Experts still don't have all the answers, but have a better appreciation for how to help young victims confront their abuse experience
Dylan Farrow’s open letter responding to her adoptive father Woody Allen’s lifetime achievement Golden Globe reignited the child abuse questions that captivated the media in 1993, when Farrow’s mother, Mia, then Allen’s girlfriend, split from the director. Then seven-year old Farrow’s claims that Allen had raped her became the lynchpin of a bitter custody battle; Allen continues to deny the claims, and was never prosecuted.
Farrow’s letter provides an opportunity to understand what psychologists have learned about when it’s too early to address child abuse with victims (making it too traumatizing) and when it can do harm (if children are forced to relive the experience without proper support). In the years since, some experts say, they have come to a slightly better, although still emerging sense of how reliable childhood memories and recollections are, and the lasting impact of abuse on survivors.
While cases of sexual abuse involving children have declined since Allen was first accused— between 1992 and 2010, the number of substantiated abuse cases fell by 62%, according to the National Child and Abuse Neglect Data System and other databases— around one in five girls in the U.S. still suffers at least some form of sexual molestation during childhood.
In about a third of those cases, affecting 6% to 7% of girls overall— the perpetrator is a family member, according to David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. But the most common perpetrator is a non-family acquaintance, such as a neighbor, the older sibling of a friend or a coach or teacher, he says. Abuse by strangers — the stereotypical accoster in the park or kidnapper in an unmarked van— only occurs in about 3-4% of cases.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the prevailing principle guiding sexual abuse cases was “believe the children,” which experts hoped would give young victims the benefit of the doubt when confronting potential adult abusers. But that led to dozens of wrongful convictions, particularly of daycare personnel and in cases with little or no physical evidence . Now, says Finkelhor, “The field is much more cautious about child testimony.”
That’s because psychologists are learning more about how repeated interrogation and the experience of testifying affects memory and recollections, particularly among young children. Studies showed, for example, that false convictions tended to result when children were constantly interrogated with leading questions or pressured to “tell the truth” that the interrogator wanted to hear. “There have been all kinds of protections developed in the last 20 years about how to talk to children in the course of investigations so as not to create confabulation or not to impair the testimony so it could be impeached in court,” says Finkelhor. For example, using anatomically correct dolls has been shown to produce false testimony, so investigators no longer use them.
Still, the truth is especially difficult to discern during custody cases. “The [studies] show that in some cases these are true allegations that emerge because the family is no longer trying to keep [itself] together and hide this particular secret, but that in some situations it seems to be an allegation that doesn’t have support and is probably not true,” Finkelhor says. No one really knows how common false allegations are in custody trials— but clearly neither the extreme view that they never happen or that all reports are true is correct.
And since the end of the 20th century, dozens of studies have shown how fragile and unreliable memory can be. More work even shows that it is possible to implant false memories in both adults and children using very simple prompts and suggestions. In an interview with TIME last year, Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of California in Irvine, noted that in her research, she was able to implant a false memory of witnessing Satanic possession, albeit in only a minority of participants. “I’ve been planting bits of false memory in my experimental work for decades,” she said. In response to Farrow’s letter, one of Allen’s attorneys says Farrow’s recollection of the abuse that occurred 20 years ago was planted by her mother.
But that doesn’t mean that children — or adults for that matter — cannot ever testify accurately. The age of the child, his or her own level of maturity and the circumstances of the abuse all play a role in credibility. The older the child, the more reliable their memory can be, but unfortunately, child predators tend to prey on the youngest and most vulnerable who are least likely to be believed.
And that means that when a young child is victimized, it’s difficult to determine whether subjecting him to a court experience, and forcing him to testify, will be helpful or harmful to their recovery. “These cases are very hard on children, whether they testify or not,” Finkelhor says. Research shows that testifying itself doesn’t necessarily increase or decrease the child’s trauma— but what does matter is how long the proceedings drag on and how the parents respond to the child. The longer the case takes, the worse the outcome— for instance, children can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal thoughts or addictions. Also important is how willing the child is to testify and what fears he or she has in connection with doing so. “Having support from their primary caregivers is crucial,” says Finkelhor.
Farrow wrote: “That [Allen] got away with what he did to me haunted me as I grew up. I was stricken with guilt that I had allowed him to be near other little girls. I was terrified of being touched by men. I developed an eating disorder. I began cutting myself.” Would she have felt the same way if she had testified at age seven? That’s an open question that experts are still trying to answer. Farrow, now happily married, credits the support of family and friends for helping her to confront those emotions— as well as the survivors of sexual abuse who, she wrote, “have given me a reason not to be silent, if only so others know that they don’t have to be silent either.”