Psychological Counseling and Accuracy of Memory for Child Sexual Abuse

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Tens of thousands of child sexual abuse (CSA) cases are reported to authorities annually. Although some of the child victims obtain psychological counseling or therapy, controversy exists about the potential consequences for the accuracy of victims’ memory of CSA, both in childhood and adulthood. Yet, delaying needed therapeutic intervention may have detrimental effects on the victims’ well-being and recovery. To address this controversy, this study examined whether psychological counseling during a CSA prosecution predicts accuracy or inaccuracy of long-term memory for CSA. Participants (N = 71) were CSA victims who took part in a longitudinal study of memory and legal involvement. Data regarding participants’ counseling attendance during the prosecution and details of their CSA cases were gathered throughout legal involvement and shortly thereafter (Time 1). Ten to 16 years later (Time 2), participants were questioned about a range of topics, including the alleged abuse. Time 1 counseling attendance significantly predicted more correct answers to abuse-related questions and (for corroborated cases) fewer overreporting responses at Time 2. Counseling was unrelated to underreporting responses. These results held even with other potential influences, such as abuse severity, victim–defendant relationship, posttraumatic stress disorder criteria met, testifying in the case, and delay, were statistically controlled. Although further research is needed, this study provides evidence that psychological counseling received by CSA victims during or shortly after prosecutions may improve later memory for abuse-related information.

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