A Critical Look at the Child Welfare System
Syndrome Evidence


Once removed from the pressure imposed by the relentless questioning, and other forms of psychological duress, children often recant or withdraw the accusations they may have rendered under the circumstances of interrogation.

Children who deny allegations of abuse or of sexual molest under such questioning are often viewed as being "in denial" about their abuse, or of "accomodating" or "protecting" their alleged abuser, and this denial is often taken as evidence that abuse had actually occurred.

Many child protective caseworkers subscribe to the theory that denial is a natural stage children experience in cases of abuse. Some studies held in esteem by child protective caseworkers expand this theory to include recantation after interrogation as a natural stage of this process.

An 1983 article authored by Dr. Roland Summit describes five characteristics which he claimed as commonly observed in sexually abused children: (1) secrecy, (2) helplessness, (3) entrapment and accommodation, (4) delayed, conflicted, and unconvincing disclosure, and (5) retraction.[1]

His purpose in drafting his theory of the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome was ostensibly to provide a "common language" for professionals working to protect sexually abused children.

Reduced to its essence, the syndrome advanced by Summit provides a series of Catch-22's for people accused of sexually abusing children. If the child maintains that he or she had not been so abused, the child is thought to be in the first stage of secrecy. The denial becomes evidence, and the interrogation continues.

Should the child admit under the circumstances of interrogation to having been so abused, guilt is established, even if the disclosure is conflicting or unconvincing.

Should the child, once removed from the duress of the interrogation, subsequently recant the allegation, guilt remains established, and the recantation is used as evidence that abuse had actually occurred.

There is no provision in the mainstream child protective literature for children similarly accommodating their interrogators.

The theory advanced by Summit has been discredited to the extent that it is now considered as completely inadmissible as evidence in some states.[2]

In a 1992 article, Summit himself discredits such application of the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS) he had advanced, explaining that it was meant as a clinical observation, and not intended for use as a diagnostic tool. He describes the misapplication of his observations in the context of criminal prosecutions:

some criticism has been a legitimate defense against improper use by prosecutors and expert witnesses called by prosecution. There has been some tendency to use the CSAAS as an offer of proof that a child has been abused. A child may be said to be suffering from or displaying the CSAAS, as if it is a malady that proves the alleged abuse. Or a child's conspicuous helplessness or silence might be said to be consistent with the CSAAS, as if not complaining proves the complaint. Some have contended that a child who retracts is a more believable victim than one who has maintained a consistent complaint.[3]

That the Summit observations have been discredited in the courts, and refuted by Summit himself is problematic both for child protective caseworkers and prosecutors, for without its general acceptance by the courts, and lacking any physical evidence or other corroboration, many convictions are difficult, if not impossible to obtain.

Indeed, Summit himself had declared that the syndrome "has become both elevated as gospel and denounced as dangerous pseudoscience."

What to do when a theory elevated to the status of gospel is dispelled as myth? Write another paper advancing the same or a similar theory to take its place as gospel. Enter satanic ritual abuse believers Teena Sorensen and Barbara Snow, who were more than happy to oblige.[4]

In a 1991 article held in high regard by industry professionals, authors Sorensen and Snow claim that children's sexual abuse disclosures often proceed through five phases: (a) denial, (b) tentative disclosure, (c) active disclosure, (d) recantation, and (e) reaffirmation.[5]

The initial denial phase, they argue, is attributable to the child usually having been told "not to tell anyone" about the incidents of alleged sexual abuse for fear of reprisal. In the tentative disclosure phase, the children "frequently appeared confused, inaccurate, and uncertain, often vacillating from acknowledgment to denial," while "active disclosure meant that they were able to give a detailed, coherent first-person account of the abuse."

Sorensen and Snow note "the importance of viewing disclosure as a process with phases that, like developmental tasks, can be resolved."

The resolution of the problem of children recanting statements obtained by means of coercive interrogations is often a hingepin to a successful prosecution. And, it would appear that authors Sorenson and Snow may themselves have devised their thesis in order to explain the high recantation rate among the young victims of their own interrogations.

In a Utah case in which Barbara Snow had been called in as an "expert witness," a number of significant discrepancies were raised by the defense, not the least of which was: "one police officer who described how the children in Dr. Snow's care were able to reproduce specific information after he had suggested to Dr. Snow that such information should be present in their statements."

These discrepancies, as described by the Court included:

  • a doctoral thesis in which Barbara Snow discussed the use of authority and punishment to modify patient behavior,

  • testimony that she used this technique to modify the responses of her child patients to questions about sexual abuse,

  • testimony from law enforcement personnel that false information deliberately "fed" by them to Barbara Snow in their investigatory work promptly appeared in the statements of children she interviewed, and

  • a highly suspicious correlation between the factual patterns revealed in at least four child sex abuse investigations in which Barbara Snow was involved.

The court continued, describing the bizarre allegations of ritual abuse that Snow had managed to elicit from the children:

Eventually, in Barbara Snow's interviews with the Hadfield children and others, a total of at least fifteen adults and fifteen children were identified as participants in various unusual sexual activities, including instances of group abuse of children by adults. The activities described by the children involved satanic ritual, costumes and masks, photography equipment, men dressing in women's clothing, and frequent episodes of playing with and consuming human excrement.[6]

It was argued that the testimony of the alleged victims "had been irretrievably contaminated by the suggestive and coercive nature of Dr. Snow's techniques and was highly unreliable as a result," according to the court.

In another Utah case, it was held that Sorensen's work was equally leading, suggestive and coercive.[7]

Evidently, Barbara Snow is not only an adherent to the theory of widespread satanic ritual abuse, but may have herself played a role in having precipitated such allegations.

During cross-examination in a North Carolina ritual abuse case, one of the experts citing the work of Sorensen and Snow was asked by the defense: "Are you aware of how many different communities Barbara Snow has been in after which allegations of mass sexual abuse occurred?"[8]

These points are significant in view of the fact that the theory advanced by authors Sorensen and Snow has largely been accepted among the mainstream of child abuse professionals, who often use it to explain away the recantations children often render once removed from the psychological duress of interrogation.


The child protective services industry is replete with with self-proclaimed "experts" such as these and Roland Summit, from whose largely discredited theory of Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome the work of Sorensen and Snow is largely derived.

One recent Indiana case is worthy of review at some length, as it presents a clear picture of the type of syndrome evidence often presented in these types of cases. Internal citations have been removed for sake of clarity:

The State called Betty Watson, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with considerable professional experience who had provided treatment for S.M. After stating that common traits or behavioral symptoms are found in teenagers who have experienced sexual abuse. Dr. Watson testified that S.M. exhibited such symptoms, identifying poor self-esteem, "family problems," association with an older peer group, depression, leaving home without permission, and problems with school behavior and performance.

The State also presented testimony from Michael S. Girton, a minister and executive director of a licensed group residential treatment facility, and his wife, Katherine R. Girton, a caseworker at the facility. After establishing that Rev. Girton had taken courses in "sexual abuse work," including "being able to identify sexual abuse," the State asked him whether, based upon his personal experience, "kids who have known incidents of sexual abuse exhibit certain traits or characteristics or behavior patterns." Rev. Girton answered, "Yes," and described the following types of behavior that he looks for "in the characterization of sexual abuse":

    Anything for medical reasons, from bladder infections to abnormal medical problems, and more of the characteristics, the girls can be anything from promiscuous, they can be very timid, they can come in with extremely low esteem. Almost exclusively, that is going to be a major characteristic. Some of the different cues can range in areas from being really over timid to different kind of touches and approaches, where you would approach them in different directions or from different manners or methods. You might even put your hand on their shoulder and that might freak them out or something. There is a lot of different areas where just working with them it becomes really quite evident. You can see that behavior demonstrated quite plainly.[9]

A more recent Florida case is also worthy of some review.

To corroborate the alleged victim's testimony, the State called in Gail Jackson, a clinical social worker, whose claimed specialty was working with sexually abused children, and Dr. Nancy Davis, a psychologist with whom Jackson practiced.

Jackson was permitted to enumerate the "behavioral characteristics" of children who have been sexually abused. She indicated that she had seen at least 600 victims of child sexual abuse during her career. The Florida Supreme Court describes her testimony:

She stated that such children "get very confused about time" and many of them have fears, especially of the alleged perpetrator. Further, Jackson noted that victims of sexual abuse may experience physical ailments, "complaints of headaches, stomach aches in which a lot of it is anxiety." Another characteristic to which Jackson testified was the avoidance of relationships with peers and activity at school. Many times, according to Jackson, this behavior is indicative of shame. "Either they will be totally withdrawn from someone of the opposite sex or they will be promiscuous." Poor school performance is another characteristic to which Jackson referred - "This stems from the child being preoccupied." Finally, she testified that while many may appear to be somewhat aloof and detached from their feelings, "many of them are hyper vigilant, which means that they are startled very easily. Always on guard, taking in their whole surrounding because they had to be on guard."

Jackson also testified that the victim was very depressed, withdrawn, fearful, and sad. She had a lot of guilt and was "emotionally very detached." She had a "significant number of nightmares. Dreaming of someone chasing her, not being able to see their face and that is very, very common among victims I have worked with of all ages."

The victim, according to Jackson, exhibited "a lot of ambivalence" toward her stepfather and was quite confused. Moreover, she had poor grades and was having difficulty getting along with the other children at school and, Jackson added, she was afraid of men.

Dr. Davis was called as an expert in clinical psychology with a specialty in child sexual abuse. Dr. Davis performed no psychological testing of the victim. Her conclusions were reached on the basis of having spoken to the victim when she came into the office to see Ms. Jackson, having reviewed Ms. Jackson's notes and records and the medical report from the Prince George's Sexual Assault Center, and having discussed the case with Ms. Jackson.

Davis opined the alleged victim to be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, noting the following characteristics from the alleged victim:

a flat affect - "there was no expression on her face and no feeling in her voice;" the victim was ambivalent toward her mother and the petitioner; the victim felt responsible for what happened; the victim had poor grades, and problems getting along with other children at school; and the victim had sleep problems.

There was, however, one additional obstacle to be overcome in this particular case. The defendant had three witnesses who testified that he was at work during the time of one of the claimed acts of sexual abuse.[10]

The use of such "syndrome evidence" in general has been largely discredited. Many courts throughout the states have ruled such evidence to be inadmissible in determining whether or not abuse had actually occurred.[11]

Yet, the practice of using such spectral evidence is still in use today. The 1991-1992 San Diego Grand Jury found the use of these syndromes and other behavioral indicators to be in widespread use by prosecutors and child protective caseworkers as evidence in juvenile dependency cases.[12]

Two years later, another Grand Jury found that these syndromes and other behavioral indicators were still in widespread use by prosecutors and child protective caseworkers, concluding:

Child Sexual Abuse Syndrome (CSAS), or Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS), or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other theories utilizing behavior as a basis for proof of child sexual abuse is discredited and unacceptable.[13]


The examples cited are not aberrations, rather they remain at the center of mainstream child protective theory today.

Notwithstanding that the use of these syndromes as indicators has been almost universally discredited, they continue to be taught to social workers, clinicians, attorneys and other industry professionals.

Who provides the training to industry professionals? Enter Kee MacFarlane--who as an unlicenced therapist miserably mishandled the McMartin case--stage left.[14]

MacFarlane, who shares in common with Roland Summit and authors Sorensen and Snow a deeply-held conviction in the widespread prevalence of the satanic ritual abuse of children, now provides extensive training courses for social workers through her Children's Institute International.[15]

MacFarlane's Children's Institute International proudly offers fully recognized Continuing Education Units to attorneys, clinical psychologists, law enforcement officers, clinical social workers, marriage, family and child counselors, and registered nurses through its staff of over 150 "professionals."

The ostensibly "non-profit" center boasts among its primary funding sources the California Office of Criminal Justice Planning, and the California Department of Social Services, through a subcontract with Giarretto Institute, which supports training for mandated reporters of child abuse and for Child Abuse Coordinating Councils throughout Southern California.[16]

Listed as among the courses offered for Continuing Education Credits by CII, The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome:

This course will enhance participants' knowledge of the Child Sexual Abuse Accomodation Syndrome developed by Dr. Roland Summit, which describes the characteristic feelings and behaviors of child victims of intrafamilial sexual abuse.

Who should attend? "Professionals and paraprofessionals who work with children."[17]

Other courses currently being offered by MacFarlane's CII include: Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, along with a wide variety of other training sessions, including: Child developmental stages; Communicating in the language of children; Linguistics; Use of diagnostic tools; Use of interviewing tools; Pitfalls of leading and suggestive questions; and Obtaining a psychosocial history.[18]

MacFarlane, it seems, has cornered a significant share of the training market, offering the California Licensing Prerequisite Courses for Psychologists, Clinical Social Workers, or Marriage, Family and Child Counselors.

Who should attend? "All persons applying for California initial licensure and renewal of a license as a psychologist, clinical social worker, or marriage, family and child counselor on or after January 1, 1987."[19]

Significantly, Roland Summit and Kee MacFarlane have something in common other than their belief in the notion of widespread satanic ritual abuse of children. They are all held in high esteem by the American Professional Society on Sexual Abuse of Children (APSAC).

This group of industry professionals lobbies, provides training sessions, conducts seminars, and disseminates information to social workers, judges, and law enforcement personnel.[20]

During a recent speech addressing the Child Abuse Prevention Symposium, held at the University of Minnesota, Executive Director Theresa Reid spoke in glowing terms about the "pioneering work" performed by members Kee MacFarlane, Roland Summit, Jon Conte, Lucy Berliner, and others on the nature of and the effects of child sexual abuse.[21]

MacFarlane's CII, while one of the larger and more deeply entrenched organizations providing training for industry professionals, is by no means the only one.

The American Professional Society on Sexual Abuse of Children proudly boasts: "APSAC is the nation's only interdisciplinary professional society for those working in the field of child maltreatment."[22]

Copyright 1997 - 2002 Rick Thoma

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Last Updated March 26, 1997