False crime reports are a very small percentage of all reported crime, but any experienced police officer has dealt with some of these cases. It is very important for officers not to become jaded by these cases, so that they do not look askance at an unusual crime report, and to keep an open mind at all times. A critical mistake in any criminal investigation is to fall prey to tunnel vision, and only interpret evidence that tends to confirm your initial hypothesis.
People report crime falsely for many reasons: to get even with an enemy, to seek financial gain, to seek attention or sympathy, to explain their own bad behavior, to reap financial gain, and due to mental illness or emotional disturbances. The point is this: despite the fact that these false reports may stand out in your memory, they really are rather rare, and you must not allow them to negatively affect your interaction with crime victims or the the quality of your investigation.
Of all the false reports, those that concern me the most are child abuse cases. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard an experienced police investigator or child protective services worker minimize a report of abuse or neglect with these words: “It’s a custody dispute….” This comment is not merely descriptive, it carries a subtle meaning. The unspoken remainder of the sentence is, “…it’s probably a false report.”
It is a sad fact that sometimes parents will make up or exaggerate claims of abuse. Think, however, about the multitude of factors that may underlie a contentious divorce: financial stress, infidelity, anger, domestic violence, drug abuse, alcoholism, abusive gambling, addiction, obsessive control issues, rages, jealousies, criminality, emotional detachment, narcissism, paranoia, and so forth. Do not all of these also increase the risk to the children in the family?
And consider this: if two parents are so self-absorbed that one or both would use their children as a weapon to falsely accuse the other of abuse or neglect, do you think that is pretty good evidence that the children are in a situation that is placing their emotional, if not physical, well-being in jeopardy?
So, whenever you hear a police officer or CPS worker say, “It’s a custody dispute,” I want you to complete the sentence, “…so we should be particularly concerned about the safety of the children.” Never marginalize a child abuse report that is wrapped inside an ugly custody dispute, and never assume that it is a false report.