How does the forensic interviewer affect child abuse testimony?

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Answered by: Shalen, An Expert in the Abuse of Children Category
Children are often the only witnesses to crimes where they are victimized. Relying on the eye-witness testimony of a child in early childhood for the prosecution of a crime is difficult. The adults in charge of obtaining information must be very careful to obtain the truth and not lead them on. In the past, forensic interviewing in children wasn’t heavily studied. This led to false recollections of abuse and convictions that were later overturned.      Forensic interviewing is the process of interviewing someone to obtain their statement of a possible crime that took place. Forensic interviewing techniques are often used in investigating cases of child abuse, which is traumatic and multi-faceted. There are many reasons a child might not disclose abuse to the forensic interviewer. The way that the alleged abuse came to light affects how and if a child will disclose. When child abuse is suspected because of victim outcry, or a report from the child, the child is more likely to disclose. When behavior is witnessed or abuse is suspected for another reason, a child might not realize that something wrong has taken place. They might also have been told they are not supposed to talk about it. Another factor in disclosure during a forensic interview is how caregivers and other people in the child’s life responded to the possibility of abuse. If a parent reacts with disbelief or anger to an outcry of abuse, the child will be less likely to share their story during a forensic interview, because it got a negative reaction in the past.

     While children can have a difficult time disclosing abuse during an interview, the forensic interviewer must make sure not to ask leading or suggestive questions as these can give rise to false accusations. The younger the child the more plastic their memory is, which makes it very important how interviewers ask questions. In a study where children were told a clumsy man was going to visit their classroom and were later asked what kinds of clumsy things he did, they were able to tell stories of a man being very clumsy, even though the man that visited their classroom did nothing of the sort. They were told the man was clumsy and asked about him being clumsy and they expressed that belief when talking about him, even if the stories they told never actually happened. A similar experiment was conducted where children were asked to describe a bunny they were told had visited their classroom. The children were able to provide visual descriptions of the bunny, even though they didn’t see one. If the interviewer had asked non-leading questions, such as what they saw in their classroom, the bunny would have likely never come up. In the real world, children being suggestable during forensic interviewing can lead to false accusations and convictions as well as unnecessary traumatization of the child.

In the 1980’s, daycare worker Kelley Michaels was accused of child sexual abuse. The descriptions given by the children were vivid and horrific. She was convicted. Later after review of the forensic interview footage and five years in prison, the conviction was overturned. The people responsible for interviewing the children asked incredibly leading and suggestive questions, often not taking the denial of abuse for an answer. The children in her care developed stories of abuse that were not supported by medical examination. Both Kelley and her alleged victims were hurt and traumatized by the style of interviewing used.

     Thankfully, modern forensic interviewing techniques are based heavily on research and provide a better account of what actually happened. Accurate forensic interviewing of children is important, because if people aren’t able to detect abuse in a reliable way, cases of abuse will go unreported and unbelieved.

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