Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation (Syndrome), coined by Roland Summit in 1983, has been a pivotal and invaluable contribution to the forensic interviewing field to help us understand the process of disclosure for children, and how and when they may choose to disclose abuse. However, equally as important for professionals to understand is that child abuse disclosure is not a singular black and white disclosure; disclosure is a process that takes time and can be a very gray process for children who experience trauma. Throughout this post, I reference excerpts from a piece published in 2020, from Thomas Lyon and colleagues, Understanding expert testimony on child sexual abuse denial after New Jersey v. J.L.G.: Ground truth, disclosure suspicion bias, and disclosure substantiation bias.
Expert testimony on Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS) has been a mode for prosecuting attorneys to be able to communicate with juries in trails. Yet, as Lyon and his colleagues state, because a jury could misunderstand expert testimony, it has only been admissible in court under a narrow scope, understanding that testimony regarding CSAAS is not substantive proof that abuse has occurred. Recently in a 2018 supreme court case, New Jersey v. J.L.G, expert testimony was barred from court in the state of New Jersey, and experts can no longer explain why children may deny abuse (Lyon et. al, 2020). Lyon and his colleagues argue and point out that this decision was affected and influenced by expert testimony claiming that more “methodologically superior” studies found lower rates of denial, contrary to Roland Summit’s study. The authors then pose that the expert testimony was flawed due to three issues with using child abuse disclosure studies to estimate likelihood of children being abused. The three problems highlighted are the ground truth problem, disclosure suspicion bias, and disclosure substantiation bias. I will be summarizing these findings, and how it relates to the work as forensic interviewers.
To fully understand the scope and context that Lyon and his colleagues argue, it is important to understand the different components of Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation (Syndrome). The different dynamics, abbreviated as SHEDR, are comprised of:
- Entrapment and Accommodation
- Delayed or Unconvincing Disclosure, and
- Retraction or Recantation
Summit explains the continuum of these dynamics: because of the secrecy and helplessness a child may experience, it drives them into entrapment; because of this entrapment, a child must accommodate with coping mechanisms that contradict with adult norms and expectations. Once a child has developed these coping mechanisms and gets to a point where the mechanisms no longer work, the child then discloses when they appear to be least convincing. This leads to the virtual abandonment of the child’s statements by adults, which can lead to the recantation or retraction of the initial disclosure, regardless of how credible the original outcry may have been. Ultimately, understanding these dynamics helps us gain a better understanding of how children view and experience their abuse, and when and how a child chooses to disclose.
In previously permissible expert testimony in New Jersey, jurors were instructed that the testimony was admissible into court and that CSAAS may explain why a child may delay reporting and/or recant sexual abuse allegations or even deny them. However, in 2018, the acceptance of CSAAS was reversed based off the defense expert testimony, Dr. Maggie Bruck, who argued that certain methodological studies conducted found lower rates of denial among children who disclosed abuse and that most children will not deny abuse when directly asked. However, like Lyon and his colleague’s dissent, we must consider alternative hypotheses and postulate as to why a child may delay their disclosures. They argue against this opinion by breaking down each study by providing counterpoints in support of Summit’s findings.
The first problem that is discussed is the ground truth problem, that one can never know for sure whether a child has been abused, and that disclosures can be false and can rely heavily on suspicion and substantiation bias. The authors also argue that in New Jersey v. J.L.G, the focus was on the ground truth problem and relied on Dr. Bruck’s statement that these studies were “methodologically superior” without examining or discussing the extent of the validity of the cases themselves. Another problem the authors point to is suspicion bias, explaining that this occurs when a disclosure is the reason abuse is suspected. Subsequently, if disclosure increases suspicions of abuse, percentages of disclosure is inflated. Lyon and his colleagues argue that this excludes children who never tell, and who deny abuse, thus for the discrepancy in the numbers analyzed and used in the “methodologically superior” studies. Furthermore, examining substantiation bias, or lack of analysis, is another problem posed by the authors defending CSAAS. Substantiation bias occurs when disclosure is the reason abuse is substantiated by authorities—arguing if disclosure increases the likelihood abuse will be substantiated by authorities, then the percentage of disclosure rates will then be increased and inflated. The issue lies in the lack of controlling for these factors, the authors argue, that contribute to the turn of expert testimony on CSAAS in court—a problem needed to be made aware for the forensic field.
This is vital information for interviewers to be aware of to help explain and address defense attacks not only on a child’s credibility, but considerations on how to defend the admissibility of CSAAS into court for jurors to understand the dynamics of child abuse disclosures. As Lyon and his colleagues defend, children do not willingly disclose abuse. Rather, a major issue needed to be addressed is the false denials of abuse. Lyon and colleagues leave us with this sentiment: “More recent research has examined rates of disclosure, and support the argument made here: as problems of ground truth, suspicion bias and substantiation bias are reduced, false denials of abuse remain a major problem” (p.643). Despite the challenges this case brings, it is hopeful that a majority of courts reject the argument made in New Jersey v. J.L.G and continue to uphold the admissibility of expert testimony of CSAAS. While there is a long way to go with understanding the delicate continuum of child abuse disclosure, this article is a great tool that lays out the foundation for further defending the use of expert testimony in this field.
By Allie D.
Lyon, T.D., Williams, S., Stolzenberg, S. N. (2020). Understanding expert testimony on child sexual abuse denial after New Jersey v. J.L.G.: Ground truth, disclosure suspicion bias, and disclosure substantiation bias. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 38, 630-647.