The Interaction Between Children's Developmental Capabilities and the Courtroom Environment: The Impact on Testimonial Competency



Suggestive questioning refers to an interview situation where the interviewer provides a persistent suggestion and interpretation of an event to a child that has a significant effect on a child's interpretation of the event. Over the last decade, an increasing number of studies have examined the extent to which children's memories are susceptible to suggestion as a result of post event information. As previously mentioned, concern over children's suggestibility, was raised in response to high profile multi-victim, multi-offender cases in the early 90's, where preschool aged children made extreme and often improbable allegations of abuse following very suggestive interviewing (e.g., State v. Kelly Michaels, 1994; Montoya, 1993). In these cases, there were multiple victims who were very young and who were exposed to repeated suggestive interviews.

Most recently, a number of excellent studies have been carried out on interviewing children for forensic purposes (Ceci & Bruck, 1995; Poole & Lamb, 1998). It has been stressed over and over that researchers need to look at the system variables in order to better understand the factors that compromise or enhance the accuracy of children's accounts.

The extent to which children of different ages are vulnerable to suggestion has been a major research focus. The results from this research have been inconsistent, in large measure as a result of the different methodologies that have been employed, and the different aged children that have served as subjects. Ceci and Bruck (1995) have suggested that the accuracy of most children's testimonies can be degraded when interviewers ask misleading questions or provide social feedback that favor a particular answer. However Thompson, Clarke-Stewart, and Lepore (1997), in their review of previous studies on suggestibility, have pointed out that some of the studies have used rather "extreme" paradigms. These have included multiple interviews during which misinformation is presented in an authoritative and intimidating manner and in interviews in which social pressure is used to convince the child of the adult's knowledge of the ‘false' events. Most often the studies have been carried out on preschool children who are interviewed about a staged event, use a set of suggestions that follow a common theme. The theme is often forcefully and repeatedly presented to the children by at least two interviewers, using psychologically manipulative techniques of persuasion.

On the other end of the continuum are studies which have used less intrusive paradigms, where some suggestive questions are included in the interview, but not with an accusatory tone or insistence. Depending where on the continuum the question paradigm lies (slight to extreme manipulation), differences have arisen in the degree of suggestibility of the children's memories (Lyon, 1999).

5.1 Factors Affecting Children's Suggestibility

According to Ceci and Bruck (1995) children's memory traces alter more easily and that is why they are more susceptible to the power of suggestion. They believe that memories are actually rewritten as a result of post event information. One reason put forward to explain why children are more suggestible, was offered by Thompson et al. (1997). They suggested that children lack confidence and look to adults for cues on how to interpret social behavior in those around them. When exposed to highly suggestive incriminating post event information by adults, children can be expected to be affected. Young children tend to assume that adults have all the answers, and they defer to pressure by adults to modify their perceptions. Interestingly, children are less influenced by same aged peers (Ceci, Toglia, & Ross, 1988). Older children are less susceptible to misleading questions put to them by peers than by adults (Kwock & Winer, 1986). A forceful adult interviewer who keeps suggesting misinformation to a child can lead a child to believe that they perhaps have not remembered accurately, even though they were the ones who were there, not the interviewer.

Another factor which can result in an increased potential for misleading information to be presented to children, is the reality that young children tell an interviewer less during free recall, which makes the process of eliciting information difficult (Ornstein et al., 1992). As mentioned earlier, this is because children do not store their memories in an organized fashion, and need cues to help them retrieve their memories. When left to their own devices in a free narrative format, they offer the bare minimum. This opens up the door for more suggestive questions by interviewers who are desperate for the details.

How many professionals have sat with a reticent young child and waited while the child narrated the story of their abuse, providing only a bare minimum of details? The temptation to offer choices to children about how things happened is strong. There is the risk however, that in these situations young children might accept a suggestion put to them even if it is not true because they tend to defer to adults, and because they have difficulty with their own retrieval system. The most encouraging finding for forensic interviewers is that generally it is more difficult to mislead children to report negative or abuse related events than positive events, regardless of age (Eisen, Goodman, Qin, & Davis, 1998). Children are fairly resistant to suggestions that they have been hurt when they have not.

5.2 Reducing the Potential for Suggestibility in Interviews

There are also some promising avenues for interviewers to reduce the potential of suggestibility in children. Poole and Lindsay (1995) have shown that if WH questions are asked of children following their free narrative, the completeness of the children's accounts is increased, without decreasing the accuracy. As mentioned previously, a WH question is one which begins with "who" "what" "where" "why" "when" and "how". These are very different from forced choice questions (Was he over or under you?) which offer only two alternatives to children (neither of which may be right); and very different from tag questions, in which there is a request for affirmation of the statement, and an obvious display of the interviewer's beliefs about what happened. Poole and Lindsay tested three to four year olds and five to seven year olds, about a man called Mr. Science who did four science demonstrations with each child. In free recall, the children provided considerably less details about the experiments, but when further questions like "tell me more", and WH questions were asked by the interviewer, they provided three times as many details in both age groups, and their accuracy was very high.

The most recent and most comprehensive study carried out on the accuracy of children's eyewitness reports was carried out by Poole and Lindsay (2001). They examined how misleading suggestions from parents influenced children's accounts of what they saw. The children involved in their study ranged in age from three to eight years old. They all participated in science demonstrations, listened to their parents read a story to them that offered true and false descriptions of what they saw, and then were interviewed twice by interviewers. The interviews took place immediately after the demonstration and after the suggestibility manipulation. Different approaches were used in the interviews, such as open-ended prompts followed by direct probes etc.

The researchers directed their attention to very pointed concerns, many of which have relevance to a forensic setting. They suggested that the reason their research was timely, was because some children involved in forensic investigations have been exposed to misinformation from trusted adults. This information could have come about through overheard conversations, unintentional suggestion or even deliberate coaching or "brain washing". In this study, the authors queried whether such exposure to suggestion after an event had occurred could affect the answers children later gave in their investigative interviews. In their experimental paradigm, they tested this out.

Their findings were both discouraging and encouraging at the same time. Firstly, they reported that even young children in their experiments could accurately report recent complex events if they were not influenced by misinformation or intrusive questioning. Most impressive was the fact that for the youngest children in the study, the majority of the information they provided about the science demonstration in their interview was accurate. With respect to the entire sample of children, only 1% of the children's reports were defined as "detail" errors in free recall when no suggestion occurred.

What they found worrisome however was that once children were exposed to misinformation by their parents about the science demonstration, even their free recall narratives to interviewers contained non-experienced events. The tendency to report non-experienced events did not defer with age, suggesting that all children were susceptible to suggestion.

An examination of the impact of different types of interview questions on accuracy showed that there was a positive impact of direct questions in increasing the number of correct reports, especially for younger children. However yes and no questions also increased incorrect responses. What is the implication of this unintended negative effect of yes and no questions for forensic matters? The research by Poole and Lindsay is encouraging, because it appears that when children in their study were asked yes and no questions about touch events that were neither experienced nor suggested, most children of all ages responded "no" (Poole & Lindsay, 2001).

5.3 Highlights on Children's Suggestibility

In summary, there has been a proliferation of studies on the suggestibility of children's memories. The findings are at times contradictory and confusing, but several consistent results are appearing. Children are more suggestible than adults and younger children are more suggestible than older children. There are interview characteristics such as number of interviews, style of questioning employed in interviews (open, repeated, exploratory, direct, probing, misleading, forced choice and yes-no), emotional tone of interviewer (intimidating, judgmental, supportive), and social pressure (identity of the interviewer) that appear to affect the accuracy of the responses given by children about events they have experienced. Post event information prior to the investigative interview is another factor, which can affect children's reports.

These findings should lead us to be more careful in our approach to children when interviewing them, such that we modify our questions in a way that minimizes the potential for suggestibility. Given the above findings, it is clear that the responsibility for suggestibility lies on the questioner and not on the child. Unless we ask the right type of questions and allow children to recount their own experiences, we do them a disservice. There are certainly available guidelines on good interview techniques (e.g., Lyon, in press; Poole & Lamb, 1998; Quas et al., 2000). Their use should be encouraged because we know that when questioned properly, children can give accurate accounts of events in their lives.

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