A study from Glasgow Caledonian University on false allegations and their impact on those accused.
False allegations of sexual offences are a common and highly concerning issue with serious psychological and social repercussions for the accused (De Zutter et al., 2018), however little research has been conducted on the topic. Of the research that has been conducted, the focus tends to be on the prevalence of false allegations or the impact of those accused in a professional manner, or those never convicted of the allegation.
As part of their MSc Forensic Psychology programmes, two students from Glasgow Caledonian University, Eva and Bruce, conducted a study examining the psychological and emotional impact of being falsely accused of sexual abuse, as well as the impact on familial and interpersonal relationships, and the coping strategies employed by the accused to combat distress.
Ten participants (8 males, 2 females) were recruited, all of whom were over the age of 18 and members of the BFMS. Seven participants were the accused and three were family members of the accused. False accusations were made by a family member for seven participants, one participant was accused by his ex- partner and one participant by an acquaintance. Three participants were convicted and seven were charged but did not proceed to trial. Participants were interviewed by Eva or Bruce between March and April, 2020 and asked a number of questions relating to their experiences following the false accusations. The interviews were transcribed and then coded to identify themes across all participants.
Overall, the study found that the impacts of being falsely accused of sexual abuse were severe, long-lasting, and extended to the accused’s loved ones. Six common themes across participants were identified that related to the impact of the false accusations and coping strategies employed. These were: feelings of loss, long-term impacts, emotional disconnection from family and friends, personal support, implicit coping mechanisms, and explicit coping mechanisms following the allegations. Each of these themes will be described and analysed in turn.
Feelings of Loss.
The biggest theme to emerge from the interviews was the various feelings of loss described by participants. Many lost their sense of ownership and autonomy over their circumstances. They felt helpless, frightened, and were paralysed with a lack of knowing what to do. Most were aware of the severe consequences that the allegations could have, which they had no control over. Some experienced a loss of normality in their day-to-day lives while the vast majority of participants expressed their total loss of faith in the criminal justice system, which they believed to be corrupt and biased. This made them feel marginalised and disenfranchised. A few participants also lost their faith in conventional therapeutic avenues, such as counselling. Many became a lot more guarded and vigilant of others’ intentions.
The second main theme identified was the significant long-term, and often permanent, effects that the allegations had on participants. For some, their whole outlook on life and behaviour patterns had been altered. They described being “broken”, downtrodden, and overwhelmed, preferring to withdraw from the world than to engage. The experience dominated their thinking and permeated every aspect of their lives.
Most experienced persistent changes to their mental health, with some reporting clear symptoms of depression, including weariness, numbness, and a lack of energy. Hyper-alertness and anxiety were also common. This included general paranoia as well as fear of falling victim to the system or to false allegations again. A number of participants described feelings of grief, having lost loved ones to prison or to death. Grief was also mentioned figuratively because the accused had changed and were no longer the same person. Many felt the impacts of stigma, perceiving that the world was against them and that they were somehow ‘tainted’ or ‘dirty’. This resulted in damage to self-esteem and feelings of self-loathing as they internalised what people said about them.
In many cases, the effects extended to participants’ physical wellbeing, with some suffering serious conditions such as cancer or strokes. Other major long-term impacts included financial difficulties, brought on in some cases by the participant losing their job or struggling to find work due to police checks or employers no longer wishing to associate with them, and in others by the sheer cost of fighting against the state to clear their name. Other logistical problems included travel restrictions due to bail conditions, having a criminal record, and the social and literal label of being a “sex offender”. This added to their feelings of being ostracised and loss of freedom.
Impact on Familial and Interpersonal Relationships
Two contrasting themes emerged in relation to the impact on the participants’ familial and interpersonal relationship; these were feeling either disconnected or supported from their inner and social circle.
Most participants reported feeling disconnected from family or friends at some point whilst dealing with the false accusations because they did not share the allegations filed against them. Some reported contemplating whether to confide in their close friends with the allegations. Even though they shared the allegations against them with friends at a later stage as they needed a source of emotional support, they kept them private in the first place due to fear of rejection and abandonment. This period of secrecy resulted in a temporary emotional distance from their social circle, whereby feelings of seclusion and loneliness were inevitable.
Despite the initial secrecy and resistance to disclose the allegations, half of the participants eventually chose to share the accusations with friends and family. An unexpected common response was that this disclosure did not have any negative impact on the accused’s familial or interpersonal relationships. In particular, participants reported that if anything, family members and friends felt closer. For some, these allegations helped participants recognise who their true and supportive friends were.
Others described the experience of being falsely accused actually allowed them to form new friendships with people who shared the same experiences. Befriending people in the same situation allowed participants to feel a sense of validation, empowerment and belonging, which can be moral boosting and provide the accused with the inner strength to face the impact of the allegations. It was believed that these friendships were strong and would not diminish with time because participants found a real connection with others in the same situation.
Implicit Coping Strategies
Participants employed a number of different implicit strategies to reduce stress, which refer to the subconscious ways in which they coped with the allegations. Half of the participants reported that the negative series of events that followed after the false accusations helped them reconsider what was truly important in life. This led to them expressing gratitude and appreciation of the supportive people in their inner and social circle. A number of participants also acknowledged that their situation could be worse and other people have suffered more greatly than themselves, assisting them to cope with the allegations in a functional manner. That is, they made a conscious effort to avoid feeling negative about their circumstances.
The need to help others in a similar situation and ensure that something positive came out of the negative situation of being falsely accused was also common amongst participants. Some participants reported raising awareness of the prevalence and severity of false accusations and making their voices and those of their fellow sufferers heard. Other participants provided guidance and support to others who had been accused through social media, forums, conferences or volunteered for charitable organisations that had initially sought help regarding their own false accusation. However, while the strategy of helping others was described as being beneficial and rewarding by increasing feelings of social usefulness, it was also appeared to be detrimental to their mental health. Participants described their roles of providing help to others as being a constant reminder of their own personal painful experiences.
Maladaptive coping strategies, such as distraction and avoidance, were also reported by a small number of participants. Some coped with the allegations by distracting themselves and keeping busy with work, or tirelessly working on their case. Facebook also constituted a form of distraction for two sufferers by diverting their attention from their own problems which they did not feel ready coping with.
Explicit Coping Strategies
As well as implicit coping strategies, participants described a number of explicit coping strategies that they employed after being falsely accused. These refer to strategies the participants used after they recognised that the allegations had an impact on their mental health and decided to actively do something to change it. Physical activities were reported in half of the accounts as coping strategies. This included meditation, yoga, golf, walking and getting out in nature. These activities not only served as a stress release but also gave participants space for self-reflection. This helped them become aware of their internal feelings, let go of past painful experiences and proceed with inner strength to face the impact of the allegations.
One unexpected coping strategy which was reported by half of the participants was the process of being methodical. For some, this took the form of creating a timeline of the past events leading up to the false allegations which provided the participants with an understanding of what made their accusers proceed with the false allegations. Others kept a diary in order to record events taking place to ensure they do not forget any important details that could assist them with their case during police interviews, while one participant described doing her own investigation on her case on a daily basis to give structure to her everyday life. Considering the overwhelming events that follow after the allegations such as police interviews or judicial processes, chaotic thoughts and feelings of losing control are inevitable. For these participants, giving structure to their day and being organised in a way that they deemed most helpful meant regaining some form of control over their lives.
The findings of this study show the severe psychological, emotional and (for some) social impact on the falsely accused. It found that the impacts were long-lasting and extended to the accused’s loved ones. For participants whose allegations emerged many years ago, the profound effects on their mental health, relationships, and economic stability remained to this day.
The findings suggest that those who have been falsely accused may benefit from being able to share their stories on a larger, more mainstream scale. Being given the platform to be listened to can be hugely therapeutic to victims of psychological trauma. It reinstates their feelings of control over their situation, helps them to make their own decisions, and fosters trust between them and the person listening to their story.
The findings also imply a number of ways in which the falsely accused may be better supported by institutions and wider society. Given the substantial mental health impact, those falsely accused should be readily given access to counselling services. Falsely accused should be recognised as ‘victims’ in their own right, and should be offered similar kinds of support to other types of victims.
It is expected that the research findings will be beneficial for professionals conducting interventions with this population, as they provide an insight into how stress is dealt with by the wrongly accused. The findings are also insightful for support groups and organisations supporting victims of wrongful allegations as well as sufferers who are currently coping with false allegations.
It is recommended that future studies could investigate whether coping strategies of the falsely accused change over time. Following the allegations, the emotional and practical needs of the accused might change with time which can have implications for therapists or organisations and the kind of support they are providing to this group. Future studies could also expand on the current findings by employing a larger sample size, or could focus on particular types of false allegations, such as those which arise through ‘false memory syndrome’. False memory cases often involve allegations of child abuse and/or power dynamics, and relate to events from long ago, and so may involve more intense and complex emotions as well as increased stigma. Finally, future studies could explore the psychological and emotional impacts of being falsely convicted and imprisoned, and compare these with the effects of being accused but not found guilty. It is hoped that research will continue to shed light on the harmful consequences to the victims of false allegations of sexual abuse and that it will not prevent victims of sexual offences from continuing to come forward.
Bruce and Eva, along with their supervisor Dr Mairi Fleming, would like to express their sincere gratitude and appreciation to all of the BFMS members who participated in the study outlined above, as well as to Dr Kevin Felstead for all of his help and support throughout the project.