Kids in the Crossfire

updated 09/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1992 01:00AM

Double jeopardy for children of divorce

Of all the charges and countercharges flung about during the bitter Woody Allen—Mia Farrow fracas last month, the most shocking by far was the accusation that Allen had sexually abused the couple's adopted daughter. Dylan. 7. Allen angrily denied the churn and suggested that it had been cynically made by Farrow's camp. "Thus, my lawyers tell me is a currently popular though heinous card played in all too many child-custody fights, he said. Whether Allen is guilty or innocent, his lawyers have not misinformed him. In the past decade there has been an increase in false allegations of abase in custody disputes, says Richard A. Gardner, M.D., 61, a child psychiatrist who teaches at Columbia University medical school.

The author of 33 books, including the forthcoming True and False Accusations of Child Sex Abuse, Gardner has testified in many custody cases and counsels abused children. "No one denies that child molestation is widespread," Gardner told writer-reporter Maria Speidel. "But the rise of false allegations as a wedge in custody cases is an alarming modern development."

Were you surprised at the abuse charges in such a high-profile split?

No, this is what's been happening in some custody disputes. The only difference is that now charges are directed at a respected individual who is loved and admired by millions of people who don't want to believe this about him. I feel sorry for Allen. If he did it, it's sad for the family. If he didn't, it's terrible that he's being accused of something with such damaging consequences.

Why do you think charges of abase in custody cases are increasing?

Most slates now have laws requiring judges to be sex-blind in awarding custody, so guardianship no longer automatically goes to the mother. As a result, divorce battles have gotten more vicious. In my experience, instances of false child-abuse charges began to surface in the early '80s as the legal position of women began to erode. Consciously or unconsciously, some women began programming their children against the father. Abuse charges can be an extremely powerful weapon. Judges will order immediate cessation of visitation, pending hearings that may not begin for months.

Do men ever bring these charges?

Absolutely—although it's more commonly the woman. In my own experience, about 10 percent of the charges are made by men. They'll accuse the mother, mostly, or the mother's boyfriend.

How do you differentiate between true and false allegations?

I have main criteria. One is timing. Note when the accusation occurred. In one situation, a mother may find signs of abuse and confront the father saying, "I've had it with you. I want a divorce." Compare that to a situation where there have been no accusations. no evidence of abuse and then there's a divorce. After unsuccessfully trying various exclusionary tactics, such as blocking visitation suddenly a parent brings up allegations of child abuse.

But isn't it farfetched to suggest so many kids van be made to lie?

No child tells the truth all the time. And the younger they are. the more suggestible they are. A parent may not say explicitly, If you don't say this I won't love you, but the child gels the message. In one of my cases, a mother said to her 5-year-old girl, "Let's play a trick on Daddy. Let's go to the police and It'll them that Daddy touched your wee-wee spot." That father was charged but not convicted.

How do you tell when a child isn't telling the truth?

One of the hallmarks of a manufactured story is preposterousness. A child may say, "My daddy put a sword in my vagina 12 times, and my mommy go I angry and gave him a 'time out.' " Using leading questions or dolls with anatomical parts can make matters worse. Ultimately, a sexually abused child who has been traumatized is going to talk about it in a trusting relationship. The truth comes out in a child's play. An abused child may create fantasies of locking the door because there's a "bad man" coming.

What's the solution?

When these cases arise, the courts should require all parties—the child and both parents—to be questioned individually by an impartial evaluator, if it is discovered that the charges are maliciously false, the parent who brought them should be in danger of losing custody.

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