Child molestation (also called child sexual abuse) is a general term that refers to several types of sexual misconduct involving victims who are minors. It can involve inappropriate physical contact like sexual fondling or penetration, or some other act, such as exposure of genitals or having a child view pornographic material.
State laws differ in how they define child molestation, and many states have several crimes that fit within the definition. A state might label molestation crimes as child sexual assault, criminal sexual conduct, lewd acts with a child, gross sexual imposition, or another name.
Being accused of sexual behavior with a child—whether by the child, the child's parent, or anyone else—is a very serious matter. Such accusations often lead to a criminal investigation and a referral to a child protection agency. The accusations can result in consequences including criminal charges, loss of employment, loss of child custody, and social stigma.
The accused person's initial response to the allegations can have a significant, permanent impact on how the situation turns out. Even if you know you're innocent, you need to be careful about how you proceed.
Although experts agree that most sexual abuse allegations are true, false accusations do happen. False allegations can result from honest mistakes, or much less commonly, deliberate lies.
Misunderstanding. Mistaken accusations can happen when a child misunderstands something the accused person did or an adult misinterprets a child's description of it. In some situations, sexual abuse did occur, but the child identifies the wrong person because that person reminds them of the actual offender.
An adult's influence. A child can also make false allegations unintentionally when a well-meaning adult suspects abuse and repeatedly asks the child if they were touched inappropriately. If the child says no, the understandably worried adult might re-ask the question in different ways and tell the child they'd be brave for telling the "truth." Young children can be very susceptible to the power of suggestion and usually want to please adults, so they might give the answers they think the adult wants to hear. Once they verbally agree that the abuse occurred, they might come to believe it actually did, even when it didn't.
Perceived benefit. According to researchers, deliberately false accusations, though rare, typically result when an adult (or sometimes a minor) lies about sexual abuse because they have something to gain by making the allegation. For example, a teenager might want to get even with someone they think wronged them, like a coach, teacher, or stepparent.
Divorce and custody situations. Intentionally false allegations can also arise in divorce and custody cases. In this situation, the person who has something to gain—like a parent seeking custody—takes advantage of the child's openness to suggestion and "coaches" them on what to tell authorities. Eventually, the child can start to believe that the abuse happened.
Mental Illness. Some people have falsely reported abuse due to a mental illness. For example, some mothers have made up allegations of abuse because they have a mental condition that causes them to seek attention by claiming their children are ill or suffering.
The moment that you learn of the accusations—even if you hear only rumors—you should contact an attorney. Time is of the essence, and waiting can only hurt. Keep in mind, private communication between an attorney and a client is confidential and normally can't be shared with anyone else or used against you in a legal proceeding.
Besides advising you on what to do and what not to do (see below), an attorney can immediately begin communicating on your behalf with anyone trying to question you about the accusation—such as a police officer, a child protection agency, your employer, the media, or the alleged victim or their family.
This protection is crucial because anything you say to someone else can usually be used in court. So, if the case went to trial, anyone you spoke to about the allegations (even a friend) could get on the stand and repeat what you said—and can be forced to do so with a subpoena.
You might think that no harm can come from discussing the allegations if you have nothing to hide. But in reality, seemingly innocent statements can sometimes backfire. For example, if you say something inconsistent with what you said earlier, the mistake can be interpreted as a lie. Suppose that one time you say that you went to bed at 11 on the night in question but another time say that you went to bed at 10. Even if it's just a mistake, the prosecutor might use the inconsistency to suggest you're not believable.
That's why it's important not to discuss the allegations with anyone but your lawyer unless your lawyer tells you otherwise.
On that note, once you've retained a lawyer, it's important to do whatever they tell you to.
Depending on the facts of your situation, an attorney might tell you to preserve any evidence that could relate to the accusations or the alleged victim, such as:
A lawyer could also tell you to make a list of possible witnesses that includes anyone who might have information about the accusations, the child, or your relationship with the child.
Just as important as doing what your attorney tells you to do is following their instructions on what not to do. Your attorney might tell you not to:
Aside from the social stigma that can come with molestation charges, a conviction for the offense has serious potential consequences. A defendant could be:
Someone convicted of a child sex crime could experience other consequences. A conviction might cause them to:
Because of the possible consequences, no one should face a child sex crime charge without being represented by an experienced criminal defense attorney. A lawyer can help you in many ways; here are a few.
Although the police and prosecutor investigate the abuse allegations, a good defense attorney normally investigates them as well. This kind of investigation might uncover information that can help the defense, such as evidence that:
An experienced criminal defense attorney can also:
(Note that DNA testing may be mandatory after an arrest for a serious crime–you can ask your lawyer if you have any questions about this issue.)
If the case goes to trial, a good lawyer can decide whether any witnesses could help the defense, such as:
A local, experienced lawyer will also probably know the prosecutors and judges in the court your case is in, and can advise you how the case will move through the system.