Court Ordered Child Evaluations in False Allegation Cases
It is essential to the welfare of the children and the ability of a defendant to pursue an adequate defense and, for the children to be effectively cross-examined, that there be an adverse psychological examination of the children ordered by the court.
A central factor in providing testimony in a court of law relating to legally relevant behavior is the nature and role of human memory. Interrogation of a child and the exercise of adult social influence on a child can result in the reconstruction of a memory that may be subjectively real, but is not accurate. For a summary of the research on human memory and the scientific data on memory and the impact of suggestion and misinformation, see Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse, Underwager (1988). Further treatments of children’s memory are found in Ceci, Toglia, and Ross, Children’s Eyewitness Memory (1987); in Ceci, Ross, and Toglia, Perspectives on Children’s Testimony (1989); in a book published by the American Psychological Association and edited by John Doris titled The Suggestibility of Children’s Recollections (1991), and in a review article by Ceci and Bruck (Psychological Bulletin, 113(3), 403-439.
Many interviews, particularly of young children, are so leading and suggestive that the information obtained is simply not reliable. Therefore, even when there are videotapes of prior interviews, a new interview can be helpful in determining what may have actually happened. The scientific research evidence shows that repeated questions are highly coercive and result in significant error introduced into accounts. Direct and specific questions also have been shown to produce marked levels of error. The argument that if a child does not tell about abuse, then it is proper to move to direct, leading, or suggestive questioning is fallacious. It presumes that the interrogator has some special knowledge that abuse actually occurred even if the child is denying it. If that is done, the only thing that can come out of such a procedure is the bias and prior assumptions of the interrogator. Other leading and suggestive techniques (i. e., dolls, puppets, drawings, relaxation techniques, naming body parts) are known to have no evidence to support their efficacy or utility in producing accurate information but, instead, are known to lead to serious, often unrecognized, errors. A psychological evaluation can provide information relative to the adult behaviors toward a child that may have been suggestive or coercive and, therefore, of interest and assistance to the finder of fact in weighing information.
Young children can provide forensically useful information, but adults have to know how to let them produce it. Although young children can provide accurate information, they recall less than do adults. But the less information the child gives in free recall, the sooner the interviewer may start using leading, direct, and/or specific questions, which can influence the child and distort the story. Also, young children may perceive the interview task differently from adults and try to tell the interviewer what they believe the interviewer wants them to say. They may answer questions they do not understand and about which they have no information. Children do not know what they do not know. Therefore, they may often answer questions that are bizarre and unanswerable, but do so with confidence. A psychological evaluation can provide information in this area.
A psychological evaluation can therefore provide assistance and information to the finder of fact to assist in weighing the evidence. Research shows this scientific information is not known to the general public, not understood by the general public, and is available to the finder of fact only through expert witness. The research evidence is clear and persuasive to support the summary statement that the younger the child, the more suggestible the child to adult social influence. Also the younger the child, the more likely adults are to behave in ways that are coercive and suggestive.
If a child is led by adults, wittingly or unwittingly, to be involved in the development of a false allegation of sexual abuse, this is not a benign or innocuous experience for the child. It is destructive of the child’s ability to distinguish between reality and unreality and runs the risk of training the child to be psychotic. The research evidence strongly suggests that the effect on a child of being involved by adults in a false allegation of sexual abuse is devastating to the child. The long term effects include depression, anxiety, fear, loss of self-esteem and learning to be a victim. It may also run the risk of training a child to be psychotic if the child is coerced into extreme, bizarre, and highly improbable accounts.
An adverse medical psychological examination of the child, done by a psychologist knowledgeable about the research evidence and skilled in dealing with children and adults, can provide information in both the area of the defendant’s capacity to have an adequate defense and the issue of the welfare and best course for the child. If the defense is that the abuse did not happen, it is important to the child to have an understanding of how a child may say things happened if they did not happen. If there is no opportunity to gain information about a child’s level of competence and suggestibility, or to gain more understanding of adult behaviors toward the child, the defense is limited to attempting to discredit a child. This may be difficult and stressful for all participants, including the child, and also may alienate others.
A competent psychological evaluation of a child is necessary to determine the individual developmental level of the alleged child victim and the impact of that level of capacity on the allegations and the competency of a child. While the determination of competency of a child is a judicial decision, a psychological evaluation will provide useful and significant information to the process of a judicial determination of the level of competence of a given child.
There is no scientific data suggesting that an adverse psychological evaluation is traumatic for a child. Such claims are often made in opposition to a request for an adverse psychological evaluation, but they are without foundation and are purely speculative. A competent psychologist is trained to provide an empathic, warm, and accepting climate and friendly relationship in conducting assessments. It would be unprofessional, even unethical behavior for a psychologist to be hostile, mean, demanding, and attack a child. Also it would be defeating the purpose of permitting a child to produce the most reliable information possible relevant to the questions and considerations presented above. It is also not necessary to have other persons present for an evaluation. The best information will come from a competent psychologist assessing and evaluating a child without the presence of others. Requiring other people to be present may communicate a negative approach to the evaluation of the child. It will also be a compounding factor in the evaluation and may make it less likely to get the best information and assessment possible. The benefit to the child, in making information available that may well increase the accuracy of any decisions to be made or actions to be taken, far outweigh the slight risk of any discomfort or traumatic impact.
An adverse psychological evaluation should be videotaped or at least audiotaped. This more complete documentation makes evident any adult behaviors toward the child that may be problematical and also makes it more clear what the child’s actual behavior is. There is now general agreement that videotaping interviews of children is essential and necessary in order to have full information and adequate documentation about the process. The California Attorney General’s Office (1994) conducted a two year study of the effects of videotaping interviews and finds there is no damage, but very significant benefit, and strongly recommends all interviews be videotaped. There are no good reasons for not fully recording and documenting all interviews involving children, there are only bad reasons.