IPT Book Reviews

Title: Perspectives on Children's Testimony  Positive Review
Editors: Stephen J. Ceci, David F. Ross, and Michael P. Toglia
Publisher: Springer-Verlag 1989

175 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10010


This 259 page book is the second in a series that deals with child witnesses.  The first volume, Children's Eyewitness Testimony (Out of Print), was concerned with issues surrounding the reliability of children's recollections.  This book focuses on adults' (e.g. jurors', ,judges', and attorneys') perceptions and attributions about child witnesses.  There are 11 chapters by different researchers dealing with the perceived credibility of child witnesses and children's perceptions and knowledge of the court system.  The book is designed to provide researchers, criminal justice workers, attorneys, judges, psychiatrists, and psychologists with knowledge about adult beliefs regarding child witnesses and how these beliefs may influence verdicts.


Despite the growing research on false allegations and the problems of suggestive interviews, with the exception of the chapter by Raskin and Yuille, this volume shows little awareness of the reality of false claims.  There is little awareness of the role of the adults who interact with the child and the impact of adult social influence on the eventual testimony of the child witness.  This book, and the previous volume, places all the weight and responsibility for proving an accusation on the capacities, competencies, and characteristics of the child as if these were the only variables involved in assessing an accusation.  A more balanced view would at least address the issues of the other side of the interaction, adult behaviors, adult agenda, and adult purposes.

Most of the authors assume child witnesses in sexual abuse cases are all actual victims.  The child witnesses are referred to as the victim or witness-victim.  Concern is expressed for the potential revictimization of child witnesses by the legal system.  This belief shows up to a varying extent throughout the book.  A careful, balanced view would use terminology like alleged victim, acknowledging the possibility of an erroneous claim.

There are methodological and interpretation problems in some of the chapters, particularly the one by Goodman, Bottoms, Herscovici, and Shaver.  For example, these authors state that jurors' impressions were positively correlated with the child witnesses' ages, but nowhere give the ages of the children.  They say that they asked an "average of six misleading questions (range four to six) ...," although this is a statistical impossibility.  They gloss over results showing a high error rate of children in response to misleading questions asked a year after the original event and interview.  The independent variable, the process of children being questioned, is uncontrolled, not standardized, and ill-defined.

Duggan, Aubrey, Doherty, Isquith, Levine, and Schemer performed a mock jury study with a sex abuse trial.  Only 13 of the 36 juries came to unanimous verdicts and the authors conclude that this indicates a jury is unlikely to convict without some corroboration.  However, this conclusion is unwarranted since most of the individual jurors voted to convict and the mock juries were limited to only 45 minutes of deliberations.  If more time were allowed or jurors were instructed to continue deliberations until they reached a decision (as in an actual courtroom situation) most probably would have voted for conviction.  The authors' interpretation of their data suggests a readiness to view child sexual abuse prosecution as weighted in favor of the defendant.  There are no data to support this assumption.

Leippe, Brigham, Cousins, and Romanczyk, in a the survey of public defenders and prosecuting attorneys also interpreted their findings in a way that suggests a readiness to see the prosecution more positively than the defense.  However, some of their findings were surprising and important.  For example:

*     Defense attorneys indicated handling an average of 6 to 6.5 sexual abuse cases in the last two years; prosecutors indicated an average of 20-26.
* Neither type of attorney expressed reluctance to bring to trial cases relying on a young child witness.
* Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said that about one in six (19 percent and 18 percent) reports of sexual abuse is completely fabricated.
* Most of the prosecutors and few of the defense attorneys agree that alternative means of presenting children's testimony through hearsay evidence and videotaping are acceptable.  However 51 percent of the defense attorneys (and 98 percent of the prosecutors) feel that the dolls are acceptable.
* Extensively coaching the child before the trial is done "often" or "always" by 50 percent to 70 percent of both kinds of attorneys.

Two chapters provide important information on the lack of understanding of the legal system by children, especially young children.  But both recommend developing ways to familiarize children with court.  While such general preparation could be helpful, there is a danger this also may be used to defend familiarizing and rehearsing children ahead of a trial.  As noted above, attorneys already are doing this.  These practices also will not overcome the developmental limits of children and produce an understanding of abstract concepts of truth, justice, honesty, fairness, retribution, etc., beyond the cognitive capacities of a child.

Raskin and Yuille present an excellent discussion of the difficulties in the way interviews are often done and how poor techniques may result in false allegations.  They make several suggestions which would improve the process including: (1) Minimizing the number of interviews by using carefully structured interviews by trained and skilled professionals who understand their role is to obtain maximally reliable information to draw a conclusion concerning the validity of the allegations; (2) Undertaking therapy only after the investigation has been substantially completed; (3) Therapy given by a different professional than the evaluator; (4) Interviewing the child alone; and, (5) Videotaping all interviews.

They describe statement validity analysis, a process used in Europe for many years, which they are developing as a technique for minimizing error and maximizing the probability that an accurate decision can be made about the truthfulness of the child's account.  While additional research is needed on this technique, it is very promising.  Their chapter is thoughtful and important.

The most clearly biased chapter is an invited commentary by Bulkley.  She discusses several "reforms for reducing trauma to children and improving prosecutions" but doesn't address the issue of actual evidence for such trauma.  But she is in favor of reforms which would make prosecution of child sexual abuse easier and defense more difficult.

She describes professionals who support her stance as "nationally known experts" or "noted researchers," and full credence is given to everything they say.  Those who oppose her beliefs and her prosecution-oriented philosophy are accused of exaggerating research claims," expressing "distorted or exaggerated" concerns about interviewing methods, and making "unsupported claims" and "dubious assertions."

Bulkley does not think current interview techniques introduce error and she believes such interviews are necessary in order to get frightened children to tell about abuse.  Bulkley is highly critical of Raskin and Yuille.  She argues that their assumptions about suggestive investigative techniques and false allegations are unsupported.  She claims there is no evidence children fabricate events.  Here she is completely missing the point.  The problem isn't that children are fabricating.  The problem is massive social influence exerted by interviewers who have a preconceived idea about abuse and can wittingly or unwittingly create, shape, and mold statements by children about abuse.

She says current research does not support Raskin and Yuille's assertions about false allegations and cites Theonnes and Pearson's survey, claiming they reported "deliberately false allegations" were "exceedingly rare."  But Theonnes and Pearson (in D. Besharov, Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect (Out of Print), C.C. Thomas, 1988) state deliberate false reporting was noted in 13 percent of the cases of sexual abuse.  There are now many articles about false allegations, including the survey in Leippe, et al., who found public defenders and prosecutors estimated one-fifth of the sexual abuse allegations were deliberately fabricated.

She criticizes Raskin and Yuille for using the Bakersfield and Scott County cases as examples of problems because these are "highly unusual cases" and "most important, although both of these prosecutions were unsuccessful, it does not mean that the children had not been sexually abused ... dismissal does not mean the defendant committed no crime."  The assertion that dismissal does not mean there was no abuse, while conceptually defensible, is arrogant if it is used as a base for policy or actions.  Certainly the justice system can err but it errs on both sides.  However, Bulkley uses as the criterion for actual abuse, the belief by someone in the system that abuse occurred, regardless of the outcome.  Once again nothing can falsify an accusation once it is made.  Refusal to permit any falsification places this concept outside science and rational thought.  Fortunately, the commentary by Dunning is much more objective and balanced.

In the preface, the editors state that the studies found little that would help predict how adults viewed child witnesses.  But one consistent finding was that children are perceived as credible witnesses when they provide testimony in a confident or forceful manner.  Another consistent finding was that the jurors were not accurate in their perceptions although they gave great weight to perceived confidence of the witness, this does not correlate with the accuracy of of child's testimony.

These two findings, when understood by prosecutors, are likely to have a negative effect on the truth-seeking process.  If the child witnesses can be practiced and rehearsed, they will be seen as more credible.  More cases will be won.  Attorneys hoping to persuade judges and juries that the abuse occurred will be more likely to rehearse and practice children for testifying.  Leippe et al. found 50 to 70 percent already do this, which is consistent with cases we have reviewed.  No one, except Raskin and Yuille, appears to see anything wrong with this.

In fact, familiarizing the children with court procedures prior to their testifying is recommended as a way to reduce the hypothesized trauma.  The heightened risk of introducing error is ignored.  Defense attorneys may well be forced into more aggressive and vigorous cross-examination trying to pierce the rehearsal effect, thus running the risk of being perceived as hostile and mean to children and potentially increasing the stress of testifying for children.  If the information in this book causes more rehearsal and practicing of child witnesses, it may well make meaningful cross-examination impossible and cause children's testimony to be declared inadmissible.

This book is worth reading for the chapter by Raskin and Yuille and for important information obtained in several of the other chapters.  However, the prosecution bias and readiness to search for interpretations supporting the belief that an accusation means the abuse is real detracts from its usefulness.  It should be read with an awareness of this.

Reviewed by Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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