Can Projective Drawings Detect if a Child Experienced Sexual or Physical Abuse? A Systematic Review of the Controlled Research

Brian Allen, Chriscelyn Tussey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

11 Scopus citations


Clinical observations have suggested that children who experience physical or sexual abuse may provide indicators in their drawings that can distinguish them from nonabused children. Some have even suggested that a child's drawings and the interpretive testimony of a trained mental health clinician should be admissible in court as evidence of a child's abuse status. Many of these comments, however, may reflect a limited consideration of the available research. The current article provides a comprehensive literature review of the controlled research to determine whether any graphic indicators (e.g., genitalia, omission of body parts) or predefined scoring system can reliability and validly discriminate abused from nonabused children. Results indicate that, although individual studies have found support for various indicators or scoring systems, these results are rarely replicated, many times studies finding significant results suffer from serious methodological flaws and alternative explanations for findings (e.g., mental illness) are often present. No graphic indicator or scoring system possessed sufficient empirical evidence to support its use for identifying sexual or physical abuse. A discussion of the legal ramifications of these results is provided.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)97-111
Number of pages15
JournalTrauma, Violence, and Abuse
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 1 2012


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • Applied Psychology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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