Brief History of Research on Child Witnesses

In the early part of the 20th century, research on children's memory focused on children as witnesses in court. Most of this research was in Europe, especially Germany and France; there was very little in the United States until the 1920s and even then there were only a few studies on the child witness until the 1980s (Ceci & Bruck 1993, 1995). Although children in Canada, America, and Great Britain were rarely permitted to testify, their testimony was allowed in some other European countries, hence the interest in performing research that dealt directly with children's court testimony. The general conclusion from this research was that young children were suggestible and vulnerable to making serious errors in their court testimony (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995; Goodman, 1994; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988).

Following this early period, little research was done for years and laboratory studies of children as witnesses were rare until the 1970s. But then the increases in reports and allegations of sexual and physical abuse led to changes in the legal system regarding the admissibility of child witnesses' testimony (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995; Goodman, 1984). In most countries the requirement for corroboration of children's statements alleging sexual abuse was dropped. Therefore, children's credibility, their reliability as witnesses, and their susceptibility to leading questions quickly became salient issues. Over the past few years interest in this issue has proliferated and there are now hundreds of articles in the literature addressing these topics.

During the beginning of this recent period, the testimony of young children was often accepted in the justice system as truthful and false allegations were believed to be extremely rare (i.e., Faller, 1984; Summit & Kryso, 1978). A number of unsupported dogmas, such as children cannot lie about sexual abuse and children cannot be "coached" to make erroneous statements about abuse, gained acceptance in the legal and mental health communities. Although some researchers acknowledged that suggestive interviews might cause children to make unimportant errors about peripheral details, it was claimed that children could not be led to make statements about important, central events. Several highly publicized cases during this period involving satanic, ritual abuse allegations resulted in convictions (Nathan & Snedeker, 1995).

To our knowledge, the first time expert opinion on the impact of leading interrogations was given in a court of law was when Dr. Underwager testified in a sex abuse trial in Winner, South Dakota, in the winter of 1983. The next year we were the experts in the first of the highly publicized Scott County cases to go to trial where Dr. Underwager provided similar testimony. In these cases 25 adults were accused of abusing 40 children in two interlocking sex rings. The alleged abuse involved animals, ritual abuse, and murder. This trial resulted in an acquittal and charges were dropped against all but the first defendant, who had confessed. A later state attorney general's report (Humphrey, 1985) concluded that the repeated suggestive interrogations of the children made it impossible to sort out what may have happened.

Following this, a few forensic psychologists and psychiatrists began to report on their analyses of actual real world interrogations (Coleman, 1986; McIver, 1986; Underwager, Wakefield, Legrand, Bartz, & Erickson, 1986). These early reports of actual real world interrogations suggested coercive questioning could produce serious errors in a child's statements. Then, as academic researchers became involved in actual cases and reviewed videotapes of actual interviews, they began conducting studies that more closely approximate what happens in the real world. These studies demonstrated that children who are interviewed suggestively can produce false narratives about fictitious events, including central events (see Ceci & Bruck, 1995 for a review of this research). These erroneous narratives were often coherent and detailed and could not be detected as false by professionals. As a result, the current consensus of scientific opinion has revived the initial caution and concern about children's reliability and suggestibility. The justice system now recognizes these data and several of the highly publicized convictions in the United States and Canada from the 1980s have been overturned.

It is now acknowledged that persistent suggestive questioning can lead children to provide accounts of events that never occurred, even when they first denied them. Sometimes the questioning results in the child developing a subjectively real memory for an event that never happened. (Bruck & Ceci, 1995; Ceci, 1994; Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995; Ceci, Loftus, Leichtman, & Bruck, 1994). Several conclusions are now generally accepted in the scientific community (Ceci & Bruck, 1993):

First and foremost, contrary to the claims made by some . . . there do appear to be significant age differences in suggestibility, with preschool-aged children being disproportionately more vulnerable to suggestion than either school-aged children or adults (p. 431).

Our review of the literature indicates that children can indeed be led to make false or inaccurate reports about very crucial, personally experienced, central events (p. 432).

The second major conclusion is that contrary to the claims of some, children sometimes lie when the motivational structure is tilted toward lying (p. 433).

Third, notwithstanding the aforementioned two points, it is clear that children-even preschoolers-are capable of recalling much that is forensically relevant (p. 433).

It is extremely important to examine the conditions prevalent at the time of the child's original report. The way the child was interviewed, including the use of image-based techniques, must be carefully examined. The conclusions from the current research are clear-when children are interviewed skillfully and appropriately and supported and encouraged to tell their story in their own words, they can provide accurate and forensically useful information. But when interviewers use suggestive, leading, specific, and coercive questioning to get the child to confirm preexisting biases about abuse, they risk eliciting false statements. Therefore, if image-based techniques are used, it must be in a nonsuggestive way that encourages children to provide details and a narrative account from their free recall of events.

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