The Careful Critique of Anatomical Dolls in Child Sexual Abuse Defense

Integral to a sound legal defense in child abuse cases is knowing what you’re up against.

In our time helping wrongfully accused people, familiarizing ourselves with the kinds of arguments commonly raised against our clients has paid tremendous dividends.

Through this lens, we can find the holes in false allegations and succeed in having our clients’ names removed from the Child Abuse Central Index (CACI).

Frequently, the flaws we run into with accusations made against our clients concern the methods by which county child welfare services agency social workers obtain evidence. Sometimes, we prove a client’s innocence due to the flimsiness of memory retrieval techniques.

In other instances, and what will be the focus of this article, there’s the issue of anatomical dolls being used to interview children about alleged abuses.

This method of acquiring evidence is hotly debated. While there are plenty of holes in its validity, there are ways it’s viewed as reliable evidence, depending on the arguments utilized.

How Are Anatomical Dolls Being Used to Evaluate Sexual Abuse?

The findings discussed come from an academic paper called “Putting the Anatomical Doll Controversy in Perspective: An Examination of the Major Uses and Criticisms of the Dolls in Child Sexual Abuse Evaluations.” (Mark D. Everson, Barbara W. Boat, “Putting the Anatomical Doll Controversy in Perspective: An Examination of the Major Uses and Criticisms of the Dolls in Child Sexual Abuse Evaluations” Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 113-129, 1994.)

As of 1985, a survey of 300 professionals involved in evaluating child abuse showed that 94% of child protection agencies were using anatomical dolls. Interestingly, only 40% of law enforcement was using this method at the time—perhaps foreshadowing issues with legal reliability.

It’s no doubt easier for abused children to struggle at finding the words to describe an experience they can’t comprehend, due at least in part to embarrassment and shame.

Also, it’s strongly believed that these tools are efficient and accurate in helping children disclose information about actual sexual experiences. But the process must be performed by a reliable practitioner.

In the article, a study was cited that examined the records of 60 children under 7-years-old. They were all evaluated for possible sexual assault. After being interviewed, the children were three-times likelier to describe the abuse with the dolls than without.

Furthermore, with the doll, there was a two-times higher chance the children would identify their abuser.

Where Defending Attorneys Can Make Mistakes

Before digging into the problems with using anatomical dolls in the child abuse evaluation process, it’s worth discussing where some cases can go awry for the wrongly accused.

A frequent criticism of this method is that children are highly suggestible to the overtly sexual nature of the dolls. As per the article in question, some critics believe that “they induce normal, nonabused children to have sexual fantasies and to engage in sex play that is likely to be misinterpreted as evidence of sexual abuse.”

In spirit, there might be some merit to this thought process, but there’s not a ton of scientific evidence to prove this correct. Therefore, it might not be the primary basis of your defense. Emotions and personal beliefs don’t impact cold, hard facts.

There’s enough evidence proving that use of these dolls by those investigation child sexual abuse allegations can be used in conjunction with other supporting evidence to create a case against the alleged perpetrator. While the method is subject to scrutiny in how it was used, relying on a defense strategy that attempts to blanketly discredit the use of anatomically correct dolls could be detrimental to your cause.

How Can Anatomical Doll Evaluations Be Discredited as Evidence?

First and foremost, we can look at some of the statistics cited that seemingly supports the use of anatomical dolls.

In the study with 60 children, there was a significant limitation in play. Namely, those conducting the interviews didn’t alternate the order with and without dolls.

If anatomical dolls being used as an evaluation of child abuse is the sole form of evidence, this needs to be addressed in your defense. The academic journal mentioned above references 20 guidelines regarding the sound usage of these dolls, none of which endorsed the use of the dolls as a diagnostic test of abuse. To that point, a number of those guidelines warned about over-interpreting behavior with the dolls.

There is also the matter of the individual conducting the interview. The person responsible for the evaluation may ask leading or suggestive questions, for instance. Research shows this to be at least a moderate risk when anatomically correct dolls are used in an investigation. Depending on the interviewer, the risk may be low, but it does exist.

Ultimately, whether the use of an anatomically correct doll was proper has to be looked at on a case by case basis to see how the doll was used and what evidence exists apart from information obtained through use of the doll.