Sexual Abuse Allegations: Children’s Memory Development, Suggestibility, Adult Influence, and Interview Techniques Juvenile Law Section Houston Bar Assoc. 12 May 2018
Mary Alvarez, Ph.D. • Licensed Psychologist • 1506 Winding Way #210 • Friendswood, TX 77546 • 832 720-5020 • email@example.com
Mouse Trap • Facts: • 1. A four-year-old child has never pinched his hand in a mouse trap. • 2. This same child has never been to a hospital for treatment. • 3. The child was suggestively interviewed once per week for ten weeks about a fictitious mouse trap incident that never occurred. • 4. At week ten, he stated the following:
“My brother, Collin, was trying to get Blowtorch (a toy) from me and I wouldn’t let him take it, so he pushed me into the wood pile where the mousetrap was. And my finger got caught in it. And then we went to the hospital, and my mommy, daddy, and Collin drove me there, to the hospital in our van because it was far away. And the doctor put a bandage on this finger (showed finger).” Ceci, et al., 1994
Little Rascals Case (1989) • Facts: • Bob & Betsy Kelly operated a day care. • In 1989, a parent alleged that Bob had sexually abused her son. The next month, 3 more children made allegations. Panic ensued. Police advised parents to have their children evaluated and provided 3 names of local therapists who conducted therapy on 85% of the eventual 90 children who made allegations. • Parents, police, and therapists “interviewed” the children. It took 10 months of ‘therapy’ and interviewing before some children made allegations.
The initial allegations involved Bob, but expanded to include dozens of townspeople and 7 individuals were eventually arrested and charged with sexual abuse, including five people from the day care, a judge’s son, and a video store owner. • Details of the allegations were: children performing sexual acts on other children; small objects being placed into vaginas; burning a cat; murdering babies; being tied up and hung from a tree; and being thrown overboard into a school of sharks. • Three years after the initial allegations, Bob’s trial began. The 12 children in his case attended “court school” to refresh their ‘memories’ and prepare. • During the time of the alleged abuse, no parent ever raised a ‘red flag’ that something was happening to their child. • Bob was convicted and given 12 consecutive life sentences.
An example of the DA’s direct examination of a child witness: • DA Did you lay on top of Bridget? • C: Yes. • DA: And when you were laying on top of Bridget, where was your private? • C: I forgot. • DA: Do you remember telling Ms. Judy that you had to put your private next to her private? • C: No. • DA: What did you say? • C: No. • DA: Did you say yes or no? • C: Yes. • Example of repeated questioning.
Country Walk Case • Facts: • Frank & Iliana Fuster operated a home daycare in Florida. • In 1983, parents began suspecting that something was going on with their children. • A 3-year-old boy told his mom that Iliana “Kisses all the babies.” and he wanted his mom to kiss him. • The mom discussed her concerns with other parents and one parent expressed that she felt that her child had been drugged the first time he attended the daycare. • In the beginning, the majority of the kids denied that anything had happened to them.
Over time and after repeated and suggestive interviews, some of the kids told authorities and designated interviewers about events that had occurred years prior when they were 1-5 years of age. • The kids alleged lewd sexual abuse, that Frank video-taped the abuse, and incompatible with reality allegations such as riding on sharks and cannibalism. • In 1986 the Fusters were tried on multiple accounts of ritualistic sexual abuse and terrorism. • One child testified in court and four more children testified on close-circuit TV. • Frank was convicted on 14 counts of sodomy, rape, and abuse and received 6 life terms + 165 years.
Child’s interview in Country Walk: • I: When they gave you stuff to drink (drinks had never been introduced by the child at that point), did you feel dizzy? • C: No, but I felt bad. I would be dead (and the child goes on to describe that kids gave him a drink that killed him). • I: When you had the drink and you were dead, were some of the other kids doing some stuff? Were they playing while you were dead? • C: They were sitting on me. • I: Did they have their clothes on or off? • C: Off. • I: Did Frank and Iliana have their clothes off? • C: Only some of the kids. I didn’t. • I: I understand that, but some of the kids had their clothes off? • C: Yes.
I: Did some of the kids touch each other’s privates? • C: (shook head no). • I: Did you see any of the other kids go in the room with Frank and Iliana? • C: What did they do? • I: I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I’m just asking did they ever go into the bedroom by themselves? • C: Yes. • I: Did they take their clothes off? Did any of the kids when they played games sometimes and Frank and Iliana would tell them like the boys to touch the girls’ vagina or do something like that? • C: (negative nod) • I: You were dead from the drink. If you had been alive, do you think that you would have seen that? Maybe it happened. • Example of interviewer bias
Memory Development • Memory is constructive, not reproductive. • We reconstruct our memories to “fit” what we expect so that life makes sense to us. • Children have different scripts and perceptions of the world than adults. • Even young children have well-organized, accurate memories (non-suggestive).
Children’s memories contain fewer details, but they’re accurate when not contaminated by suggestibility. • Children report events in a timeless present tense, which indicates a general routine versus a specific event or occurrence. • Children are mostly accurate in their ability to report the sequence of events in the correct temporal order. • Problems emerge when children are asked to recall a single episode of a repeated event.
Preschoolers especially confuse details among repeated experiences. • A novel event that has occurred only once will remain more distinct in memory. • It’s impossible to recall events that occurred in infancy, pre-toddlerhood, and much of toddlerhood.
Suggestibility • Preschool children are disproportionately affected by misleading , post-event suggestions. • Younger children make more source judgment errors (e.g., being able to accurately depict at which point he/she received the information) than older children.
Interview techniques are the more important factors than individual differences in determining memory accuracy and susceptibility to suggestibility.
Suggestive Interview Techniques • Force-choice questions (Did he touch your leg?). • Having a pre-determined hypothesis about what happened. • Nonverbal and verbal reinforcement of statements consistent with this pre-determined hypothesis (e.g., good job). • Ignoring statements inconsistent with the favored hypothesis.
Telling the child any of the following: • 1. You’re safe with me and you can tell me • anything. • 2. That man (woman) will go to jail if you tell • me what happened. • 3. So and so already told me…. • Having the child try and create “mental images” of the situation. • Role-playing the situation with the child. • Repeating the same questions over and over. • Disregarding contradictory information. • Using anatomical dolls.
When children are instructed to knowingly fabricate false information, pretend, create a mental picture, or simply ‘think about’ events that didn’t occur, some of the initially disbelieved events come to be part of their memories.
Children who have: • Poor understanding of conflicting mental representations • Poor source monitoring • High degrees of imagination • Less intelligence • are more suggestible and affected by poor interview techniques. • Children who have: • High self-confidence • A secure attachment to primary caregivers • Good executive function abilities • are lesssuggestible.
Different Memory System for Trauma? • Evidence doesn’t support the idea that there is a separate memory system for non-traumatic vs. traumatic events. • Traumatic events are usually well-remembered because they’re unique. • No evidence that forgetting traumatic events is due to repression or dissociation. • Traumatic memories decay like ordinary memories do. • Issue: Sexual abuse isn’t always traumatic to the child.
Best Interview Techniques • Consider the age of the child. • Use developmentally appropriate language, vocabulary, and simple sentence structure. • Use open-ended questions that allow the child to just talk un-imposed (free-recall). • Follow-up questions should be open-ended as much as possible. • Avoid probing for information related to “time” as the concept of time and its continuum isn’t developed until age 10-11 yrs.
Five Types of Interview Questions • 1. Facilitators: Non-leading questions and feedback (Tell me what happened). • 2. Invitations: Open-ended responses to elicit more information (And then what happened?) • 3. Directive: Ask for more information once the child has divulged something useful (What color was the couch?) • 4. Option-Posing: Ask for information not divulged by the child (Did he have his clothes off?) These can be considered leading questions. • 5. Suggestive: Interviewer expectations and assumptions are very strong (He said don’t tell, right?)
NICHD Interview Protocol • The NICHD Interview Protocol (Lamb, et al., 2007) is considered the best structured interview protocol that we have to date. • It is based upon years of empirical research. • If used as directed, this interview reduces both false positives and false negatives.
Interview Sequence • Introduction. • Rapport Building. • Training in Episodic Memory. • Transition to Substantive Issues. • Investigating the Incidents. • Break.
Eliciting Information that Hasn’t Been Mentioned by the Child. • If Child Fails to Mention Information You Expected. • Information About the Disclosure. • Closing . • Neutral Topic.
References • Jeopardy in the Courtroom: Scientific Analysis of Children’s Testimony (Ceci & Bruck). 1995. • The Scientific Basis of Child Custody Decisions-Second Edition (Galatzer-Levy, et al., Eds). 2009. • The Evaluation of Child Sexual Abuse Allegations (Kuehnle & Connell, Eds). 2009. • Children’s Testimony: A Handbok of Psychological Research and Forensic Practice. (Lamb, et al., Eds). 2011. • Investigative Interviews of Children (Poole & Lamb). 1998.