Assessing the credibility of sexual abuse victims: A psychologist’s perspective

Posted at 6:21 PM, Oct 04, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-04 18:35:17-04

NORFOLK, Va. - In recent months, more and more women have been sharing their experiences of sexual assault.

RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, reports only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police. That means about 2 out of 3 go unreported.

While the majority of accusations are credible, there is a small percentage of allegations that are not. RAINN reports that only about 2-8% of reported assaults are false.

Because of this doctors, psychologists and in some cases, prosecutors, try to examine every aspect of a claim.

"Is there resentment? Are there family issues? Are there personal issues with someone when that accusation happened that would make it less than credible?" licensed clinical and forensic psychologist Dr. Rick Ellis said.

If a person cannot recall every detail of their abuse, they sometimes fear others will assume they are lying. Experts tell News 3 trauma can effect the memory.

"[What happens] when someone is assaulted is the front part of the brain kind of shuts down. They go into crisis mode; they made stress chemicals in their brain. They can remember certain details, maybe physical layout or something, but it's very common for someone to forget specific details," Ellis said.

Some may assume that the longer a person waits to report an assault, the less believable their testimony is, but Ellis disagrees. He said someone may take a few hours, a day, or a week to process their abuse enough to say something.

Others may never reveal the fact that they have been sexually assaulted to anyone. Take Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who waited 36 years, or 72-year-old journalist Connie Chung, who only spoke out this year.

From the definition of rape to a person's ability to consent, the laws about sexual violence vary from state to state.

For example, in Virginia a person must be 18 years old to consent, but they only have to be 16 in North Carolina. By law in Virginia, age difference, physical disabilities and intoxication are just a few points that determine a victim's ability to consent.

Click here to see everything from the criminal statutes of limitations in your state to confidentiality laws.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.