The Painful Cost of Disbelieving Women

by Barry Goldstein.

A man in one of the batterer classes I teach couldn’t wait to bring up the Duke Lacrosse and Tawana Brawley cases to counter research that women rarely make false reports of rape or abuse.  While many men in the class, like the general public are familiar with the rare cases in which a woman made false reports, few are familiar with “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” written by Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller which tells the compelling story of the far more common situation where a true report is believed to be a lie.

I cannot complain about the men in the class or most of the public being unaware of this horrific story.  I have worked for over thirty years trying to prevent domestic violence and sexual abuse and focus on current research and yet I was ignorant of this Pulitzer Prize winning story for many months after it was first published.  The public cannot demand needed reforms if they are unaware of the frequency that courts and other public officials mishandle sexual assault and domestic violence.

A critical research study (Saunders) released by the National Institute of Justice found that evaluators, judges and lawyers without the specific domestic violence training needed tend to focus on the myth that women in custody cases frequently make false reports of abuse.  This myth is widespread and makes the lives of rapists in our society far easier.  The rest of us, especially women and children pay an obscene price for maintaining this ignorance.

Marie’s Story

The young woman the authors called Marie had an extremely difficult childhood.  She was sexually abused, abandoned by her family and spent most of her childhood in foster care.  At eighteen, she was out on her own for the first time with her own apartment and job and seemed to be making some progress.  And then a man broke into her apartment and raped her.

The rapist was well prepared and knowledgeable about law enforcement practices.  He tied her hands, put a gag in her mouth and raped her repeatedly over a four-hour period.  Her attacker took pictures and threatened to put them on the Internet if she went to the police.  He took extensive precautions to avoid detection particularly to avoid providing a DNA sample.  The rapist used a condom, required Marie to take a shower, wiped the room and removed the bedding on which his attack was committed.

Marie told her ex-boyfriend and the last two foster mothers who she was still close to.  She reported the crime to the police and they were initially supportive and helpful.  Her foster mothers started to doubt her report because her demeanor was different than expected.  They shared their concerns with the police who also noticed minor discrepancies that are common in rape cases.  The police pressured Marie to recant and when she sought to take back the recantation they threatened her with jail and loss of housing.  She was prosecuted for the “false” report and required to get therapy, serve probation and pay a fine.  The fine was far greater than the fine Ray Rice paid for his brutal attack that knocked Janay Palmer unconscious.

Under ordinary circumstances, the court system and the public would have viewed Marie as just another criminal and lying woman.  The rapist, however continued to assault women using many of the same tactics.  Unusually good police work led to his capture and conviction.  The evidence included the pictures he had taken of Marie.

The Aftermath

The reporting by Armstrong and Miller was excellent as one would expect of a story awarded a Pulitzer Prize.  I particularly appreciate that they did the research necessary to report the story in the context of rape in our society.  Experts know that rape victims often recant true reports for a myriad of good reasons, but the public is largely unaware of this common response.  The authors mentioned that police declare rape reports unfounded only about 5% of the time.  The actual number is probably lower because too often police disbelieve true reports as happened to Marie.

It would have been important for the media covering the Duke Lacrosse case to mention that deliberate false reports are rare.  Too few reporters, trying to make up for the negative reporting about the Duke players, included this important information.  Lawyers for rapists are still using this case to sow doubt in jurors’ minds as if false reports were common.

The myth of frequent false reports, promoted by rapists and the professionals paid to help them increase the outrageous frequency of rape.  Potential rapists are encouraged to commit their crimes because the chance of being caught and punished is so remote.  Survivors are discouraged from reporting the crimes or getting needed treatment.  When one of Jerry Sandusky’s victims was asked why he didn’t report Sandusky’s assault sooner, he explained that he didn’t think anyone would believe him.  Police and prosecutors are less likely to bring charges; jurors are more likely to use the myth to form a reasonable doubt and judges too often treat the horrific crime of rape with far less seriousness than it deserves.

For survivors, the minutes or hours of the attack last a lifetime.  The pain is far greater than the immediate physical injuries.  Marie briefly considered jumping off a bridge, but many victims do commit suicide.  Many of the survivors will never reach their potential and this harms everyone.  Society pays a large financial price in taxes, insurance premiums and an impaired economy.  Marie was vindicated and received compensation, but most of the Maries just keep their heads down.  We can do better.

In part one a particularly egregious rape case was used to illustrate how the widespread belief that victims frequently make false reports encourages rapists and undermines society’s efforts to prevent rape.  In part two the author uses another outrageous case to illustrate how this same myth undermines the ability of family courts to protect children.

The Painful Cost of Disbelieving Women (and Children)

Many years ago, three brave children age seven, six and four told their mother that their father was physically and sexually abusing them.  The mother did everything a good parent is supposed to do to protect her children.  She reported the father’s abuse to the child protective agency (CPS), obtained a protective order and sought custody.  Initially the children were protected and the abusive father limited to supervised visits.

The children told their law guardian, the evaluator, the judge and the CPS caseworker what their father did to them.  As often happens in these cases, the professionals assumed that the mother encouraged the children to lie and she was threatened with a loss of custody if she didn’t stop.  The judge ordered normal visitation to resume the next weekend.

Before the first visit, the father was confronted by the family baby sitter in the presence of the law guardian and admitted kissing his two daughters on their privates.  The law guardian immediately brought a motion to stop the visitation and I joined the motion on behalf of the mother.  The judge consulted the evaluator who said the father used bad judgment but there was no reason to stop the visitation.  The four-year-old was penetrated for the first time during this visit.

I called CPS to make a report since they were unaware of the father’s admission.  When the judge heard, he yelled and screamed at me saying they already investigated and found nothing.  A new caseworker was assigned who conducted a more thorough investigation and learned the father’s behavior was even worse than we knew.  They brought charges against the father and he never was allowed unsupervised visits again.

The mother won custody and invited the caseworker and I to a celebratory dinner.  The children had gifts for us but most important was the name they used.  They called us “believers” because we believed them when all the professionals who were supposed to protect them didn’t.  I learned as a young attorney that there is no greater honor than to be called a believer.

The Impact of Professional Disbelievers in Family Court

There is a large overlap between disbelieving reports of rape in the criminal justice system and domestic violence or child sexual abuse in custody court cases.  Just as many found it hard to believe rape reports about Bill Cosby or Kobe Bryant, the father in the believer story was an eye doctor and born-again Christian so how could he possibly have committed the heinous acts the children reported?

A study led by Dr. Jennifer Hardesty found that a mother’s anger and emotion carries tremendous weight in family courts all out of proportion to what it says about her parenting ability.  This is based on the stereotype of the emotional or hysterical woman.  Similarly, the stereotype of the vindictive, scorned woman influences mothers’ credibility.

The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Research from the CDC found that one-quarter of children in this country are sexually assaulted before reaching 18.  Significantly the methodology eliminated any possibility of false reports impacting the findings.  Deliberate false reports of child sexual abuse occur less than 2% of the time, but 85% of sex abuse cases result in custody for the alleged offender.  The court approach is so biased that attorneys routinely advise their clients not to raise concerns about sexual abuse even with strong evidence.

Family courts’ response to domestic violence is so uninformed that abusive fathers have a better chance of winning custody than good fathers.  Shockingly, alleged abusers win sole or joint custody 70-80% of the time.  There are many flawed practices, most of which were developed in the 1970s, that lead to decisions jeopardizing children.  This includes the failure to integrate current scientific research; reliance on professionals with expertise in mental illness and psychology but not domestic violence or child sexual abuse; widespread gender bias; the failure to understand the importance of context in domestic violence cases and approaches that err on the side of risking children.  The myth that mothers frequently make false reports which is widely believed by inadequately trained court professionals strongly contributes to the failure to protect children.

Court professionals have a fundamentally mistaken belief about the nature of contested custody cases.  They assume these are high conflict cases in which the parents are angry with each other and act out in ways that hurt the children.  In reality a large majority are domestic violence cases involving the most dangerous abusers, men who believe she has no right to leave.  They have developed a variety of strategies to gain custody by manipulating custody courts and the myth is an important part of their strategy.  The success of these tactics makes it harder for victims to leave their abusers because mothers won’t leave without their children.  The widespread failure of custody courts to respond effectively to domestic violence has undermined society’s response to intimate partner violence and reversed the previous trend when the homicide rate was going down.

The medical research that family courts have been slow to integrate demonstrates that domestic violence causes far more harm than previously understood.  We know about the murders and serious injuries from assaults by abusers.  Most people including policy makers and journalists fail to realize that living with the fear and stress from trauma like domestic violence, sexual abuse and child abuse leads to often deadly diseases and social problems.  The delay between the trauma and the full consequences masks the full extent of the harm.  In addition to the human toll, our tolerance for domestic violence costs the United States over one trillion dollars every year.  This is a high price for allowing our culture to accept the myth instead of believing the victims.

In part one of this article we saw how disbelieving a young rape victim caused tremendous harm.  In the second part the same myth about the frequency of false reports contributes to the frequency of custody courts mishandling domestic violence cases.  This in turn undermines society’s efforts to curb intimate partner abuse.  In the final part we will explore how proven, effective practices can reduce the human costs and provide enormous benefits for the entire country.

Rape, Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Can Be Prevented

Mark Wynn is the leading trainer of law enforcement professionals regarding their response to domestic violence.  As a young police officer he was offended by training that said murders could not be prevented.  The purpose of the police was only to catch the killer afterwards.  Mark proved they were wrong by developing a successful program to prevent DV crime in Nashville.

District Attorney Bill Delahunt noticed that almost every inmate at a nearby high security prison had a childhood history that included domestic violence and often sexual abuse.  He believed that if he could prevent domestic violence it would reduce all crime and this is exactly what he accomplished.  A county which averaged 5-6 DV homicides enjoyed several years with no murders.

The successful practices that became part of the original Quincy Model included strict enforcement of criminal laws, restraining orders and probation rules together with practices that made it easier for victims to leave and a coordinated community response, dramatically reduced DV crimes.  Similar practices in communities like Nashville and San Diego were also successful.  The Quincy Solution updated the successful model by using current scientific research, new technologies like GPS and including the custody courts.

Bill Delahunt noticed that victims stopped cooperating when their abuser sought custody.  This did not derail the success in Quincy because at the time this was a rare tactic.  Today it is a standard abuser tactic so we developed the Safe Child Act to safeguard children in family courts.  This is a comprehensive proposal based on current research that is multi-disciplinary and trauma-informed.  The proposal would require courts to make the health and safety of children the first priority in all custody and visitation decisions.  It would require courts to integrate current scientific research like ACE and Saunders and bar unscientific theories such as alienation theories that are based on the belief that sex between adults and children can be acceptable.  The law would encourage a more multi-disciplinary approach instead of using mental health professionals for all issues.  Court professionals would be retrained to discard outdated practices and substitute approaches that emphasize protecting children.

Strict enforcement practices might seem likely to add to an already excessive prison population, but in practice would do the opposite.  Contrary to popular misconceptions, abusers are able to control their behavior and will do so if they believe they would risk unacceptable consequences.  The media covered the Quincy Model extensively and the word got out that you don’t commit domestic violence in Quincy.  So most abusers stopped committing their crimes and children who did not witness domestic violence were less likely to commit crimes when they grew up.

Reducing Rape and other Sexual Assaults

Proven practices that reduce domestic violence crime will by themselves reduce sexual crimes because the children in the homes will be less likely to grow up and commit these crimes.  Reforming the custody courts will directly save children who are now forced to live with their abusers and the protected children will be less likely to commit sex crimes as adults.

In recent years the United States has launched campaigns to prevent sexual abuse in the military and on college campuses.  The CDC findings that a quarter of our children are sexually assaulted demands a similar program to protect children.  Present practices treat crimes against children by strangers very seriously, but the large majority of child sexual abuse committed by people the children know is routinely denied and minimized.  Bill Delahunt created a special office to prosecute sexual crimes against children, particularly incest.  This contributed to the success in Quincy.  Today standard practices in cases of incest is to focus on reunification instead of punishment.  This practice encourages sexual assault because the offenders have reason to expect they will get away with their crimes.  Law enforcement rather than social workers must lead criminal investigations concerning child sexual abuse and gather evidence for the purpose of prosecuting the crimes.

Programs to prevent sex crimes can and should deal directly with the myth that false reports occur frequently.  The media needs to improve their practices so these stories are put in context and misinformation is avoided.  The authors of the story about Marie used research to place her case in context and spoke to genuine experts.  Until the myth is fully exploded, prosecutors may need to use expert witnesses to place the evidence in context.  Many sexual assaults, particularly those against children do not leave DNA, but jurors often expect that level of proof.  An expert can explain this to a jury and help them understand that unexpected demeanor or minor discrepancies are common in rape cases.

Understanding the Cost of Rape and Domestic Violence

Dutchess County, NY appointed a citizens’ committee of experts to study the county’s response to domestic violence after suffering a series of DV homicides.  Many of their practices were the opposite of what was successful in Quincy,  Particularly interesting was that small budget cuts impacting the response to domestic violence contributed to the murders.  “Savings” of twenty or thirty thousand dollars led to millions of dollars in expenditures to respond after the murders.  In other words, even putting aside the horrific human costs, money spent on prevention is repaid many times over.

The money saved by prematurely ending the investigation of the rape Marie reported pales in comparison to the costs in criminal justice expenses and reparations to Marie.  Implementing the Quincy Solution would save the United States $500 billion every year.  In addition to paying for itself, these proven practices would help federal, state and local governments reduce deficits while improving the economy.

There are rare cases where false reports are made and no one wants to see an innocent man endure the enormous harm of bogus charges.  Marie knows the devastation of practices based on the myth that false reports are common.  Later victims of Marie’s rapist were also harmed by the myth even though they were believed.  Police, prosecutors, judges, reporters and the public would do well to learn from three brave young children who taught us the value and the honor of being called believers.  Just like Bill Delahunt’s response to domestic violence, later research confirmed the children were right.