Documenting Client Claims of Sexual Abuse

By Arnold R. Bruhn, Ph.D.
January 14, 2013

With the cases from the Penn State football sexual abuse scandal continuing to grow, we will soon see an explosion of unrelated cases from clients who have been too afraid to accuse alleged predators.

I am already observing such reports from my own clients.

One question being raised is, “How will we know which cases/accusations are legitimate?” Put another way, memory degrades over time, and with initial inaccuracies in eye witness testimony (Loftus’ research), we could be falsely accusing innocent people, could we not? What to do?

The Early Memories Procedure (EMP, Bruhn 1989) was designed to preserve a writ- ten record in the client’s own handwriting of key memories germane to his/her own therapy. Said record is created by the standardized prompts in the test procedure, not the promptings of the therapist in one-to-one therapy. The record comes directly from the client, not from the therapist’s notes, thus permitting one common source of error variance (the record- ing of data by the therapist) to be eliminated.

The EMP is structured so the client can provide, without targeted prompts (“Have you ever been sexually abused by….?”), instances of physical or sexual abuse in Part 1 of the EMP. (‘What is your earliest memory… and which memory comes next?’) If sexual abuse memories are not reported in Part 1, specific probes in Part 2 provide opportunities for the client to report these events later in the process. (‘What is your most traumatic memory? A memory involving physical or sexual abuse? An incident that made you feel ashamed’?) There are four such memory probes that can elicit sexual abuse in Part 2 if the client recalls such experiences. The order of the probes and the structure of the EMP provides a natural opportunity to uncover such experiences without the therapist having to risk suggesting such experiences unwittingly.

If memories of abuse emerge and the therapist must testify in court, how the memories were elicited is completely transparent — the EMP as process is undisputed.

Depending on the population, reports of abuse are fairly common. In a subset of women’s prison inmates, for instance, it is not uncommon to find 35 percent or more of the inmates reporting sexual abuse, molestations, rapes, etc. And it is fairly simple to study the incidence in any population by referencing the four pages of the EMP in Part 2 and scanning them for inclusive instances. Inter-judge reliability will be very high.

Repeated inquiries in session regarding sexual abuse will increase the probability that additional sexual abuse experiences will be claimed, consistent with case studies reported by professionals connected with the False Memory Syndrome in the 1990s. In my personal opinion, repeated inquiries, owing to the suggestibility of clients, increases the probability that false reports of abuse will be reported. As was generally concluded in the 1990s, this method of probing sexual abuse is strongly discouraged due to the increased probability of falsely finding sexual abuse where there in fact was none.

On the other hand, working from responses to the four probes in the EMP will minimize the probability that clients will falsely report sexual abuse. Note that I did not say “eliminate” because I have seen some false reports myself of abuse even though they are very rare (I would estimate 1 percent or less of all memories of sexual abuse reported on the EMP are false).

During the Penn State matter, it makes sense for mental health professionals to review how they elicit experiences involving sexual abuse from their clients. Repeatedly asking a client about sexual abuse, given that it has not been previously reported, is dangerous and may culminate in sanctions from licensing authorities if the allegation is reported to authorities and later proven false.

Using the EMP will result in many more reports of sexual abuse in a typical clinical practice (in my experience) with a minimal number of false positives. Of the thousands of EMPs I have personally administered and interpreted with clients, I can recall only two confirmed false reports of abuse or trauma, and neither involved sexual abuse.

Examples of interpreting an EMP are readily available in the literature. The first appeared in Bruhn (1990) and later Bruhn (1992). An example involving previously unreported sexual abuse can be found in Bruhn (1995). In many respects the case involving this client paralleled the Penn State case with, in due time, more than 100 victims involved.

If it is necessary to go to court and testify, my experience has been the EMP is respected by judges. For instance, I once evaluated a 13-year-old girl who was living with her father for a custody reconsideration. Her mother asked the judge in the case to reverse himself and give her custody, a high risk move legally. Among other procedures, I administered the EMP which, together with other testimony, clearly showed the mother was the preferred caretaker, given my client’s negative memories of father.

I so testified. The judge looked at me skeptically and asked to see the EMP, which was written, as is customary, in the girl’s own hand. While still on the bench, he read it very carefully and paused, looking back and forth at the two parents. The judge reversed himself and decided for the mother.

In my experience, EMPs have high face validity with the judiciary and can provide an enormous legal advantage if the evidence is there. Judges are more inclined to accept witness testimony than the opinions of dueling professionals, and they are even more inclined to trust eyewitness reports of events the witness observed and participated in, particularly when the witness is an older child involved in contested custody.

However, it should be stressed: No psychological method, including the EMP, can be completely trusted in abuse cases. Accusations must be considered merely that — accusations — until verified independently, and preferably by several sources.

The EMP is available online at Click the link for the Professional Bookstore. References available from author.

Arnold R. Bruhn, Ph.D., is in private practice in Bethesda, Md. He is a consultant to Patuxent Institute and offers workshops on the interpretation of memory and the use of memory work in brief therapy. Present consultations emphasize false memory issues and prisoner rehabilitation using memory therapy. His email is:

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