In the last forty years, there has been a shift in courtroom proceedings. Lawyers are not only focusing their evidence on the scientific aspects of an event, but also on those who may have witnessed the actual event as well. Recently, the number of eyewitness appearances in the courtroom has increased, making statements about either a crime or an event that occurred in their presence. But how does the courtroom decide who is a legitimate witness to an event? Too often, age, race, education, and socio-economics play a major role in this decision. Here, we will discuss the age aspect of this problem in terms of child eyewitness testimony and it’s implications in the courtroom.
More than 200,000 children may be involved in the legal system in any given year, and 13,000 of these children are preschool age. Often with these cases involving young children, issues arise concerning credibility, vulnerability, and memory retrieval. Studies have shown that preschool age children are quite capable of providing accurate testimony, but they are also more vulnerable to distorting this memory and testimony. Public and professional opinion about the credibility of children as witnesses in court cases has been sharply divided. On one side, it is contended that when children disclose details of a circumstance, they must be believed, no matter what techniques were used to obtain this disclosure. For example, if a child is asked whether or not he/she was abused, and to describe this incident, we must believe that child because children cannot possibly generate a false report of their own sexual victimization. The other side depicts children as being helpless sponges who soak up the interviewer’s suggestions and regurgitate these propositions in court. These two extreme positions have led to a controversy over victim’s rights, legal issues, and psychological intentions.
A child is capable of being influenced by numerous factors that adults may not be. Factors such as: emotional dilemmas, physical circumstances, authoritative input, underdeveloped encoding strategies that have not matured yet, childlike familiarity with situations (what situation may be normal for a child, may not be normal for a teenager), and the reporting strategies that children use are no doubtedly different that adults. Thus, suggestion plays a key role when determining what a child is saying, especially during interviewing techniques. This power of suggestion has been used as an anti-child eyewitness testimony force, which has prompted many officials and psychologists to further study this predicament. This suggestibility issue has thrown a wrench in the credibility aspects of children on the stand, leading to the depiction of children as liars and misleading witnesses.
The bottom line that needs to be addressed with this controversy is that ANYONE, not just children, can be suggested and misled. The importance of retrieval and memory coding strategies can affect all people on the witness stand, leading to the misinterpretaion of a statement that has been made by a witness. Studies have concluded through suggestive interviewing techniques and repeated questioning, people can be led to make untrue statements about central and peripheral details of an event. This often happens with children due to the fact that from a child’s point of view, if he/she keeps getting asked certain questions over and over again, they seem to think that they are answering in a wrong way. Interviewer bias (this can be parent, therapist, or investigator) can also effect eyewitness statements as well. When an interviewer believes that they know what really happened during an event, it can be likely that the interviewer will attempt to get the child to confirm this event, ignoring anything that the child says that does not conform with this bias, while encouraging anything that does. Stereotype induction can also occur with children’s eyewitness accounts due to the fact that an interview can depict the accused perpetrator as a bad man. It has been shown that children can come to assume and report negative things about someone that they had previously heard described in negative terms. Encouraging a child to visualize or imagine has also been proven to be detrimental to the providing of accurate information about an event. Authority figures and peer pressure are also factors that can mislead a child’s memory strategies as well.
When all of these circumstances are taken into account, it is easy to see how influenced children can be when it comes to relaying information. But this should not be a final factor when deciding children’s influence in the courtroom. As stated before, anyone can be suggested, misled, and pressured, including adults, and studies have shown this. This data shows a need for the standardization of interviewing techniques when deciding eyewitness accounts. It is well known that children encode, store, retrieve, and retain memories differently than adults. But it is up to a qualified interview to release these memories in a positive way. The knowledge base that children use to understand their surroundings and situations can be investigated through proper interviewing and strategies that children are familiar with, such as drawing or play therapy. In many cases of falsified accounts that children have stated, it is often the case that the interviewer used misleading techniques, and unstandardized means of approaching this information. Studies have shown that when children are asked questions in neutral ways, with open ended questions, and unbiased interpreters, their statements were not only more detailed, but also remarkably accurate. Children who were left to answer in any fashion, with no time frame, answered questions in a precise and errorless manner.
So the question remains, Can we rely on children? Under unbiased, highly trained, standardized ways of interviewing…..the answer is yes. Clinicians who have had the training necessary to evaluate and judge are completely capable of interviewing these children because children are indeed competent and qualified to testify on the witness stand. Open ended questioning, yes-no questioning, selective questioning (man or woman) and identification questioning (what time was it?) are key ways of interviewing to provide for accurate recollection. And when a child is asked these questions in a neutral way, you can believe that they are telling the truth.