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
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:
||Seven of the 30 children (23%) said that they had been inappropriately touched:
||3 disclosed genital touching.
||2 reported touching under their upper clothes.
||2 said that he had touched "their bottoms" or vice versa.
||2 reported mutual touching under their clothing.
||Children's "errors appeared to evolve" during subsequent interviews.|
||The children created many new errors when a diagram of body parts was introduced during
the second interview.|
||Closed, suggestive questions (e.g. "Did he touch you on the...")
generated the most errors.|
||Open, 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%
||None of the children told the "secret" without prompting; 23% did not disclose
the secret when prompted; 20% consistently provided accurate description of the secret
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.
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.
||Preschool children are more suggestible than older children.
||Suggestive and repetitive questions can lead the children to describe events that never
happened to them.
||Non-abused children can create memories of being molested, using source materials
supplied by other children.
||Children who are asked to visualize how an event might have happened to them can emerge
from counseling with false memories that they were abused.
||There is no way to later separate accurate from false memories of children who were
interviewed using defective techniques.
||All interviews of children should be recorded; interviewer's notes have been shown to be
||The use of "anatomically correct dolls" with very young children is not
||"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:
||Saywitz 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
||Bruck 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!
||Bruck & 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
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
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.
SJ Ceci & M. Bruck, Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of
Children's Testimony, American Psychological Association (1995)
- Ibid., P. 170-171
- Ibid., P. 172-173
- Ibid., P. 178
"Your kids: Memory of nothing?," York Daily Record, 2001-JUN-25.
The study was described in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
Tamar Lewin, "Above expectation: A child as witness," The New York
Times, 2002-JUL-28, Section 4, Page 3.
Alan Samson, "Five-year-olds and the Truth", The Dominion, Wellington,
New Zealand, 1996-MAY-28, P. 9.
Copyright © 1997 and 1999 to 2004 incl., by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2004-JUL-29
Author: B.A. Robinson