|| Perspectives on Children's Testimony
|| Stephen J. Ceci, David F. Ross, and Michael P. Toglia
|| 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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 (),
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.
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
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.