The Application of Images in Child Abuse Investigations

Chapter in Image-Based Research: A Sourcebook for Qualitative Researchers (Hardcover)(Paperback) (Jon Prosser, Editor)

Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager

ABSTRACT: Mental health professionals use a variety of image-based techniques when interviewing children about sexual abuse allegations. These include anatomical dolls, books, puppets, drawings, projective cards, play dough, games, and toys. Many of these lack acceptable validity or reliability for the ways they are used; whereas others appear helpful in obtaining forensically-useful information from young children. The history and current status of research concerning the child witness is the background for a discussion of these practices. It is argued that interviewers should only use techniques that can be defended in terms of their reliability and validity.

From ancient cave drawings, to archeological artifacts ranging from royal jewelry to household objects, to thousands of clay Chinese warriors, to today's computer screen, images and symbols show the richness and complexity of human life. Human cognition often depends upon the use of images and symbols to represent or stand for something other than itself. This ability separates us from all other creatures and has enabled humanity to transcend space and time. Science makes great use of models, symbols, and number systems to advance our human capacities.

The use of images and symbols is so much a part of human cognition that adults often completely overlook the fact that children are not born with a capacity to represent one thing by another thing. This is a cognitive capacity that must be learned during the developmental process of the individual from infant to adult (DeLoache, 1995a). A longitudinal study of this process in seven distinct symbol systems (Gardner & Wolf, 1987) shows developmental changes both within and across the seven systems. From ages 5 to 7 the symbolic process begins to develop and notational literacy is acquired in early school years.

Unfortunately, during early developmental stages when children are difficult to communicate with, adults who want to elicit information from children may attempt to use images and symbols in an effort to break through the limitations. But the child may not have the capacity to use one object to represent another. If adults are not familiar with this developmental process, they may miss opportunities to accurately understand children and may then introduce unnecessary error into the interaction.

Mental health professionals use a variety of techniques employing images when interviewing children about sexual abuse allegations. These include anatomical dolls, books, puppets, drawings, projective cards, play dough, games, and toys (Conte, Sorenson, Fogarty, Rosa, 1991; Kendall-Tackett, 1992). Many of these are controversial and do not show acceptable validity or reliability for the ways they are used (Underwager & Wakefield, 1995); others appear valuable for assisting young children to provide forensically useful information. A crucial factor is how the image-based techniques are used by the interviewer. The history and current status of research concerning the child witness is the background for a discussion of these practices.

Brief History of Research on Child Witnesses

The Use of Images in Interviews

Techniques using images vary greatly as to whether they introduce potential error into the investigation or whether they are useful aids to accurate recall. Unfortunately, despite growing knowledge about how interviews should be done to increase the reliability of the information elicited, many interviews in actual cases continue to be suggestive and contaminating (Underwager & Wakefield, 1990; Warren, Woodall, Hunt, & Perry, 1996).

Anatomically-Detailed Dolls
Puppets
Books
Drawings
Other Projective Techniques
Play Therapy Toys
Image-Based Techniques in The Cognitive Interview

Conclusions

Given the lack of demonstrated validity and reliability for many image-based techniques used in obtaining information from children, there are serious questions about the ethical quality of their use. The use of invalid techniques and techniques when there are questions about competency is proscribed by the 1992 American Psychological Association's Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct (Bersoff, 1995; Smith & Dumont, 1995; Dumont & Smith, 1996). Since it is not possible to be competent in doing something that nobody knows how to do to produce outcomes at a better than chance level (Underwager & Wakefield, 1989), until there is sufficient research to show a technique can meet the requirements for validity and reliability, it is best to remain cautious and use only those which can be defended adequately. Knowledge and understanding of the developmental capacities of children to use one object to represent another must also be demonstrated. Whatever techniques are used, any limitations or qualifications to any opinion based on the use of images must be clearly stated.

References

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