Should you believe child sex abuse charges made in high-conflict divorce cases?

(The above photos show Zachary Stratton Smith and Chelsea Paige Smith, kidnapped by their noncustodial mother in 1997. Zachary’s picture is shown age-progressed to 20 years and Chelsea’s picture is shown age-progressed to 17 years by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. For more information about their case, visit the Polly Klaas Foundation.)
Last week, we learned about the recovery, after 15 years, of  Jessica Click-Hill. She was kidnapped at age 8 from her Walnut Creek father in the midst of a bitter custody battle.  Before kidnapping Jessica in 1995, Jessica’s mother, Wendy Dawn Hill, alleged that her ex-husband, Dean Click, had molested the girl.
The Contra Costa Times is reporting that another Walnut Creek father, Michael Smith, was also accused of molesting his son and daughter before his estranged wife took off with the children in 1997. Smith has not seen his children, Zachary, then 9, and Chelsea, then 6, since then.

During the custody which she eventually lost, Elizabeth Stratton repeatedly accused Michael Smith of molesting their children. The last known sighting of Elizabeth Stratton and her children was in Atlanta shortly after they left the Bay Area. Police suspect she received help for disappearing from an organization called Children of the Underground.

The Times spoke to Michael Smith as a follow-up to news last week of Jessica Click-Hill’s recovery.  Smith says that the police finding Jessica, now 22, gives him hope that he’ll see his children again after so many years. But the odds are not in his favor. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shows that less then 1 percent of children reported to the agency as abducted by relatives were found after being gone 10 or more years, the Times reports.
Given the volatile emotions at the center of some divorce and child custody cases, it’s no surprise that angry, emotional debates rage between the two main camps representing the interests of fathers, and those advocating for the rights of mothers.
Father’s rights groups have created their bogeymen–or women. These are the “shortsighted and abusive” mothers who, in high-conflict divorces, become so enraged at their estranged spouse that they will do anything they can to eliminate his presence from their own lives and their chiildren’s lives. These women, according to father’s rights advocates and attorneys, often become prey to what they call the Parental Alienation Syndrome. This termed was coined by Columbia University psychiatry professor Richard Gardner in the early 1980s. He described it as a disorder in which one parent deliberately or unconsciously attempts to alienate a child from the other parent. Gardner tended to see mothers as being the main culprits in parental alienation syndrome. 
Father’s rights attorneys have liked using Parental Alienation Syndrome as a defense against mother’s allegations that a father sexually or physically abused his children. But women’s rights groups fired back against this strategy, saying that Gardner’s science on this topic was shaky. Over the years, this syndrome has been  rejected by clinical and legal organizations. Mothers’ rights groups charge that it is being used by fathers who are trying to marginalize mothers’ genuine concerns about physical and sexual abuse. 

Elizabeth Stratton (left) said she was fleeing with her children to protect them from their father’s abuse. But, as the Times says, several law enforcement agencies investigated the molestation allegations against Michael Stmith and found no evidence to support them.

There has been was talk about an “epidemic” of false allegations of sexual abuse in divorce and child custody cases. One researcher at the University of Washington, Merrilyn McDonald, dismissed this epidemic idea in an article published in the journal Court Review. She cites a study by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts Research Unit in Denver that found that of 9,000 families appearing in divorce court during a six-month period, less than 2 percent reported allegations of sexual abuse. McDonald also says that false allegations of sexual abuse are not widespread.
McDonald agrees that “allegations that arise in the context of divorce are immediately suspect in many people’s minds.” And, she says, “the belief that women frequently make false allegations to take revenge on ex-spouses is entrenched in popular culture.” 

However, she argues, this belief is “false” because: 1) sexual abuse allegations themselves are rare in divorce cases; and 2) of cases where such allegations arise, half of those charges end up being confirmed.

On the other hand, in the same study, McDonald found that no abuse was determined to have taken place in 33 percent of the cases. So, even her own research shows that false allegations do happen. 

Debates about Parental Alienation Syndrome and sexual abuse allegations in custody cases will continue. It would be nice if these two groups would stop bickering so much and think more carefully about what’s in the best interest of the children. What a novel concept. 

Meanwhile, it looks like the mothers in our nasty local custody and child kidnapping cases lost authorities’ sympathy a long time ago and now risk paying a high price for deciding to flee with their kids.

Elizabeth Stratton is being sought by authorities on charges of parent abduction. Wendy Dawn Hill was arrested in Southern California last week. She was brought back to Contra Costa County and booked into County Jail in Martinez on abduction charges.

11 thoughts on “Should you believe child sex abuse charges made in high-conflict divorce cases?

  1. You'd think it would be pretty easy to figure out by asking the kids during the divorce. But for a mother to lose custody of her kids, doesn't she have to pretty much be a disaster?


  2. “for a mother to lose custody of her kids, doesn't she have to pretty much be a disaster?”

    All things being equal, I would think so. But if you have a father with financial resources and a “win at all costs and destroy the opposition” personality type I could see how the balance can shift.

    Family Law is a nasty nasty business. If I were a lawyer, that's the last field I'd want to be in.


  3. It's not easy to figure out by asking the kids. Kids are very vulnerable, and will often make untruthful statements if a parent coaches them to do so. I've seen it during a custody case. CPS and the minor's counsel both stated so.


  4. You write: “The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shows that less then 1 percent of children reported to the agency as abducted by relatives were found after being gone 10 or more years…” Perhaps that is because most of these children were never missing at all. In fact there are at least 400 children being falsely advertised as missing by the American Center right now. Many of these children are living with a parent, openly, legally, and their whereabouts are known. The CEO of the American Center is lining his pockets with the donations of the gullible American public, last year to the tune of $1,300,000.00. Inflated statistics = grotesque executive compensation.

    So… should you believe child sex abuse charges made in high-conflict divorce cases? Perhaps you should believe them more than you should believe that the children advertised in missing child posters are really missing.



  5. 10:14,

    You got that right. Judges who have little or no experience with children shouldn't be making decisions about custody. I'd like to see child custody law reformed.


  6. Thank you for this article. Parental alienation is an emotional issue for all the obvious reasons.

    Just fyi, parental alienation isn't just a legal strategy cooked up by fathers and father's rights advocates. Many Moms know the pain of being alienated from their children by Dads who drag the children into the middle of the adult conflict and make them choose sides.

    Sadly, neither Moms or Dads have cornered the market on the emotional issues that lead one parent to alienate a child from the other parent. In fact, if the emails we receive are any indication, Moms and Dads are both the alienating parent and the targeted parent in equal numbers.

    The key to separating parental alienation fact from fiction is education. Professionals must be knowledgable about alienation so they can tell the difference between legitimate alienation and false allegations of abuse and vice versa.


    mike jeffries
    Author, A Family's Heartbreak: A Parent's Introduction to Parental Alienation


  7. Mr. Jeffries,

    I was a single parent for some time. The parent who controls the child(ren) wield awesome power in a divorce or split. It's very tempting and easy to manipulate children. It sometimes takes a conscious effort not to do it. Parents need to love their children more than the hate their exes.


  8. As an alienated father, I appreciate you thoughts here.

    My ex is an emotional time bomb and I hope I can get my kids out of there sooner than later.

    Good luck to all parents in this situation.


  9. To quote Richard Gardner, “The vast majority (“probably over 95%”) of all sex abuse allegations are valid. Gardner, R.A. (1991) Sex Abuse Hysteria: Salem Witch Trials Revisted. Creskill, NJ Creative Therapeutics (pp. 7, 140)
    So how would it be posible that 33% of allegations are not true? Because the experts are denying the abuse is real It isn't because it didn't occur, it's because they don't want to believe children when they make disclosures. They also don't want to believe mothers, even when they have actually walked in on fathers molesting their own children.
    So it really isn't that false allegations are being made, it's that real allegations are being called false by abuse deniers.Freud was one of the first psychologists who discovered that children were frequently victims of sexual abuse. But because this disclosure was not accepted, and it also implicated some of his contemporaries, Freud changed his theory to make it acceptable.
    The Freudian Cover-up is a theory first popularized by social worker Florence Rush in the 1970s which asserts that Sigmund Freud intentionally ignored evidence that his patients were victims of sexual abuse [1]. The theory argues that in developing his theory of infant sexuality, he misinterpreted his patients' claim of sexual abuse as symptoms of repressed incestous desire. Therefore, Freud claimed that children who reported sexual abuse by adults had either imagined or fantasized the experience.
    Richard Gardner made his living covering up the abuse of children. It's time for his theories to be put to rest.


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