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Since the 1980s, there has been a virtual explosion of studies concerning children’s eyewitness abilities and participation in legal proceedings. The studies, along with considerable public, legal, and legislative attention, were motivated by a number of phenomena. One was a growing awareness of the widespread prevalence of maltreatment, especially child sexual abuse. Large U.S. national surveys revealed that many more individuals were reporting unwanted sexual experiences as children than had been recognized previously, yet few perpetrators were successfully prosecuted criminally. In response, increased efforts were made to identify victims of maltreatment and facilitate the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes against children. A second contributing factor involved revisions in statutes (e.g., competency requirements) that reduced barriers to admitting children’s testimony as evidence in court. By reducing such barriers, the number of child victims/ witnesses becoming involved in legal cases increased dramatically. Unfortunately, little was known about how to elicit accurate information (e.g., about abuse) from children. Legal professionals and scientists, as well as the public, focused on the consequences of failing to identify a victimized child rather than on the potential for false reports of a crime. A third phenomenon during the 1980s, however, altered the public’s and researchers’ focus on false allegations. Specifically, several high-profile legal cases that involved scores of children alleging sexual assault in their day care facilities took place. The children’s allegations included fantastic and impossible claims and often emerged only after the children had been subjected to repeated, highly suggestive interviews. These children’s reports, and the cases in general, raised serious concerns about the reliability of children’s memory abilities. Questions about how to protect children from harm and ensure that those who commit crimes against children are punished, while at the same time guarding against false allegations of abuse, were brought to the forefront of public, legal, and scientific attention. Research on children’s memory, suggestibility, and false memories, as well as on children’s participation in legal cases, has sought to answer these questions. The present research paper focuses on this research. First, research concerning factors that influence children’s memory accuracy and susceptibility to false suggestions is presented. Second, the effects of participation in legal proceedings on children’s well-being are discussed. Third, a brief overview of new directions in the field is provided. The research paper is limited in scope to findings that are most applicable to legal cases, are particularly well established, and have received considerable attention. It is also limited to discussion of child victims/witnesses. A large and growing body of literature now focuses on child defendants, and it is not possible to review both areas in a single brief research paper.
- Factors That Influence Children’s Testimony
- Children’s Involvement in the Legal System
1. Factors That Influence Children’s Testimony
Hundreds of studies have now been conducted concerning the reliability of children’s eyewitness abilities. A number of factors have been identified that have implications for children’s memory and suggestibility. Those discussed here can be heuristically divided into child, to-be-remembered event, and interview characteristics.
1.1. Child Characteristics
Numerous characteristics of children can influence their eyewitness abilities. The most well-studied characteristic is age, and the most consistent finding across research involves age differences in performance. With advancing age, children remember more information, are more accurate, are less suggestible, and make fewer false event reports. Both cognitive and social factors underlie age differences. Cognitively, older children are better able to conduct memory searches, know what is important to recount, and know how to cue their own memories. They also have more experiences and greater general knowledge, and this helps them to encode, interpret, and later remember information. Socially, older children are more aware that adults can make mistakes, and this reduces their willingness to report false information suggested by adults as having occurred.
Other characteristics, in addition to age, have also been studied as predictors of children’s memory and suggestibility. These include cognitive factors (e.g., intelligence, language, inhibitory control) and socioemotional factors (e.g., temperament, emotional reactivity, attachment). With regard to cognitive factors, although findings have not always been consistent, higher intelligence, greater language understanding, and better inhibitory control are generally associated with improved memory and reduced suggestibility, even when children’s age is statistically controlled. With regard to socioemotional factors, outgoing temperament, low emotional reactivity, and secure attachment are often related to better memory, especially for stressful experiences.
Although research concerning child characteristics is important theoretically and provides considerable insight into processes underlying accuracies and inaccuracies in children’s memory and suggestibility, it is difficult to apply to legal contexts. In particular, it is not possible to use any of the aforementioned characteristics, alone or in combination, as a litmus test to determine whether to accept or reject a particular child’s eyewitness account. Nonetheless, the research may help to identify children who need special precautions taken when they are questioned about forensically relevant matters. Armed with information about factors that predict performance in individual children, interviewers may be better able to alter their questioning procedures to ensure that each child is interviewed in the most appropriate manner possible.
1.2. To-Be-Remembered Event Characteristics
Numerous factors associated with a to-be-remembered event may influence children’s memory and suggestibility. Three factors that have received considerable attention are the stressfulness of the to-be-remembered event, the number of times that an event occurred, and children’s level of involvement.
For some time, researchers have attempted to determine whether stress helps or hurts children’s memory. Studies have focused on children’s memory for mildly arousing laboratory-based events (e.g., fire alarms) as well as for highly distressing, salient, naturally occurring experiences (e.g., medical procedures, natural disasters). Although results have not revealed any uniform positive or negative effect of stress on memory, some general conclusions are possible. First, children, like adults, remember emotional events better than they do neutral events. Thus, although the effects of varying levels of distress on memory remain unclear, stressful events appear to be more memorable than nonstressful neutral events. Second, memory for central details of an event (e.g., details directly associated with the cause of the stress) is often better than memory for peripheral details (e.g., information unrelated to the cause of the stress). It should be noted, however, that what is considered central to a child is not necessarily the same as what is considered central to an adult. For instance, a parent’s departure during a medical procedure may be especially salient, and hence central, to a child even though the parent’s departure is unrelated factually to the medical procedure. Third, the effects of stress on memory vary across children such that for some children (e.g., securely attached children) stress helps memory, whereas for other children (e.g., shy or insecurely attached children) stress inhibits memory. Researchers have begun to investigate interactions between stress and child characteristics as joint predictors of memory and suggestibility. The results of these new studies will continue to elucidate when and how stress affects children’s performance.
The number of times an event is experienced can affect children’s memory, although the direction of the effect varies depending on the type of to-be-remembered information. When an event is experienced repeatedly, children form scripts, which are mental representations of what ‘‘usually’’ happens or the common recurring features of the event. When asked to recount what happened during a repeated event, children can use these scripts to help them describe what usually happens. Thus, scripts enhance memory for the common repeated components. Unfortunately, children may fail to report nonrepeated details because these details are not included in the script of what usually occurs. Children may also have difficulty discriminating between repeated events and report details that are consistent with what usually occurs, even if those details did not occur during one particular incident.
A third event-relevant characteristic is children’s participatory role. Children’s memory is better for events in which they participated than for events that they merely witnessed. Active participation often results in more elaborate encoding and enhanced understanding of an event, both of which facilitate recall. Accordingly, children may often be better witnesses about events that they personally experienced than about events that they only witnessed, although some witnessed events, such as those that are especially relevant personally or are particularly salient or stressful, can also be remembered quite well.
1.3. Interview Characteristics
Much of the research concerning children’s eyewitness testimony has focused on how characteristics of the interview affect performance. Results have been applied directly to legal contexts. For instance, several criminal convictions have been overturned because the interviews with alleged child victims were conducted in a manner that has been shown, in empirical research, to lead to errors and entirely false event reports. Also, interviewers are now often taught appropriate interviewing tactics and which tactics to avoid when questioning alleged child victims/witnesses.
How questions are phrased can affect the completeness and accuracy of children’s reports. Questions are often divided into ‘‘free recall’’ and ‘‘direct’’ questions. Free recall questions are vague general statements prompting a child to recount, in narrative form, a past event (e.g., ‘‘Tell me what happened when .. .’’). Direct questions include nonleading, leading, and suggestive questions. Nonleading questions do not imply incorrect information or a particular response (e.g., ‘‘What color was the car?’’). Leading questions imply a particular response (e.g., ‘‘Was the car red?’’). Suggestive questions contain false embedded information (e.g., ‘‘What was the man wearing when he entered the room?’’ when in fact there was no man) or explicitly imply which answer should be given (‘‘He entered the room first, didn’t he?’’ when the man did not in fact enter first).
Free recall questions are less controversial than direct questions because children’s free recall responses are typically quite accurate. That is, children rarely provide incorrect information when asked, in an open-ended manner, to recount a particular event. The major drawback to free recall, however, is that children’s reports are often incomplete. Children might not know what is important to recount. They also might have difficulty in forming cogent narrative answers, even when they remember event details.
To obtain additional information, direct questions that probe for specific information are often needed. Such questions indeed increase the amount of information that children provide; however, the questions, especially those that are suggestive, also increase errors. Children may answer in a way that they believe the interviewer desires, they might not be comfortable indicating that they do not know an answer, they may develop a ‘‘yeah’’ or ‘‘nay’’-saying response bias, or they may accept the interviewer’s suggestions as fact. Each of these increases errors, and in some circumstances it may lead children to claim that entirely false events occurred. Importantly, although children’s free recall reports are generally accurate but incomplete and children’s responses to direct questions are less accurate, two exceptions to these trends must be mentioned. First, accuracy of free recall can be compromised if, prior to asking free recall questions, children are exposed to false suggestive information. For instance, before an interview, a parent or an interviewer might imply to a child that an alleged perpetrator did something bad or a child might learn from other children what happened during an alleged event. These preinterview sources of false suggestions lead to increased errors in children’s responses to both free recall and direct questions. Second, when no abuse occurred, children tend to be more accurate when answering abuse-related direct questions (e.g., ‘‘Did he take pictures of you when you were in the bathroom?,’’ ‘‘Did he touch your bottom?’’ [asked to children who merely experienced a play interaction with an adult]) than when answering non-abuse-related questions. Thus, children’s willingness to err in response to direct questions varies depending on the content of those questions.
Highly leading interview instructions can have a dramatic effect on children’s memory and suggestibility. Such instructions include asking children to imagine or pretend that a particular event occurred or introducing false stereotypic information about an event or individual(s). When these instructions are given before or during an interview, children will often alter their statements about an individual’s activities or change their interpretation of an event and recount information that is consistent with the leading instructions. In addition, when children are explicitly told that an event occurred and are given information about what happened, a sizable minority will repeat the information as having happened even if the event is false. Interestingly, children are less likely to assent that false negative events (e.g., falling off a tricycle and getting stitches) occurred than to assent that false positive events (e.g., going on a hot air balloon ride) occurred, although some children nonetheless assent to both positive and negative events. What remains of theoretical interest is the extent to which children believe that the false events took place versus the extent to which they are simply acquiescing to an interviewer’s suggestions.
Question repetition, both within and across interviews, has been especially controversial. Some claim that simply repeating questions about untrue information causes false reports in children. However, such a phenomenon has not yet been confirmed empirically. Instead, the effects of repeated questions vary as a function of the type of question, whether questions are repeated within or across interviews, and preinterview instructions. Within an interview, particularly young (e.g., preschool-age) children often change their responses when asked repeated direct (e.g., yes/ no) questions. They tend to interpret the repetition as an indication that their first response was incorrect. In contrast, when questions are repeated across interviews, at least when no highly leading instructions have been provided, earlier interviews can actually have a buffering effect, reminding children of an original event and reducing errors in later interviews. Finally, when repeated interviews are combined with highly leading interview instructions such as those described previously, a high percentage of children (often one-third or more) will make false reports that are consistent with the instructions.
A variety of factors have been studied as predictors of accuracies and inaccuracies in children’s memory and eyewitness abilities. Some findings (e.g., those concerning age differences in performance, the accuracy of children’s free recall reports, the deleterious effects of highly suggestive interview questions and instructions) have been consistently found in empirical research and are now met with minimal controversy when applied to legal settings. Other findings (e.g., those involving effects of stress on memory or interview repetition), however, have been more variable and are not amenable to broad straightforward conclusions or applications to legal contexts. That is, whether many factors (e.g., repeated interviews, stress, participation) help or hurt children’s eyewitness abilities depends on a number of considerations, such as how questions are asked and the type of memory being probed. These considerations need to be taken into account when attempting to evaluate child victims’/witnesses’ reports.
2. Children’s Involvement In The Legal System
Although most research concerning children’s testimony has focused on the accuracy of children’s eyewitness abilities, studies also have investigated the effects of legal involvement on children and the use of innovative practices to facilitate children’s participation in legal cases. Some psychologists and legal scholars contend that children suffer ‘‘secondary’’ victimization by participating in a legal system that was not designed for, and can be quite intimidating to, children. Such individuals advocate altering standard courtroom procedures (e.g., allowing children to testify without a defendant present) to reduce children’s distress. Other scholars, however, maintain that, because all witnesses can be distressed during a legal case, distress should not be used as the basis for abandoning defendants’ fundamental rights or changing standard legal practice.
A few studies have investigated the effects of legal involvement on children. Most noteworthy are studies of the effects on child sexual abuse victims. Findings indicate that some children are adversely affected by legal involvement in terms of increased distress and behavior problems following their legal cases. Factors that increase a child’s risk of adverse effects include testifying multiple times, testifying while facing the defendant, not having maternal support during the case, and not having corroborative evidence confirming the abuse allegation. However, not all children appear to be adversely affected, and adverse effects appear more often following criminal involvement than following juvenile or family court involvement. Furthermore, the extent to which adverse effects are maintained over long time periods has only recently begun to be investigated.
As mentioned previously, some advocate altering standard legal procedures to facilitate children’s participation in legal cases. A related line of research has investigated the use of these alterations and their effects on children’s distress and case outcomes. Innovative techniques include those that affect precourt interviews with children (e.g., multidisciplinary centers, videotaping interviews) and those that affect in-court practices (e.g., admitting children’s out of-court statements [hearsay] as evidence, allowing children to testify via closed-circuit television testimony). Although there is support for the use of the innovations, and the constitutionality of their use has been upheld by some U.S. courts, their actual use appears to be limited. In particular, surveys of prosecutor and judicial behaviors indicate that techniques that alter incourt practices are rarely used, primarily due to concerns that decisions will be overturned. Techniques that alter how children are interviewed are also rated as too costly for widespread use. Despite the limited use of innovations, however, they appear to be effective in reducing children’s distress. Also, studies of jurors’ decision making have revealed relatively few differences in case outcomes based on whether children testify live or children’s statements are presented in some other format (e.g., hearsay is presented, children testify via closed-circuit television). Finally, the use of several innovations, such as videotaped testimony and closed-circuit television testimony, is standard in other countries (e.g., Great Britain). Perhaps as awareness of both the benefits of the innovations and the lack of adverse effects on case outcomes grows, the innovations will be used more frequently in the United States as they are in other countries.
Numerous characteristics, including those both intrinsic (e.g., age) and extrinsic (e.g., stress of a to-be-remembered event, interviewer demeanor, testifying in court) to children, have implications for children’s ability to recount past experiences accurately and for their ability to cope with involvement in the legal system. Although this research paper has highlighted some of the better established and particularly noteworthy findings and controversies, it is by no means exhaustive. Furthermore, several exciting new directions in research continue to refine understanding of the conditions under which children’s testimony is more likely to be accurate and how to facilitate children’s participation in legal cases. These new directions focus on how characteristics of children interact with contextual characteristics to affect their memory and suggestibility and on the development and testing of formal interview protocols that can be used in forensic contexts to ensure that children are questioned in the most appropriate manner. With regard to interactions between children and contextual characteristics, it is likely that individual children respond very differently to particular events, such as stressful experiences, and these different responses may affect how individual children later remember the events. With regard to interview training protocols, simply providing forensic interviewers with background knowledge (e.g., about the hazards of leading questions) and general training does not improve how actual interviews are conducted. Thus, researchers have begun to develop specific guidelines and structured protocols that interviewers can use when questioning alleged child victims/ witnesses. Although these new protocols, which are more widely accepted in other countries (e.g., Great Britain, Israel), are currently being tested in the United States, they already appear to be effective in increasing the amount of narrative information provided (e.g., in response to free recall questions) and in helping interviewers to avoid the most problematic questioning tactics. These protocols may also decrease the number of times children need to be questioned, thereby reducing distress that can result from being interviewed multiple times about alleged crimes.
As new psychological research is conducted, and as previously reported findings are confirmed and extended, it will be imperative to continue to educate those involved in actual forensic contexts regarding abilities and limitations of child witnesses. Not only will this knowledge advance scientific understanding of children’s memory capabilities and suggestibility, but it will also benefit both alleged victims/witnesses and defendants in legal cases involving children.
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