Published by Institute for Attachment & Child Development
A sweet little kindergartener, with a Blues Clues backpack and big brown eyes, Devon went to school every morning with a hungry belly. At least that’s what he told the bus driver, his teacher, and the cafeteria ladies. When I got the call from his school, I was positively indignant. Not only did Devon eat breakfast every day, but he usually had seconds.
Within a few years, Devon’s lies had become dangerously calculated deceptions. “I’m gonna hurt myself and tell them you did it. They’ll arrest you,” he’d say cooly, before punching himself in the jaw. Other times he’d twist the tee-shirt he was wearing round-and-round, cinching it against his neck until it left a puffy, red ligature mark. He’d accuse me of strangling him.
Unfortunately, many children with reactive attachment disorder are capable of false allegations. “Due to early trauma, children with reactive attachment disorder feel safe when they can control their environments and push away people who try to get close to them,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “False allegations are one way for them to achieve both.”
Even if we understand the diagnoses and social histories that prompt our children’s false allegations, however, being lied about can be infuriating and hurtful.
A child’s allegations, however outrageous or unlikely, will be investigated. This unwarranted disruption and family upheaval is collateral damage, necessary to make sure children who really are abused get the justice and safety they deserve. “By law, police officers or child protective service workers investigate all allegations of child abuse, as they should. Child abuse allegations need to be taken seriously,” says Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “On the other hand, it’s also harmful for children to falsely accuse adults of abuse charges.” The consequences of false allegations can be devastating if our children, master manipulators, manage to convince a guidance counselor, therapist, or police officer they’re telling the truth. Parents can unjustly face jail time and lose their children without reason.
Here are 6 steps you can take to protect yourself and your family if your child makes false allegations against you:
1. Keep a daily log. I use small notebooks that fit easily in my purse and document conversations with social workers and teachers, write notes after therapy appointments, and record details of any behavioral incidents. I also write down what my son eats for breakfast, what activities we do, and what time he goes to bed. The key is to be consistent and document even the mundane. Your log will be much less credible if you only log when an incident occurs.
2. Gather documentation. To establish a pattern of behavior, keep school disciplinary records, ask people to follow up on calls with an email, and, if your child is admitted to a treatment program, request their records when they are discharged. These documents may have mistakes or minimize your child’s behaviors so comb through them and request any corrections. Discuss false allegations with your child’s therapist. Your child may admit the truth to them and this can be documented.
3. Don’t lose your cool, or your credibility. When a therapist, teacher, or others bring an allegation to your attention, listen. Breathe. Keep the frustrated tone out of your voice, don’t jump to defend yourself and never exaggerate. Sometimes you’re going to find yourself in a she said–he said and your credibility will be everything. A non-defensive response might sound like: “Gosh, I fed Devon eggs and toast this morning, but thanks for letting me know that he told you he hadn’t eaten. If he ever does miss breakfast, I’ll be sure to email you so we’ll be on the same page.”
4. Use video/audio recordings (sparingly). This is a tricky one that can backfire. First, remember that your words and actions on any recording will be judged, probably more harshly than your child’s. Second, you may be accused of provoking your child by recording them, especially if they scream at you to stop. In a few instances, I’ve been successful flipping my cell phone recorder on without my son seeing it. Give that a try.
5. Don’t go it alone. If things are spinning out of control, call a family member or friend to come over to act as a witness. Sometimes you may have to resort to desperate measures. For example, my son currently lives in a group home and I’ve refused to have visitations with him unless we are in a room with cameras and a staff member. We’ve had to cancel and reschedule visits because of this, but I cannot risk being alone with him.
6. Have a backup plan. Have a contingency plan so your other children do not end up in foster care if social workers remove them during an investigation of a false allegation. My sister and her husband have agreed to take my children if this should ever happen to me. It’s a worse case scenario, but you need to be prepared with a plan.
Though my son has hurled devastating false allegations against me, I’ve been able to avoid the worst potential outcomes by being proactive and meticulous about documentation. It’s extremely sad that I’ve had to do so. Yet, it’s a devastating reality that many parents of children with reactive attachment disorder must face to save their families.
Here’s a great resource with advice and information: Responding to Investigations Manual