Children as the Primary Losers When Sexual Abuse is Falsely Alleged:
By Siv Westerberg, lawyer.
This article was previously published by the Institute for Psychological Therapies, in ISSUES IN CHILD ABUSE ACCUSATIONS, Volume 9, 1997 Numbers 1/2, p. 46 - 53.
ABSTRACT: Two cases in Sweden involving false sexual abuse allegations are described. In each, the entire family was grievously damaged because of how the allegation was handled by the authorities. The children in these cases were the primary losers.
The Svensson Family
One day during early summer, 1992, Farmer Svensson and his
family received a telephone call. The family was grieving the recent death of
the maternal grandfather. To 7-year-old Lisa he was "the best granddaddy in
the whole world," so she was particularly sad about his death. Between the two
there had been the unique reciprocal friendship and communicative
understanding frequently seen between grandparents and grandchildren.
The grandmother called the Svensson family with a distressing message. Uncle Klas, who was responsible for arranging the burial, had decided that no children should attend the funeral and the associated events. The Svensson family had to accept the decision, whether they liked it or not. But when Lisa learned that she could not attend the funeral of her beloved grandfather, she became extremely angry and upset. Her agitation increased even more when the relatives decided that her 13-year-old brother was an adult and, hence, was permitted to attend the funeral. While he would be there, she, who was Granddaddy's primary darling among all the grandchildren, was excluded. She saw this as a great injustice.
A year later Lisa had another reason to resent and envy her older brother. The brother, now 14, had a girlfriend. Eight-year-old Lisa felt she also had the right to have a boyfriend. She chose a 16-year-old boy from the neighbourhood and often clung close to him. This boy, who had a girlfriend his own age, was annoyed when Lisa did not leave him alone. Lisa's parents firmly told her to stop running after him; she was much too young to have a boyfriend. But since her brother was not subjected to the same restrictions, Lisa resented what she felt was unfair treatment.
Several months after the grandfather's death, the family suffered another disaster. While assisting a relative with harvesting, Lisa's older brother was seriously injured and was hospitalized for some time. Since he was still in a state of poor health when he eventually returned home, the parents had to devote much time and labour to caring for him. Lisa felt that her parents gave him all their attention and neglected her. This last "injustice" increased her anger, and she finally decided to seek revenge.
Another fact is crucial to this case. The Svensson family had previously lived in another town, where the father was a welding operator. During this time, Lisa became friends with two twin sisters, who were a few years older than she. The twins' mother was single and a part-time prostitute. (We may think of prostitution as immoral and criminal and may question Lisa's parents' decision to allow her to associate with these girls. But some single low-wage mothers may need the additional income from prostitution to give their children a standard of living exceeding the bare subsistence level.)
Because of their mother's profession, the twins saw things not very fitting for children to witness. They told Lisa what they had learned, and she eagerly absorbed all such information. As a result of her connection with these girls, Lisa developed a precocious interest in sexual matters.
The Sexual Allegation and the Sham Trial of the Father
Lisa, angry over the perceived injustices from her Family,
told her teacher that her family treated her poorly. She complained that she
never got breakfast in the morning because all members of the family were
asleep when she went to school.
A discerning teacher would have become suspicious and wondered whether the girl had told the truth. Lisa's father was working at a Farm with many livestock and it was unlikely that he would still be in bed when his daughter left for school. But the teacher accepted what Lisa told her. The teacher then asked Lisa if she had been exposed to incestuous assaults. Sex was a favourite topic For Lisa, who had received a wealth of sexual knowledge from her older friends. She constructed an impressive variety of sexual experiences which had allegedly taken place in her family, and she recounted them in much detail. She claimed that during the last three years she had had sexual intercourse with both her father and her older brother. She said that as recently as yesterday her brother had inserted his penis into her vagina.
The teacher immediately reported the incest to the social agency, who reported it to the police. Even before the social agency made the decision to take the child into custody, Lisa was sent to a child clinic for investigation. Or rather, this is what the mother was told. But, in actual fact, Lisa was sent to a child psychiatric clinic, where a gynaecological examination was performed. Because of Lisa's strong fear of the examination, it could not be performed without anaesthesia. No attempt was made to obtain the parents' permission and it is questionable whether this was legal, since Lisa had not yet been taken into custody.
No defect or injury of Lisa's hymen was found and all other aspects of the examination were completely normal. Any competent and seriously-minded medico legal expert is aware that, if a child or a teenager claims to have been exposed to assaults involving intromission, but is found to be a virgo intacto, then there are strong reason to disbelieve the allegation. But the female gynaecologist stated in an affidavit that her findings did not rule out sexual abuse. This assertion is apt to have been misleading to the judicial and lay judges who, without any medical training, had to cry to understand what was stated in the affidavit.
Lisa's father and brother were arrested. Both of them were shocked when they learned the nature of the accusations. Like many other innocent men in the same situation, they tried to unearth what kinds of events the child might have misinterpreted as sexual assaults. They were eager to cell the police everything that might have been the source, and with as much detail as possible.
The father recounted an occasion when he was resting on the couch and Lisa jumped upon him, placed herself astraddle, and made bumping movements. He was annoyed and pushed her away. He also said that the Family had at one time lived in a house with only a shower and no bathtub. IF any of the children became dirty from outdoor playing, he placed both himself and the child naked under the shower and soaped the child. This is all that happened. But he believed it was important to tell about these actual events, because Lisa may have misinterpreted them.
Until then, the father had always been in good health and had never used prescription medicine. But while he was detained he was given sleeping pills and sedatives because of his compliance of fear and anxiety. As a result of these medications, he was so groggy that he knew very little of what he was asked or what he said during the repeated interrogations. He tried to recount truthfully the events with the shower and with Lisa bumping him on the couch. He did so because he hoped that the police would understand how Lisa might have arrived at the absurd allegation that he had sexually abused her. But, since his verbal skill and cognitive capacity were limited, the police misunderstood what he said and praised him for confessing. His court-appointed attorney was incompetent. Evidently, it was the view of this lawyer that the most interesting aspect of the trial was his fee. When presenting the court with his request for an extraordinarily high fee, he attached an extensive justificatory report, which stated that the remarkable number of hours he had devoted to the case derived from the fact that it had taken such a long time to persuade the defendant to confess! In actual fact, Lisa's father had not confessed at all.
The trial was performed behind closed doors. The Father was convicted and sent to prison for two and one-half years. The judgement was based on the "fact" that he had (allegedly) confessed to the sexual abuse of his daughter. Lisa's Father does not have any recollection of having ever been asked during the trial whether he was guilty or not guilty.
I have discussed this problem with two experienced judges and one experienced prosecutor, all of whom are my personal friends. According to all three, it is a genuine possibility that the court directed the question to the defence counsel, and accepted the latter's answer. It is obvious that the defence counsel did not believe his own client when the latter swore he was innocent. It is my view chat this sequence of events is discordant with the Swedish Law of Legal Procedures §4G part 6, which states, "The defendant shall be requested briefly to state his position [as to the question of guilt] and the reasons for the latter." The defence counsel is not a stand-in for the defendant. Hence, it is not fitting for anyone other than the defendant to be asked. I would welcome a debate on this point, in Sweden and other counties with similar, dissimilar or otherwise relevant legal procedures.
The Consequences for Lisa's Older Brother
Lisa's brother recalled that he had on occasion felt his
sister's body with his hands on the outside of her clothes. There is no
indication that anything more happened. There is little reason to make a
tremendous fuss when boys ac puberty do minor sexually inappropriate things,
such as secretly watching females bathing naked at the bay. However, as a
result of the intervention and interrogations by the authorities, the brother
felt extremely guilty and ashamed. Because he was arrested by the police he
seemed to have concluded that he had committed a very serious crime.
After he had made some kind of a confession, he was released by the police. Later, the prosecutor decided not to try him because of his youth -he had just reached 15 years of age. Unfortunately, both the questions and the answers in the police interrogations were formulated in a very vague way. Hence, it is was difficult to learn in retrospect from the records to what he is really supposed to have confessed.
When the police released him, he was not permitted to return home. The social agency had decided immediately to take both Lisa and her older brother into custody.
The father was conditionally released after serving half of his two and one-half-year sentence and is completely free today. Swedish prisons are not comparable to American or Spanish ones. Usually, one will not be permanently broken down after some years in a Swedish prison. Instead, the greatest disaster happened to the children. This is the pattern most frequently observed in cases involving false incest allegations.
What was the further development for Lisa's older brother? When he was arrested by the police in October 1993 he had started the 9th class of the school (that is, according to the Swedish school system, the last year before the three-year senior high school. The final examination of the latter is usually a precondition for university study). He was released after one day of interrogation. But he was immediately sent to a social investigation home, after having been taken into custody according to The Law of Care of Youthful People (LVU). He was locked up at this investigator home for two months and was refused any teaching or schooling. Being detained, he could do little more than to play various games with other prisoners and the staff.
When the 1994 semester started he was still under social custody. But he was transferred to a home for youngsters, which was far from his parents' home. Although he attended school at this new place, because he had been absent for half a semester, his grades were low and he was not accepted for senior high school study. He had always been a conscientious boy, and his new schoolmates were astonished, to say the least, as to why he was confined to a home primarily associated with youthful criminals.
The rules of this home were absurd. For instance, when a boy
was permitted to go into town, he was forbidden to stand still for more than
five minutes at a time. It was boys in their upper teens who were subjected to
Because of the above-mentioned decisions of the questions and the answers in social agency, the boy's start at the senior high school postponed for a whole year and he also had to go through a number of supplementary courses. But, after having lost one year, he did belatedly start what would otherwise have been his tenth year of schooling. Unfortunately, all his friends were now living in the town of the senior high school. And it was not until this time that we succeeded in having the social custody terminated by the Court. He was now 17 years old. He did not want to change schools and get uprooted from all his friends. The Svensson family was ruined financially because of the prison sentence and his parents were unable to pay for rent and food for him in the town of the school. As a result, he was faced with only one choice if he wanted to pass the final examination of the senior high school-to stay at the home for youngsters of his own "free will" (as it is called), and likewise to obey its absurd and humiliating rules.
Eventually, he managed to make the social agency to pay for
an apartment of one room, so that he could escape the home for youngsters. The
social agency kept an extra key to his apartment, and could enter at any time.
From the social agency he received, in addition to the rent, 1700 SwCr a month
for food and all other expenses. I may remark in passing that if he had stayed
at the home for youngsters, the costs would have been very much larger.
The boy grew progressively more desperate, both because of his economic situation and because he could not live with his parents. He loved them and he visited them frequently. But they could provide no help concerning his economic and various other problems. At the age of 17 he tried to kill himself. At the time of the suicide attempt he had had no money for food for a week, and felt his situation was hopeless. Fortunately; his life was saved.
This is the true state of things behind the phrase about the best interests of the child, which the social agency claims to be the aim of The Law of Care of Youthful People.
Lisa's Younger Brother and Her Mother
Lisa also had a younger brother. He was four years old at
the time of the allegations. Strangely, he was in the beginning left out of
consideration. But three months after the father had been arrested and sent to
prison, (that is, at a time when the danger was over, if there had ever been
any danger), the social agency took the pre-school child into custody and sent
him to an on-duty foster home. The justification of this decision was opaque,
and after one month it was set aside by the Administrative Court of Appeal.
But, during the intervening six-week-period of divorce from his mother, the
young boy had been harmed. When he was permitted to return, he was so
depressed that he had almost completely ceased talking, and he was incessantly
crying. He felt on his own body the consequences of being exposed to measures
aiming at the best interests of the child.
The Father and the two older children had been taken away by the authorities. Lisa's mother was alone in the home and was deeply depressed. It was beyond her capacity to grasp how her husband and son could have performed sexual assaults of Lisa in this one-story house of five rooms, without her noticing any trace of such activities. The situation was dark and hopeless. Eventually she attempted suicide. She was rescued. But three children almost lost their mother because of interventions by the social agency "in the best interests of the children."
Lisa's Subsequent Life
Lisa had been locked up at the child psychiatric clinic.
After one week she realized the tremendous mischief caused by her lies and
tried to tell the adults around her that she had not told the truth. But no
one would listen.
After six weeks at the child psychiatric clinic, she was sent to a Foster home. During her years at the foster home she was strictly forbidden to have any contact with her Father, and her association with her mother was sharply curtailed. Nonetheless, she succeeded in keeping in limited contact with her family through her grandmother, to whom she wrote letters and made telephone calls, and whom she was sometimes permitted to visit. At an early stage Lisa told her mother and grandmother that she had invented the sexual assaults out of thin air in order to get revenge for the injustices she thought she had experienced.
In her letters and telephone calls, Lisa assured her family that she loved them, and told them how much she longed for her home. She thoroughly disliked the foster family and complained that she was miserable. She repeatedly threatened to kill herself if she were not permitted to join her real family. She told her grandmother that she had made up her mind-if she were not permitted to return home very soon, she would indeed commit suicide. This was a serious suicide threat-she had already thought out the details about how to do it, and, "then I shall meet and join granddaddy."
I became the lawyer for the parents about a year after the tragic decision to take the two oldest children into custody. We have repeatedly attempted legally to have the custody of Lisa by the social agency revoked or invalidated-so far without success. During the proceedings, the social agency continually assured us chat Lisa felt very comfortable in the foster home. They were seemingly unaware of the fact that many children actually commit suicide, instead they appeared to perceive Lisa's threats as a mere trifle.
Then things took a new turn after two years. Suddenly, the foster parents lost their patience with this girl, who had an undue interest in sexual matters and was very intrusive. They gave notice of immediate termination of the agreement with the social agency about having Lisa as a foster child.
Lisa was then sent to a children's home (rather recently such institutions have in Sweden been rebaptized "treatment homes"). Here, she felt even more miserable, first and foremost because she was the target of terrorization by another girl of her own age. The staff did not intervene to protect her.
Lisa continued making suicide threats and the danger seemed serious. The staff stated that she would be sent to another foster home when she was 13. She could see no hope in her miserable situation.
A few weeks ago a noteworthy event took place. Lisa was permitted to visit her mother and younger brother, on the conditions that the father was not at home during the visit, and that the meeting was supervised by a contact person belonging to the staff of the children's home. Lisa was much attached to her younger brother, and he reciprocated her feelings. Just like so many other "big sisters" may do, she was sitting on the couch with her brother in her lap, and they touched and hugged each other. The mother and the children's home contact person were sitting next to chem. No occurrence took place which was remarkable in any respect.
A few days later the mother was informed that the contact with the family would henceforth be restricted in the same way as it had been before this single meeting. The stated reason for this was that the younger brother, 7 years old, had squeezed her breasts and pulled at her clothes. Lisa had been unable to protect herself and her mother was reproached for not having interfered to stop the assault.
In other words, the staff of the incest profession claimed in dead earnest that a 7-year-old boy sexually abused his 12-year-old sister while sitting in her lap with the mother and a social worker sitting next to them. As a lawyer one feels totally powerless against claims of such a nature.
The Case of Kent: How to Make a Mountain Out of a Molehill
Ritva Gunnarsson is the paternal grandmother of Kent. Kent's
father, Olle, is 30 years old and a widower. His wife died from cancer when
their child was only two years old. During the mother's protracted and serious
illness, and likewise after her death, Ritva devoted herself deeply to her
grandson. Before her daughter-in-law died, she promised to take good care of
Kent. Kent lived approximately half the time with Granddad and Granny and half
the time with Daddy. Very often he lived with his father during the weekdays
and at his grandparents during the weekends. Ritva was born in Finland. Being
a trained child nurse, she works at a day nursery, but not the one Kent
Ritva was aware that the head mistress of the day nursery which Kent attended did not like her. In Sweden, it is customary to try to avoid an abrupt start at a nursery, so for the first week a parent of the child will also attend. The head mistress requested Kent's father to perform this task. Regrettably, his job required his presence in a foreign country during this week, and he suggested that Ritva could take his place since Kent was close to her. The head mistress protested, but in the end the Gunnarsson family had its way. The head mistress never forgave this "defeat" (as she seems to have perceived the matter); nor did she let go of her resentment that a child nurse who was Finnish had "won" over a head mistress who was Swedish. There is in Sweden much prejudice against Finnish people.
One afternoon during late autumn 1990, Ritva arrived ac the day nursery to fetch Kent, as she often did. She noted that Kent and another boy were engaged in sexual play on the floor in one of the rooms. No doubt, such. things may happen in a day nursery. But what was strange was the behaviour of two staff persons. They observed the activities of the boys behind a glass door without interfering and stopping the inappropriate sex play.
Ritva was annoyed at observing this and told the staff persons that if such things happened again, they should stop it and encourage the children to engage in more suitable activities. She added, "I think you should talk this over with Kent's father." Somewhat surprisingly one of the staff answered, "Oh no, Olle might be angry." This was no guess - what parent would not be angry if he or she learned that the staff tolerated sexual play in the children?
It is no far-fetched hypothesis that the staff reported the incident to the head mistress, nor that the latter expected criticism and decided the most effective defence would be an advance counterattack. She talked to Kent, behind closed doors, and no one knows what took place during this interview. I believe it is an extreme transgression against the legal safety of the individual that the first interrogation of a child is performed by a head mistress of a day nursery, whereafter what Kent supposedly said during this interrogation is subsequently used as legal evidence. Kent was six years old at that time.
What Kent actually said is irremediably lost. We might venture a guess. But nothing hinges upon whether this guess is correct. Most of us have occasionally been a baby-sitter to pre-school children of a relative or a close friend. We may recognize a situation of the following kind. We say, "Dear little Mary, you cannot eat a lot of sweets just ten minutes before dinner." Whereafter Mary may obstinately reply, Surely I may. When mummy is at home she always says I may." We may know that Mary's mother would never permit such things. But Mary perceived our comment as a criticism and was eager to defend herself, for which purpose she invoked the authority of her mum.
The head mistress might have reproached Kent because of the sexual playing, and Kent might have tried to defend himself by the statement, "But Daddy and I do the same thing."
The subsequent course of events is not difficult to imagine. The day nursery reported to the social agency, which reported to the police (the customary procedure in Sweden). On the same day, Olle was fetched by the police at his job, and the staff of the day nursery drove Kent to the police station. I would welcome a debate as to whether it is in accordance with the law (of Sweden or of other countries) that staff personnel members take a child to the police for interrogation without the knowledge of the parents, at a time when the child had not yet been taken into custody by the social agency or a legal court.
I have scrutinized the videotaped police interrogation. It is obvious that Kent had no idea what the interview was about. The male police officer asked strongly leading questions. When he talked of the penis he repeatedly used the word "willie." This is a word never used in the Gunnarsson family, hence Kent did not know its meaning. On the other hand, he was aware of the appearances of adult naked people - on every Friday evening the entire family, regardless of sex and ages, takes a sauna. This is a normal, frequent and long-standing custom among Finnish people.
Kent is a nice and amiable young boy who generally tries to give answers to questions that adults want to hear. In the videotaped interrogation, in response to the leading questions, he said "mmm" and "yes" or "no," in accordance with what he expected to be the "right" answers. His expectations were often wrong, and when this happened, the police officer reproached him, telling him that he had said something else to the head mistress. In response to the reproach Kent obediently changed his answer.
What followed next was unsurprising. The father was arrested for a week and was eventually sent to prison for a year. He served his sentence in a minimum security prison with good food, and he was frequently granted leave. He did not lose his job. His employer and his co-workers and everybody else who knew him well were completely convinced of his innocence.
Kent's Subsequent Fate
Kent was taken into custody by the social agency according
to The Law of Care of Youthful People. He was sent to a foster home of
extraordinarily low quality. The foster mother had several children of her own,
and was also in charge of a number of foster children, including some
difficult teenage boys. Kent was terrified of these boys. The foster mother
also had kennels, and ten unleashed dogs running all over the house. The home
was extremely dirty with dogs' hair everywhere.
During the period when Kent was living in this house, the Foster mother divorced her husband. Olle learned about the event by sheer accident and at a much later time. Moreover, the foster mother was engaged in politics and was often away from the home. The children did not get their meals regularly. Kent's intellectual development was far above his age, and he had learned both to read and write. In his despair he wrote letters to his grandmother (Ritva) and complained about his hopeless situation, but also about his recurrent hunger.
Only one thing was positive: Kent was permitted to keep in contact with his grandparents and to visit them. Already at an early stage of the judicial case he told his grandmother that he had not told the truth. He repeated several times that, "It was never Daddy and me, it was the other boy and me."
No member of the foster home drove Kent to and from the day nursery. He went by taxi, and the social agency paid for the transport. One taxi driver who had repeatedly had this boy as his customer, wondered about the state of things. He asked the boy, "Where are you living actually?" Kent started to cry and said, "I live in a foster home because I have lied."
Previously, he had been a well-balanced and happy boy, with a thirst for knowledge and a cognitive development far ahead of his age. While he was living in the foster home he began to stutter and felt miserable. Once, he visited his grandparents for a few days. When it was time to return to the foster home, he said he wanted to die and go to his mother in heaven. The grandparents were not permitted to be foster parents of Kent: But after about half a year they managed to have the child moved to another foster home, which was not as bad as the first one, but was still far from satisfactory. The new foster mother was a teacher. To her, accepting a foster child meant a kind of moonlighting, but also company for her own son who was a few years older. The latter was not particularly gifted, and it is our impression that she tried to restrain Kent's intellectual development, so that both children would to a greater extent be on the same level.
Kent was previously an alert and curious child who had a desire to acquire further knowledge. At the present time he is not very interested in many things.
In view of his genuine intellectual capacity, his school
grades should have been brilliant. Instead, they are mediocre. While the home
of the parental grandparents is a wonderful and expensive house, the foster
home is not very clean, the food is cooked with little care, and Kent's
clothes are shabby. Nevertheless, Kent is a docile child who has resigned
himself to his fate. However, he now and then asks his grandmother why he
cannot come home.
The Fight in European Commission for Human Rights, and the Decision by the Commission
There is a positive aspect of his situation. During two
weekends a month he is permitted to visit his maternal or paternal
grandparents on an alternating basis. Once a week his father is permitted to
visit him in the foster home. For a few weeks during summer he may live with
his paternal grandparents, and his father is permitted to be there, too. For a
protracted period I have been in charge of many cases involving children who
had been taken into custody by the authorities. Nevertheless, this is the only
case in which the child was permitted to associate with his or her family to a
degree which is at least in the neighbourhood of being reasonable. The fact
must not be overlooked, however, that Kent's contact with his grandparents is
dependent upon arbitrary decisions by the social workers. According to Swedish
law, grandparents have no formal right to see their grandchildren. They cannot
obtain a legal decision which will guarantee the contact, and a refusal cannot
be appealed to any court. They are completely at the mercy of the social
When the judgement of the trial of Olle had become final (the right to appeal is strongly curtailed in Sweden), he asked me to take charge of his case and to try to have the case accepted by the European Commission for Human Rights in Strasbourg. We advanced two grounds. First, we argued that legal proceedings concerning the suspected crime violated Olle's right to a fair trial. The case was not admitted on this ground. In accordance with its usual habit, the Commission decided that it is not its task to assess questions concerned with the evidence; this is exclusively a matter for the national courts.
Second, we argued that the authorities had violated the father's, the son's and the maternal and paternal grandparents' right to a family life in accordance with article 8 of the European Convention of Human rights, in so far as the paternal grandparents had not been accepted as foster parents, and also in so far as their association with their grandchild had been restricted to once a month.
The counter arguments of the Swedish authorities are remarkable: (1) The grandparents were too old to be satisfactory foster parents (they were 58 and 59, respective; they were vital and keen on sports); (2) The grandparents thought Olle was innocent; (3) Allegedly, 80% of incest offenders have been sexually abused themselves during their childhood. By implication, there was a fair chance that the grandparents had abused Olle and might do the same thing to Kent. The Commission accepted one circumstance as an adequate justification for refusing the grandparents to become foster parents. Because they believed in Olle's innocence, the grandparents had said that, if they got custody, they would stop the incest therapy which Kent (like all other children in the same situation) was undergoing.
Moreover, the Commission ruled that the grandparents had not yet exhausted all legal measures within their own nation. This decision seems very strange. The commission was perfectly aware that Swedish law does not entitle grandparents to complain of restrictions of contact. Any petition with such a claim will be immediately rejected. Nevertheless, the Commission deemed that the grandparents had to make such a (hopeless) petition, before their case could be handled in Strasbourg.
The grandparents and Olle had an additional motive for being cautious in this respect. Their contact with Kent was exclusively based on the arbitrary decision of the social agency, and their permission might be withdrawn at any moment. The social agency dislikes parents who go to the courts. Hence, the family had a most understandable reason for not attempting a legal action which would be abortive anyway, but which might annoy the social agency.
Summing up this case, there is no doubt that an innocent father was convicted. But it is also apparent that Kent was punished to a much more severe degree than his father.