False Accusations of Child Abuse Are Subject to Legal Recourse

New York case could be subject to charges of “gross negligence” despite other immunity laws, court says.

S. v. Child & Adolescent Treatment Services, 614 N.Y.S.2d 661 (Sup, 1994)

Key point: Professional counselors who wrongfully accuse a person of child abuse may be subject to legal liability for doing so.

A New York court ruled that a grandmother could sue a professional counselor who falsely accused her of child abuse. Hundreds of thousands of adults are accused each year of child abuse.

Tragically, many of these allegations are true. But some of them are false, and the effects of a false accusation can be devastating. A New York court recently addressed the question of whether a professional counselor who falsely accuses an adult of child abuse can be sued on the basis of negligence for doing so.

A 5-year-old girl complained to her mother that her grandmother had sexually molested her during a recent visit to her home. The mother immediately had her daughter examined, but no physical evidence of abuse was observed. The mother took her daughter to a professional counselor for about two years. The counselor informed various persons that the girl "disclosed to me being sexually abused by her paternal grandmother" and that "I have no reason to doubt [her] disclosure of sexual abuse."

The counselor then informed an attorney representing the girl's mother that there should be no contact between the girl and her grandmother until the grandmother "can take responsibility for the injury [the girl] experienced, and demonstrates restitutive behavior." The counselor informed the girl's court-appointed guardian that she felt that the girl had been molested, and recommended that the grandmother only be permitted to visit the girl in the presence of other adults "until such time as she exhibits some responsibility for her actions and obtains some counseling for whatever emotional problems she may have."

The grandmother later sued the counselor, claiming that the counselor "negligently, carelessly and recklessly reached the false conclusion that the [grandmother] has sexually abused [her granddaughter] and thereafter negligently, carelessly and recklessly informed others of that conclusion." A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the grandmother appealed. A state appeals court ruled that the case should not have been dismissed and allowed the grandmother to pursue her lawsuit in court.

The court acknowledged that "[t]he best intentioned efforts towards determining whether sexual abuse has occurred and protecting children from it has not been without unfortunate downside effects. In recent years, much progress has been made in exposing the plight of abused and neglected children and providing them with needed protection and treatment. However, during these good faith efforts to protect children, many innocent parents have suffered." The court continued:

Particularly where the claim of abuse arises in connection with other, highly-charged disputes (such as divorce or custody and visitation proceedings), the determination that sexual abuse occurred is fraught with added dangers. More and more allegations of incest and child sexual abuse by husbands are being made by their wives during custody disputes. If the allegations are proven, the perpetrator, usually the husband/father, is excluded from contact with his children …. Child psychiatrists are frequently used by both sides to evaluate the child and make a determination about the authenticity of the charges …. A mistake might jeopardize a child's future or destroy a man's family life and career ….

Given the foregoing, it should be readily apparent that when a professional becomes involved in a case where child sexual abuse is suspected, care must be taken in investigating and evaluating such a claim and in reaching the conclusion that such abuse did take place. Where the professional is involved in a therapeutic relationship with the child, it requires little imagination to see the harm that might result from a negligently and erroneously formed conclusion that sexual abuse had occurred, with subsequent treatment based on that "misdiagnosis". In such a situation there would be no dispute that a cause of action for malpractice (or ordinary negligence) would exist on the child's behalf against the professional …. A suspected abuser surely has the right to a reasonable expectation that such a determination, touching him or her as profoundly as it will, will be carefully made and will not be reached in a negligent manner …. [B]eing labeled a child abuser [is] one of the most loathsome labels in society ….

Thus, I conclude that, where the determination of sexual abuse is made by a professional treating a child, with subsequent actions taken based upon that determination and aimed, whether in whole or in part, at shaping not only the conduct and well-being of the child but also the conduct of the suspected abuser, or the relationship between them, a duty of care is owed not only to the child but also to the alleged abuser.

The court acknowledged that state law grants limited immunity to those who file charges of child abuse, but it noted that this protection did not apply to acts of "gross negligence." It noted that "it is at least arguable that a finding of gross negligence could result in this case which would undermine the requirement for immunity …." .

See Also: Clergy Malpractice | Failure to Report Child Abuse

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