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Illustrated Examples of Questionable Expert
Testimony in Child Custody and Abuse Cases

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EXAMPLE 1

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In the example on the left, a father involved in a divorce proceeding had been instructed by a psychologist to draw a picture of a house and tree.

He used drafting instruments at home to complete the drawings.


A father found himself embroiled in a custody dispute during a divorce proceeding. He was accused of tying up his three-year-old son with a bicycle chain and abusing him. Both parents were evaluated by a psychologist. The psychologist assigned the father the task of drawing a picture of a house and a tree. The father, with the understanding that the test results would be interpreted to indicate whether or not he was a child abuser, took the drawings home and completed them with the aid of drafting tools.

The psychologist stated that the response style to the projective drawings was suggestive of "obsessive-compulsive tendencies, high defensiveness and an intense need to control . . . (and) his rigidly defensive posture does not adequately bind the underlying anxiety and trepidation of doing poorly."


EXAMPLE 2

This drawing, rendered by a 15-year-old boy, was interpreted by a psychologist as indicating he had "psychological characteristics of a person who acts out their anger in sexualized ways."

Children are frequently assessed for possible sexual abuse with the aid of drawings and diagrams. In this case, a 15-year-old boy had been assessed by a psychologist who determined that his drawing of a person was "rather primitive for an adolescent of his age and... suggests that (the boy) has the psychological characteristics of a person who acts out their anger in sexualized ways."

When the child was subsequently tested by Drs. Underwager and Wakefield, it was found that he was blind in one eye, performed lower than expected for his age on other tests, and that he had an IQ of 67. None of this had been discussed or assessed as a possibility.

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EXAMPLE 3

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In this drawing by a seven-year-old girl, according to the psychologist, the thick lines in the crotch indicate an emphasis on genitals, are probably a penis, and indicate anxiety about the father. Therefore, the girl had been sexually abused by her father and should "be protected from further abuse by him."

A seven-year-old girl was asked by her psychologist to draw a picture of her family doing something. She drew a picture of herself and her sister with their hands up in the air, standing next to their smiling father. The child told the psychologist that she was "cheering at a show."

The psychologist disregarded what the child told her about the picture, concluding that it signified a "helpless posture." She saw it as significant that there were no fingers drawn on the hands of of the children, and that the hands were large on the father. She claimed that abused children put large hands on drawings of their perpetrators.

She also asserted that the thick lines in the crotch indicate an emphasis on genitals, are probably a penis, and indicate anxiety about the father. Therefore, the girl had been sexually abused by her father and should "be protected from further abuse by him."

Not only did the psychologist disregard what the child had told her about the picture, but she also disregarded the fact that the child denied the allegations that her father had abused her.


EXAMPLE 4

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A four-year-old girl's drawing of a tree was considered to be significant because it included a drawing of a cactus.

This was interpreted by the psychologist as indicating an "unconscious expression of danger and fearfulness."

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The drawing of a tree by a four-year-old girl in the House-Tree-Person test was considered significant because it also included a drawing of a cactus. This was interpreted by a therapist to represent an "unconscious expression of danger and fearfulness."

What the psychologist failed to take into account was that the child lived in the state of Texas. The child was not asked if she may have a cactus in her yard.

The same child also presented a drawing of a clown's face to the therapist, ostensibly drawn while in the waiting room. The therapist considered this drawing as significant because "there is an element of sadness in the clown's eyes." The drawing of the clown was of greater sophistication and detail than the child's other drawings.

When asked about this in his deposition, the psychologist acknowledged that the parents had likely draw the outline, which the child had colored in.


EXAMPLE 5

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The examples included here are drawn from a day care case involving allegations of satanic ritual abuse. The bizarre allegations, typical of such cases, surfaced during therapy.

They included the full range of masks, costumes, dead animals, sacrificed babies, blood, skeletons, and monsters.

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The therapist who saw two of the children involved in this day care case involving bizarre allegations of "satanic ritual abuse" relied heavily upon the children's drawings in forming her conclusions. The allegations included the full range of masks, costumes, dead animals, sacrificed babies, blood, skeletons, and monsters.

The case file included several hundred such drawings drawn over a two year period. These drawings had been saved because they had been considered as significant. In her deposition, the psychologist was asked about the drawings in detail. Among the significant aspects of the drawings according to this psychologist:

imageShapes that are untypical for three- and four-year old
children
Shapes that are phallic symbols
Jiggly lines that indicate anxiety
Straight mouths that mean people can't say anything
Jagged mouths that mean anxiety
A mouth that is open and oval shaped
Darkened eyes
Eyeballs that are scribbled around
Eyes that are two different colors
Drawing something and then covering it up
Drawing something and not talking about it

imageAccording to this psychologist, the use of colors
is also very significant:

Black means the child is frightened or distressed;
black is a morbid down color
Red means angry, unless the child is drawing a pretty
red flower, when it is healthy
If everything in the picture is red or black, this is
very suspicious
Blue, brown, and orange mean fear, anger, and
depression
Pink, red, and green are healthy colors



Illustrations and background material provided by Hollida Wakefield, M.A. and Ralph Underwager, Ph.D.

Last updated February 17, 2006