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Dylan Farrow’s molestation claims highlight complexity of assessing children

Dylan Farrow’s shocking New York Times column detailing her claims that her adopted father Woody Allen molested her seemed pretty convincing to me when I read it. Nevertheless, I wasn’t surprised to see Allen’s heated denials of the allegations that his attorney said were “fully vetted and rejected by independent authorities” back in 1993 when they were first made.

Allen claims his ex-partner, actress Mia Farrow, planted the incest ideas in his then 7-year-old daughter’s head during their nasty breakup—that neither he nor his daughter Dylan is to blame for the controversy now swirling. Farrow sent out this tweet Tuesday morning: “I love my daughter. I will always protect her. A lot of ugliness is going to be aimed at me. But this is not about me, it’s about her truth.”

At first blush, the possibility of a parent convincing a child of molestation doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Anyone over the age of 35 likely remembers the Fells Acres Daycare Center trial in which three daycare center workers at the Malden facility were convicted of sexually abusing 40 preschoolers—based on what turned out to be questionable testimony from the children who were coached by child psychologists.

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But Dr. Stuart Goldman, a child psychiatrist at Boston Children’s Hospital who treats trauma victims, told me that Farrow’s column detailing her ongoing struggles—eating disorder, self mutilation, fear of sexual intimacy—is “consistent” with abuse. “Whether her story is true, I don’t know,” he said. “Psychiatrists aren’t very good at being detectives.”

Certain medical findings—like a sexually transmitted disease, injury to the penis, or torn hymen —can clearly indicate that abuse has occurred, but in most cases, these findings aren’t seen, according to the federal government’s child welfare website.

Psychiatrists will likely ask whether the child has been experiencing nightmares, clinginess, fear or avoidance of a particular adult. “The child may not want to be alone with an uncle or father,” Goldman said. “Almost all incest occurs within families, and the vast majority of the time, the perpetrators are males.”

How children tell a story of the molestation can also reveal whether they were coached. “Are their words and description consistent with what a young child would say? What’s their emotional state as they tell the story?” Goldman said. “Do they break eye contact and become tearful or halting as they get to the part where they describe the actual abuse?” Kids who experienced the abuse likely would.

Mia Farrow purportedly declined to press criminal charges against Allen at the time because she wanted to spare her daughter the added trauma of having to testify and be cross-examined in court.

While Goldman said that’s often the case with incest perpetrated by a parent, Dylan, in hindsight, may have been better off testifying about the abuse at the time. “It may have provided some form of closure,” he said.

Dylan wrote that she still can’t look at her “abuser’s face” on a poster, t-shirt, or on television without falling apart. “That he got away with what he did to me haunted me as I grew up. I was stricken with guilt that I had allowed him to be near other little girls.”

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