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Court limits use of long-accepted child sexual abuse theory

August 2, 2018

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Prosecutors will be limited in using a long-accepted theory on child sexual abuse under a ruling this week by New Jersey’s Supreme Court.

The unanimous ruling issued Tuesday focused on child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome, a theory put forth in the 1980s that seeks to explain behaviors among alleged victims. Those behaviors include feelings of helplessness, keeping the abuse a secret and recanting allegations about abuse after they’re made.

A defendant convicted of aggravated sexual assault against his underage stepdaughter challenged the use of the evidence at his trial. In Tuesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court agreed with a lower court judge that not all aspects of the theory are well-defined or scientifically proven, and that expert testimony about those aspects should not be introduced as evidence.

Experts may still testify, however, about victims’ delayed notification about their abuse, if a jury is given specific instructions about the testimony.

The ruling didn’t affect the conviction of the defendant who filed the appeal, which was based on “overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt,” the court wrote.

The victim testified the abuse began in 2011 when she was 14, and that the defendant threatened her with a gun to prevent her from telling anyone. The following year, she testified, she made an audio recording of the abuse.

At trial, an expert testified about child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome, and cited studies that support the theory. The judge instructed the jury that the testimony could be used to explain the alleged victim’s behavior but not as evidence of guilt.

The defendant challenged the testimony and an appeals court rejected the challenge. The Supreme Court then sent it back to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing.

At the hearing, “a number of shortcomings about the concept of a child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome” arose, the Supreme Court wrote Tuesday. These included labeling the theory as a syndrome, defining the five behaviors with precision and defining how the behaviors related to each other.

“Based on the record before the Court, we conclude that CSAAS (the syndrome) does not satisfy a basic standard of admissibility — reliability — because it is not generally accepted by the scientific community,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote.

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