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Child Witness Suggestibility In False Allegation Cases

Since 1987 there have been major changes in professional opinions concerning the susceptibility of children to suggestive and leading interviews. In 1987 the testimony of young children was generally accepted as truthful and the prevailing opinion was that young children could not be led or "coached" to make statements about abuse that never happened. The belief was that, although children might be led through suggestive interviews to make unimportant errors concerning peripheral details, they could not be led to make statements about important, central events.

As researchers became involved in actual cases and reviewed videotapes of actual interviews, they observed that the research supporting the above claims did not begin to duplicate what often happens in the real world. As a result, there has been new research in the past two or three years that has changed the consensus of scientific opinion. It is now generally accepted in the scientific community that persistent questioning can lead children to give elaborate accounts of events that never occurred, even when they first denied them. Sometimes the questioning results in the child developing a subjectively real memory for an event that never happened.

S. Ceci and M. Bruck, who have conducted some of the most important research, published an article in the Psychological Bulletin that summarizes the current state of knowledge (The suggestibility of the child witness: A historical review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 113(3), 403-439, 1993). In this article, the authors draw several conclusions that they state would meet the traditional Frye standard:

  • Even young children are capable of recalling much that is forensically relevant.
  • There are significant age differences in suggestibility, with preschool-age children being more vulnerable to suggestion than either school-aged children or adults.
  • Children can be led to make false or inaccurate reports about very crucial, personally experienced events.
  • Contrary to the claims of some, children sometimes lie when the motivational structure is tilted towards lying.

These conclusions were not generally accepted by the scientific community in 1987.

The research described by Ceci and Bruck and the conclusions drawn concerning child witnesses also meets the requirements specified in Daubert vs. Merrell Dow.

Unfortunately, in many cases where a false allegation is made, more overall damage is actually caused by those individuals whose responsibility it was to obtain the truth, be they law enforcement, social services or psychologists. Usually, these "professionals" have limited or no training in the correct procedure for interviewing a child. They conduct interviews using dolls or pictures. They conduct interviews during play time. Their questions are leading and suggestive. They accept at face value a child's allegation as fact. They immediately and automatically treat the child as the "victim." From that point on, both that "professional" and that child are "hooked." The "professional" because the child is telling them what they want to hear. The child, because they can "read" in the interviewer (their voice, tone, their expression) what they are saying that pleases them. This is far from a search for the truth, yet it happens again and again and is responsible for the conviction of many innocent people.

As an example, a 4-year-old, being interviewed by a social worker regarding a sex abuse allegation, was sitting in a chair, being questioned. The social worker asked, "What did daddy do to you?" The child responded, "Nothing." Not satisfied, the social worker said, "I know he did something to you that he was not supposed to." "What was it?" The child again responded, "He didn't do nothing." The social worker told the child, "That is a very special chair you are sitting in." "All the kids love it cause it spins around." "Do you want me to spin you?" The child responds, "Yes." "Well, tell me what daddy did and I'll spin you." The child again states, "Daddy didn't do nothing to me." The social worker spins the child around in the chair and sure enough, the child loves the ride. The social worker asks the child, "Did you like that?" Laughing, the child says, "Yes." Social worker, "Do you want me to do it again?" Child gleefully says "Yes." Social worker, "Well, tell me what daddy did and I will." Child, "He touched me down there."

Children, regardless of age, can be manipulated to say whatever someone desires, if they work with the child, as in the above, but there are other considerations as well. As an example, say you are talking to a 5-year-old. You ask, do you believe in Santa Claus. Most children will respond, yes. If you attack that belief with a statement such as, you know he is not real, that he does not exist, again, most children will become frustrated and respond, yes he does. If you continue to push the issue that Santa does not exist, most children will become defensive and make statements to justify their belief, such as, I have seen him and I have talked to him. Totally untrue, but a perfect example of a child's desire to have their story believed.

There have been instances where children have been tested at a physicians office and then asked what the examination consisted of and each child responded that the doctor looked in their ears. A few weeks later, the same children were again interviewed, but this time, the question was posed, "Did he touch you anywhere he was not supposed to?" 15 of the 100 children tested responded yes and one even went so far as to say the doctor stuck a stick up their behind. Again, totally untrue but in that case, the power of suggestion got 15 children to respond in a certain manner. That is the exact reason that false allegations get out of hand and the very reason that one simple allegation can quickly turn into 15 separate indictments following multiple interviews by untrained individuals. The fact is, a child should be interviewed once, not on multiple occasions, and there should never be leading or suggestive questioning used. Leading and suggestive questions work as a coaching tool and tell a child what the interviewer wants them to say.

So, how do false allegations thrive? Simple. Most child interviewers are not trained and have no conception of how to properly interview a child. They begin by treating the child as a "victim" and the child immediately picks up on the "pity" being extended to them. That gives the child an assurance that whatever they say will be taken at face value. Then, the interviewer uses leading and suggestive questioning, a clear message to the child as to the manner in which they should respond. Children are suggestible, make no mistake about that and one thing that benefits a defense in a false allegation is to file an immediate motion, asking the court to order that all adult contact with the minor child be videotaped to preserve the interviewing techniques. If the interviews were taped, carefully examine those tapes for improper techniques and also determine exactly the number of times the child was interviewed and by whom. Multiple interviews can actually taint the child's testimony where it would have no credibility whatsoever.

Depend on one fact. If an allegation of abuse is real, most children will readily be able to recount all events and when the allegation is false, they cannot provide details to events that never took place. Determining the credibility of a child's statements can easily mean the difference between freedom and conviction for an accused.