National Post

Friday, May 28, 1999

Yet another dirty little secret

Editorial
National Post

Yet another dirty little secret

Putting an end to child abuse is a noble and necessary goal. Putting an end to false and self-serving accusations of child abuse that arise in divorce proceedings is an equally deserving, but largely ignored, pursuit. This week, two law professors from Queen's University released a remarkably even-handed examination of child abuse allegations. Given last year's release of the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access, and the recent response to it by the federal Justice Department, this is a timely and important piece of work.

The academics looked at 196 abuse allegations involving separated parents. Of these, 46 cases resulted in judgments that abuse did occur. Of the 150 unproven cases, the trial judges believed the allegations were intentionally false (either a parent or child made them up) 45 times. Thus it appears there are as many cases of false accusations of child abuse as there are provable, true incidents.

After lifting the veil on the prevalence of false claims, the two law professors then detail the costs -- emotional, financial and legal -- of such accusations. Since mothers make the preponderance of abuse claims -- true and false -- it is fathers who bear the bulk of this burden. Further, it is important to remember that even if the charges are found to be baseless in criminal court, they can subsequently re-appear in family court. This means the father may never escape the stigma of being falsely accused of child abuse. And just one instance of a mother being charged with making false accusations was reported in the study, even though the data suggests one-quarter of child abuse charges are likely to be deliberately invented.

The Queen's study supports anecdotal evidence from the special joint committee -- which heard countless stories about the impact of false allegations on fathers as well as testimony from child-abuse professionals who described such accusations as "the weapon of choice" of angry mothers embroiled in bitter divorce cases. In reading these two documents, the unmistakable conclusion is that false accusations must be taken far more seriously.

And yet the special joint committee's recommendation on the subject is astoundingly weak. It merely asks Parliament to "assess the adequacy of the Criminal Code in dealing with false statements." And since Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, appears intent on watering down the report's recommendations, or at the very least delaying them as long as possible, the chance of tougher measures appears slim.

A more serious response can be found in the Reform party's dissenting opinion of the special joint committee report, which calls for prosecutors to actively enforce Criminal Code provisions covering fabrication of evidence and obstruction of justice. Indeed, it is extremely odd that such a proposal should be a matter of controversy at all. Making a false accusation is an illegal act and should be treated as such. Mothers and fathers cannot be allowed to think that false accusations of abuse are simply another strategy to be employed in custody battles.

Everyone accepts that child abusers should be punished to the full extent of the law. The same must also hold true for those who knowingly make false accusations. Those politicians who protect false accusers make themselves party to the crimes.

Copyright Southam Inc.