Interviews of Children

During the 1980s there was a major change in professional opinions concerning the susceptibility of children to suggestive and leading interviews. The first time a psychologist testified in a courtroom as an expert was 1896 when Schrenk-Notzing testified in Munich that witnesses were influenced by suggestion to produce "retroactive memory-falsification" (Bartol and Bartol, 1987). From then until fairly recently this was the prevailing view of children's vulnerability to suggestion. Then a shift occurred. The testimony of young children was generally accepted as truthful and the prevailing opinion was that young children could not be led or "coached" to make statements about abuse that never happened. The belief was that, although children might be led through suggestive interviews to make unimportant errors concerning peripheral details, they could not be led to make statements about important, central events.

But, as researchers became involved in actual cases and reviewed videotapes of actual interviews, they observed that the research supporting the above claims did not begin to duplicate what often happens in the real world. As a result, there has been new research that has changed the consensus of scientific opinion. A number of writers have examined memory development, cognitive and moral development of children, and suggestibility of children to adult social influence (see Doris, 1991; Garbarino and Stott, 1989; Lepore, 1991; Lindsay, 1990; Loftus and Ketcham, 1991; Underwager and Wakefield, 1990; Wakefield and Underwager, 1988a, 1994c). The best summary of this research is in articles by Steve Ceci and Maggie Bruck and in an Amicus Curiae brief they presented to the New Jersey Supreme Court in New Jersey vs. Michaels (Bruck and Ceci, 1994; Ceci, 1994; Ceci and Bruck, 1993a, 1993b).

The fact that children can be led to make statements about and even believe in events that have not happened does not necessarily mean that children lie, but rather that they are influenced by the adult's beliefs. Some recent studies have provided dramatic demonstrations of the degree to which young children can be influenced by an interviewer (Ceci, 1994; Ceci and Bruck, 1993a, 1993b; Ceci et al., 1994; Clarke-Stewart et al., 1989; Leichtman and Ceci, in press; Thompson et al., 1991).

In situations where a child will eventually testify, the memory will consist of a combination of recall and reconstruction influenced by all of the interviews, conversations, and therapy sessions 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 than recall.

In a careful and thorough review, Ceci and Bruck (1993a) state there are several conclusions that are accepted by the scientific community and would meet "a traditional Frye test standard" (p. 431). Attorneys must be familiar with this article and any mental health professional who makes contrary claims should be questioned concerning it. Any mental health professional who does not know and understand the relevant research in this area is extremely vulnerable to cross-examination by a knowledgeable attorney.

Ceci and Bruck's (1993a) major three conclusions are:

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)

Ceci and Bruck also observe that the literature does not support the claim that children are not suggestible concerning central events:

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)

Ceci and Bruck's next major conclusion is:

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)

Finally, they state:

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

They add that is is extremely important to examine the conditions prevalent at the time of the child's original report:

If the child's disclosure was made in a nonthreatening, nonsuggestible atmosphere, if the disclosure was not made after repeated interviews, if the adults who had access to the child prior to his or her testimony are not motivated to distort the child's recollections through relentless and potent suggestions and outright coaching, and if the child's original report remains highly consistent over a period of time, then the young child would be judged to be capable of providing much that is forensically relevant. The absence of any of these conditions would not in and of itself invalidate a child's testimony, but it ought to raise cautions in the mind of the court. (p. 433)

The important point is that, although young children can provide forensically useful information, the major problem is that adults do not know how to let them do it (Garbarino and Stott, 1989). Young children recall less than adults (Lepore, 1991). But the less information the child gives in free recall, the sooner the interviewer may start using leading questions, which can influence the child and distort the story. Also, young children may perceive the interview task differently from adults and try to tell the interviewer what they believe the interviewer wants them to say (Ceci et al., 1987; Cole and Loftus, 1987). They may answer questions they do not understand and about which they have no information (Hughes and Grieve, 1983).

Therefore, the interviewer must encourage the child to tell in his or her own words what has happened. Several professionals have made recommendations for conducting an unbiased evaluation and noncontaminating interview (e.g. Annon, 1994; Daly, 1991, 1992a, 1992b; Powell and Thomson, 1994; Quinn et al., 1989; Raskin and Yuille, 1989; Slicner and Hanson, 1989; Wakefield and Underwager, 1988a; 1994c; White, 1990; Yuille, 1988). There is general agreement among scientists as to how investigatory interviews should be conducted. The interviewer should ask open-ended questions and encourage the child to provide a free narrative. Details should be encouraged by responses such as "and then what happened." Pressure and coercion, leading questions and selective reinforcement of responses, and unvalidated techniques must be avoided. The child should be discouraged from trying to answer questions when the answer is not known. Discussions of "good touch" and "bad touch" should not be used since these are confusing and potentially contaminating.

Repeated questions should be avoided since this tells the child the previous answers were not acceptable. The effects of leading questions and coercive interviews will be worse with a long time lag, which is typical in actual cases. Poole and White (1991, 1993) found that young children were accurate if repeated but appropriate (open-ended) questioning was used immediately or one week after the event. But when questioned again two years later, repeated questioning increased inaccuracy. The children often seemed to simply make up responses and the authors conclude that, although children can be prompted to discuss a remote event, this procedure is not without risks. It cannot be assumed that results from research studies using short retention intervals can be generalized to actual cases which often have long delays.

A technique for interviewing children and analyzing the resulting interview is Criterion Based Content Analysis/Statement Validity Analysis (CBCA/SVA). This technique assumes an account based on memory for an actual event will differ in content and quality from accounts that are based on fabricated, learned, or suggested memory. The procedure requires a relatively complete statement obtained as soon as possible after the child has disclosed an incident and the interview must be designed to obtain as much free narrative as possible. Leading questions and suggestions must be avoided. The interview is tape-recorded and transcribed for later analysis (Honts, 1994, Köhnken and Steller, 1988; Raskin and Esplin, 1991a; Undeutsch, 1989). There is research on this technique, but most professionals encountered will not have used it and few interviews in actual cases meet the above standards. A leading, suggestive interview cannot be analyzed with this technique.

Also, if the use of this technique is encountered, the attorney will want to be familiar with observations about and criticisms of the technique. Wells and Loftus (1991) are concerned about the adequacy of the empirical support for CBCA/SVA, the ability of the technique to differentiate individual and age-related differences in linguistic abilities from validity-related differences, and the potential for judges and juries to give the technique too much weight. McGough (1991) observes that many of the criteria are found in standard texts on cross-examination and closing arguments on witness credibility. Since an expert using this technique would therefore be testifying about the truthfulness of the statement, the reliability of the expert would then become an issue. Raskin and Esplin (1991b) defend the empirical basis of the technique and state that they do not advocate the use of CBCA as the basis of expert testimony that a child is or is not truthful. They believe that expert testimony based on CBCA is consistent with both the rules of evidence and the growing body of case law regarding expert testimony by psychologists.

All interviews of the child should be videotaped, or at least audiotaped, since a tape is the only means whereby the procedures and information obtained during the interview can be accurately documented (DeLipsey and James, 1988; Goodman and Helgeson, 1985; Herbert et al., 1987; Jenkins and Howell, 1994; Lamb, 1994a, 1994b; Raskin and Yuille, 1989; Underwager and Wakefield, 1990, Wakefield and Underwager, 1988a, 1994c). A major research project on child victim witnesses reported by Myers (1994) found a clear consensus that investigative interviews of children should be videotaped. Videotaping was seen as providing an incentive for interviewers to use proper techniques.

In practice, this is often not done. Many prosecutors do not want the defense to get a tape so that they can criticize the interviewer's techniques during the trial (Stern, 1992). We believe that there are no good reasons for failing to at least audiotape investigatory interviews with the child witness; there are only bad reasons. Without a tape, there is no way to know what was said by either the child or the interviewer. When cross-examining a professional who has not taped the interview, assume that the interview was leading and suggestive, and do not accept assertions that it was not.

Despite the fact that the standards for investigatory interviews are accepted in the scientific community, these guidelines are often not followed by people in the field. Deficiencies in interviews and evaluations can be pointed out in trial. Judges and juries can readily understand why such interviews are unreliable once the problems are explained to them; we have frequently testified concerning appropriate interviewing techniques and contrasting these with those in a particular case. Such testimony, since it is about the interview techniques and not about the credibility of the child, does not invade the province of the finder-of-fact. Attorneys, once they become familiar with how interviews should be conducted, can bring out the problems in a particular interview or investigation in their cross-examinations of the professionals involved.

The progress of the case, including the procedures followed by the interviewers and evaluators, must be carefully examined (Wakefield and Underwager, 1988a; White and Quinn, 1988). It is essential to analyze all contacts with the child in which abuse was discussed. When children have been subjected to multiple leading and coercive interviews and/or disclosure-based therapy their recollections may become so contaminated that it becomes extremely difficult to determine what is likely to have happened. The New Jersey Supreme Court in New Jersey vs. Michaels (642 A.2d 1372, N.J. 1994) states:

[1] We therefore determine that a sufficient consensus exists within the academic, professional, and law enforcement communities, confirmed in varying degrees by courts, to warrant the conclusion that the use of coercive or highly suggestive interrogation techniques can create a significant risk that the interrogation itself will distort the child's recollection of events, thereby undermining the reliability of the statements and subsequent testimony concerning such events. (p. 1379)

Heuristics are specific mental strategies, rules, or short cuts that allow us to solve specific problems. An example of a heuristic is the assumption that a low-number license plate is associated with power or wealth. Although we all use heuristics regularly, they are often without empirical support or justification and may be completely wrong. Some of the heuristics uncovered in decision theory research that are likely operative in the investigation and interviewing process may be underutilization of base rates, the confirmatory bias, the selective recall of illusory correlations, the availability fallacy, and the representativeness fallacy. Confusions of correlation and causation may also occur (Arkes, 1989).


Special Problems with Sexual Abuse Cases


The Beginning of the Problem

Misconceptions That Increase Error

The Child Witness

Interviews of Children

Some Common But Unsupported Interview Techniques

Anatomically-Detailed Dolls

Interpretation of Drawings

Other Unsupported Techniques

Medical Evidence

Behavioral Indicators and Child Abuse "Syndromes"

The Nature of the Allegations

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Assessment of the Accused Adult

Psychological Testing

Misuse of the MMPI and MMPI-2

Scale 5 0verinterpretations

Overinterpretation of the K Scale in Court or Custody Settings

Failure to Recognize the Situational Factors in a Scale 6 Elevation

Departing from Standard Administration Procedures

Overinterpretation of the MMPI Supplementary Scales

Ignoring a Within Normal Limits Profile and Finding Pathology with Projective Tests

Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI and MCMI-II)

Multiphasic Sex Inventory

The Penile Plethysmograph

Testimony About the Plaintiff in Personal Injury Cases

Allegations of Recovered Memories

Court Rulings Relevant to Expert Testimony in Child Sexual Abuse Cases



Footnote 1


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