Are false accusations of domestic violence common during divorce?

While the underlying cause of a marital breakup or a custody battle can be hard to pin down in some cases, in others it seems straightforward enough: One or both of the parties has accused the other of domestic violence or child abuse.

A credible accusation of family violence can be a game changer when it comes to a parental responsibility (custody) and parenting time (visitation) orders. This can be true even if the violence was only between the adults. Under Colorado law, kids have the legal right to reside in and visit in homes that are free of domestic violence, child abuse or child neglect, and to be emotionally, mentally, and physically safe when in either parent’s care.

Because the presence of family violence can tip the scales so much, it’s reasonable to wonder whether an unscrupulous or desperate person might be tempted to falsely accuse their children’s other parent in order to gain advantage. You may even have heard that people make false allegations all the time in our family courts.

False abuse reports during divorce and child custody cases do happen, but they’re rare

There have been cases in which one party falsely accused the other of abuse in order to gain unjust advantage during family court proceedings, but the idea that lots of people do is a myth.

While more research could be done, studies in both the U.S. in Canada confirmed it, according to a 2014 fact sheet by The Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Researchers in the two studies followed up on cases where domestic violence had been alleged and tried to determine whether the allegations were true. They found confirming or corroborating evidence of domestic violence in the majority of cases – 63 percent in one study and 74 percent in the other.

Moreover, the fact that the abuse could not be independently substantiated in the other cases didn’t necessarily mean that the allegations were false. In many of those cases, the researchers found either that there was insufficient evidence to determine what happened or that the accuser sincerely but mistakenly believed the abuse occurred. Only in a small number of cases were the allegations intentionally false.

Other studies made similar findings regarding allegations of child sexual abuse made in the context of a divorce or family dispute. Contrary to what many of us have heard, sexual abuse allegations only arise in about 6 percent of child custody cases, and about two-thirds of those allegations are substantiated. Keep in mind that the standards are pretty high, so the fact that allegations were found to be unsubstantiated does not mean the abuse did not occur – it only means that it was not proven. One study examined ten years’ worth of data from sexual assault cases in Boston and found a false report rate of only 5.9 percent.

Beyond understanding that false accusations are rare, it’s also important to know that allegations of domestic violence and sexual abuse are extremely underreported overall. Between 1992 and 2000, for example, only an estimated 26 percent of female sexual assault victims made police reports, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The BJS also reports that between 1998 and 2002, only about 60 percent of domestic violence victimizations were reported to police.

As with so many things, spousal and child abuse allegations are more complex than they first appear.

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