yesterday.
More than 100 professionals, including social workers, therapists, psychologists and teachers, attended the day-long programme of seminars and workshops organised by Children at Risk in Ireland. CARI clinical director Eileen Prendiville said the aim was to help practitioners become more confident in reaching conclusions when they assessed child sexual abuse allegations. "We find people are nervous about doing assessments. Their conclusions have to be stood over in a court of law and they have enormous consequences for the child, the accused and the whole family.
"In some cases, you think there is something there, but you can't be one hundred percent sure. There is too much to say nothing happened but not enough to say what definitely happened. At times like this, it is crucial to be able to interpret the child correctly and trust your judgment."
Ms Prendiville said one of the main difficulties was that, while most sex abuse disclosures by children were true, most disclosures by someone other than the child or abuser were disputed to some extent by the child. "We have to look at the problem of coaching. We find the vast majority of children who are sexually abused are also coached to say it did not happen or to explain it away. The child might not knowingly mislead they might be confused themselves about what happened. It's easy to confuse children."
The conference's keynote speaker, Dr David Jones, a child psychologist at Park Hospital for Children, Oxford and lecturer at Oxford University, also warned of the dangers of suggestibility where the interviewer or the circumstances of the interview unwittingly puts ideas or answers into a child's head. He said in some cases, the use of anatomically detailed dolls usually regarded as an aid to clarifying events may actually increase suggestibility. And he warned that children sometimes tailored what they said in response to questions if they felt a reward or punishment depended on their answers. Fear of damaging relationships with family members was also a major influence on children's answers, or one parent urging a child to make false complaints against the other where a marriage had broken down.
Dr Jones said in some instances, the use of a lie detector might have to be considered. "The message we have been giving to practitioners today is that this is an extremely complex area and there are no easy answers, but there are assessment techniques that can be learned and improved," said Ms Prendiville. CARI, which has offices in Dublin and Limerick, can be contacted at helpline no 1890 924 567.