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Research studies

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New Zealand research:

Dr. Jane Rawls, a child psychologist from Hamilton, New Zealand, conducted a study of 30 five-year-old children. 7 The researchers' goal was to determine how accurately children describe events that they had experienced. However, the study revealed some unexpected results.

Trevor, an adult male research assistant, played "dress-up" with each child separately. The adult and child put on or took off items such as hats or jewelry. The sessions were observed and videotaped. Sometimes, the child would be asked to keep a secret of an innocent event that happened with Trevor. No inappropriate touching was involved at any time. This was repeated for 4 sessions per child. Each child was then interviewed afterwards, on multiple occasions.

Dr. Rawls was amazed and "unhappily surprised" at the results:
bulletSeven of the 30 children (23%) said that they had been inappropriately touched:
bullet3 disclosed genital touching.
bullet2 reported touching under their upper clothes.
bullet2 said that he had touched "their bottoms" or vice versa.
bullet2 reported mutual touching under their clothing.
bulletChildren's "errors appeared to evolve" during subsequent interviews.
bulletThe children created many new errors when a diagram of body parts was introduced during the second interview.
bulletClosed, suggestive questions (e.g. "Did he touch you on the...") generated the most errors.
bulletOpen, general questions (e.g. "What happened then?") produced an accuracy of 32% during the first interview; closed questions were 9% accurate; mixed questions were 20% accurate.
bulletNone of the children told the "secret" without prompting; 23% did not disclose the secret when prompted; 20% consistently provided accurate description of the secret when prompted.

The scary part of this study is that under different circumstances, Trevor could easily have been prosecuted on the basis of seven children's stories out of the "class" of 30. He could have received many lengthy jail sentences. Fortunately, the video tapes of the games proved that none of the children's disclosures actually happened.

This study is believed to be the first one of its type involving many dozens of children who were interviewed over long periods of time. It shows the dangers of repeated and suggestive questioning of children. It demonstrates how easy it is to obtain disclosures from children of sexual abuse events that never happened. It sheds doubt on the use of body diagrams and anatomically correct dolls. It seems to indicate the extreme unreliability of suggestive, closed, and persistent questioning. 

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North American research:

In preparation for the publishing of their 1995 book, Drs. Ceci and Bruck reviewed all available literature on children's suggestibility and memory. This included excerpts covering 300 years of testimony, from the Salem Witch trials to the recent Little Rascal's day care case in Edenton NC. 1 They concluded:
bulletPreschool children are more suggestible than older children.
bulletSuggestive and repetitive questions can lead the children to describe events that never happened to them.
bulletNon-abused children can create memories of being molested, using source materials supplied by other children.
bulletChildren who are asked to visualize how an event might have happened to them can emerge from counseling with false memories that they were abused.
bulletThere is no way to later separate accurate from false memories of children who were interviewed using defective techniques.
bulletAll interviews of children should be recorded; interviewer's notes have been shown to be inadequate.
bulletThe use of "anatomically correct dolls" with very young children is not recommended.
bullet"Expert" witnesses often reach conflicting conclusions as to the reality of abuse after reviewing interview records.

Dr. Bruck and Ceci cite a number of interesting studies:
bulletSaywitz et al. used anatomically correct dolls to interview five and seven year old children who had previously had an examination by a doctor for scoliosis (curvature of the spine). No genital or anal touching was involved. But 3% of the children "falsely affirmed vaginal touch" and 6% "falsely affirmed anal touch when the experimenter pointed to the genital or anal region of the doll and asked, 'Did the doctor touch you here?'". 2
bulletBruck et al. interviewed three year old children who had just visited the doctor. No genital or anal touching was involved. Immediately after the exam, the children were interviewed, using anatomically correct dolls. They were asked "Did the doctor touch you here?". 50% of the children incorrectly answered yes! 3
bulletBruck & Ceci describe a girl aged three years, six months who was examined by a pediatrician. Immediately after the exam, she was interviewed and correctly stated that the doctor had not touched her genitals or buttocks. She was shown a doll and given a direct request: to show how the doctor had touched her genitals and buttocks. She again correctly denied that it happened. 3 days later, she was re-interviewed, given the doll and asked to demonstrate everything that happened during the exam. She inserted a stick into the vagina of the doll and said that the doctor had done that to her; upon further questioning, she recanted, saying that the doctor had not done that. 3 days later, she was again re-interviewed and asked to show her father what the doctor had done. "...she hammered a stick into the doll's vagina and inserted a toy earscope into the doll's anus." Asked again whether it had really happened, she said "Yes it did." The father and interviewer tried to convince her that the doctor would not do these things, but she tenaciously stuck to her story. 4

Since a typical MVMO investigation might have involved interviews of 100 children, one might conclude from the Saywitz study that an average of three would disclose nonexistent vaginal abuse and six would disclose nonexistent anal abuse in response to a simple direct question. One direct question to each child would generate 9 false charges per 100 children! This would probably be sufficient "evidence" to send the entire staff of a day-care center to jail for decades.

Ceci and Huffmann published an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 1997-JUL. They found that pre-school children (three and four years old) can be easily led to believe that imaginary events are true. Children of school age (five and six year old) are more resistant to suggestibility than younger children. When asked leading questions, the younger children were quite likely to report events that never happened. Repeated questioning led a greater likelihood of the children believing that the false memories were real. They often related detailed and convincing stories of non-existing events.

Debra Ann Poole of Central of Michigan University studied 114 children, ranging in age from three to eight. She had them perform some simple science experiments with a man called "Mr. Science." When interviewed after the session, children recalled the events correctly. Three months later, their parents were given stories to read to their children which described the events that the children participated in, and some that they had not. For example, they were told that a wet wipe was put in their mouth. 35% of the children reported the fictitious events as having happened to them, in a later interview. 5,6

Another study was designed to show the power of repeat questioning. "...preschool children were asked, weekly, about a fictitious event, and by the 10th week, more than half not only reported that it had happened, but filled in details." 6

Professionals who deal with children (psychologists, social workers and judges) were shown video tapes of the children describing both real and imaginary events that they remembered. When asked to tell which children were describing real events which were relating imaginary events, the adults did no better than chance. On the other hand, the researchers found that children could give accurate answers if interviewed properly - with non-repeated, general, and non-leading questions.

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References cited:

  1. SJ Ceci & M. Bruck, Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children's Testimony, American Psychological Association (1995)
  2. Ibid., P. 170-171
  3. Ibid., P. 172-173
  4. Ibid., P. 178
  5. "Your kids: Memory of nothing?," York Daily Record, 2001-JUN-25. The study was described in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
  6. Tamar Lewin, "Above expectation: A child as witness," The New York Times, 2002-JUL-28, Section 4, Page 3.
  7. Alan Samson, "Five-year-olds and the Truth", The Dominion, Wellington, New Zealand, 1996-MAY-28, P. 9.

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

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