Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse

Ralph C. Underwager
Hollida Wakefield


III. Interviewing children when there are allegations of sexual abuse

A. The child witness

1. Young children are capable of providing accurate and useful information.

2. Jones and Krugman (1986) give an example of a three-year-old child who accurately described her abduction, sexual abuse, and attempted murder.

3. The problem is that adults do not know how to let children produce the most reliable information they can (Garbarino & Stott, 1989).

B. The memory of young children.

1. The free recall of children, particularly if they are questioned soon after an event, can be accurate. However, young children do not produce much in the free recall situation.

2. Infant amnesia

a. Infant amnesia refers to the fact that adults and older children do not usually remember incidents from their lives that happen prior to age three to four (Eisenberg, 1985; Loftus, 1993; Nelson, 1993).

b. This inability to recall events from an early age is a function of the normal process of growth and development.

c. Although some researchers have reported slightly younger estimates of how far back adults can remember, these bits of memory cannot indicate genuine episodic memory, but instead may be the result of educated guesses about what was likely to have happened.

d. Children build "script" memories during this period of life. Script memories are those we have for familiar, repeated events like eating dinner at home or going to the supermarket.

e. The development of narrative accounts is markedly affected by the child talking with parents who play an active role in framing and guiding their children's formulation of what happened. This effect is strongest when parents simply talk with their children about events rather than question them (Nelson, 1993).

3. Young children are more suggestible than older children and adults (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995).

4. Young children are likely to make "source monitoring" errors (Ceci, Loftus, Leitchman, & Bruck, 1994; Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993).

a. A source monitoring error is when people mistake events they have thought about, dreamed about, or been questioned about for memories of real events that have happened.

b. Preschoolers appear to be vulnerable to source attribution errors when they are repeated encouraged to think about events that never occurred.

5. Very young children cannot use one object as a representation for another (DeLoache, 1995).

6. Several facts concerning child witnesses can be said to be generally accepted in the scientific community (Ceci & Bruck, 1993):

a. There appear to be significant age differences in suggestibility, with preschool children being more vulnerable to suggestion that either school-aged children or adults.

b. Children can be led to make false or inaccurate reports about very crucial, personally experienced central events.

c. Children sometimes lie when the motivational structure is tiled towards lying.

d. Extreme statements (e.g., children never lie vs. children are incapable of getting it right) are not supported.

e. Even preschoolers are capable of recalling much that is forensically relevant.

C. General principles of the investigatory interview

1. The goal of the interview of a child suspected of being sexually abused is to obtain uncontaminated data.

2. The problem is not that children cannot give reliable information but rather that adults do not know how to enable them to produce the information they are capable of providing (Garbarino & Stott, 1989: Wakefield & Underwager, 1988, 1994a).

3. The free recall of children is accurate, but they recall less than do adults (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995; Jones & Krugman, 1986; Lepore, 1991). The less information the child gives in free recall, the sooner the interviewer will turn to using leading questions.

4. Contamination occurs when the child's recollections become altered through poor interview techniques, an adverse interview environment, the interviewer's inappropriate behaviors, or influences outside the interviewer's control (Ceci & Bruck, 1995; Quinn, White, & Santilli, 1989; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988, 1989a, 1994a; White, 1990).

5. The child's memory of any actual experience may be significantly altered by the questioning about the incident (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995; Doris, 1991; White, 1990; Clarke-Stewart, Thompson, & Lepore, 1989) and the child may even develop a memory for events that never happened (Loftus, 1993; Loftus & Ketcham, 1991, 1994; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990, 1994a).

6. The issue is not whether or not the child is lying. The issue is the level, nature, extent, and effects of adult social influence upon young children.

7. Although repeated and/or suggestive interviews and flawed investigations do not mean that a child has not been abused, they make it very difficult, if not impossible, to sort out what, if anything, may have happened.

8. The issue is the level, nature, extent, and effects of adult social influence upon young children. It is through adult social influence that a child can make statements of sexual abuse that may not be true. The child is unlikely to be an active participant when a fabricated allegation is developed.

9. Although repeated and/or suggestive interviews and flawed investigations do not mean that a child has not been abused, they make it very difficult, if not impossible, to sort out what, if anything, may have happened. The most well-known examples of this are the Jordan, MN case (Humphrey, 1985, February) and the McMartin case.

a. Children who have not been abused are treated as though they were and innocent parents may be prevented from having contact with their children.

b. A coercive and contaminating interview can be used by the defense as support for the lack of credibility of the child and an actual abuser can go unpunished.

10. Example of actual interview transcript from the McMartin case. The interviewer is Astrid Heger, M.D.

Q Do you think, do maybe-I'll tell you what. Maybe you could show me with this, with this doll (putting hand on two anatomical dolls, one naked, one dressed) how the kids danced for the naked movie star.

A They didn't really dance. It was just like, a song.

Q Well, what did they do when they sang the song?

A They just, went around singing the song.

Q They just went around and sang the song?

A (Nods head up and down.)

Q And they didn't take their clothes off?

A (Shakes head negative)

Q I heard that, I heard from, several kids, that they took their clothes off. I think that (classmate's name) told me that. I know that (second classmate's name) told me. I know that (third classmate's name) told me. (Fourth classmate's name) and (fifth classmate's name) all told me that. That's kind of a hard secret, it's kind of a yucky secret to talk, of-but, maybe, we could see if we could find -

A Not that I remember.

Q - another puppet. This is my favorite puppet right here. (Reaching, picking up and putting on the bird puppet.)

A I get to be that puppet.

Q You wanna be this puppet? Okay. Then I get to be Detective Dog.

A (Makes a sound.)

Q Okay, let's see if we can figure this. Let's see.

A (Grabs the dog puppet's nose that the interviewer is wearing, using bird puppet's beak.)

Q Yeah. Let's be friends. Let's (unintelligible). I know that we're gonna figure this out-all this stuff out right now. Okay, when that tricky part about touching the kids was going on, could you (reaching for marker from can on the table, handing it to girl) could take a pointer in your mouth and point, on the, on the doll over here, on either one of these dolls, where, where the kids were touched? Could you do that?

A I don't know.

Q I know that the kids were touched. Let's see if we can figure that out.

A I don't know.

Q You don't know where they were touched?

A Huh-uh. (Slight of head, negative.)

Q (Unintelligible.) Well, I (unintelligible) some of the kids told me that they were touched sometimes. They said that it was, it kinda sometimes it kinda hurt. And sometimes it felt pretty good. Do you remember that touching game that went on?

A No.

Q Okay, let me see if we can try something else and -

A Weeeeee. (Spinning the bird puppet on right hand above her head.)

Q Come on bird, get down here and help us out here.

A No.

Q (Girl's name) is having a hard time talking. I don't wanna hear any more "no's." No, no, Detective Dog and we're gonna figure this out.

A No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. (To musical cadence, spinning bird puppet over head.)

Q Do you wanna not play with the puppets? Would you rather talk to me directly? Is that easier for ya?

A No.

Q Okay. How can I help you?

A (Makes sound.) gosh.

Q (Girl's name), look at me! (Putting puppeted hand on bird puppet.) How can I help you get rid of those yucky secrets? How can we help you to tell them, so they can go away and not bother you any more? What would be the best way that we could help you do that? I don't think the puppets are working really well. And I think that you're real scared to tell. And I understand why you're scared. 'Cause I heard all about the threats and all the tricks that he tried to make the kids be scared so they wouldn't talk. Those were all tricks, they were lies. They weren't true. None of those things happened to anybody. And none of that stuff that happened at school were the kids' fault. That was all the it, Ray's fault, it wasn't the kids fault. And I know the kids are scared to talk about it, but I need you to tell me. How can I help you get rid of those yucky secrets? What's the best way for me to help you do that?

A (Looks upward with pointer dangling from mouth.) (Cody, 1989, p. 28.)

C. Problems in interviews

1. The interviewer is convinced about what happened before the interview begins.

a. Expectancies about an outcome can influence the outcome itself (Dent & Stephenson, 1979; Darley & Fazio, 1980; Rosenthal, 1976).

b. The interviewer who expects to find abuse is apt to ask questions in a way to confirm his or her hypothesis (Ceci & Bruck, 1995; Ceci, Leichtman, & White, in press; Pettit, Fegan, & Howie, 1990; Pfohl, 1979; White, 1990).

2. The interviewer ignores the pressure felt by the child to conform to what the child believes the interviewer wants. The pressure to give some form of answer may result in demand characteristics to which children have little resistance (Dent & Stephenson, 1979; King & Yuille, 1987).

3. The interviewer reinforces selected responses of the child.

a. A child is told that she is brave and that "Mommy will be so proud of you for telling the scary secret" or a child is told that he can play with a special toy or go for a treat after he tells about the abuse.

b. Children have been promised or given candy, food, beverages, and toys if they cooperate and answer the questions. Uncooperative children may be denied access to the lavatory until they finished the interview (Ceci & Bruck, 1995; DeLipsey & James, 1988; Slicner & Hanson, 1989; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990).

4. The interviewer does not make it clear to the child that it is all right not to answer a question if the child does not know the answer (Warren, Hulse-Trotter, & Tubbs, 1991).

a. Children will give answers to bizarre, unanswerable questions. In a study by Hughes and Grieve (1980), 5- and 7-year-old children gave answers to very bizarre questions, such as "Is red wider than yellow?"

b. The pressure to give some form of answer and to discourage "don't know" responses may result in demand characteristics to which children have little resistance (Dent & Stephenson, 1979 ; King & Yuille, 1987).

5. The interviewer ignores responses that don't fit the interviewer's preconceptions.

6. The interviewer encourages a child who does not say anything in response to questions to "pretend" with puppets or dolls.

7. The interviewer begins the interview with good touch/bad touch questions and drawings where the child identifies body parts. This tells the child what will be expected to be discussed in the interview.

8. The interview is not videotaped or audiotaped. A videotape is the only means whereby the procedures and data obtained during the interview can be fully documented (DeLipsey & James, 1988; Herbert, Grams, & Goranson, 1987; Lamb, 1994; Myers, 1994; Raskin & Yuille, 1989; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988, 1989a, 1994a).

9. Procedures with doubtful or nonexistent reliability and validity are used in the interview. These unsupported procedures include drawings, projective tests, and anatomical dolls.

a. The APA Council of Representatives (1991) concluded that neither the anatomical dolls nor their use are standardized or accompanied by normative data.

b. The use of the dolls can provide a modeling effect and, as they are often used, can encourage the child to engage in fantasy.

c. Very young children cannot use one object as a representation for another (DeLoache, 1995).

d. There are no data supporting a differential behavior of abused and nonabused children when the dolls are used to assess sexual abuse. The studies that claim to show differences have major methodological shortcomings (Ceci & Bruck, 1993; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990, 1995; Skinner, Berry, & Giles, 1992; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990, 1995; Wakefield & Underwager, 1994a; Wolfner, Faust, & Dawes, 1993).

e. Some studies suggest that some nonabused children engage the dolls in sexual play (Skinner, et al., 1992).

f. We recommend that the dolls not be used. They are controversial and they are not generally accepted in the scientific community.

g. There are similar problems with books and drawings.

10. Disclosure-based play therapy is used to draw conclusions about abuse.

a. There is no scientific evidence showing any efficacy or utility for play therapy with sexual abuse victims (Campbell, 1992a, 1992b; Kazdin, Bass, Ayers, & Rodgers, 1990).

b. The sessions may focus on reenactments and discussions of the abuse and the behavior of the child in the play therapy sessions is used to form conclusions about abuse. Play therapy may encourage false allegations (Campbell, 1992a).

c. A major difficulty is the unexamined assumption that play reflects reality whereas for children play is fantasy (Bretherton, 1984).

d. The therapist providing the therapy may be confusing the therapy and investigator roles.

11. Specific interviewer behaviors that may contaminate children's statements.

a. Open-suggestive questions. These questions are open in nature, but are suggestive or leading in that they may provide or imply information which may in fact be incorrect, and may pertain to information or events to which the child has not previously referred.

Who else was there? (There may not have been others present). Whose house were you at when the man touched you? (The child may not have been at a house). What did the other big person do to you? (The other person may not have done anything). How big was the bed that was in the room? (When there was no previous mention of a bed).

b. Leading or suggestive questions or statements which supply information to the child that may be incorrect, or pertain to information to which the child has not previously referred. Minimal response is required. Does he hurt you? Does this always happen in your room? Has it ever happened in daddy's room? Was it you that she caught him doing it to?

Here the interviewer, not the child, provides most of the information.

c. Questions or statements which put the child on the spot, and coerce or pressure him or her to respond as expected. Questions in this category demand a response, and may contain stated or implied threats. Commands given by the interviewer and non-verbal messages can also be used for this purpose.

All of the other children talked to us, and they felt better. Last time, you told me that they hurt you. Is that true, or not? If you don't tell, you will feel yucky inside. If you don't talk to us, your mommy will be very disappointed in you. Tell us what you told your mommy. We can't play with the game until we finish talking. It's important. We need you to tell us so other children won't get hurt. You can't go outside until you finish telling me! Non-verbal behaviors include using a cold or neutral tone of voice, moving away from the child, avoiding the child's eyes, and ignoring the child's responses or questions.

d. Various rewards-verbal, non-verbal, and material-which the child receives for responding as expected.

You're a good talker! Good -That's just right. You're so brave to tell us all of this! Mommy will be so proud if you tell us. After you talk to us, then you can have an ice cream cone. If you can tell us what happened, that icky feeling inside will go away!

Non-verbal rewards can include smiling, touching or moving closer to the child, head nods, and changing from a cold or neutral voice to a warm voice.

e. Modeling or teaching by the interviewer (often used in conjunction with dolls, puppets, drawings, or books).

k. Ignoring responses that don't fit the interviewer's preconceptions.

l. Giving false information to the child.

The other children have told me about the naked movie star games. Your brother told me some things about how Dad hurt you.


Copyright 1989-2014 by the Institute for Psychological Therapies.
This website last revised on April 15, 2014.
Found a non-working link?  Please notify the Webmaster.