The True Cost of False Witness

It is the “nuclear option” in divorce and custody cases. It is the nightmare scenario for foster parents.

It can be the end of a teaching or child-care career. What is it?

It is a false allegation of child abuse. This is not only a particularly vicious form of fraud, it is one of the few lies that the legal system makes no effort to punish. There is, for all practical purposes, no penalty for making a false accusation of child abuse.

Many different characters can have a motive for making a false allegation. Sometimes a birth parent will accuse foster parents of harming the child. The birth parents may believe they can improve their chances of reunifying with their child by discrediting the foster parents. Or the birth parents may simply be vindictive.

Sometimes the foster children themselves invent stories, for reasons of their own. The kids might want to get out of a foster home because the rules are too tough or they don’t like the food. Inventing a story of sexual molestation or physical abuse can be a foster child’s tactic for getting himself or herself thrown out of a foster home. Kids who have been in The System for a while compare notes with one another about how to get themselves thrown out of a foster home.

False allegations are so common that our local foster-parent association has a policy of assisting families through their first experience of being investigated.

But, of course, it isn’t just people already in the child-welfare system who have motives for making false allegations. Some parents in custody disputes make accusations against their spouses as a tactic for keeping the parent out of the child’s life. Others have no practical reason for inventing a charge: They do it simply for spite.

One study found that some 70% of child-abuse charges in custody cases proved to be unfounded.

Now, a little thought will bring to mind the cost to the victims of a false allegation. The divorced father loses his reputation, his livelihood and all contact with his children. The foster parents go through a long investigative procedure, which may cost them money and will certainly cost them sleep.

But let’s not dwell on the obvious costs to the obvious victims. There are many hidden costs of indiscriminate charges of child abuse.

The prospect of having a false allegation made against you is surely something that dissuades good people from becoming foster parents in the first place. The more scrupulous the person is, the more the prospect of being humiliated by an investigation is likely to bother them. We don’t know how many perfectly decent potential foster parents have been frightened away. The cost of aggressively prosecuting each and every child-abuse claim, no matter how far-fetched, is that the system has trouble attracting and retaining foster parents. This is costly for all the kids who come through the foster-care system.

Then there are costs for the kids who make false claims.

A child with a history of making up stories about authority figures really cannot be in a foster home since most families are reluctant to take a child like this. The social workers could place such a child with an unsuspecting foster family, but they really shouldn’t. So if the social workers play it straight, the kid will have trouble getting a home. That child is no longer “family material.” He or she will end up in a group home because he or she poses a serious risk to a family.

The worst consequence of undetected false claims is that children who get away with lying become more and more disturbed. Nancy Thomas, therapeutic foster mom, has spent her adult life helping seriously disturbed children. In her book Dandelion On My Pillow, Butcher Knife Beneath, she reports on the sad consequences of serial lying.

One child had come into foster care after accusing his mother of subjecting him to a child prostitution ring. His mother and another adult went to prison. Another accused person committed suicide. His social worker lost her license. But, as the story unfolded, Nancy found out there was no child prostitution ring: The child’s father had coached the child to make these charges as a way of hurting his ex-wife. Of all Nancy’s troubled children, this was the one who never really recovered.

Think about it from the perspective of a mildly troubled child: “I got my stepdad sent to jail. I broke up my mom’s second marriage. I got my foster parents’ license taken away.” Getting an adult in trouble empowers the child, and they become drunk on that power. Every time they get away with a lie, they get more disturbed and more difficult to treat.

That is the greatest hidden cost of allowing false allegations to go undetected and unpunished.

If you or I pulled the fire alarm because we liked to see all the excitement of the fire trucks, we’d be in big trouble. The public-safety officers in this country take a dim view of people who harm the public good in this way. False or frivolous charges of child abuse play the same kind of havoc with the family court system and the lives of many innocent people.

At the very least, society needs to impose some penalty for inflicting those kinds of costs on others. The first step is recognizing the problem. People get away with making false allegations every day. Innocent people suffer from being falsely accused. It is high time we notice.

Jennifer Roback Morse is

a research fellow at

the Hoover Institution.