Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Sexual Abuse of Children Volume 4 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1994

Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Sexual Abuse
David Finkelhor

Fabricated Reports of Sexual Abuse

Fabricated reports of sexual abuse do occur, and some highly publicized cases that resulted in acquittals or dropped charges have raised concerns about a potential epidemic of fabricated reporting. But evidence suggests fabrications constitute a relatively small fraction of the reports received. A review of five studies concluded that fabricated reports occurred in 4% to 8% of all reports.45 These estimates are based on in-depth examinations and evaluations of samples of cases reported to child protection agencies or other professionals. The studies appear to suggest, as well, that fabricated reports are more likely to originate from adolescents, perhaps because they have a better capacity to manufacture credible allegations. These studies refer only to allegations made while the child was still a minor. There have not yet been any studies to measure the incidence of fabrication in reports made by adults who are reporting childhood occurrences retrospectively.

Some confusion about fabricated reports persists, however, because a large number of sexual abuse reports (around 50%) are classified after review by child abuse agencies as "unsubstantiated." Cases are termed unsubstantiated by child protection investigators for a variety of reasons that do not usually involve fabrications. Thus a professional, who is required to report even a "suspicion" of abuse, may report a child for a suspicious genital injury that turns out to have another explanation. In some cases, the reports, particularly anonymous reports by nonprofessionals, are so vague and the information about the situation is so sketchy that the report is classified as unsubstantiated because the attendant information is insufficient. It is possible that additional fabricated reports lie hidden among cases that are unsubstantiated for lack of information. These unsubstantiated reports may primarily reflect people reacting to ambiguous symptoms and behaviors in children or trying to be conscientious in the protection of children. It needs to be remembered that most states mandate that professionals report even suspicions of abuse. The reporters are often unsure about whether abuse is really occurring and are not even necessarily making allegations about specific possible abusers. Thus, it is a mistake to equate an unsubstantiated with a fabricated report. The former involves information that cannot be verified; the latter involves information that is not true and an accusation that is deliberately false.

It is also a mistake to assume, as some have,46 that an unsubstantiated report necessarily involves a stigmatizing allegation or an intrusive investigation. Given the work load carried by most investigatory agencies, reports from dubious sources or reports containing few specifics are often declared unsubstantiated with no investigation at all. (In a recent study of 12 counties in five states, 42% of maltreatment allegations were screened out by Child Protective Services (CPS) without any investigation at all, many because the allegation was too vague, some because the event happened too long ago or the perpetrator was not a caretaker, others because the child was no longer at risk, and still others because the family could not be located or had left the jurisdiction.47) Other allegations are resolved after a simple phone call to a family or a brief interview with a child.