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The S.A.I.D. Syndrome - Sexual Allegations in Divorce

False allegations of sexual abuse have become so wide spread in this country during divorce that they have been given a name; the S.A.I.D. Syndrome - Sexual Allegations in Divorce.

When a sexual allegation of any kind is made, a very necessary beginning strategy for professionals is to regard their role as clinician-investigators, not clinician-therapists. If they perceive that their first and foremost task in intervention is to therapeutically deal with the impact of the experience upon the child, they are then focusing their behavior on treatment. Treatment processes are not consistent with investigative behaviors that demand objectivity, skepticism, and open-mindedness in gathering data from all sources involved in the situation.

An important beginning strategy in the SAID phenomenon is the question sequence for the professional. Of necessity, this consists of an immediate and complete conversation with the custodial parent or presenting adult. Structured interrogation with this person should initially and specifically focus on the following:

  • Dysfunctional family elements such as a family on the verge of marital breakup.
  • Divorce activity that has already been started.
  • Divorce activity that has been unsuccessfully in progress for some time.
  • Unresolved visitation or custody problems.
  • Unresolved money issues as it relates to the divorce.
  • The involvement by the parent(s) in ongoing relationships with others.

Any evidences of the aforementioned "red flag" dynamics are the professionals' first clues to the potential of a SAID case. While phenomenon, these are prima facie evidence that a case is a SAID phenomenon, the professional who disregards these first red flags is potentially in error in his/her conclusions.

Normally, there is a most typical pattern that exists in the SAID Syndrome. This includes one or more of the following dynamics:

  • The allegation almost always surfaces only after separation and legal action between the parents has begun.
  • There is a history of family dysfunction with resultant unresolved divorce conflict. This usually involves "hidden" underlying issues both spoken and unspoken.
  • The personality pattern of the female parent often tends to be that of a hysterical personality.
  • The personality pattern of the male parent tends to be that of the passive-dependent personality.
  • The child is typically a female under the age of eight who controls the situation. Additionally, this child may show behavioral patterns of verbal exaggerations, excessive willingness to indict, inappropriate affective responses, and inconsistencies in relating the incident(s).
  • The allegation is first communicated via the custodial parent, usually the mother.
  • The mother usually takes the child to an "expert" for further examination, assessment, or treatment.
  • The expert then often communicates to a court or other appropriate authorities a concern and/or "confirmation"of apparent sexual abuse, usually identifying the father as the alleged perpetrator.
  • This typically causes the court to react to the "expert's" information by acting in a predictably responsible manner, e.g., suspending or terminating visitation, foreclosing on custodial arguments, or in some other way limiting the child-parent interaction.

Professionals are essentially trained to accept at face value allegations or statements made by children. Trainers and specialists who educate the professionals working with children have established this principle. Thus, the historical precedent which shapes perceptions has continued as clinical "truths." To be effective in the SAID situation, the following guidelines should be kept in mind by the professional:

  • Remain neutral. Maintain an open and objective clinical perception of the situation is the most important first step in guiding one's own behavior in investigating this dilemma.
  • Be aware of one's own set of biases. Pre-existing personal and/or professional biases, e.g., "children don't lie; it is better to be safe than sorry;" and other over-generalized principles are likely to elicit from the professional a behavioral response that may be more damaging than helpful.
  • Guard against presumption of guilt. Simply because an allegation is made does not mean that it is automatically true (especially in divorce situations). Objective listening, unbiased inquiry, insightful interviewing, and specialized interrogation do not necessarily exclude the always appropriate professional protocol of sensitivity to the situation and a general empathic appreciation for all parties involved.
  • Be aware of the ramifications of the input made to the court. Often times professionals are not aware of the impact that a communication may have on the situation. The effects may include unnecessary foreclosure of family relationships, exacerbation of anxiety and guilt for the child, outrage and despair by the accused perpetrator, false arrest, errant prosecution, and unjustified punitiveness. It appears certain that at some point in the future, professionals are going to have to be held accountable for the allegations that they make, particularly in a public setting.
  • The professional should recognize how their alignment with the reporting parent's agenda reinforces the false validity in a SAID case. Frequently, the presenting parent will use the "expert's" responses to the situation to reinforce his or her perceptions and feelings of validation and justification.

Common sense and critical necessity mandate that one must take the role of skillful investigator before evolving any other intervention behaviors in the SAID case. This is because child sexual abuse allegations in the divorce situation are initially more a problem of investigation than of treatment. Immediate and absolute protection of the child/children is not always the most desirable nor effective crisis intervention strategy. Traumatic disruption may create irreparable and permanent breaches among family members. The most critical and obvious investigation process involves interviewing and interrogating the reporting parent with regard to the current status of the family as it pertains to the divorce process; past, present, or future.

In addition, specific questions pertaining to the alleged sexual abuse itself need to be asked: WHAT exactly happened, WHEN, WHERE, WHY and HOW. The allegation needs to be scrutinized with intensity and the details carefully discussed with all involved parties. Professionals are traditionally apprehensive about proceeding in this manner lest the child be "traumatized." However, the long range ramifications of these allegations, if misdiagnosed, can be more "traumatic" than the stresses of these initial appropriate inquiries. Without these initial inquiries prior to evaluating, assessing or working with the "victim," the intervention specialist is acting unprofessionally, unethically and naively.

Text References:

  • Benedek, E.L. & Schetky, D.H. (1984, October) ALLEGATIONS OF SEXUAL ABUSE IN CHILD CUSTODY CASES. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Nassau, Bahamas.
  • Berliner, L. & Barbieri, M.K. (1984) THE TESTIMONY OF THE CHILD VICTIM OF SEXUAL ASSAULT. Journal of Social Issues, 40(2) 125-137.
  • Faller, K.C. (1984) IS THE CHILD VICTIM OF SEXUAL ABUSE TELLING THE TRUTH? Child Abuse and Neglect, 8, 473-481.
  • Goodman, G.S. (1984) THE CHILD WITNESS: CONCLUSIONS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS FOR RESEARCH AND LEGAL PRACTICE. Journal of Social Issues, 40(2), 157-175.
  • Goodwin, J., Sahd, D. & Rada, R.T. (1980) INCEST HOAX: FALSE ACCUSATIONS, FALSE DENIALS. In W.M. Holder (Ed.) Sexual Abuse of Children (pp. 37-45) Englewood CO: The American Humane Assn. (Reprinted from the Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 1979, 6(3).)
  • Health and Human Services (1984) CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE PREVENTION: TIPS TO PARENTS (DDHS Publication No. 0-454-460:QL 3) Washington DC: US Government Printing Office.
  • Illusion Theater's Sexual Abuse Prevention Program (1981) TOUCH AND SEXUAL ABUSE: HOW TO TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN Minneapolis MN: Author.
  • Jiles, D. (1980) PROBLEMS IN THE ASSESSMENT OF SEXUAL ABUSE REFERRALS Sexual Abuse of Children (pp.59-64) Englewood CO: The American Humane Assn.
  • Kaplan, S.L., & Kaplan S.J. (1981) THE CHILD'S ACCUSATION OF SEXUAL ABUSE DURING A DIVORCE AND CUSTODY STRUGGLE. The Hillside Journal of Clinical Psychology, 3(1), 81-95.
  • Paulson, M.J., Strouse, L. & Chaleff, A. (1982) INTRAFAMILIAL INCEST AND SEXUAL MOLESTATION OF CHILDREN. The Rights of Children: Legal and Psychological Perspectives (pp. 39-63) Springfield IL: Charles C. Thomas.
  • Rush, F. (1980) THE BEST KEPT SECRET: SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Schuman, D.C. (1984, October) FALSE ACCUSATIONS OF PHYSICAL AND SEXUAL ABUSE. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Nassau, Bahamas.
  • Sgroi, S.M., Porter, F. & Blick, L. (1982) VALIDATION OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE Handbook of Clinical Intervention in Child-Sexual Abuse (pp. 39-80) Lexington MA: Lexington Books, D.C. Heath & Co.
  • WHAT EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN (1983) South Deerfield MA: Channing L. Beta Co., Inc.