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Studies on Child Sexual Abuse Conflict

August 16, 1995|LYNN SMITH

The dramatic increase in cases of child sexual abuse has fostered new and conflicting scientific research.

A new wave of studies appear to cast doubt on the ability of very young children to resist suggestion. On the other hand, some fear that the focus on false allegations will overshadow what they say remains a more widespread problem--false denials when abuse is real.

The most dramatic research on suggestibility was conducted by Stephen J. Ceci, Cornell University professor of developmental psychology. In Ceci's experiments, preschoolers were introduced to a man named Sam Stone who stayed in the room for two minutes. Later they were given negative information about him and then asked leading questions about whether Sam Stone ripped a book or soiled a teddy bear, techniques some researchers say have been employed in some high-profile preschool molestation cases.

Ceci's experiments showed that:

* 46% of the 3- and 4-year-olds and 30% of the 5- and 6-year-olds spontaneously reported that Sam Stone had carried out one or both misdeeds;

* 21% of the younger children continued to insist that they actually saw him do these things even when gently challenged with counter suggestions;

* the majority of adults watching videotapes of the children's embellished reports could not tell whether or not they were telling the truth.

While coaching and contamination is a legitimate concern in preschools, the research does not apply to most child sexual abuse cases; the majority of cases arise in families, involve a single victim, and the average age of the victim is 9, argued Thomas D. Lyon, assistant professor at University of Southern California Law School. In a recent issue of Psychology, Public Policy and Law, he cites other new research showing that:

* The rate of false allegations drops dramatically by age 5 and by 9 or 10, children are as resistant to suggestion as adults.

* Only half of children with specific physical findings of sexual abuse reveal abuse when questioned. Children falsely deny abuse for many reasons: embarrassment, mixed feelings for the offender, not wanting to get a parent in trouble.

* Even when children are willing to reveal abuse, two-thirds of non-offending parents either refuse to believe them or are ambivalent.

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