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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Deflection, denial and disbelief: social and political discourses about child sexual abuse and their influence on institutional responses A rapid evidence assessment

Discourses of disbelief

Whilst some sources in the literature described an overriding culture of believing children ‘at all costs’ (Beckett, 2002), there was also evidence that this was not always the case. The ‘children lie’ discourse showed that children have been represented as capable of, or even likely to, make false allegations of abuse (Nelson 2016). This belief was implied by professionals working with children who were reluctant to suspect a colleague of perpetrating child sexual abuse (Horwath, 2000, cited in Timmerman and Schreuder, 2014, p.719) and, historically could be seen in legal attitudes to children as witnesses (Temkin, 2002). The theory of ‘Parental Alienation’ which originated in the US in the 1980s and which exerted some influence amongst legal and child protection professionals, suggested that children were subject to ‘brainwashing’ by one parent who induced them to make false allegations of abuse against the other (Nelson 2016). The idea that children lied about sexual abuse featured in many of the serious case reviews in the sample, with this disbelief leading to a lack of professional action or intervention. In several of the serious case reviews, children also appeared to be caught in a ‘telling trap’ in that when they did not disclose abuse this was taken as evidence that abuse was not occurring, but when they did they were disbelieved.

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