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Children in Court: Taking Testimony from Children. Tennessee Joint Task Force on Children’s Justice/ Child Sexual Abuse Presented by Anne Fisher. Agenda. Developmental Expectations – What is the best case scenario? Qualifying Children to Take the Oath

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children in court taking testimony from children

Children in Court: Taking Testimony from Children

Tennessee Joint Task Force

on Children’s Justice/

Child Sexual Abuse

Presented by Anne Fisher

  • Developmental Expectations –
    • What is the best case scenario?
  • Qualifying Children to Take the Oath
  • A Structured Conversation with a Child
    • Building Rapport
    • Getting to the Topic of Concern
    • Problem Areas in Questioning
  • Understanding Children’s Language
generally speaking
Generally Speaking …
  • Typically-developed children under 12
    • Preschoolers, Adolescents, Children with Special Needs are considered special populations
  • Cultural Differences
  • Placement/moves in foster care  regression
  • Sustained abuse/neglect  development 1-1 ½ years below average
notes about developmental guidelines
Notes about Developmental Guidelines
  • Represent average, general abilities
  • Stress affects children’s cognitive/ linguistic performance
  • Trauma interferes with memory
  • Reluctance to discuss abuse is common
  • New research about time: 10-12 important developmentally
qualifying children to take the oath8
Qualifying Children to Take the Oath
  • Despite seriously delayed vocabulary skills, most maltreated children by 5 have a basic understanding of the meaning and morality of lying … depending on how that is assessed
  • Often, children who canidentify truths/lies cannot provide minimally sufficient definitions of “truth”/“lies”
  • Young children may be reluctant to discuss lying

Lyon & Saywitz, 1999, “Young Maltreated Children’s Competence to Take the Oath,” Applied Developmental Science, 3, 1, 16-27

qualifying two tasks
Qualifying: Two Tasks
  • Truth vs. Lie

Evaluate whether child understands that “truth” and “lie” refer to statements that correspond to reality and statements that fail to correspond to reality

  • Morality

Determines whether a child understands the consequences of telling a lie

  • Give the child the 4 truth vs. lie tasks
  • Emphasize words in capital letters
  • When child answers, say “okay” in a friendly manner
  • Always start with the child on left side of the picture
  • Give the child 4 morality tasks
  • Ask the child to promise to tell the truth
  • “I talk with lots of children. It’s always important that they tell me the truth. So, before we begin, I want to make sure that you understand how important it is to tell the truth.”
truth vs lie task
Truth vs. LieTask
  • Changes from ♀ to ♂
  • Changes question from “truth” to “lie”
  • Changes which side is correct answer
morality task
Morality Task

“Here’s a lady who comes to visit these girls at home.”

“Here’s a doctor. She wants to know what happened to these boys.”

  • When possible – reduce the power differential
    • In chambers?
      • Comfortable/appropriately-sized furniture
      • Let the child choose seat
    • Lose the robe?
    • Sit at the same level as the child
    • Have child-friendly area/ furnishings, décor/materials
building rapport
Building Rapport
  • Purposes
    • Put child at ease
    • Generate flow of conversation
    • Help child understand your expectations
    • Help you understand child’s conversational abilities in this setting
  • In forensic interview … 7-9 minutes (average)
building rapport looking for the spark
Building Rapport:Looking for the “Spark”
  • Introduce yourself as simply as you can
  • Ask open-ended questions
    • I’d like to get to know you; tell me about yourself.
    • What do you like to do?
    • Tell me about school.
  • For very small children, small subjects work
    • Did you have breakfast? Tell me about it
    • Tell me everything you did today before you got here.
    • Tell me all about your room/favorite toy/pet
useful statements in child interviews
Useful Statements in Child Interviews
  • “Tell me everything you remember …”
  • “I wasn’t there, so I need you to tell me what happened.”
    • Kids think that if they told one adult, other adults know
  • “Even if you think I know, tell me anyway.”
  • “Even if you think it doesn’t matter …”
useful statements in child interviews18
Useful Statements in Child Interviews
  • “It’s okay to tell me that you don’t know.”
    • One of the first conversational rules that children learn: you take turns in conversation, and every question has an answer
  • “It’s okay to tell me that you don’t understand.”
    • Strategy for understanding unknown words: look for something familiar from experience/education
    • Scarpology
  • “It’s okay to correct me if I make a mistake.”
shifting to topic of concern
Shifting to Topic of Concern
  • Use the “hourglass” method
    • Open-ended questions/prompts: “Tell me about your Mom.”
    • When the narrative is exhausted  focused questions: “What happens when Mom gets mad?”
    • Return to open-ended prompts: “Tell me all about that.”
  • Focus on concrete, observable elements and details
    • Using marijuana
  • Ensure that you share vocabulary
    • “Sex”? What happened to her/his body?
talking about the issue s
Talking about the Issue (s)
  • Use reflective statements to “check-in”
    • Establish at beginning that they should correct you if you make a mistake
  • Ask 1 question at a time, allow time to formulate an answer
    • Count to 8-10 before rephrasing
  • Signal when you are shifting to a different topic or time
    • Frame the question first (“I’d like to ask you about …”)
  • Use the child’s name often
problem areas in questioning
Problem Areas in Questioning
  • Estimates of measurement – size, speed, distance, height, weight, length – before 10
  • Estimates of time
  • Negative stereotypes
  • Never ask the child to guess
  • Repeated Questions
  • Presumptive Questions
  • Leading/Misleading Questions
requirements for answering questions
Requirements for Answering Questions
  • Must be able to remember the question from beginning to end
  • Must be able to pay attention to the question
  • Can’t give an accurate answer if you don’t understand the question
  • Response to a question is not necessarily an answer – Follow up!
kids and language
Kids and Language
  • Adults and children do not speak the same language
  • Kids are egocentric  restricted ability to reason & compare
  • Language and cognition develop at different rates
    • Words come first, meaning comes later.
  • Children have concrete interpretation of language based on sound, experience  create language based on analogy to familiar words
    • e.g., a baby caterpillar is a “kittenpillar”
young children and language
Young Children and Language
  • Struggle with higher order or umbrella words
    • “Clothes” may not include pajamas, bathing suits
  • Tend to believe that adults know what they know
  • Believe adults are right, sincere, wouldn’t trick them
  • Cannot make “source attribution”
    • Focus on sensory information
using clear language
Using Clear Language
  • Add an open-ended option to forced-choice questions
    • “Was it at your Mom’s house, your Dad’s house, or somewhere else?”
  • Do not assume that a child knows the meaning of a word he/she uses OR that you mean the same thing
    • “He tickled me.”
  • Use names of places (geographic or anatomical) – “the house on Main Street,” “your peter” – instead of vague referents – “over there,” “down there”
  • Avoid relationship words
    • Use names instead of (or paired with) “your stepfather,” “your foster mother,” or “your real mom”
using clear language27
Using Clear Language
  • Avoid quantifiers like “a couple,” “several,” “most”
  • Avoid asking “why” (because it can sound accusatory)
  • Avoid beginning questions with “Do you remember …” or “Can you…”
  • “Before” and “After” are slippery before age 7/8
  • Negation takes longer to process.
    • Use of simple negatives (not/no) in a question appears to increase the chance of an incorrect answer by AT LEAST 50% in children age 4-10 (Graffam-Walker)
some vs any
“Some” Vs. “Any”
  • “I ate ice cream.”
  • “I didn’t eat ice cream.”
  • Did he say something? Did he say anything? (Is this the same question?)
  • “Some” patterns with neutral or positive response, “Any” patterns very strongly with negative – 2x more likely to get negative response with “any” than “some.”
avoiding problems w pronouns pointing words
Avoiding Problems w/ Pronouns, Pointing Words
  • When YOU speak
    • Be specific
    • Put nouns back in
    • Indexicals (words that point – personal pronouns, here/there, this/that, come/go, bring/take)
    • Incorporate phrases from earlier questions and/or statements
  • When the CHILD speaks
    • Don’t take meaning of pronouns for granted
    • Be alert if responses seem inconsistent, confused
  • Graffam Walker, 1999, Handbook on Questioning Children: A Linguistic Perspective (ABA Center for Children and the Law).
  • Lyon & Saywitz, 1999, “Young Maltreated Children’s Competence to Take the Oath,” Applied Developmental Science, 3, 1, 16-27
  • Friedman & Lyon, 2005, “Development of Temporal-Reconstructive Abilities,” Child Development, 76, 6
  • Orbach & Lamb, 2007, “Young Children’s References to Temporal Attributes of Allegedly Experienced Events in the Course of Forensic Interviews,” Child Development, 78, 4
contact information
Contact Information

Anne Fisher

Forensic Interviewer

Montgomery County Child Advocacy Center

227 A Dunbar Cave Road

Clarksville, TN 37043

(931) 553-5140