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Knowingly False Accusations Of Child Sexual Abuse And Inconclusive Investigations

Parents of a former high school student allege in a federal lawsuit that their teenage son was "terrorized" by "false accusations" made by five "mean girls" at the school who used "electronic communication devices to falsely accuse the male student of sexual assault". The parents sued the school district and the district attorney's office.

The parents complain their son had to make multiple court appearances, be detained in a juvenile facility, and lose "his liberty" until the girls admitted their accusations were false. The parents also complain that the female students have suffered no repercussions for their false accusations.

The lawsuit contains allegations that the male worked at a swimming pool as a lifeguard when he was reported as having sexually assaulted one of the girls. Another girl claimed she was present during the assault.

When pressed, one of the girls explained the reasoning behind her claim as "I just don't like him."

A few months later, another student told a school counselor the boy had walked her home, uninvited, and sexually assaulted her. Two other students confirmed this information.

Police arrested the male student and handcuffed him at school. Classmates labeled him a "predator", and he was no longer welcome at school. He was later released on home monitoring. Within a few months, the charges were dropped. Paul Peirce "Lawsuit accuses Seneca Valley 'mean girls' of targeting boy with false allegations" triblive.com (Oct. 03, 2018).


Commentary by Jack McCalmon, Esq.

It is important to note that experts report only a small percentage of allegations are deliberately false. For example, one study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, found that between four to eight percent of allegations of child sexual abuse are fabricated.

However, statistical probability is not proof of the commission of a crime or lack thereof. It was Mark Twain who wrote that there were three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.

Although rare, false allegations of sexual abuse do happen, and the impact on the target of the false allegations can be devastating. Few labels carry more stigma than “sex offender”. Schools do not want you; colleges and future employers will shun you; and neighbors will not want you living nearby.

It is no wonder people falsely labeled as sex offenders often seek public redress in the courts like the family of the teen accused above.

False accusations also hurt victims of sexual abuse. Some people will point to the rare, handful of cases of knowingly false allegations in an effort to ignore, diminish, or taint true allegations.

For these reasons, organizations should not allow allegations proven to be false to go unaddressed. However, just like organizations should be cautious before declaring any charge to be true, they should also be cautious before declaring any allegation false. Instead, organizations should allow due process to run its course.      

When allegations of sexual abuse are made against a minor, the state performs the investigation. If someone who works for your organization is accused, send them home on paid leave, pending the outcome of the investigation. Suspend a volunteer or a student, pending the outcome. Cooperate fully with the state’s investigation. Do not interfere with it or insert yourself into it, but instead follow your organizational due process protections.
 

Once the state completes the investigation, there are several possible outcomes.

1. An investigation may find probable cause to support the allegations. At that point, the state’s prosecutorial staff may decide to proceed with criminal charges. Your organization can and should take immediate action to make sure the accused is not working with children for whom you are responsible.

2. An investigation may reveal that there is no probable cause to suspect the allegations are true. There will be no criminal prosecution. Therefore, in the case of allegations based on a mistaken belief, the organization should take immediate action to limit the harm to the person accused.

3. If the investigation makes a finding that the allegations were “knowingly false”, then the organization should take action against those who made the deliberately false allegations. Those people should be disciplined.  

What about when the state’s investigation is “inconclusive”: investigators are unable to prove or disprove the allegations made. Inconclusive investigations are common especially if no corroboration from witnesses or physical evidence exists. They are even more common if the victim or victims do not cooperate with the investigation.

When an investigation is inconclusive, the accused and the accuser must be protected from reprisals, first and foremost, until the organization reaches a final decision. Just because the state is inconclusive does not necessarily mean your organization should make such a declaration.

If permitted, the organization should review the investigation files of the state to determine whether action is necessary. Remember, the burden for the state to establish probable cause and proceed with prosecution for the crime of child sexual abuse is far greater than the burden of an organization to protect children from sexual abuse. Even though the state may find inconclusive proof that would mandate a criminal charge of sexual abuse, an organization may find that there was enough evidence to show that the sexual abuse more likely than not occurred or that a violation of policy occurred.

For example, the state may not be able to prove that an accused had sexual relationship with a minor at the accused’s home, but the organization can prove (perhaps with the help from the state investigation) that the accused did have a minor present in his or her home, in violation of the organization’s policy.

Another example is if third party evidence exists that a student made a claim of sexual abuse by a teacher in order to prevent from being disciplined for another matter, like a social media post or boasting to classmates. The state may be inconclusive as to sexual abuse, but there may be enough evidence to suggest that the allegation was made in retaliation for the teacher’s enforcement of the school rules.  

All of these decisions should be made in close consultation with an attorney to make sure all rights of the accused and the accuser are preserved.

The bottom line is that while the state shoulders the burden of the investigation in a child sexual abuse matter, the organization is not off the hook to protect the accuser and the accused. Child safety is paramount for any organization that works with children, but blindly believing all accusations, can cause a different and harmful form of victimization for those falsely accused.  

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