Interrogation Of Children
Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager*
ABSTRACT: The question of how children can say sexual
things happened to them when nothing happened is addressed in terms of
the way children are interviewed in sexual abuse cases. It is a
mistake to assume children are lying; instead the child's behavior
should be understood in relationship to the environment which includes
adult social influence. The facts from social psychology are
discussed in relationship to the interrogation process and typical
techniques such as anatomical dolls, play therapy, books and drawings
are evaluated. The results of an ongoing project of analyzing
audiotapes and videotapes of actual interviews is described. It is
concluded that the way children are typically interviewed is frequently
leading, suggestive and coercive and has a high potential for
introducing error and reducing the reliability of their
statements. When there is no corroborating data or admission from
the alleged perpetrator, children's statements standing along must be
How can children say sexual things
happened to them that didn't happen?
This is the fundamental question when a decision must
be made as to whether an accusation of child sexual abuse is true or
false. The question is most pointed when there is an
uncorroborated statement by a child alleging sexual abuse and the
accused perpetrator denies abusing the child. If the sexual abuse
is not real, then how and why is the child telling about sexual
behaviors and describing abusive acts? How can children talk about
sexual acts if they didn't experience them?
When there is an accusation of child sexual abuse,
children often are the only witnesses offered. Frequently no
corroborating or supporting evidence is found in spite of extensive
effort. Then the accusation rests solely upon a child's alleged
words. The alleged perpetrator is saying, "No! I did
not do that!" But adults can't believe that a young child
would fabricate a story about being sexually abused so when someone says
a child is telling about sexual abuse, the story is often
unconditionally accepted. Adults may believe the simplistic maxim,
"Children never lie about sexual abuse." Therefore,
whenever a child supposedly makes a disclosure about sexual abuse, those
adults immediately believe that the abuse is real.
The Wrong Question
But it is mistake to pose the question in the form of
whether or not the child has lied. To lie assumes a conscious,
willful, and deliberate purpose and intent to deceive. Young
children are unlikely to have the cognitive capacity or the
maliciousness to lie in this way (although some older children and
adolescents may). People, including children, may say things that
are not accurate. Inaccuracy alone does not mean that people are
lying. They may be misinformed, mistaken, or ignorant.
Children do not know what they don't know.
Their experience is limited and their store of available knowledge is
small. When asked questions they don't understand or to which they
have no answer they can blithely give an answer without knowing it is
mistaken. Unless there is strong evidence of deliberate,
intentional dissembling, it is foolish to spend much time or energy on
the question of children lying. It is almost always the wrong
The First Answer
When trying to understand a child's behavior, the
first place to look is in the environment of the child, and not to
inferred internal states or dispositions. The farther away an
interpretation is from observable events, the greater the probability of
error. The more complex the inferred causal chain and the more
speculative the inferred internal events, the more likelihood there is
of introducing error.
It is surprising that so many mental health
professionals apparently think first of dynamic, internal, private
events (behaviors said to show shame, fear, anxiety, embarrassment,
etc.) when interpreting the behavior of a child rather than considering
environmental variables. We have seen this approach in every almost case
where mental health professionals believe the abuse was real. When
behaviors are explained by inferring to unobservable internal events
inside a young child, the alternative of causal environmental influences
outside the child is seldom considered or even acknowledged.
An example we have seen many times is that a child's
silence or lack of response to questions is interpreted by an adult to
mean the child is ashamed. The child must therefore be ashamed of
something. The assumption of the adult is that children are ashamed of
sex and of being sexually abused. Therefore the child's nonresponse is
proof that the child was sexually abused. This interpretation is then
offered in testimony as evidence of abuse.
Another variant of interpreting nonresponse is for
the adult to assume that the child has a secret, and therefore the child
is silent. Then the adult must, of course, press the child to reveal the
secret. Therefore, questions are repeatedly asked, any denials from the
child are ignored, and adult pressure continues until some response is
obtained which can be interpreted to show abuse happened.
But it is more parsimonious to ask if the child's
nonresponse may be caused by strangeness of the environment, an
unfamiliar adult, or other environmental factors. Or it may simply be
that nothing happened and the child can't say anything about a
non-event. It takes much less of a leap of faith, much less credulity,
to understand nonresponse to be caused by environmental variables or the absence
of any abuse than to infer the convoluted, non-empirical chain of
speculative intervening variables required to say nonresponse proves
Environmental cues and constraints are powerful
determinants of behavior for both adults and children and children are
more susceptible to environmental influences than are adults. Therefore,
the place to begin understanding a child is in the environment. This
does not exclude consideration of internal, private events but rather is
likely to sharpen and focus any discussion of internal events to reduce
purely speculative invention of non-empirical intervening variables.
When a mental health professional fails to consider
environmental factors when dealing with an accusation of sexual abuse,
there are three possible causes: (1) The professional may be ignorant,
ill-trained and unaware of the scientific facts about environmental
influence; (2) The professional may be committed to a theoretical
position (i.e. Freudianism, ego-psychology) that minimizes or denies the
influence of the environment and emphasizes internal subjective
processes; (3) The professional may unwittingly be projecting onto the
child an adult subjective experience of adult internal motivations and
intents. Whatever the cause, failure to consider environmental
influences when evaluating an allegation of child sexual abuse based
solely upon statements of a young child shows a flawed, mistaken, and
Adult Social Influence
When examining the environment of a child the first
question to ask is what degree, level, and type of adult social
influence is exerted upon the child in that specific environment. The
power and centrality of social influence is one of the most solidly established scientific facts in psychology.
To ignore the impact of social
influence upon any human interactive behavior reduces the credibility of
any explanation offered. How adults behave toward children during the
course of a developing sexual abuse accusation must be considered a
possible causal factor in producing statements of a child. Before
assuming that an accusation is true, in the absence of independent,
corroborating data, adult social influence as a cause of children's
statements must be ruled out.
We have seen again and again, in sexual abuse cases
throughout this country and in other countries the massive imposition of
adult social influence on suggestible children. Children are questioned and
interrogated repeatedly by adults who believe that the abuse is real.
The adult behaviors toward the children are frequently coercive,
leading, suggestive, and punitive. Under such pressure children may
produce statements which adults then believe prove sexual abuse
happened. Through this environment of powerful adult influence the child
may be taught an account of sexual abuse that is false.
By the time this process of adult social influence
interviews has been repeated, sometimes over a number of months or even
years, a non-abused child may come to believe the story. When a child has
been taught a fabricated story, repeated it enough to produce subjective
certainty, for that child a non-event has become reality. This is not a
benign or innocuous experience. It may result in long-term damage to a
child. This also means that the child will appear truthful, credible,
and reliable because for the child it is a real story. Reliance by a
fact finder upon the demeanor of a witness to assess credibility is then
Victims of Good Intentions
An adult interrogator is seldom deliberately trying
to brainwash the child or develop a fabricated account of sexual abuse.
This may happen occasionally in divorce and custody situations, but it
probably accounts for a small minority of the cases of false
accusations. Instead, the interviewer is likely to have a preconceived
idea about abuse along with an lack of awareness of the suggestibility
of children and a lack of understanding of the environmental factors
including the stimulus value of adults.
Few persons involved in interviewing children show
any awareness of the impact their procedures have on the children being
assessed. This is true of mental health and law enforcement
professionals as well as laymen. Much of the literature on child sexual
abuse does not deal forthrightly with this issue but rather proceeds on
the assumption that whatever a child says or is alleged to have said
must be believed. This literature does not discuss the impact of the
interrogation process upon statements alleged to establish that abuse
occurred. This is surprising and distressing in that any knowledgeable
and competent mental health professional knows that in any human
interaction involving two or more people factors of social influence are
Belief in the Face of Unpopular Facts
Many professionals are convinced that any alleged
disclosures from a child must be unconditionally believed. Yuille
(undated) points out that children's disclosures of abuse are now given
so much credibility that it is often sufficient for the child to show
sexual symbolism in play for a social agency to remove the child from
home. If an adult interrogator assumes that abuse did, in fact, occur,
he will perceive his role as substantiating the abuse so that
appropriate action can be taken to protect the child and punish the
perpetrator. Raskin and Yuille (in press) state that "It is common
practice for interviewers to assume that the allegations are true and
that the purpose of the assessment is to obtain information that can be
used to arrive at that conclusion." An adult who believes the
accusation is true will then question the child in a way that shapes,
molds, and creates statements about abuse.
Years of established and replicated research in
social psychology demonstrate the principles of behavior that are
involved in adult social influence on children (see Wakefield &
Underwager, 1988, for a summary). Together with the evidence for
suggestibility, these are unpopular facts that raise cautions,
disconfirm, and may falsify many allegations of child sexual abuse.
what happens when there is scientific evidence contrary to strongly held
What should happen is described by Skinner (Mahoney,
1976), "Science is a willingness to accept facts even when they are
opposed to our wishes." Hardly anyone would say that we should
deliberately ignore facts. Scientists agree that a good theory is one
that can be tested and proven false. When a theory or concept is
falsified, it is reasonable to expect that some attitudes and beliefs
will change in accordance with the facts.
What does happen is demonstrated by a large body of
research (Lord, Ross, & Lepper, 1979; Ross & Lepper, 1980; Ross,
Lepper & Hubbard, 1976; Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1958;
Aronson, 1988). People don't like to see or hear anything that conflicts
with deeply held beliefs or wishes. Some time ago the response to bad
news was to kill the messenger literally. Today it is more likely that
the source of the facts is demeaned and belittled. When those who ignore
the scientific facts that would disconfirm their beliefs are confronted
with those facts, the best prediction is that they will demean the
source and refuse to change their beliefs or behaviors. A good example
of this process is the continued reality that millions of people smoke
in the face of overwhelming evidence that it kills them.
What are these facts from social psychology? There
are several areas of the science of psychology that appear in every
introductory psychology textbook. They are firmly grounded in broad and
rich bodies of theory and research literature. Every psychologist ought
to be familiar with them and understand their basic principles. They
cannot be gainsaid or ignored without truncating the body of scientific
fact psychology has built. These are the unpopular facts that must be
The research on the expectancy effect and
experimenter bias demonstrates that expectancies about an outcome of an
experiment or interaction can influence the outcome itself. Biased
investigators will err in the direction of their expectancies when they
summarize, analyze, and interpret their data, and their own attitudes
and expectancies will influence the actual behavior of their subjects.
In interviews, the bias of the interviewer can affect
both the selection of the information to be recorded and the substance
of the information itself. Subjects respond the way they feel to be most
proper in light of the interviewer's expectancies communicated verbally
and nonverbally. Garbarino and Scott (1988) state that in interviews with
children, experiences of a professional, unfounded in empirical data,
but which the professional strongly believes in, can influence what
information is given by the children. If the professional believes that
all or most allegations of abuse are real, he will produce information
to validate abuse.
The research on conformity and compliance
demonstrates how the desire to get approval from others exerts a
powerful influence upon behavior. In interviews with children there is
pressure to conform to the perceived expectations of the adults. This
can only be avoided by a careful effort by interviewers who recognize
their own stimulus value and minimize cues on how to respond.
Reinforcement theory describes how behavior is
controlled by the consequences that follow the behavior. Theories on
parenting techniques recognize that the best way to change the behavior
of a child is to use attention, praise, approval and other social
reinforcement. Children are sensitive to approval from adults and will
quickly learn to behave in the way that gets positively reinforced.
interviewers are not aware of this, they will inadvertently reinforce
responses of the child that confirm their prior biases.
In many cases the social reinforcement given to
children is obvious. A child may be told that she is brave and that "Mommy will be proud of you for
telling the scary secret" or a child is told that he can go for a
treat after he tells about the abuse. But children are also rewarded for
making certain statements simply by a smile, a nod, an approving tone of
voice, saying "what else," etc. It is also reinforcing to
remove an aversive stimulus. When an adult stops asking repeated
questions when the child produces the desired answer after several
repetitions, the cessation of the repeated question reinforces a
specific answer and may also reinforce giving an answer approved by the
The Child is an Object, Not a Person
When an adult relates to a child by ignoring the
interactive nature of the relationship, denying any impact of the
adult's behavior, intents, and purposes, and refusing to consider
environmental variables, that adult has objectified the child. The child
is not treated as a person, is not understood to be a child, but is only
an object for the adult's agenda.
This is the same basic problem feminists have
objected to in their discussion of male-female relationships. When a man
approaches a woman with nothing in his mind but his own agenda
sexual satisfaction and shows no awareness of the other person's value, needs,
desires, capacities or personhood, the woman is turned into an object.
This demeans, diminishes, and renders powerless the person objectified.
Feminists have shown us that this is a form of oppression and
victimization. In this instance the rhetoric matches the reality.
dominance and control of women has generated deep, enduring, and often
devastating hurts. It has produced costs to society, the economy,
culture, and the nation states.
If children are to be treated as a persons in their
own right, adults must be aware of their own position of power and the
ability to dominate and control a child. Adults must control their own
purposes, assumptions, and behavior toward a child and acknowledge the
potential for their behavior to influence the child. If this is not done
there is no way the adult can avoid objectifying the child. It is tragic
and odd that an attempt to assure children are treated as persons winds
up not treating them as persons. We can and must do better in
discovering ways to relate to children that foster their individuality
and their personhood.
How Does It Get Started?
The development of the system we now have for
responding to allegations of child sexual abuse is a social process.
main players are medicine, politics, the justice system (including
social workers and law enforcement), and psychology. The relationships
among the persons who are in these institutions, guided by shared norms,
beliefs, and values, are the social characteristics of the child abuse
system. A model that explains how this started is the "invisible
college" concept (Crane, 1972) which shows the powerful informal
communication networks linking the justice system, the media, and groups
of researchers and political figures. Studies of bibliographic citations
analyzing the communications patterns empirically demonstrate the
reality of the "invisible college" (Dunn, 1981; Yokote &
Utterbach, 1974; Price & Beaver, 1966; Price, 1965; Lipton &
The "invisible college" connected with
sexual abuse is readily evident in the interlocking system of a small
number of researchers, prosecutors, mental health professionals, and
politicians who revolve through seminars, workshops, lectures, training
sessions, media presentations, and literature. There is a common set of
beliefs and values, a common set of attitudes, and a common set of
behaviors characterizing this group both in this country and abroad.
result is the rapid dissemination of views, claimed research findings,
putative methodologies through this network and their use in the real
world. Examples are rapid proliferation of the use of dolls, coloring
books, prevention programs, unsupported maxims such as children are
traumatized by testifying in the presence of the accused. All of these
became standard operating procedure in accusations of child abuse in the
absence of any credible, reliable evidence to support their use.
In a typical example of this, a mother brought in her
three-year-old daughter for assessment of alleged sexual abuse following
the child's return from visitation with the father. The mother told the
pediatrician that she believed the father (with whom she was involved in
an acrimonious custody dispute) had sexually abused the child. The
pediatrician saw the child for twenty minutes and conducted a sexual
abuse evaluation by visually observing her genitalia. He used no
procedures of measurement or magnification other than his unaided visual
observation. He made a positive diagnosis of sexual abuse although there
were no visible signs and the child said nothing to him about abuse in response to his questions.
He stated that he
assumed that the history given by the mother was true.
When questioned about the physical examination, he
said that the magic number was a hymeneal opening over 4 millimeters.
This was proof of penetration and therefore sexual abuse. Responding to
further questions he said that his base for this unequivocal diagnosis
was what he had heard about hymeneal openings from another physician
during a grand rounds in his hospital. He did not know any research or
scientific literature about the range of hymeneal openings in normal
non-abused children. He called what he heard in the grand rounds
"medical information." When given research falsifying the
assertion that anything over 4 mm means abuse, he refused to accept it
saying you can find a study to prove anything you want.
An example of how such a system can function to
produce policies and behaviors based upon dubious and mistaken theories
and research is medical research on herpes. Lipton and Hershaft (1985)
describe how an article published in a prestigious American Medical Association
journal was widely accepted, touted as fact, advanced as a
basis for treatment, but is highly vulnerable to scientific criticism
and of doubtful value. The few attempts to analyze systematically the
problem of unsound or fake research have raised great anxiety about the
quality of scientific research. Even more fearsome is professional
readiness to accept and act upon purported research without any critical
acumen or exercise of rational suspension of belief. Of the few
professionals who read research literature, most never read the
methodology section but skip to results and discussion.
A Common Pattern
We have examined transcripts, audio- and videotapes,
charges, psychological, evaluations, and testimony from hundreds of
cases (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988) and have found that the way
children are interrogated when sexual abuse is suspected shows a common
pattern across the nation and in other countries. The structure of
reporting laws, child protection agencies, law enforcement officials,
prosecutors, and the laws and regulatory codes governing these agencies
shape the common pattern.
An adult usually first suspects possible sexual abuse
of a child. (Although an older child may spontaneously say something to
an adult, with younger children, the process most often begins not
with the child but with an adult.) The most frequent trigger for the
suspicion is some sort of change in the child's behavior or condition
such as bed wetting, nightmares, or a slight redness or soreness in the
The adult then questions the child and calls the
authorities. If the adult is not a parent, the parents are also informed
(although in some instances the first the parent learns of the
accusation is when the authorities arrive and begin an investigation).
An initial report is made either to the child protection agency or to
the police. If the first report is made to the police, the child
protection group is usually informed. The first person who has contact
with the child or the child's family is usually a social worker.
Sometimes the child is first taken to the family
physician or to a hospital emergency room where the adult tells the
doctor that abuse is suspected. The doctor may question the child and
then make a report to child protection. Although there are seldom clear
physical signs of sexual abuse, the notes of the physician frequently
state "suspected sexual abuse" based on the history given by
The parent has probably questioned the child before
the police or child protection gets involved. The powerful emotion
triggered by a suspicion of sexual abuse may result in intense,
repeated, and highly suggestive questioning. Then when the official
talks to the reporting adult, the parent will give his recollection of
whatever the child said in response to this questioning along whatever
suspicions led to the original report of abuse. If the investigating
official believes that children must always be believed and false
allegations are rare, he will accept this account as factual. The
initial official contact with the child will therefore be based upon the
assumption that the alleged abuse really happened. This bias affects the
way the official questions the child and the subsequent outcome of the
What happens in this first official interrogation is
important in assessing the credibility of any statements a child makes.
The younger and more suggestible the child is, the greater the
significance and effect of this first interrogation. It will set the
direction and the scope for all future contacts with the child. But it
is probably the least documented and most likely distorted of the
succession of interrogations.
The first official interrogation of a child may range
from a single social worker interviewing the child to several people,
including police, social workers and prosecutors, coming unexpectedly to
the home and taking the child to the police station
(Jordan, Minnesota). There is often a social worker and a police
officer, or two or more officials. Particularly in divorce and custody
cases, the accusing parent may take the child to a child protection
worker, physician, or mental health professional for the first official
interview and be present for the interview and even participate in it.
The initial interrogation by officials is usually not
recorded. There may or may not be notes or reports but the amount of
information available about this first interview is generally minimal.
Most often, the only information is a report summarizing what the child
allegedly said in the interview. However, if the interview is not
recorded, there is no way to know what actually went on. We have found
that reports of what supposedly transpired in an interview are often
markedly different from what actually took place (which we discover when
we are able to view the videotape of the actual interview).
Often interviewers ask a question or make a statement
to which the child gives little response. After the question is repeated
several times, the child may finally nod or answer yes. But in the
written report, the child is presented as making the statement rather
than only agreeing with the interviewer's statement. There is seldom
mention of any denials which may have preceded the eventual affirmation.
This is probably not a deliberate misrepresentation; instead, the prior
beliefs and bias of the interrogator lead to an erroneous recollection
of what actually happened. Herbert, Grams, and Goranson (1987) state
that video-or audiotape recordings are essential for accurate knowledge
of what went on in an interview. Without them, the conclusions drawn
about the interview by the interviewer are likely to contain significant
factual distortions. They report that without video or audio taping,
interviewers reflect their bias by giving inaccurate and mistaken
reports about the interview.
Following the first official interrogation, there is
a wide variation in what happens next. Sometimes there is only the
initial interview. There may be an additional interrogation which is
recorded in audio- or videotape. But the child may be questioned
repeatedly by social workers, prosecutors, therapists, parents and
foster parents, siblings, or others. Sometimes the child is taken from
the parents and placed in foster care where the foster parents ask
questions and encourage talk about the alleged abuse. The child may be
placed in sexual abuse therapy where he talks regularly to a therapist
about the alleged abuse. If the issue is brought to adjudication, either
in criminal, civil, family, or juvenile court, the child may be questioned
frequently by the
prosecutor or attorney and brought into the courtroom to
"familiarize" him with the environment.
Through this the account of the abuse is further
rehearsed. It is often months, or even years, before the justice system
makes a determination about the abuse.
This pattern is not limited to the United States. We
are familiar with similar techniques and similar problems from cases in
Canada, New Zealand, Australia, The United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.
Hayes (1987) describes interviews in England in which great pressure is
put on the child to disclose the alleged abuse, including the use of
directed play with dolls and highly leading and coercive questions.
Interviews with leading questions and directed interactions with the
dolls were used in Cleveland, England with the result that two hundred
children were falsely identified as having been sexually abused by their
parents. As in the United States, the problem was with interviewers
"who commence an interview with a preconception that abuse has
taken place" (Enright, 1987, p.672).
Interrogation as a Learning Experience
Children may be interviewed dozens of times before a
legal determination is made about abuse. In every interview the child
learns more about what the interrogator expects and learns what to say
or do that will get a positive response from the interrogator. The child
learns the language of the sexual abuse literature, such as the
distinction between "good touch" and "bad touch."
The child learns about sexual behavior, including deviant behavior, and
learns to equate sexual touch with touch that hurts. The child learns
the victim role and learns to express anger towards the alleged abuser.
The child learns the story and may come to believe it happened, even if
the allegations are false.
The interviewer must know something about the
allegations in order to ask any questions. He bases his questions on his
own assumptions about what has happened and the direction of the
interview is determined by these questions. This results in a bias in
the interview procedures of even the most skillful investigators. If
the interrogator is unaware of this and has strong and certain beliefs,
this bias will be very powerful. It frequently results in an interview
directed not towards determining the truth but towards substantiating
The bias results in the interviewer attending to
information that supports his beliefs and ignoring details which don't support his assumptions or which
suggest a different direction. Statements of the child that do not fit
into the interviewer's beliefs are seen as evasions or confusions.
a child says that nothing happened the interrogator keeps repeating the
question and asking other questions until he finally gets the child to affirm the abuse.
If the interrogator is is persuaded that he is right,
he is very likely to falsely confirm his theory through this process.
In a study about this process of interrogation of
children, it was found that the belief of the interrogator about the
truth of the allegations was predictive of the outcomes of the
interrogation (Dent, 1982). If the initial first interrogation involves
an adult who has the belief that abuse occurred and who the abuser is,
that prior belief will affect the outcomes of the interrogation.
The child tries to figure out and produce what he
believes the adult wants to hear. The desired responses are cued to the
child by tone of voice, inflections, small body movements and postures
as well as by suggestive and repeated questions.
This is particularly true when the child has an
inadequate memory of what is being asked. Children are apt to add
material when they do not remember and the practice of asking children
"what else" is likely to increase the number of errors of
adding extraneous and contradictory information (Saywitz, 1987).
The variables of power, authority, status, and
credibility of the adult interrogator interact with the limited capacity
and competencies of the child to produce a powerful confounding of this
interrogation process. This entire process contaminates, confuses, and
lowers the reliability of statements made by children.
There is no evidence that this is a reliable process
for assessing possible sexual abuse in children. The reality that is
completely overlooked is that each of these experiences of interrogation
is a learning experience for the child. The younger the child the more
powerful the teaching and learning experience. But the persons
interrogating children seldom show any awareness of their own stimulus
value or of the impact of their procedures as a learning experience upon
the children and the reliability of statements made by them.
Types of Questions
Different kinds of questions will elicit different
responses. An open-ended question calls for spontaneous, free recall.
For example, a parent might ask
a weeping child "What happened?" If open-ended questioning
does not produce sufficient information, the interviewer may turn to
more specific questions, such as "Did he hit you?" At this
point the questioner has taken a more active role and the witness a more
passive one. Research has shown that while specific questions result in
an over-all increase in the number of statements a witness makes in
comparison to free recall, the increase is due to a rise in both
accurate and inaccurate statements (Dent & Stephenson, 1979;
Lipton, 1977). Thus the memory for an event can be made more elaborate,
but the greater detail will include more false memories as well as more
truth. Child witnesses are more subject to this error than adults
because they give fewer answers in free recall (Kobasigawa, 1974;
Mandler & Johnson, 1977; Perlmutter & Ricks, 1979) and therefore
may cause interviewers to turn sooner to specific, closed questions and
to use proportionately more of them. The predominant method of obtaining
information from children is to use leading and suggestive questions
Turtle and Wells (1987), commenting on the recent
research on children as witnesses, observe :hat the paucity of
...can lead to an inordinate amount of subsequent
questioning from various agents throughout the legal proceeding and hence
to a greater exposure to possible misleading information. Unfortunately
for the system ... children suffer from greater susceptibility to having
their testimony distorted by such misleading information (p. 240).
Adults are more suggestible when an authoritative rather than a nonauthoritative person asks
leading questions (Eagly,
1983, Loftus, 1979). Ceci, Ross and Toglia (1987) state that the young children's
suggestibility could be partially accounted for by the fact
that they are likely to conform to what they believe to be the
expectations of the adult. It may well be that young children are
especially affected by suggestion and leading questions simply because so
many people are generally authoritative in relation to them. This would
be particularly pronounced if the child is being interrogated by someone
identified as a doctor, a therapist, or a police officer. Parents are
also authority figures to their children.
In a more active line of questioning, the interrogator is supplying information to the witness.
"Did Allen hit you on the
arm?" and similar questions can give shape and content to the recall
of a memory that is, in fact, vague. There have been many studies that
demonstrate how the memories of both children and adults can be
distorted by the introduction of false information into questions (see
Loftus & Davies, 1984, for a review). When an unsure or reluctant
witness causes the questioner to guess at what might have occurred and
thereby provide information, perhaps true and perhaps false, for the
witness to affirm or deny, the resultant testimony may be the truth or
it may be a fabrication that is mutually agreed upon and believed to be
true by both parties.
Research on Memory and Suggestibility in Children
Children are the main witnesses in sexual abuse
cases. Their suggestibility and susceptibility to influence as well as
the accuracy of their memories must be considered in assessing their
After the turn of the century there were many studies
on children's memory and suggestibility. Many professionals concluded
from this research that "children are the most dangerous of all
witnesses" and demanded that children's testimony be excluded from
the court record (Goodman, 1984). At the same time, the spontaneous
account of an event by children was thought to be reliable. The overall
picture from the early studies is of a potentially accurate witness, who
can recount events and answer non-leading questions reasonably correctly,
but whose report can easily be contaminated by suggestion.
Later studies compared the memory and suggestibility
of children to that of adults. Much research demonstrates that adults'
memories are influenced by suggestion. Loftus (1979) and Loftus and
Davies (1984) report the results of studies in which subjects are
presented with a film of a complex event, and afterwards are asked a
series of questions. Some of the questions are designed to present
misleading information. The subjects presented with the misleading
question are afterwards more likely to "recall" having seen
something that was not present in the film. This false information will
be integrated into the memory. Once the alteration occurs, it becomes
entrenched and it is difficult to induce a witness to retrieve the
original memory. The question that has been investigated in studies of
children's memory and suggestibility is how suggestible they are in
comparison to adults.
Children typically recall less than do adults
(Johnson & Foley, 1984). But this free recall is generally accurate.
However, since the typical interview with children contains a large proportion
of leading questions, in evaluating their ability to serve as witnesses,
memory is only one consideration. What is their suggestibility compared
to adults? It is well established that adults are influenced by leading
questions. Are children influenced in the same way?
There has been a debate concerning whether children
are more susceptible than adults to distortions of memory caused by
leading questions. The older studies concluded that children were more
suggestible. Newer studies found that both adults and children are
influenced by leading questions but were inconsistent as to whether
children were more suggestible. However, recent studies have found young
children to be more suggestible than adults and younger children to be
more suggestible than older children (Goodman & Reed, 1986; Goodman,
Hepps & Reed, 1986; King & Yuille, 1987; Ceci, Ross, &
Toglia, 1987; Goodman, Aman & Hirschman, 1987). Young children are
particularly bad at making eyewitness identifications, especially when
the target individual is not present in the lineup. In such cases, the
child makes a very large number of false identifications (Peters, 1987,
Part of what happens with younger children is that
the less a child remembers the more he can be misled and the younger a
child is, the less he will remember. The less a child reports in free
recall, the sooner the interviewer will turn to using leading questions.
Also, children may have a different perception of tasks than do the
adults. Children are likely to draw upon all available information in
the interview situation to provide the interviewer what they believe the
interviewer wishes to hear. Cole and Loftus (1987) state that " ... the demand characteristics of being given certain information by an
adult, and even of being questioned by an adult are powerful components
of suggestibility in young children." (p.199) and Ceci et al.
(1987) indicate that the young children's suggestibility could be
partially accounted for by the fact that they are especially likely to
conform to what they believe to be the expectations of the adult. To
avoid this, King and Yuille (1987) stress that the child be told that
the interviewer is only interested in what the child remembers and that
admissions of memory failure and memory gaps are expected.
A problem with all of this research in suggestibility
is its ecological validity. Actual situations faced by the child witness
cannot be reproduced in a laboratory study. For example, in a typical
study, the children are presented the misleading information once and may be given two or three leading
questions and/or misleading information. Our research suggests that
leading questions and other types of error-inducing questioning occurs
from half to four-fifths of the time in the typical interview of the
In the research studies, the children are tested
immediately or after several days. But in the sex abuse cases in which
children are required to testify as witnesses, the children are often
interviewed many times by a variety of people over a long period of
time. Ornstein and Gordon (1988) stress that we have no information in
the literature on the ability of children to remember salient events
over months or sometimes years. In situations where a child will
eventually testify, the memory will consist of a combination of recall
and reconstruction influenced by all of the interrogations,
conversations, and sexual abuse therapy that have occurred during the
delay. The longer the delay, the greater the possibility of social
influence and the more the memory may consist of reconstruction rather
Most of the experiments are on children's
recollections of events that they have observed. But when the child is a
witness in a sex abuse case, he is alleged to have been involved in a
traumatic event. Although two recent studies have used actual events
a visit to the dentist (Peters, 1987) and a shot at
the doctor's office (Goodman et al., 1986) these events are likely to be
less stress-producing than sexual abuse. In addition, as Raskin and
Yuille (in press) point out, providing testimony in a sexual abuse case
may have profound effects on the child's life. A disclosure of sexual
abuse may lead to the break-up of the home or placement in a foster home.
In research studies, the children are unaffected by the events they are
reporting and their testimony has no consequences. Raskin and Yuille
state that "these differences ... render tenuous any conclusions
that may be drawn from the published literature."
In summary, children's memories in a free recall
situation may be quite accurate. If the child is interviewed carefully
and leading questions and suggestion are avoided, a child witness can be
competent to provide testimony. However, the suggestive and coercive
nature of the interrogations commonly imposed upon children means that
the credibility of what they say must be carefully assessed.
Frequently Used Interrogation Techniques
There are several techniques that are commonly used
in the interrogations. These include the use of "anatomically
correct" dolls, books such as "Red Flag Green Flag
People," puppets, drawings, role play, establishing rapport with
the child, establishing the credibility of the interrogator, and
simplistic attempts to determine the competency of the child. But there
is no evidence establishing that these procedures are reliable or valid
techniques in assessing possible sexual abuse in children. Their use is
likely to contaminate and influence the statements children may make and
therefore raise serious questions about the reliability of the
Children's drawings are often used in assessing
possible sexual abuse. The rationale for this is that the drawings of
children with emotional problems are believed to differ from the
drawings of normal children. The assumption is that qualitative features
of the drawings may be used as "signs" that indicate the child
has been sexually abused.
However, the research does not support this
assumption. In surveys of the DAP (Draw A Person), Harris (1963) and
Roback (1968) both conclude that there is very little evidence to
support the use of "signs" as valid indicators of personality
characteristics. There is no research supporting the claim that
qualitative "signs" (elongated or squat figures; smoke or no
smoke from chimneys; absence or presence of windows; hands in front of
the genital area, and so on) have any relationship to sexual abuse.
There is so much variability in children's drawings
that nothing reliable can be said about the particular features of any
one drawing. There are no reliable or valid criteria for using the
drawings to assess possible sexual abuse. There are major shortcomings
in the few research studies which claim that the drawings of abused and
non-abused children differ (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988). We know
of no good research establishing that the drawings can be used
diagnostically, especially to "substantiate" sexual abuse.
The only valid use of drawings is in opening up a
line of communication between the evaluator and the child. But if they
are used this way, the interviewer must remain objective and impartial
and avoid cues and selective reinforcement of responses.
There are a number of books that are used in
assessing sexual abuse. A typical book is the coloring book "Red
Flag Green Flag People" (Rape and Crises Abuse Center, 1985).
this book, the child is led through a series of pages that present good
touch and bad touch. After several pages a child is asked to color
portions of a figure that may have been touched. When the child colors a
genital area this is regarded as evidence that the child has been
When used in this way, a book becomes a programmed
learning text. The progression of stimuli are arranged in the fashion of
programmed texts used to teach students about biology, math or
geography. Children's responses in this situation do not represent a
true account but rather the effectiveness of the book as a programmed
None of these books have been validated for
diagnosing child sexual abuse. They should not be used as diagnostic
devised to conclude that a suspected case of sexual abuse is real.
Although there is no evidence that play therapy has
any efficacy or utility as a therapeutic procedure for sexual abuse
(Wakefield & Underwager, 1988), children are frequently given
therapy before there has been any determination by the justice system
that sexual abuse has, in fact, occurred.
The play therapy sessions focus on reenactments and
discussions of the alleged abuse and can serve to model and encourage
statements about abuse. Young children may be given dozens of sessions
of play therapy over many months and may begin believing that they have
been sexually abused even if there has been no abuse. The play therapy
is often combined with interviews and questioning by the therapist about
the alleged abuse. The behavior of the child in the play therapy
sessions is used to form conclusions about abuse and material from the
play therapy sessions is often reported to the prosecution, child
protection workers and the courts as support for the accusation. This
material is often given without any empirical basis.
A major difficulty with the use of play therapy as an
investigative tool is the unexamined assumption that play reflects
reality. For example, in one case, a child who probed toy animals with a
tinkertoy was said to be "reenacting" the alleged
insertion of objects into her vagina while in her day care center.
Children have been said to be showing signs of abuse when they play with
certain figures at a sand table, when a boy playing with male dolls has
them wrestle, when a girl pretends she is putting diapers on a doll,
when a doll the adult labels at "Daddy" is placed in a
dollhouse the adult labels as "jail." But there is no evidence that
behaviors occurring in play therapy can be used as signs to establish
the truth of events that are believed to have happened in the past.
Nevertheless, the behaviors of the child in play therapy together with
the statements the child is alleged to have said are given often used as
evidence that the child has been abused by the person accused.
The "anatomically correct" dolls are widely
used in the assessment of alleged child sexual abuse. They have been
criticized and recently there have been several studies concerning their
use. Some of the studies report differences between abused and
non-abused children; others report no differences. However, the studies
claiming to show differences between the responses of sexually abused
and non-abused children have major methodological shortcomings which
limit any conclusions that can be drawn from them. Taken as a whole,
there is no evidence from the research on dolls supporting their use as
valid methods for diagnosing sexual abuse.
A major difficulty in the unquestioned acceptance and
use of these dolls is that until recently there has been little
information about how normal children respond to the dolls. Baseline
information about the antecedent probability of a child's response to
the dolls is necessary in order to interpret what responses to such
dolls mean. But several recent studies indicate that normal, non-abused
children may respond to the dolls in a way that is likely to trigger
suspicions of abuse in the investigator (Gabriel, 1985; Mclver,
Wakefield & Underwager, 1989; Boat & Everson, undated; Herbert,
Grams, & Goranson (1987). King and Yuille (1987) point out that
"... the dolls serve the function of a suggestive question with
young children. The genitals and orifices of the dolls suggest a play
pattern to children, and that play may be misinterpreted as evidence for
Herbert, et al. (1987) and Mclver, et al. (1989) also
found that the children were very suggestible in response to leading questions with the dolls and
could easily be led to produce statements and behaviors which could be
interpreted as indicating sexual abuse. Although Aman and Goodman (1987)
reported that the dolls in their study did not lead to false reports of
molestation, the three year olds in the doll condition were significantly
less accurate in answering the objective questions than were the three
year olds in the no doll condition. Also, false alarm errors, that is,
errors that could lead to false reports of abuse, were significantly
greater for three year olds than five year olds and one in five
three-year-old children made such errors.
White, Strom, and Santilli (1985) and White, Strom,
Santilli, and Halpin (1986) developed a protocol for interviewing
preschoolers with the "anatomically correct" dolls and
reported that with their protocol, non-sexually abused children
interacted differently with the dolls than did the abused sample. Jampole and Weber (1987) and August and Forman (1986) also reported
differences between abused and non-abused children. However, in all
three of these studies there is no information concerning the content of
any interviews about sexual abuse, any therapy given to the sexually
abused children, or what discussions were held with these children about
sexual abuse by foster parents or social workers. Without this
information, no conclusions can be drawn from their results. Thus these
studies do not really compare abused and non-abused children but rather
children who have been interrogated by the system and children not
interrogated. Also, Jensen, Realmuto, and Wescoe (1986), using White's
protocol, found no differences between abused and non-abused children.
Interviewers using the dolls assume that the children
will identify the dolls as male or female and then use the dolls to
symbolize actual people to demonstrate what has happened to them. However, these assumptions are not supported.
Children do not identify
gender on the basis of the symbolic genitalia, rarely use the dolls to
symbolize persons in their lives, and seldom spontaneously choose to
play with them (Mclver, et al., 1989; Herbert, et al., 1987; Sivan, Schor,
Koeppl, & Nobel 1988).
The use of the dolls can provide modeling and
teaching to the child. Interviewers model handling the dolls, suggest
that they be undressed, and label them for the child. They may say
"Let's pretend that this is you and this is Daddy," which
invites the child to confuse fact and fantasy. They ask the child to
show what Daddy did with the dolls and they may place the dolls in the
sexually explicit positions for the child. This is a teaching experience
for the child.
When an adult gives support and structure to a child
in using dolls to tell a story the child produces a story much different
and at a higher developmental level than when left to produce a
spontaneous story with little adult support. When actions are modeled by
an adult using dolls the effect is to facilitate pretending and fantasy
behavior (Watson & Fischer, 1977). This falsifies any claim that the
dolls can be used with young children because then they can show
something real with dolls that they can't talk about.
There has been no research to establish standardized
procedures for using the dolls in an investigation. Although White, et
al. (1986) describe a protocol, there are no normative data to
standardize it. Standardized procedures that can be repeated by others
are an absolute requirement before anything sensible can be said or any
conclusions drawn. A California Appeals Court ruled in 1987 that the use
of the dolls was not supported by the scientific evidence and their use
did not meet the Frye test for admissibility. Testimony based upon the
use of the dolls was therefore ruled inadmissible (Law Week, 1987).
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that persons
actually using the dolls are untrained, unsophisticated, ignorant of
child development, and widely variable in their interpretation of
behavior with the dolls (Boat & Everson, undated). The American
Psychological Association's Committee on Psychological Testing and
Assessment determined in its March, 1988, meeting that the dolls
"are considered to be a psychological test and are subject to the
standards when used to assess individuals and make inferences about
their behavior" (Landers, 1988). This means that a psychologist who
uses the dolls and reports conclusions based on their use without
including appropriate cautions about their reliability and validity is
A basic issue is the use of the dolls to elicit
behaviors from young children that can be said to show abuse. Children
are in a process of developing. They show various levels of capacity and
ability throughout that process. This puts limits on what children are
able to do at any given level of development. Adults want to break
through developmental limits in order to attain their objectives.
means that whatever techniques adults use to overcome the limits of a
child's developmental ability are high risk for producing false and mistaken
information reflecting the adult agenda rather than the truth. If
such techniques are to be used, they must be shown to avoid this risk.
If they do not demonstrate validity and reliability, they must not
The use of the dolls in interviews must not be viewed
as a pursuit of truth but rather as a learning experience. To date there
are no data that support a differential behavior of abused and
non-abused children when the dolls are used to assess sexual abuse.
data that is available suggests that they cannot be used to distinguish
abused from non-abused children.
Video- and Audiotape Analysis Research Project
We are engaged in an ongoing research project of
analyzing audio- and videotaped interviews from actual cases of alleged
sexual abuse (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988). To date, we have
analyzed 35 cases. We have reviewed additional videotapes in many other
cases; the cases where we performed the analysis are typical of the ones
we have seen.
The project does not attempt to determine the
truthfulness or untruthfulness of the statements of the children. It
examines the behaviors, statements, and questions of the participants in
actual interviews. We therefore obtain information on the interviewing
process and the responses of children in a real world situation. The
video- and audiotapes are interrogations in actual cases.
Six categories of interviewer behaviors were defined
as error-inducing: closed questions, modeling, pressure, rewards, aids
and paraphrase. Closed questions and modeling can give information to
the child on how to respond. Along with pressure and rewards,
paraphrasing can reinforce the child's response. Aids such as the
anatomically-correct dolls, which are used in most of the interviews,
can provide a modeling effect to the child and can potentially generate
The proportion of adult behaviors that are
error-inducing are fairly similar in the cases we have analyzed. The
behavior of the adults that potentially convey information to the child
on how to respond range from half to four-fifths of the interviewer
behavior (the average is two-thirds). The adults also do most of the
talking in the interviews. In most cases, the adults are from one and a
half to three times more active than the child. The picture that emerges
is one in which the adult is active and task oriented and the child
plays a more passive role.
The behaviors of the adults seldom are geared to
encourage free recall and allow the children to tell their own accounts
free from pressure and suggestion. The categories of closed questions, pressure,
rewards, use of aids, and modeling are adult behaviors that teach a
child what is expected, what story to tell, and what pleases the adult.
The adult interrogators often appear trying to extract testimony that
will substantiate abuse that they have already concluded is real.
This picture is more disturbing in that the children
often had been interrogated several times before the interview was
recorded. It is likely that knowing the interview was being taped would
result in the interrogator trying to avoid obvious questionable
behavior. The undocumented and unknown interrogations that precede the
documented one are likely to be more coercive and suggestive than the
ones we analyzed.
Other professionals are recognizing the problem of
suggestive and rehearsed interviews and the importance of a videotaped
documentation. DeLipsey and James (1988) report on the Texas experience
with videotaping. Although the purpose of the videotaping procedure was
to protect child witnesses by providing an alternative to the child
testifying in court, these authors state that they soon came to realize
that the videotaped procedure protected the rights of the accused as
well. They report that they have observed numerous examples of bribery
and coercion during their review of videotaped interviews. Raskin and
Yuille (in press) state that "a videotape is the only means whereby
the procedures and data obtained during the interview can be fully
Studies on eyewitness testimony and memory and
suggestibility of children have a much smaller proportion of leading
questions than we found in the tapes we analyzed. In the real world
children being interviewed are given much more error-inducing
information than in laboratory research. There is a much higher level of
coercion, pressure and reward for responding in the desired manner.
tapes children were told that they couldn't play with toys (or go to the
bathroom, or go home or get a treat) until they gave the desired
response. Following a statement about abuse, children were frequently
told that they were brave, courageous and that their parents would be
proud of them. In one tape, the interviewer asked the child the same
question eighteen times. In a day care case, the interviewer told
several children that another child had already told him about being
abused. But when tapes of the earlier sessions with the child named as
telling about abuse were examined, such statements were not there.
Children who do not cooperate in affirming abuse have been called "fraidy
cat" or told "you must be stupid."
Our analysis of actual interrogations in sexual abuse
cases shows that the real world is much tougher on children than is the
research laboratory. Even the research studies that attempt to duplicate
real life situations fail to come close to the amount of pressure and
coercion put on children in the tapes that we analyzed. Research
manipulations that used the interview procedures of many of the tapes we
have studied would be unethical. Therefore, the applicability and
generalizability of the research studies is limited. (The problem of
ecological validity is acknowledged by several researchers in Ceci,
Toglia & Ross, 1987.) The findings of the research studies most
likely greatly underestimate the effects of adult behaviors in actual
interviews of children.
While these findings do not invalidate the children's
statements, they raise serious questions about the possible role of
adult influences upon children's behavior. The interrogation process
cannot be accepted as neutral, objective, or unbiased. In each case,
what has actually been done with a child by all of the people involved
in talking to the child, including other children, must be carefully
scrutinized as a possible source of error. Our conclusion from our
analyses is that it is not possible to interrogate children to get at
the truth unless every effort is made to control contaminating
The way children are interrogated when sexual abuse
is suspected shows a common pattern across the nation. There are common
techniques used to investigate the abuse and interview the children.
the way children are interviewed has a high potential for introducing
error and reducing the reliability of statements that children make.
Children, interrogated with suggestive approaches by adults who have no
conception of their influence, are being taught. This raises serious
questions about the possible role of adult social influence upon
children's behavior. When there is no corroborating data or no admission
from the alleged perpetrator, children's statements standing alone must
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* Hollida Wakefield is a
licensed psychologist and Ralph Underwager is a licensed
consulting psychologist at the Institute for Psychological
Therapies, 2344 Nicollet Avenue South, Suite 170, Minneapolis,
Portions of this chapter are taken from The Real World of
by Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield, Springfield,
Illinois: Charles C. Thomas,
in press. [Back]