Reliability of CSAAS Testimony (Part 5)

by | Oct 9, 2018 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

The remand hearing provided an opportunity to test the principles underlying CSAAS in an adversarial setting.  The evidence at the hearing identified a number of shortcomings about the concept of a child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome.  First, the label “syndrome” itself raises serious questions.  Second, CSAAS and its five component behaviors are not easy to define with precision.  Third, there is disagreement as to how the behaviors relate to one another.  Fourth, experts debated the import of the five behaviors at the hearing.  Finally, CSAAS stems from observations made in clinical practice — not systematic scientific study.  Based on the record, it does not appear that CSAAS’s five category theory has been tested and empirically validated as a whole.

The Court thus considers relevant evidence for each of the five behaviors.  (1) Dr. Summit explained secrecy by noting that “the average child never asks and never tells.”  In short, victims keep abuse a secret by not talking about it.  (2) Dr. Summit identified helplessness as a “precondition” to abuse, not a behavior.  The concept appears to state the obvious.  (3) Accommodation refers to the coping mechanism by which a child adjusts to sexual abuse.  It encompasses all possible behaviors from the most resilient to the most self-destructive, and all victims fall under the broad construct in one way or another.  (4) Judge Bariso found that delayed disclosure is generally accepted among the scientific community.  The record supports that finding.  (5) Retraction occurs when a victim truthfully discloses abuse and then recants.  Evidence presented at the hearing revealed that only a minority of victims recant truthful allegations of abuse and that experts do not agree on the rate of recantation.

Expert testimony is supposed to be reserved for matters of which the average juror would not understand on their own. With “delayed disclosure” being the only behavior that is generally accepted in the scientific community, it begs the question of whether that factor is appropriate for expert testimony. That is to say, your average juror would likely infer on their own that victims often delay in disclosing because it is a very difficult thing to do, especially for a child. Thus, expert testimony would be unnecessary, especially in light of the fact that this instruction will be included in the forthcoming model criminal jury charge.