Forensic child sexual abuse evaluations: assessing subjectivity and bias in professional judgements

Child Abuse Negl. 2011 Apr;35(4):287-98. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.01.001. Epub 2011 May 4.


Objectives: Evaluators examining the same evidence often arrive at substantially different conclusions in forensic assessments of child sexual abuse (CSA). This study attempts to identify and quantify subjective factors that contribute to such disagreements so that interventions can be devised to improve the reliability of case decisions.

Methods: Participants included 1106 professionals in the field of child maltreatment representing a range of professional positions or job titles and years of experience. Each completed the Child Forensic Attitude Scale (CFAS), a 28-item survey assessing 3 forensic attitudes believed to influence professional judgments about CSA allegations: emphasis-on-sensitivity (i.e., a focus on minimizing false negatives or errors of undercalling abuse); emphasis-on-specificity (i.e., a focus on minimizing false positives or errors of overcalling abuse); and skepticism toward child and adolescent reports of CSA. A subset of 605 professionals also participated in 1 of 3 diverse decision exercises to assess the influence of the 3 forensic attitudes on ratings of case credibility.

Results: Exploratory factor analysis identified 4 factors or attitude subscales that corresponded closely with the original CFAS scales: 2 subscales for emphasis-on-sensitivity and 1 each for emphasis-on-specificity and skepticism. Attitude subscale scores differed significantly by sample source (in-state trainings vs. national conferences), gender, years of experience, and professional position, with Child Protective Service workers unexpectedly more concerned about overcalling abuse and more skeptical of child disclosures than other professionals-a pattern of scores associated with an increased probability of disbelieving CSA allegations. The 3 decision exercises offered validation of the attitude subscales as predictors of professional ratings of case credibility, with adjusted R(2)s for the three exercises ranging from .06 to .24, suggesting highly variable effect sizes.

Conclusions: Evaluator disagreements about CSA allegations can be explained, in part, by individual differences in 3 attitudes related to forensic decision-making: emphasis-on-sensitivity, emphasis-on-specificity, and skepticism toward child reports of abuse. These attitudes operate as predispositions or biases toward viewing CSA allegations as likely true or likely false. Several strategies for curbing the influence of subjective factors are highlighted including self-awareness of personal biases and team approaches to assessment.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Child Abuse, Sexual / diagnosis*
  • Child Abuse, Sexual / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Child Welfare
  • Child, Preschool
  • Data Collection
  • Decision Making
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment*
  • Male
  • North Carolina
  • Prejudice*