Investigation and Interviews in
Cases of Alleged Child Sexual: A Look at the Scientific Evidence
Judith K. Adams*
ABSTRACT: Current research on child witnesses indicates that
children's statements about alleged abuse can be so contaminated by
suggestive, leading and coercive questioning that the reliability of any
eventual testimony is severely compromised. Sexual abuse
investigations have not used standardized techniques, appropriate
quality controls, and established protocols. The relevant
literature is reviewed and suggestions for effective and
noncontaminating interviews are given.
During the first two-thirds of this century, children were infrequent
visitors to the courtroom (Batterman-Faunce & Goodman, 1993).
In those rare cases when children were called to testify, their
statements were distrusted and could not be admitted without
corroboration. Laws which virtually excluded child witnesses from
the courtroom began to change as society focused "on the plight of
child victims of sexual assault" (p.301).
Ceci and Bruck (1995) observe that "Traditionally, cases of
child sexual abuse were handled in family or juvenile courts, which are
primarily nonpunitive and have as their foremost goal the protection of
the child rather than the punishment of the offender." They
note that child sexual abuse cases began to appear in criminal
proceedings and "by far the largest problem facing the prosecution
was the fact that the primary witness was a child. Traditional
requirements for corroborating testimony for child witnesses, and the
emotional trauma that child witnesses face in the courtroom, presented
immense obstacles to obtaining convictions" (p. 36).
In response to this, many jurisdictions have modified their
provisions using as a model the Federal Rules of Evidence which
minimizes competency hearings for witnesses of all ages, including
witnesses in sexual abuse cases. A number of methods have been
instituted to reduce trauma for the child in the courtroom. These
include providing a child advocate for legal proceedings, making
structural changes in the courtroom, and adopting alternatives to open
court testimony (e.g., videotaped interviews, closing the courtroom,
etc.) (Ceci & Bruck, 1995). In recent years, laws requiring
the corroboration of child statements have, for the most part, been
dropped, hearsay exceptions have become more liberal, and innovative
techniques for obtaining children's testimony have been used
(Batterman-Faunce & Goodman, 1993). Among these are
closed-circuit testimony, children's courtrooms, videotaped testimony,
and the use of screens and special lighting. These measures assist
child witnesses who otherwise might be "psychologically
unavailable" to testify in open court.
At the same time, however, there is concern that these procedures
violate the Sixth Amendment rights to confrontation of the
defendant. The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution ensures that
persons have the right to face their accusers and to not only hear the
accusations that are made against them but to cross-examine the
witness. The issues of legal confrontation and hearsay are
thoroughly addressed by Gembala and Serritella (1992), who reviewed
three Supreme Court Decisions which impact professionals who testify in
child sexual abuse cases.
Although children are now testifying more frequently, both their
statements and the modifications used to obtain their testimony are
controversial (Batterman-Faunce & Goodman, 1993). Yuille, Hunter,
Joffe, and Zaparniuk (1993) observe that, over the past 15 years,
rapidly escalating rates of reported sexual abuse have changed our
perspective on what was considered a minor social problem. The
authors add that coinciding with the increasing rates of reported child
abuse are increasing problems with false allegations. Mapes (1995)
notes that, shortly after the blossoming of concern over child sexual
abuse in the mid-80s, agencies and courts found themselves in the middle
of emotionally driven debates, often centering on the veracity of
Concern about the effect of the interviewing and
"fact-finding" methods in suspected child sexual abuse cases
has grown. It has become apparent that the interaction between the
child and the adult can influence a child's performance in an assessment
(Garbarino & Stott, 1992). The most problematic cases are
those in which there is no physical evidence (San Diego County Grand
Jury Report, 1991-92), of which molestation is one of the most suspect
of categories. In cases where physical evidence is absent, the
case rests primarily on the results of interviews. Therefore, the
methods of interviewing are critical in the outcome of the case.
Yuille, et al. (1993) discuss how poor interview procedures can lead
to false allegations. The grave consequences of inadequate
training and biased interviewing procedures are illustrated by the
highly publicized McMartin trial, involving allegations of sexual abuse
at a preschool center in Manhattan Beach, California. Wakefield
and Underwager (1989) note that typical investigative procedures involve
repeated interviews by police, social workers, and/or mental health
professionals. Anatomical dolls, books, drawings, puppets and
other aids are often used. Through these procedures, adults may
inadvertently mold and develop an account of sexual abuse in a
non-abused child. This may create confusion of fact and fantasy
and teach the child to please adults by giving the adults what they
Although children's accounts simply cannot always be assumed to be
accurate, the question, "Do children lie about sexual abuse?"
is the wrong question. The right question to ask would probably be
phrased, "What factors in the interaction between the interviewer
and the child affect the reliability and validity of the information
obtained and the ability to draw conclusions from this
information?" The latter question is quite different from the
A spontaneous report of having been abused, especially when the child
provides consistent, credible details of the incident in age-appropriate
language is very likely credible. When the first interviewer uses
open-ended and non-leading questions and the child is encouraged to
provide a narrative account in his or her own words, the information
obtained is apt to be reliable and forensically useful. But young
children often provide limited information. Interviewers may then
become impatient and quickly turn to leading and suggestive
questioning. Turtle and Wells (1987) observe that the paucity of
children's recall 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.
Information obtained through repeated, delayed, leading, biased, or even
coercive methods is highly questionable. A substantial body of
literature is emerging to indicate that children can be led, misled,
coerced, and influenced to present information that is not
accurate. They can give convincing and detailed accounts of abuse
that are false.
Research on Characteristics of Children Affecting Ability to
One issue in the debate about children's testimony has been the
ability of children of various ages to "remember" and
therefore testify on the basis of their recollection of events.
Since the primary sources of information in child sexual abuse cases are
the memories of the child and the alleged perpetrator, researchers have
devoted considerable attention to a variety of issues in the field of
children's memory (Mapes, 1995). This includes encoding and
retention of memory as well as the rate or curve of forgetting, the
constructive nature of remembering, memory storage failures and memory
retrieval failures, and memory impairment. Mapes (1995) draws the
generalization that "the younger the child, the less complete is
the encoding of events and the less confident the child is in his or her
Other research has attempted to isolate and clarify such factors as
motivation on the part of the child, stress the child may have
experienced through abusive or other events (Peters, 1991), cognitive
development of the child (Ornstein, 1991), language skills and ability
of the child to comprehend questions, as well as the age of child which
may be integrally related to the above issues. Pence and Wilson
(1994) provide an example of how language skills may affect the child's
ability to give accurate information. They note that asking a
3-year-old a simple question such as, "Who hurt you your
brother or the teacher?" might lead to confusion when the child
repeats the word "teacher" because the child does not
understand the concept of "or." They point out, citing
Braga and Braga (1975), that children often use language even before
they master its meaning, often producing speech-like sounds that they
use to refer to objects, but only with physical gestures that convey
actual intent. Interviewing children between the ages of 2 and 5
or 6 is particularly difficult, since children cannot consistently
answer why, when, or how questions until the age of 5 or 6 (Steward,
Bussey, Goodman, & Saywitz, 1993).
Research on Interview or Investigation Methodology Affecting
Other research has focused not so much on the child, i.e., children's
ability to remember, comprehend, and report events they have
experienced, but rather on the process of interviewing or investigation,
by which the child's statement or "testimony" concerning the
alleged abuse is obtained. Concerns include the number of
interviews to which a child may be subjected, the repetition of
questioning across and within interviews, the delay or latency of
interviewing the child, and the types of questions used to obtain the
statements from the child. The effects of improper types of
questioning, such as suggestive, leading, aggressive, and coercive
questioning, have been examined. Some authors have directly
addressed the issue of interviewer bias and interviewer expectations
which may affect the information obtained from the child.
Repeated Questioning in Interviews with Children:
Ceci and Bruck (1995) define interviews as particular types of
conversation that can be carried out by a variety of professionals and
nonprofessionals, such as child protection workers, police officers,
mental health professionals, attorneys, parents, and teachers.
Forensic investigations typically involve multiple interviews with each
witness, including the alleged victim; repeated questioning of witnesses
seems to be the norm in our judicial system (Cassel, 1991; Mapes,
1995). Although the first spontaneous statement made by the child
is perhaps the most valid (Flin, 1991), Ceci and Bruck (1995) observe
that children are sometimes interviewed over a prolonged period of time,
and re-interviewed on many occasions about the same set of events before
a decision is reached. The highest ratio of accurate to inaccurate
testimony is obtained in the first interview; as the delay between the
event and the interview increases, the chance for serious misreporting
also appears to increase.
Frequent repetition of questions during forensic evaluations may lead
the child to feel there is something wrong with the answers, and results
in the child changing the story in order to provide the right answer to
the investigator (Ornstein, 1991). Ceci and Bruck (1995) note that
when children are asked the same question more than once, they often
change their answers. They appear to interpret the repeated
question as, "I must not have given the correct response the first
time, therefore ... I must try to provide new information."
Several research studies (Cassel, 1991; Kay, 1995; Warren,
Hulse-Trotter, & Tubbs, 1991; Warren & Lane, 1995) have shown
that children change their answers when subjected to repeated
questioning, with likelihood of changing their answers being greater
when the children are given negative feedback. ("You did not
get all of those questions exactly right. Let's try again") or
negatively suggestive questions. Mapes (1995) describes the child,
with repeated questioning, changing her answer from he "might"
have touched her pee-pee, then, when interviewed a few days later,
saying "maybe," and, after being told to "Think
harder," concurring with "Yes." Poole and White
(1991) report that preschoolers are particularly vulnerable to the
deleterious effects of repeated questioning.
It has been argued that repeated interviewing is itself a form of
rehearsal that prevents memories from decaying over a period of time (Ceci
& Bruck, 1995). But, unfortunately, repeated questioning, even
when it is completely neutral, can have unanticipated, harmful
consequences. Eugenio, Buckout, Kostes, and Ellison (1982) found
that some witnesses produced a significant number of intrusion errors
after three recall trials, indicating that, with repeated questioning,
subjects can construct additional details even after they have told all
they can remember.
Bruck, Ceci, Francoeur, and Barr (1995) report that children
incorporate misinformation from early interviews into subsequent
reports. Misleading questioning in early interviews can lead to
fabrications and inaccuracies. Bruck et al. studied 5-year-olds
who visited a pediatrician. The children were interviewed a year
later with 4 interviews in a one-month period. The research design
involved giving some of the children misinformation and others no
misleading information. The results showed that the children who
did not receive misleading information were highly accurate in their
final reports, while the children who were misled were very
inaccurate. The children who were questioned in a misleading
manner incorporated the misleading information and included some
additional inaccurate information in their final reports.
With the plethora of highly-publicized sexual abuse cases, there has
been increasing concern about the contamination of the child's testimony
through improper interviewing methods. Bruck and Ceci (1995),
along with a committee of social scientists, report that suggestions
planted in the first interview session can be quickly taken up and
mentioned by the children in the second session.
The failure to videotape, or at least audiotape, investigatory
interviews of the child makes it impossible to assess the adequacy of
the interviews and the accuracy of the child's reports. Written
summaries do not substitute for the lack of tape recorded
interviews. Bruck and Ceci (1995) note that, if interviewers are
asked to recall what took place in an interview, they recall merely the
gist of what took place, but are not accurate about the exact words or
the sequences of interactions. In the appellate review of the
Kelly Michaels day care case in New Jersey, interview tapes revealed
clear examples of interviewers' misconduct in the interviews with the
children. This furnished the pivot of the reversal of Kelly
Michaels's conviction (McGough, 1995).
Repeated questioning may not only produce inaccurate interview
results, but may be harmful to the child as well. Flin (1991)
challenged the practice of repeated questioning, asserting that repeated
questioning can be emotionally disturbing to children and can compromise
the quality of their testimony. In addition, Mapes, citing Toglia
(1991), adds that the ongoing barrage of questions to which many
children are exposed, the ongoing intrusions into the child's life, and
the continuing disruption of daily routines can be very stressful and it
is possible for the child's memory to be further modified in the attempt
to adapt to the stress. Myers (1994) maintains that multiple
interviews by multiple professionals can traumatize children. In a
victim witness pilot project for the State of California, Myers and his
associates found that the benefits of videotaping outweighed the
drawbacks, sparing children from traumatizing multiple interviews.
General Rule of Thumb: The more interviews to which the child is
exposed the greater the likelihood that the child's reconstruction of an
event from memory will be influenced by post-event information. It
is important to determine how many times the child has been interviewed
to whom the child first disclosed the "abuse" and under what
circumstances. ft is also important to determine whether a spontaneous
allegation of abuse was present initially or at what point a suspicion
of abuse crystallized.
Effects of Delays in Interviewing on Children's Testimony
The timing of interviews may also be critical for accuracy in
testimony. The wheels of justice often move slowly and the legal
process can be dragged out across months or even years (Mapes,
1995). From the time an event is experienced by a child until
interviews and forensic investigations are completed and the child
actually testifies, memories can be lost through simple
forgetting. Studies by Loftus, Miller, and Burns (1978) and others
have shown that interviews within a week after an event can be
reasonably accurate, but misleading information has a greater impact
when it is presented later, compared to when the misleading information
is given immediately after a presentation. Ceci and Bruck (1995)
report that studies suggest children are less likely to make inaccurate
reports concerning significant and stressful procedures involving their
bodies when their memories are still relatively fresh.
This research suggests that interviews conducted soon after an event
has taken place will be the most accurate, provided that the interview
is not conducted in a misleading manner and that interviewing techniques
are sound. A few studies (Scrivner & Safer, 1988; Poole &
White, 1991; Tucker, Mertin, & Luszcz, 1990) report positive results
of repeated neutral questioning with adults and children when interviews
were conducted within a week after an event had occurred. Lipton (1977)
showed subjects a film of a crime, then questioned them immediately and
one week later; the delayed-test subjects recalled fewer materials and
were less accurate.
Unfortunately, in some cases, the interval between the suspected
abuse event and interviews may be months, years, or, in a few cases,
decades. Poole and White (1993) suggest that decline in accuracy
over a long time is most apparent among children. Children tested
two years after an initial event provided many more inaccurate details
in response to open-ended questions, as compared with adults.
Ceci and Bruck (1995) describe three studies by Ornstein and his
colleagues investigating the rate at which memories fade over different
periods of delay, and the degree to which children include nonoccurring
events as part of their reports. In Ornstein et al.'s three
studies, children aged 3 to 7 years were interviewed immediately after
an annual medical examination and at varying time intervals ranging from
1 to 12 weeks.
The results of Ornstein's studies are summarized as follows:
- Significant age differences were noted in children's immediate and
delayed recall; 3-year-olds were the most inaccurate and lacked
information to open-ended questions.
- As the delay interviews increased, there was notable forgetting
among the youngest children. They were increasingly inaccurate
when questioned following delays of 1, 3, 6, and 12 weeks.
Seven-year-olds did not show impairment until delay of between 6 and
- The accuracy of answers to strange and silly questions also varied
as a function of age and delay interval. Younger children gave
more inaccurate responses to these questions than older children, at
chance (50%) level of accuracy, while older children's error rates
Ornstein notes that, over time, accuracy dropped off and the children
made errors of commission. Some children, especially the younger
subjects, reported events that never happened. Some of the
"nonevents" included acts that could have sexual connotations.
Ceci, Crotteau-Huffman, Smith, and Loftus (1994) asked children to
think about real and imaginary events creating mental images each time
they did so over 10 weeks of reviewing. The authors indicated that
their study was a "fairly conservative test" of the
hypothesis, with no attempt to mislead the subjects, only to ask them to
mentally visualize what had taken place. On the 11th week, when
interviewed, 58% of the preschool children produced false memories to at
least one of the fictitious events, with 25% of the children producing
false narratives to the majority of the fictitious events. The
narratives obtained on the 11th week were frequently embellished, with
internally coherent accounts of the context and emotions associated with
These studies suggest that substantial delays can compromise the
accuracy of reports made by children. When these delays are
combined with repeated questioning or, worse, with suggestive and
misleading questioning, the effect on accuracy is likely to be even more
pronounced. Poor interviewing methods and misleading information
would have a greater effect on testimony in cases where there are longer
delays between an event and the interview.
In the situation where there are claims involving alleged repressed
memories, a "memory" of childhood abuse surfaces for the first
time in therapy or in a support group for survivors of childhood
incest. Proponents of the validity of these uncovered memories
point to the consistency of the picture; the sexual abuse memory fits
with the client's larger symptom picture (Ceci & Bruck, 1995).
The best known repressed memory case involved Eileen Franklin-Lipsker,
who claimed that her father raped and murdered Eileen's friend.
(Although convicted on the basis of his daughter's testimony, George
Franklin's conviction was overturned on appeal.) The repressed
memory claims can be understood in terms of the finding that, when
interviews are delayed, there is inherent risk in distortion. The
younger the child, the greater likelihood that the information is
inaccurate. When misleading information is introduced or a
misleading questioning style is used, the risk of inaccuracy would be
General Rule of Thumb: Delayed interviews are, by and large, less
accurate than interviews that are conducted in a timely manner.
Inaccuracies resulting from delayed interviewing can be compounded by
other improper interviewing methods.
Methods of Questioning: The Continuum from Nonleading to Leading
Methods of questioning children in suspected sexual abuse cases vary
from interview to interview, from case to case, and even within
interviews with the same child. A better understanding of the
types of questions employed in interviews with children in suspected
sexual abuse cases can greatly aid our ability to conduct interviews
competently. Mapes (1995) suggests that a continuum of questioning
styles or methods can be outlined, ranging from spontaneous or
unprompted disclosure by the child, to nonleading inquiry, then to
minimally leading questioning methods. At the more directive end
of the continuum, Mapes identifies moderately leading interviewing and
maximally leading questioning methods. Unfortunately, the methods
used to interview children in suspected sexual abuse cases may include
aggressive, coercive, deceptive, selectively reinforcing, and biased
interviewing methods. An examination of the different questioning
methods is valuable in understanding how testimony was obtained from
Spontaneous Reports of Abuse
Prior to the forensic evaluation, the child may have made a
spontaneous disclosure of abuse. In some cases, children
deliberately and quickly tell adults of an incident of abuse. For
When a 3-year old began to masturbate vigorously, her mother told
her to stop. The child protested, "But my daddy puts his
finger in there."
"While a 3-year old was having her hair washed her mother
asked her to "plug her holes" (referring to her ears).
The child placed her finger in her vaginal opening. She then
spoke of a man who had touched her "secret holes" by putting
something in and out. She was told not to tell anyone or he
would kill her (Campis, Hebden-Curtis & DeMaso, 1993, p.922).
Unfortunately, the only completely nonleading forensic interview
would be when a child talks to an investigator and describes the abuse
completely spontaneously. Mapes (1995) notes that, if
investigations had to be conducted in this manner, no Investigation
would ever be completed. It is quite unlikely that the child will
make a spontaneous, unprompted first statement about abuse to an
investigator. More likely, the child has commented to another
person, who then takes the child for further interview or
evaluation. The child then has some understanding of the purpose
of the interview.
When the statements of the child are made spontaneously, without
probing or prompting, with consistent indications of abuse, and the
person to whom the statement is made does not have a preconceived bias
that abuse had occurred, the child's statements are likely to be
credible. When the disclosure was not spontaneous or was made in
response to prompting, or the adult is predisposed to believe the child
was abused, we should be more skeptical. It is important to find
out exactly what the child said, to whom, and what subsequent action was
taken by that individual. Details of the initial disclosure are
crucial. The investigator should consider the following questions:
Was the child questioned about abuse or not when he or she
disclosed the abuse?
Was there a clear statement of abuse or could the statement be
What response did the child get when he or she disclosed the abuse?
What was the context of the abuse, i.e., are the parents in a
custody dispute, is there other conflict in the home, was the child
attempting to avoid getting in trouble?
Had the child recently been sensitized to making statements that
might be interpreted as indicative of abuse? Is there evidence
the child previously had a heightened awareness about sexual matters,
developed in other contexts?
Did the person to whom the child made the "report" have
preconceived bias about abuse?
General Rule of Thumb: In general, the literature in the field of
interviewing children and obtaining "testimony" from children
suggests that spontaneous reports are likely the most credible.
Non-leading Techniques of Inquiry:
Obtaining detailed and accurate accounts from children about events
that may have happened weeks, months, or even years ago can be a
difficult task. Adults encounter this difficulty whether they ask
children about everyday neutral events, special pleasant events, or
stressful events in which the child was a participant or a victim (Ceci
& Bruck, 1995). Noninformative responses to open-ended
questions are common among young children. For example, when
parents ask their child about what happened at school, the child may
answer "nothing." Or if the parent asks about the events at a
friend's birthday party, the child's response might be "we
In order to obtain more detailed information, adults must structure
the conversation and guide the child into providing responses. The goal
is to obtain a free narrative account from the child. Pence and
Wilson (1994) advise avoiding interference with the spontaneous or
nonsolicited verbal production on the part of the child. They
suggest that "if the child is describing an event in a narrative
fashion, let the child finish before asking any needed clarifying
questions" (p.79). Wakefield and Underwager (1989) indicate
that simply asking the child "What happened?" calls for
spontaneous, free recall by the child.
On the most general level, adults ask many questions in their
interaction with children. These questions serve as probes or
prompts to assist the child in reporting appropriate information.
The subsequent questions asked may be based on the information that the
child provided, but it is also possible that the adult may ask leading
questions based on their own knowledge. To illustrate inquiry
about a birthday party, using non-leading questions, the discussion
might proceed like this:
With each inquiry, the adult is allowing the question to be based on
the previous statement of the child, introducing the minimal amount of
new information and responding to the lead taken by the child.
Pence and Wilson (1994) encourage interviewers to use responsive
listening, in which the interviewer repeats to the child what the child
has just said, so as not to misconstrue what the child actually meant.
Questioning should proceed from general to more detailed. Talk
about "things that happen" in the child's life things
that happen at home, in school, or in another setting. Such
neutral approaches serve as excellent openers to discussion. Then
work toward a key question such as, "Do you know why you're here
today?" If the child answers in the affirmative, ask what the
child believes. If another adult has told the child that the
interviewer will want to talk about abuse or about how the child was
hurt, then the issues of who said what and what was said can be
important. What the parent told the child may be as innocent as,
"Tell the truth," but it could be more problematic if the
child was told specifics to share such as, "Daddy hurts my
bottom." Pence and Wilson (1994) stress avoiding terms such
as "hurt," "bad," and "abuse."
Nonleading questions can be a vital part of an interview regarding
alleged sexual abuse. Examples of nonleading questions which might
be part of a sexual abuse interview include:
Is there something that you want to tell me?
Is there something that you wish to tell me? (or need to tell me?)
Can you tell me everything that happened?
Did anything happen to you when you went to visit (person)?
How did you get along with (person) when she went to see him?
What do you and (person) do when you go to visit?
Where was Mommy when this happened?
General Rule of Thumb: Attempt to ask open-ended non-leading
questions as much as possible, keeping in mind that children may not
understand the question, may be reluctant to talk, may not remember, or
may change their answers.
Proceed with more direct or more leading questions only when the
situation warrants it, keeping in mind that the information may be
affected by the structure of the questioning. Don't reinforce or
selectively reward information that confirms a given point of
view. Be willing to challenge a response gently to try to test it,
i.e., "Is that really true? Are you telling the truth
now? Are you telling what really went on?"
Minimally Leading Techniques:
Minimally leading questioning techniques narrow the range of possible
responses a child may give, reduce the possible activities available to
the child, and establish parameters which allow the investigation to
proceed (Mapes, 1995). Some examples of minimally leading
questions include, "Can you tell me about who the people are in
your family?" then following up to have the child elaborate on each
of the persons named, i.e., mother, father or stepfather, siblings,
etc. The following interview illustrates the use of
||Tell me about the people in your family.
||There's me, my mom, my sister, and my step-dad.
||Great! Tell me about what you all do.
||My mom washes dishes. My sister causes trouble.
||What do you do?
||I go to school and play Nintendo.
||Do you like Nintendo?
||Are you pretty good at it?
||We didn't talk about your step-father. Can you
tell me about him?
||What is there to tell?
||Tell me what he looks like and what he does.
||He's ugly and he lays on the couch and watches
||What does your step-dad do for fun?
||Drinks beer and yells at me.
||Do you like your step-dad?
||I don't know. Not really.
||What would be something that you like about your
||He lets me do a lot of stuff and he got me a dog.
||What would be something that you don't like about
||He yells a lot and falls asleep on the couch and
he makes me feed the dog when it's cold out.
Obviously, the use of minimally leading questions requires patience
and skill. It is necessary to proceed carefully and add information in
small increments. Examples of questions which may be minimally leading
but facilitate the sexual abuse interview regarding sexual abuse
Have any bad things happened to you recently?
I understand that you have had some trouble sleeping
recently. Could you tell me if anything has happened that would
make you to have trouble sleeping?
Is there some bad thing that has happened to you that you have not
told me about? Can you tell me about it now?
Has anyone done things to harm you or upset you?
Has anyone done things to you that your Mommy (Daddy) would be
upset about if she/he knew?
I understand there have been some problems in your family.
Can you tell me about them?
Phrase questions in language appropriate to the child's age, i.e.,
"difficulty" is appropriate for an older adolescent, but
should not be used with a young child. With a young child, say
instead something like, "is making it hard for you to sleep,"
or "makes you scared at night." Methods should be gauged
to the age, intelligence, and emotional state of the child. For
example, avoid compound questions with young children. Different
types of questions are needed for a child who has been interviewed
repeatedly compared to the child who is being interviewed for the first
The tone of the interview should communicate that you will accept all
of the child's answers, not just those that conform to what the child
thinks you want to hear. Be open to any response the child might
give, and use the child's response as a basis for encouraging
elaboration: (i.e., "Can you tell me more about that.")
Throughout, be as neutral and nonleading as possible and tell the child
it is all right to say "I don't know" or "I don't
remember." With closed-ended questions, allow the child to
select from several options; for example, "Was it light out or dark
General Rule of Thumb: Select the least leading form of
questioning possible at any given point in the interview. Use of
the lowest level of leading questioning is likely to produce more
Moderately Leading Techniques:
Moderately leading interviewing techniques further narrow the range
of possible responses a child might make. An example of a
moderately leading question is, "I understand that some things have
happened between you and your dad. Tell me about those
things." Other examples which would narrow the focus of the
interview, but still minimize contamination of the child's testimony
How have you and your daddy been getting along lately?
Is there anything that has happened to you recently that has made
you really upset?
Can you tell me what happened between you and ___?
I'd like you to tell me about the things you like about your mother
and the things you don't like about your mother.
I need to know how your pee-pee got hurt. Can you tell me how
As the interviewing methods proceed from non-leading and minimally
leading, toward more directive and leading questions, the risk of
contamination of the child's report increases. Children may make
reports which are not entirely accurate. Ironically, it appears
that the mere act of providing a false response appears to create its
own memory, which is then perceived to be true. Schooler, Foster,
and Loftus (1988) showed subjects a slide presentation of a burglary,
questioned subjects with misleading information, and gave a final
forced-choice test. They concluded that "the act of
committing to an incorrect response causes subjects to falsely remember
that information ... which later causes interference that impairs the
subjects' ability to remember the original details" (p. 249).
Loftus, Miller, and Burns (1978) found that misleading information
had a greater impact when presented just prior to the final test
(one-week after presentation) than when misleading information was given
immediately after the presentation. Misinformation had virtually
no effect when given immediately, but a strong effect after a longer
In one of the most famous studies reported in scientific research,
Loftus and Coan (Loftus, 1993), demonstrated the implantation of false
memories. In this research study, a 14-year-old, Chris, was
convinced by his older brother, Jim, that Chris has been lost in a
shopping mall when he was 5 years old. Jim related the following
story to Chris as though it were the truth (Loftus, 1993, p. 532):
"It was 1981 or 1982, I remember Chris was five. We had
gone shopping at the University City Shopping Mall in Spokane.
After some panic we found Chris being led down the mall by a tall,
oldish man (I think he was wearing a flannel shirt). Chris was
crying and holding the man's hand. The man explained that he had
found Chris walking around crying his eyes out just a few minutes
before and was trying to help him find his parents.
Just two days later, Chris recalled his feelings about being lost:
"That day I was so scared that I would never see my family
again. I knew I was in trouble." On the third day, he
recalled a conversation with his mother: "I remember Mom telling me
never to do that again." On the fourth day: "I also
remember that old man's flannel shirt." On the fifth day, he
started remembering the mall itself: "I sort of remember the
stores." In his last recollection, he could even remember a
conversation with the man who found him: "I remember the man asking
me if I was lost." .
A couple of weeks later, Chris had greatly expanded on his false
"I was with you guys for a second and I think I went over to
look at the toy store, the KayBee Toy Store, and uh, we got lost and I
was looking around and I thought, 'Uh-oh I'm in trouble now.'
You know. And then I ... I thought I was never going to see my
family again. I was really scared you know. And then this
old man, I think that he was wearing a blue flannel shirt, came up to
me ... he was kind of old. He was kind of bald on top ... he had
like a ring of gray hair. And he had glasses."
Subsequently, Chris was debriefed and told that one of the events
related to him was false. He guessed one of the genuine memories
and when he was told that the shopping mall incident was false he
commented: "Really? I thought I remembered being lost and
looking around for you guys. I do remember that. And then
crying. And Mom coming up and saying, 'Where were you? ... don't
you ever do that again'."
Such conviction about being lost in the mall and the resistance to
accepting that he was never lost have chilling implications for those
who make allegations of abuse based on recollection of repressed
General Rule of Thumb: By using moderately leading questions) the
interviewer directs the child to an area of discussion, but should be
aware of the risks of contaminating the child's account by any line of
Maximally Leading Techniques:
Maximally leading interviewing techniques include questions which
tell the child what the investigator wants to discuss. In
maximally leading questioning, the interviewer does not follow the lead
of the child's responses, but rather introduces content to the
child. Unfortunately, maximally leading questions often
communicate the interviewer's desired response. The risk of
eliciting inaccurate information is increased when a maximally leading
form of inquiry is used. Mapes (1995) observes that children can
adjust their answers for a variety of reasons, i.e., because of the
uncertainty, because of the perceived authority position of the
interviewer, because of the child's desire to terminate the questioning,
or because the repetition of the question suggests that the interviewer
is either unhappy with the child's response or the child must have given
the wrong answer. In support of this point, Batterman-Faunce and
Goodman (1993) observe that child accuracy and suggestibility can be
conceptualized as context dependent, rather than as absolute abilities
determined solely by cognitive maturity.
A question cannot be classified as maximally leading on the basis of
whether it is an open-ended or closed question the description of
questions as maximally leading refers to the content of the question
itself. Many Yes/No questions are maximally leading. For
example, a child may be asked:
Show me where your father touched you.
Did your father touch your pee-pee with his finger?
Did your step-father take off his clothes when he laid down on top
His put his finger in your pee-pee, didn't he?
Did he touch you under your clothes or over your clothes?
Such questions assume that the person asked about has engaged in
certain behaviors with the child. These questions may also imply
that the touching was "bad." Particularly with young
children, who do not know the differences in touching for grooming or
hygiene, as compared to touching for sexual purposes, such questions may
be unclear and elicit erroneous information. Other maximally
leading questions, although intended to elicit the truth, may result in
the child being intimidated or frightened.
Children, particularly young children, can be easily mislead and
confused by questions such as these. Ceci and Bruck (1995) provide
a number of illustrations which are taken from actual cases. For
example (p. 277):
||Did she (Barbara Snow) tell you what
she meant, if somebody touched you?
||Well, I got what she meant.
||You knew she was talking about sexual
||What did she say to you and what did
you say to her after that?
||... She acted like she already
thought that somebody had and I asked her about that and she
said no. And she just kept asking me if somebody had and I
told her no. But you know it seemed like she was trying to
get me to say yes. She just kept bugging me to say it.
||Did she tell you some other kids had
told her that she had been involved in sexual touching?
||And did she keep asking you over and
over and over and over whether or not these kids were telling
the truth and you had been involved in sexual touching?
||Did there come a time when she told
you that, if you didn't admit to what had happened ... did she
ever mention at any time, juvenile authorities?
||Yes, she said that if I kept lying,
that then it would just make a bigger problem and she said
something about going to juvenile courts . And she just said it
would be better if I just admitted it now (State V. Bullock,
1989, pp.170-171, cited in Ccci & Bruck, 1995 pp.277).
Maximally leading questions can contaminate the child's memories,
which then destroys the primary evidence. In such cases, determining
what really occurred may be virtually impossible. Bruck and Ceci (1995)
note that the "evidence," that is, the child's report, may be
altered as early as the second interview, so that later accurately
determining what occurred may be impossible. The use of maximally leading questions should be
avoided, in that the accuracy of the results are likely poorest and the
possibility of contaminating the child's account with material
introduced by the interviewer is greatest.
General Rule of Thumb: Maximally leading inquiry carries increased
risks of eliciting inaccurate information with substantial risk of
introducing errors based on the line of questioning. Avoid using such
Highly Questionable Methods of Interviewing
Highly questionable methods of interviewing and investigation are
sometimes used. Aggressive, coercive, deceptive, selectively
reinforcing, and biased questioning methods have been documented in many
Mapes (1995) observes that, in their search for the truth and their
desire to protect the child, some forensic investigators can be very
aggressive in their interviews. By aggressive questioning, the
interviewer may attempt to mislead the interviewee with misinformation,
use harsher words, or use a rapid succession of questions. The
interviewer's nonverbal behavior may communicate urgency, threat, or
hostility. Tone of voice, gestures, stance, and eye contact are examples
of non-verbal behaviors which characterize aggressive questioning.
techniques significantly compromise the fact-finding purpose of the
Aggressive interviewing increases the probability of the child being
exposed to post-event information, influences the child's reconstruction
of an event, and can even result in an entire memory being implanted in
the child. An "atmosphere of accusation" can be created
(Goodman & Clarke-Stewart, 1991) by telling the children that they
were to be questioned about an important event and by saying such things
as, "Are you afraid to tell? You'll feel better once you've
The interviewing of children in suspected sexual abuse cases can
become so aggressive that Wakefield and Underwager (1989) question
whether it can sometimes be termed an inquisition. Underwager and
Wakefield (1992) outline some of the methods of police deception by
which police often extract not only confessions but false confessions.
They indicate that the techniques
used may be more psychologically sophisticated and effective than those
used by the Chinese Communists in Korea. Such techniques are also used
in interviews with children.
Questioning is coercive when the child is threatened, bribed, or
intimidated in the effort to secure information. The use of coercive
questioning is particularly dangerous when used with young children, who
may not be able to determine the reality of the statements being made or
the likelihood of the threat being carried out.
Underwager and Wakefield (1992) note cases in which children have
been told they could go home as soon as they told "what Daddy did
to them," or were told that, "Daddy won't go to jail but he
will get help so he won't be sick and do mean things anymore."
child may be encouraged to agree that she was abused when told,
"Mommy will be proud of you for telling the scary secret"
(Wakefield & Underwager, 1989). The child knows that she must tell
(make up) a scary secret, in order for Mommy to be proud. Underwager and
Wakefield (1991) provide the following examples of coercive questioning:
All of the other children talked to us, and they felt better.
If you don't tell, you'll feel yucky inside.
Answer my question right now!
We need you to tell us so other children won't get hurt.
You can't go outside until you finish telling me!
I know of cases in which a child was told that he or she could not go
home to be with parents until the child "told the truth,"
which was to say something that satisfied the expectations of the
examiner. In addition, the child was told that his parents could not get
help, or they would never be able to be back together as a family until
the child "told the truth." Under such pressure, children will
likely succumb to the social expectancies and may even fabricate a story
to supply the desired information to secure their own or their parent's
Pence and Wilson (1994) note that children may try to please an
interviewer if they have some idea of what is being sought just to draw the interview to an end.
(1991) comments that when the interviewer gets a yes or no answer, the
interviewer does not know if the interviewee is lying, is telling the
truth, or is merely providing an answer (yes or no selected at random)
to "get the examiner off of his back." According to Gardner,
competent examiners recognize the risks of yes/no questions and avoid
this type of questioning since they understand that little information
is obtained from such questions.
General Rule of Thumb: Avoid coercive questioning, as it greatly
jeopardizes the accuracy of the results. The dangers of coercive
questioning are particularly great when interviewing younger children,
who can be confused, intimidated, and traumatized.
Sometimes the questioning progresses beyond interviewing to
deception. Perhaps the most common form of deception is telling the
child, "the other children have already told me the truth, so you
need to tell me the truth too." In the following transcript of an
interview in the Country Walk Baby-sitting Service Case (Ceci &
Bruck, 1995, p. 148-149), the deceptive technique of telling the child
that other children have already disclosed abuse is apparent.
||Some of the children don't understand. They are
afraid. Some children said that they were acting like monsters and
they wore those masks and they scared them.
||Is that true?
||I am not sure but some of the children said so
and I believe the children because I don't think children make
up stories like that. Do you?
||Well Douglas and some of the other children.
||... But some of them are bigger than me and did
they tell you that they were naked or anything like that?
||What did they say?
||They said that they played games with Frank and
Ileana and some of the little children and everybody took off
their clothes and they played games and people touched each
other's private parts.
||Is it true?
||Yes, but Douglas (inaudible) the other children said it, so
Douglas might be right.
||You thought maybe if Douglas said it,... maybe it
||It was true because the other children said it.
||Do you know what (Frank) did?
||Well I am not sure because I am not like a policeman or something
like that. So I am not sure but would you like me to tell you what
||... Okay, Douglas said he took the dolls and he kind of talked a
little and he showed me and one of the things is that he took all the
clothes off the dolls.
||Well, he said that the children played a game
like one of the games
he said they would play was ring around the rosy.
||With no clothes on?
||With no clothes on.
||And your sister said that Ileana used to spank the
children, did she do that?
||No, she didn't spank me.
||What about the other children? Did she spank them?
||How come your sister said that?
Similar techniques were used by the investigators in the Kelly
||All the other friends I talked to told me everything
that happened. Randy told me. Charlie told me. Connie told
me ... And
now it's your turn to tell. You don't want to be left out, do you?
||Boy, I'd hate to tell your friends that you didn't want
to help them (in response to a child who didn't want to disclose).
All your friends that I mentioned before were telling us
that Kelly, the teacher we are talking about, was doing something they
didn't like very much. She was bothering them in kind of a private way and they were all pretty
brave and they told us everything, and we were wondering if you could
help us out too, doing the same thing.
||I will get you the badge if you help us get this
information ... like all your other friends did.
In these cases, the interviewer introduced misleading information
and attempted to bribe or deceive the child with the suggestion that he
should disclose abuse in order to be consistent with what the other
children had already disclosed. Underwager and Wakefield (1992) note
instances where police interviewers "lied to children by telling
them that the doctor found proof that they had been abused when the
medical examination was normal and there was no physical evidence to
support a claim of abuse" (p. 52).
The public is becoming more aware of the risks of improper
interviewing methods in suspected sexual abuse cases. The recent HBO
movie, "Indictment," clearly portrayed improper questioning
using deceptive methods in the McMartin case. Several highly publicized
convictions, including Kelly Michaels, Edenton (Little Rascals), and
Bakersfield, have been overturned, at least partially because of the
coercive and suggestive interviews.
Most recently, in the highly-publicized sexual abuse cases in
Wenatchee, Washington, numerous accusations of sexual abuse were made.
In these cases, 28 adults were accused of sexually abusing children, and
dozens of children were removed from their homes. One Child Protective
Services worker became so "paranoid" when he dared to question
the methods and conclusions that were reached by the police, that he
sent his Canadian-born wife and his small child to live temporarily in
Canada to avoid the risk that his own child would be "taken into
protective custody." Assistance from the U.S. Attorney General was
sought and the situation was made known through the media (Good
Morning, America, Dec. 1, 1995).
However, the interviewing methods quickly became suspect. Using
clearly coercive techniques, the police investigator threatened to have
one child locked up and pretended to make phone calls to a hospital to
arrange the child's imminent admission, telling the child that,
"I'll tell them to get your room ready right now." The
children were threatened with hospitalization or placement in detention facilities if they did not
give answers which met the investigator's expectations. In light of such
coercion and deception, it is no wonder children succumb to the pressure
of these interviews and interrogations and report being abused. In June,
1996, the Denver Post reported that the 13-year-old who testified about
being sexually abused recanted her accusations and now says that she
lied under pressure from her then-foster father. It notes that,
"The girl's sensational turnaround has rekindled charges that an
obsessed police officer, aided by unquestioning prosecutors and
over-zealous social workers, generated a wave of community hysteria and
... coerc(ed) poor illiterate adults into confessions."
Selectively Reinforcing Questioning:
Interviewers may selectively reinforce a child's responses by
attending to those answers which reveal possible abuse and rewarding the
child for confirmatory responses. Confirmatory responses can be
reinforced quite easily and, following behavioral principles, the
likelihood of more such responses is increased. Answers can be
reinforced with social reinforcers, such as nods, grins, and other
verbal reinforcers. Merely the attention that the child receives for
making disclosures about abuse can be viewed as reinforcing. Children
may be rewarded with smiles, praise for doing a good job, or signs of
enthusiasm when they say what the interviewer expects to hear. Verbal
reinforcers include praise, agreement, or giving words of recognition,
such as, "That's right," or "that's what I thought."
Underwager and Wakefield (1991) give several examples of selective
You're a good talker.
Good That's just right.
You're so brave to tell us all about this!
After you talk to us, then you can have an ice cream cone.
Mommy will be so proud if you tell us.
In addition to social reinforcement, children may be offered tangible
reinforcement for making statements about sexual abuse. I am familiar
with cases in which children have been given stickers, toys, candy or
teddy bears, when they gave the answers that the interviewer wanted to hear, i.e., an answer that was consistent with
the interviewer's previous expectations. Underwager and Wakefield (1991)
note that children have been promised or given candy, food, beverages,
and toys if they cooperate and answer the questions. Bruck and Ceci
(1995) cite instances where children were offered police badges in
exchange for their incriminating statements. Such reinforcers are
considered to be positive reinforcements, since they reward desired
behavior with a positive consequence.
In some cases, the child is given "negative reinforcement,"
or rewarded by the removal of a negative or aversive stimulus. When the
negative stimulus is removed when the child reports abuse, that
reporting is negatively reinforced. Bruck and Ceci (1995) note that
interviewers have bribed children by telling them that they would end
the interview when the child gave an incriminating report: "We can
get out of here real quick if you just tell me what you told me last
time we met," or, "Tell me what Kelly did to your hiney and
then you can go" (p.282).
When an adult stops asking repeated questions when the child produces
the desired answer after several repetitions, the cessation reinforces a
specific answer and may also reinforce giving an answer approved by the
interrogator. Such negative reinforcement took place in the interviews
concerning suspected sexual abuse at a day-care center, as the following
excerpt from the Little Rascals case illustrates (Ceci & Bruck,
1995, p. 146):
For some reason that night I got very upset. And I was very
frustrated from the standpoint that I felt like my son should be able
to come to me if there was a problem and tell me about it, that he
should not have some sort of secret or some adult that I really didn't
know that well should have a secret with him that he wouldn't be able
to tell me about. Because I felt like he and I were close enough that
we could talk. And so I got very upset that night, and I cried in
front of him that night. And he realized I was crying and looked at me
and asked me why I was crying. And I said because he couldn't talk to
me about Mr. Bob. And then he looked at me and said, "I'll talk
to you.. Mommy, but you talk."
And about that time he was getting a little sleepy and he said that
he had seen Mr. Bob's wee-wee that's what he calls it
and he said Mr.
Bob had touched his wee-wee and his bottom.
Ceci and Bruck (1995) note that the mother's crying was an emotional
bribe, in response to which the child feels that he must protect his
mother. Put another way, the cessation of the mother's crying could be
considered a negative reinforcer. The child reported that he was
sexually abused in order to terminate the discomfort of his mother
crying. From the standpoint of a child, it is very disconcerting to see
one's parent upset and the child will attempt to do things that will get
the parent to stop crying.
In another case, the child was removed from his home and placed in
"protective custody," subjected to numerous interviews, and
then actually sexually abused in foster care. The child later reported
that he was repeatedly told in interviews that he would never be able to
go back home to his family until he told the truth about being sexually
abused in his own home. When he did disclose the sexual abuse that took
place in the foster home, no intervention took place.
Finally, punishment has been used in some interviews to elicit the
desired behavior from the child, i.e., a report of having been abused.
Uncooperative children may be told that they are not telling the truth
or even that they are dumb. Underwager and Wakefield (1991) describe a
case in which the child was denied access to the lavatory until the
interview was finished. Of course, the interview was not terminated by
the interviewer until the child provided answers which met the
interviewer's expectations. In addition, the more authority a child
attributes to the interviewer, the greater the likelihood that the child
will attempt to say what the interviewer wants and the more susceptible
the child will be to misleading information given by the interviewer.
General Rule of Thumb: When interviewing children in suspected sexual
abuse cases, be keenly aware of reinforcement principles and of your own
reinforcement of responses. Use great caution not to selectively
reinforce reports of abuse, thus risking eliciting inaccurate
information and doing immeasurable damage.
Interviewer Expectations and Biases
Ceci and Bruck (1995) describe how interviewers with preexisting
biases about what has happened mold the interview to elicit statements
from children that are consistent with their prior beliefs. They observe
that one of the hallmarks of interviewer bias is the single-minded attempt
to gather only confirmatory evidence and avoid all avenues that may
produce negative or inconsistent evidence. Thus, while gathering
evidence to support their prior hypotheses, they may fail to gather any
evidence that could disconfirm the hypotheses. The interviewer typically
fails to rule out rival hypotheses that might explain the behavior of
the child. Gardner (1992) also notes that if the investigator does not
maintain a neutral position, the child is likely to pick up the
evaluator's bias and provide the information the child believes the
evaluator wants to hear or is seeking.
Wakefield and Underwager (1989) observe that interview bias
"results in the interviewer attending to information that supports
presupposed beliefs and ignoring details which don't support these
personal assumptions or which suggest a different direction" (p.
5). Statements from the child that do not fit into the interviewer's
beliefs are seen as evasions or confusions. When the child says that
nothing happened, the interviewer keeps repeating the question and
asking other questions until the child finally affirms the abuse. In
their research review, Bruck and Ceci (1995) report that children who
were interviewed by biased interviewers gave the most inaccurate
Mapes (1995) notes that "some individuals ask questions or use
techniques that may result in the child's allegations or descriptions of
his or her memories being more an artifact of the investigative process
than the events actually experienced" (p. xiii). Since children
have a strong need to gain approval from and to be accepted by adults,
they may try to provide answers they believe are consistent with the
adults' expectations. Consequently, concerns about the direct or
indirect means of inducing a child to produce the answers expected by
the interviewer is growing.
Garbarino and Stott (1992) report on studies by Starr (1982) who
examined the ability of professionals and students to reliably identify
abusive parents on the basis of a brief observation, in the form of a
videotaped segment of parent-child interactions. Some abusive parents
were easy to identify; others were much more difficult. In some cases,
clinicians achieved a success rate lower than chance, and lower than
that attained by college students and nurses. Garbarino and Stott
conclude that it is extremely difficult to make valid assessments on the basis of tiny samples of behavior or behavior
observed in only one mode (as in the case of videotapes). Those authors
also observe that professionals may be likely to overestimate their ability, to be inappropriately confident of their ability, and to
overvalue their own hypotheses about what they see and hear.
Given the fact that the axiom which has dominated child abuse
investigations is that "children never lie about abuse," many
investigators may approach investigations with the underlying assumption
that abuse occurred and that the task of the investigator is to
"validate" the allegation. The interview may be conducted from
the standpoint that the allegation is (established) fact and that the
investigator merely questions the child to get the child to "admit
it." Underwager and Wakefield (1989) observe that the bias which
assumes that false accusations are rare can affect the way in which the
interviewer approaches and questions the child.
General Rule of Thumb: In order to obtain the most accurate
information, approach the interview without a prior bias and adopt a
neutral position about whether or not abuse occurred. Throughout the
interview, explore alternate hypotheses.
Children Never Lie About Abuse, Or Do They?
For a number of years, many investigators in the field of sexual
abuse allegations have operated under the premise that children never
lie about abuse. For example, Dziech and Schudson (1989) maintain:
Children do not commonly make false claims of being sexually
abused. Underreporting and denial are far more common.... The adult
notion that children lie about sexual abuse is illogical to those
who have studied them closely" (p.57).
Dziech and Schudson bolster this claim with an assertion by Berliner
and Barbieri (1984):
[T]here is little or no evidence indicating that children's reports
are unreliable, and none at all to support the fear that children
often make false accusations of sexual assault or misunderstand
innocent behavior by adults.... Not a single study has ever found
false accusations of sexual assault a plausible interpretation of a
substantial portion of cases (Dziech & Schudson, 1989, p.57).
However, examination of the recent literature regarding children's
testimony presents a far different viewpoint. The assertion,
"children never lie about abuse," is now being challenged by a
number of researchers, including those who have investigated
suggestibility in children's testimony (Ceci & Bruck, 1993), those
concerned with the nature of remembering and recalling (Loftus &
Davies, 1984), as well as those who have studied cognitive and
intellectual development of children (Fivush & Shukat, 1995)
Some authors focus on the definition of lying and whether or not
children are capable of lying. Garbarino and Stott (1992) define lying
as making a false statement that one knows is false, especially with the
intent to deceive or give a false impression. They note that researchers
have recently pointed out that the ability to lie begins in toddler
Bussey, Lee, and Grimbeck (1993) note that Piaget (1965) observed
that children between the ages of 6 and 10 were unable to differentiate
between intentional and unintentional statements. However, they conclude
that Piaget's methods "seriously underestimated their
capabilities" and "children as young as 5 years can correctly
identify lies, particularly lies involving misdeeds" (p. 150).
also cite a study by Stouthamer-Loeber (1987), indicating that mothers
reported the most frequent reason that 4-year-olds lied was to conceal a
misdeed. Lies about misdeeds were also the most frequent that children
themselves, across the age range of 4 to 12 years, reported telling
(Bussey, 1992). The finding that children lie in reaction to their own
misdeeds was supported by Lewis, Stanger, and Sullivan (1989), who found
that 88% of 3-year-olds lied about looking at a toy in the experiment
and 40% of them lied about looking at the toy, while Bussey's subsequent
study showed that fewer 5-year-olds committed the misdeed (69%) but more
of them lied about looking (95%) (Bussey, 1992).
Haugaard and Crosby (1989) also showed that children as young as 4
years old could differentiate a lie from a truthful statement, not only
when the character of the vignette lied, but also when the character was
coached by her mother to lie about a man touching her when he had not
done so. Bussey et al. (1993) conclude that, contrary to Piaget's
findings, it has been demonstrated that even young children are able to
differentiate a lie from a truthful statement, particularly when the statement has a specific behavioral referent.
They further assert
that children as young as 4 years old can keep secrets, with older
children more likely than younger children to keep secrets. Three-year-olds were more likely, in a study by Bussey, Lee, and Rickard
(1990), to disclose (79%) than 5-year-olds (61%).
One argument is that children lack the cognitive sophistication to
lie. Wakefield and Underwager (1989) state that it is a mistake to pose
the question in the form of whether or not a young child has lied.
lie assumes a conscious, willful, and deliberate purpose and intent to
deceive. They believe that young children are unlikely to have the
cognitive capacity or the maliciousness to lie in this way, although
some older children and adolescents may. Ceci and Bruck (1993, 1995)
note that much progress has been made since 1926 when Piaget's observations about children's lying were made.
They indicate that there is now evidence that "children sometimes
lie when the motivational structure is tilted towards lying" (1993,
Yuille et al. (1993) address the issue of children lying about abuse
by stating that false allegations of sexual abuse can take a variety of
forms. They indicate that an adolescent could deliberately make a false
allegation in order to obtain some control in a situation (e.g., a
foster home) or to exact revenge on an adult. They note that sometimes
children will honestly disclose abuse but, out of fear or concern about
the consequences, will not name the actual perpetrator. This may lead to
a false allegation against an innocent party, although the details of
the abuse may be correct. A false allegation can also occur without the
deliberate complicity of the child. For example, a parent caught up in a
custody dispute could deliberately generate a false allegation of abuse
that a child has come to believe. However, Yuille et al. observe that
when children are asked questions they don't understand or to which they
have no answer, they can give a wrong answer without knowing that it is
mistaken. They stress that unless there is strong evidence of
deliberate, intentional dissembling, it is foolish to spend much time or
energy on the question of children lying.
Garbarino and Stott (1992) observe that children change their facts
in recounting an event for many of the same reasons as adults; i.e., to
protect themselves and those they love, to avoid punishment, and to get
something that they want for themselves. Under many different circumstances, children may say what they think adults want
to hear. Therefore, they conclude that the axiom "children never
lie about abuse" is an unwarranted generalization which stems in
part from a misunderstanding of how the motivation to lie and the
ability to carry it off develop with age. Wakefield and Underwager
(1989) note that the question of whether children may lie or not lie
about sexual abuse is almost always the wrong question.
The belief that children never lie about abuse originated in the
early 1980s when it was argued that to be a victim of sexual abuse was
highly stigmatizing and therefore children did not want to tell about
it. The climate is quite different today. It was also argued that
children could not talk about acts which they had never experienced.
at that time, most reports of abuse were spontaneous, while today, many
abuse allegations arise subsequent to questioning, prompting, attending
classes and groups, etc. It remains true that spontaneous reports,
unprompted and without suggestive influences, can generally be
considered credible. However, often children do not "talk"
about abuse in the sense that they spontaneously disclose it. Rather,
they make statements about abuse only in response to suggestive
questioning by adults who suspect abuse.
In addition, children in recent years have been exposed to a high
level of sexual stimuli, which may increase the possibility that they
will make a false report of sexual abuse. Gardner (1991) notes that
participation in sexual abuse prevention classes sensitizes the child to
sexual stimuli and carries some risk of leading to a false allegation of
abuse. In considering whether an allegation of abuse is true or false,
Gardner weighs the child's possible participation in such classes.
Researchers who concluded that their studies suggested that children
could not be misled, especially about events which are emotionally
charged and involve their bodies, are now being challenged. Ceci and
Bruck (1995) maintain that the interpretations drawn in such studies
lack solid empirical support. For example, they question Rudy and
Goodman's (1991) conclusion that children who had been abused could not
be misled about a real-life event, noting that when "I don't
know" answers were included in the data analysis, the conclusion
about children being resistant to suggestion was no longer valid. They note that substantial errors
of commission can occur, and that "children can be led to make
false or inaccurate reports about very crucial, personally experienced,
central events" (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, p.432).
The fact that children are, in general, capable of lying is obvious
to anyone familiar with children at all. Some children can deliberately
falsify, while others can make statements of which they do not
comprehend the total meaning. Gardner (1992) indicates that simply
ascertaining whether a child can discriminate a "lie" about an
object being red or not, does not mean that the child will not lie.
The context in which the allegation arose appears to be critical.
Call (1994) reviewed 7 studies of the rate of allegations of sexual
abuse arising in divorce cases, and found that the rates ranged from 15%
to 79~%. Ceci and Bruck (1995) cite several studies of allegations of
sexual abuse arising in divorce cases, in which rates fall
conservatively in the range of from 23% to 35%. Finally, as has been the
premise of this article, the method by which the report of abuse was
obtained is absolutely crucial in evaluating the veracity or
truthfulness of that report. Improper interviewing techniques can
greatly compromise and irreversibly taint the information which might be
obtained from the child, making the job of determination whether sexual
abuse has occurred or not virtually impossible.
Summary and Conclusions:
The literature on interviewing children in suspected cases of sexual
abuse is expanding rapidly. The current research clearly indicates that
improper interviewing methods) as well as the interaction between the
adults and children, can powerfully affect the reliability of the
child's statements and eventual testimony in court. In terms of the
axiom, "children never lie about sexual abuse," not only is
the question of lying the wrong question, but the scientific evidence
suggests that children's testimony can be altered and contaminated by
many factors, including improper interviewing techniques.
Many experts recommend that all interviews with children be
videotaped to ensure that the methods of eliciting testimony are not
affecting the reports. Gardner (1992) has recommended the videotaping of
interviews with children for several years, for the purpose of
efficiency and accuracy of interviewing, as well as concern for the
child. Bruck and Ceci (1995) point out that, without videotape
recordings of interviews, determining what actually happened is
impossible, and the primary evidence, i.e., the child's testimony, can
readily be contaminated. In the California State Pilot Project, Myers
and associates (1994) found that well-trained professional interviewers
produced high quality interview results and were supportive of
videotaping. The conclusion reached from this pilot project was that the
benefits of videotaping outweigh the drawbacks of the procedure.
Unfortunately, sexual abuse investigations have not used standardized
techniques, appropriate quality controls, and established protocols.
interviewers, investigators, and counselors should be aware of the
literature which, on the one hand suggests the format for advisable and
sound interviewing methods, but on the other hand, indicates that
improper, leading and even coercive methods have been far more common
than either mental health practice, social science, or legal practice
* Judith K. Adams is a psychologist in
clinical and forensic practice at 7170 South Braden Avenue, Suite 160,
Tulsa, Oklahoma, 74136. [Back]