Yes. In court, they almost always testify accurately of events as they remember them to
be. The problem is that the events that they remember may not have happened to them.
Until the mid 1990s, many child psychiatrists, social workers and police who
were involved in the many MVMO abuse cases appear to have believed that:
Children very rarely lie about abuse, but they are often reluctant to disclose
what has happened to them. Their memories are accurate, because memory works something
like a VCR. The child accesses the correct "tape", "fast forwards" to
the event in question, and is able to review the full details of the abuse. Sometimes the
image is a bit snowy; sometimes the fine details are blurred, but the recollection is
generally quite accurate. However, because young people do not want to tell, they must be
repeatedly questioned before the truth comes out. The interview will often involve
direct, suggestive questioning, prompting and manipulation by the therapist, based upon her past
experience and reading. The child may be rewarded for "correct" answers and
ridiculed for "incorrect" ones. Implanting of false memories is either
impossible or very unlikely. Audio or video recordings of interviews are not needed. The
therapist or investigator need only write down a description of the child's final
disclosure, not the questioning process that produced it.
Most professionals who interview children today, and contemporary memory researchers
accept a new belief system:
Children very rarely lie when they spontaneously disclose abuse on their own.
But if they are exposed to some investigation techniques, they often disclose stories of
events that never happened. If the interviewer or parent asks the same question
repeatedly, many children will conclude that they are not giving the "right"
answer and will create a new story to satisfy the adult. Sometimes they can be induced to
do so through a system of praise and rewards for correct answers and ridicule or penalty
for wrong answers. Often, it is simply enough to ask direct questions. Once made, such
disclosures can become implanted as memories in children's minds. Memory is quite inexact,
and is easily overlaid with false recollections. The more the past is revisited, the more
definite those overlaid memories become. The longer the investigation, the more
suggestive and direct techniques used, and the younger the child is, the more likely it is
that children will describe events that never happened and that "false" memories
will be implanted. These memories feel quite real to the child, who accepts them as valid
recollections of real events in their past. Audio and video recordings of the
are of great importance, in order to assess whether memory implantation may
Multi-victim, Multi-offender (MVMO) trials sometimes involved many adult
defendants and dozens or hundreds of child witnesses. These were often war zones where expert witnesses representing both belief systems
battled each other in front of the jury. Some of the child victims have now
reached young adulthood and still believe that they were ritually and/or
sexually abused. These memories will affect them adversely for the rest of their lives.
We are not aware of any studies that are underway to examine how these young adults are
coping; it would be a fascinating and important contribution to the field of
child psychology. Fortunately, few new child victims are now being created by police and social
How easy is it to implant false memories in children?
Memory researchers who study children's memories have found that ideas and memories
can be easily implanted. 1 The vast majority of social workers and police
now accept these findings. They still believe that children rarely lie when they
disclose abuse on their own or in response to general questions, like: "What
happened during that class?" But they realize that children will
commonly disclose false allegations of abuse when asked direct questions
repeatedly -- questions like "Did he touch you," and later "Where
did he touch you?" Many children simply give the investigators the answers that they
want. Studies indicate that very
are more liable to disclose false allegations of abuse than are older children. This
accounts for the large number of MVMO cases that involved day care and baby-sitting facilities,
and the relatively few involving regular school or Sunday school students.
Debra Poole, a professor of psychology at Central Michigan
"It has nothing to do with lying and everything to do with the
implanting of false memories. Studies have shown that children will
vehemently defend the veracity of implanted memories. They recall
reporting them, and those reports produce mental images of the events that
these individuals cannot distinguish from their real experiences. But the
kids are not responsible for that. The interviews are." 2
The implantation of false memories often starts with the child's parent(s),
because it is to parents that many children will first disclose the alleged
abuse. Parents often aggressively question their
children, before professional investigators become involved.
Debra Poole warned that "parents are not accurate informants of what
their kids said." Parents are understandably involved emotionally with
the case. Parents, caregivers, teachers, etc. are urged to refrain from
questioning the child. Instead, she or he should be taken to a
professional forensic interviewer.
Stephen J. Ceci, is a professor of human development at Cornell
University and author of "Jeopardy in the Courtroom," a leading
work on children's testimony. He said:
"Our review of typical interviews from the 1980s shows many
investigators blindly pursued a single hypothesis: Sexual abuse occurred.
They would reinforce that hypothesis to the children, who would be led to
believe in it."
"It is essential to keep in mind now that most children with such
implanted memories will have believed in their allegations of abuse for
far longer than they were alive before those allegations first surfaced.
Those 'implanted' memories are no less visceral than real-life memories."
Indications that false memories have been implanted:
One excellent indicator was reported by the San Diego Grand Jury:
"Of particular interest is the information the Jury received about the Little
Rascals' pre-school case in North Carolina. Eighty-five percent of the children received therapy
from three therapists in the town; all of these children
eventually reported satanic abuse. Fifteen percent of the children were treated by
different therapists in a neighboring city; none of the children reported abuse of
any kind after the same period of time in therapy." 3
It would appear that in this case, the memories of Satanic abuse were implanted by
sincere therapists who believed in the reality of Satanic abuse. The out-of-town
therapists, who had no such belief, found no evidence of such abuse.
In other cases, children's memories can be shown to be probably false by studying their
content. For example:
Children in one case said that they were taken during the daytime into a back room of a grocery
store and abused. The investigator found an open archway between the store and the back
room; any staff and customers in the store would have seen the abuse in progress.
Children reported being sodomized with a penis or knife, yet no indication of rectal
damage was found.
Children reported being taken in space ships into outer space and abused there.
Children reported being taken on a boat and abused; some trained sharks danced around
Children reported a staff member dressing up as a clown and robbing the town's jewelry
store; no such crime ever happened.
A Canadian child reported being abused with a vibrator which had a yellow body and blue ends. No
such vibrator was ever found. But a search of suspected perpetrators' home had turned up a
vibrator which had been shown on television. Due to the TV lighting, the uniformly flesh
colored vibrator appeared to have a yellow body and blue ends.
Children reported being taken through long underground tunnels
from the basement of the McMartin preschool 5 to a nearby building or underground room
where they were abused. Police conducted ground conductivity measurements and proved that
the tunnels never existed.
Indications that large scale abuse does not occur:
Widespread child abuse at a day care center, church Sunday School or baby-sitting
service does seem improbable. In order to maintain such an abusive environment, the staff
would have to somehow handle the following problems:
Taking the kids on long car and plane rides, as reported by many children, in order to
molest them in other cities would very difficult. Parents often come to the facility at
random times during the day to pick up their children for doctor or dentist appointments.
They often phone the center to speak to their children. If the children were in another
state, they could not be produced, and all hell would break loose at the center.
Recruitment of additional child molesters to maintain staffing levels would be very
difficult. Most staff are women, and female child molesters are extremely rare.
Somehow, the most extreme physical and sexual abuse would have to be conducted without
leaving traces on the children's bodies that would be noticeable by parents.
The most extreme psychological abuse would have to be engaged in frequently, and over a
long period of time, without triggering parents' suspicion.
A way would have had to be found to subject the children to
horrendous abuse, clean them up, settle them down, and have them
appear normal when they are picked up by their parents.
Since the findings of researchers were published in the mid 1990s, no
new MVMO sexual and ritual abuse cases have surfaced in the U.S. This is
perhaps the best indicator that this form of abuse does not happen -- or
happens very rarely. Unfortunately, a case in Lewis Island off the coast
of Scotland did surface in late 2003. Indications are that the
investigator used direct, repeated questions of the children.
Stephen J Ceci, "Cognitive and Social Factors in Children's Testimony,
Master Lecture, American Psychological Assoc., Toronto, 1993-AUG-20.
Tom Mashberg, "Memories questioned; studies show kids can be easily
led," Boston Herald, 3002-JUL-8, Page 7.
SJ Ceci & M. Bruck, Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of
Children's Testimony, American Psychological Association (1995)
John Earl, "The Dark Truth About the 'Dark Tunnels of McMartin'",
Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, Vol. 7, #2, 1995 Spring, P. Institute for Psychological
Therapies, 13200 Cannon City Blvd., Northfield, MN 55057. An expose on the McMartin
preschool underground tunnel myth. $15 USF; $20 USF (foreign).
Paul & Shirley Eberle, "The Abuse of Innocence : The McMartin Preschool
Trial", Prometheus Books (1993). ISBN: 0879758090. The authors attended the court
sessions lasting over many years, and concluded that there was no case against the