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Young child witnesses: Introduction

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Children can be extremely reliable witnesses:

This is true even for events that involve violence. In the case of the tragic forced kidnapping of Samantha Runnion on 2002-JUL-15, a 5-year old playmate "Sarah" gave police a precise description of the perpetrator: his thin mustache, accent, age, color of his car, its chrome wheels, and the letter "H" on the trunk. "She guided a sketch artist to produce a 'wanted' picture that bore an uncanny resemblance to Alejandro Avila, who has been arrested and charged with Samantha's murder. Her identification would have been impressive from any witness, but it was all the more stunning from a kindergarten child." 1

Jane Spinak, a Columbia law professor who specializes in children's rights said: "I found it amazing how accurate she was....There's always pendulum swings on this issue of how much we believe children. But children can produce reliable accounts, especially when they're interviewed very soon after, by someone who's skilled enough to ask what they know without leading them, and when there's no issue of trying to keep a secret." 1

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Interview techniques:

However, if the interviewer is not skilled in the proper interview techniques to use with young children, then the witness can be easily coaxed into disclosing events that never happened. This is particularly true if the two main rules of interviewing young persons are violated:

bullet Do not ask direct, leading questions.
bullet Do not ask questions repeatedly.

These precautions were not recognized by most child psychologists in the 1980s and early 1990s when a dark panic gripped North America. Starting in 1983 with the Bakersfield/Kern County and McMartin Preschool cases in California and continuing to the late 1990s in Edenton NC and Wenatchee WA, there were dozens of high profile MVMO (Multiple Victim, Multiple Offender) panics at day schools, baby sitting services and church Sunday schools. Most involved allegations of sexual abuse of dozens or hundreds of children by many adults -- often women. Almost all included horrendous stories of ritual abuse.

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MVMO Panics -- McMartin in California to Wenatchee WA:

A key factor in all MVMO panics from that era that we have studied is the method used to interview the children. The child's parents, social workers and child psychologists typically used direct and repeated questioning in order to manipulate the child to disclose abuse. This is the natural method that parents still use. It was also a standard method by which professionals interviewed children at the time. It has since been discredited. It has been shown that it encourages children to disclose information about events that never occurred. Many of the events that they disclose did not actually happen. Believing the children, charges were often laid and juries frequently vote to convict. 2

The last large MVMO ritual abuse cases in the U.S. were heard in court during 1994 and 1995 in Wenatchee, OR. Adults falsely convicted and imprisoned for child abuse later sued the city and some employees for negligence in child sex-abuse investigations. No similar MVMO case has surfaced since, at least in North America. However, a few innocent people still rot in jail, having been convicted years ago for crimes that they did not commit -- crimes that probably never happened. Most states and provinces have revisited these cases, and released hundreds of innocent adults years ago. A major exception is the state of Massachusetts where Gerald Amirault -- a clearly innocent person -- was only released in 2004.

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References cited:

  1. Tamar Lewin, "Above expectation: A child as witness," The New York Times, 2002-JUL-28, Section 4, Page 3.
  2. 1991-92 San Diego County Grand Jury, Report #8 "CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE, ASSAULT, AND MOLEST ISSUES" (San Diego County, CA). See:

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Site navigation: Home page > "Not so spiritual" menu > Child ritual abuse  > here

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Copyright 1997 and 1999 to 2002 incl., and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-JUL-29
Author: B.A. Robinson

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