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Date: Mon, 8 Aug 1994 11:19:09 -0400 (EDT)
From: Maggie Bruck
Subject: MIchaels Briefs
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I am sending you the Kelly Michaels stuff in three different files
AMICUS BRIEF FOR THE CASE OF NJ V. MICHAELS
PRESENTED BY COMMITTEE OF CONCERNED SOCIAL
PREPARED BY MAGGIE BRUCK & STEPHEN J. CECI
In the past decade, there has been an exponential increase in
research on the accuracy of young children's memories and the
degree to which young children's memories and reports can be
molded by suggestions implanted by adult interviewers. Although
some of these studies document the strengths of young children's
memories, increasing numbers of studies highlight their
weaknesses when they are interviewed under certain conditions.
As will be explained, these same interview conditions, which
have a high risk of contaminating young children's reports,
characterize the available investigative interviews carried out
with the 20 child witnesses in the Kelly Michaels case.
In this brief, we present a summary of the pertinent social
science research that addresses the issues of children's
suggestibility. Our primary focus is on the conditions under
which preschool children are most suggestible. Referring to
interviews used with Wee Care children, we conclude that the
procedures of interviewing these children were so faulty that
they may have substantially increased the risk that the children's
subsequent reports were mere reflections of the interviewers'
This brief also contains a summary of some of the conditions
which have been shown to increase the reliability of young
children's reports, and which act as a safeguard against the
production of false reports. The Wee Care children were not
interviewed under these safer conditions.
Finally, we will argue that the failure to record the initial
interviews with any of the child witnesses rules out the
possibility of ever reaching any firm conclusion as to whether
any abuse actually occurred. In other words, the primary
evidence has been destroyed.
A. Research on Children's Suggestibility
Children's suggestibility has been a focus of research since the
turn of the twentieth century. There have been many studies that
examine the influence of a single misleading suggestion on
children's recall of an event; generally, these studies indicate
that in a variety of conditions, young children are more
suggestible than adults with preschoolers being more vulnerable
than any other age group (see attached article by Ceci and Bruck,
1993a for the most recent review of this literature).
In the past 5 years, there has been a major paradigmatic shift
in this research in an attempt to make it more forensically
relevant. As more and more children are called to court to
provide uncorroborated testimony, especially in cases involving
child sexual abuse, social scientists have turned their attention
from studying the effects of a single misleading question on
children's recall of neutral, nonscripted, and often uninteresting
events, to examining the accuracy of children's testimony under a
range of conditions that are characteristic of those that bring
children to court. One important area of study concerns the
effects of different interviewing techniques on the reliability of
children's reports. These studies go beyond the examination of
how a single misleading question influences children's reports;
rather, they examine the effects of a host of implicit and explicit
suggestive techniques that can be woven into the fabric of the
interview through the use of bribes, threats, repetitions of
certain questions, and the induction of stereotypes and
expectancies (Ceci & Bruck, 1993a).
It is important to understand that this is a rapidly expanding
area of inquiry. Reviews of the literature that were published
only a few years ago, are now out-of-date. For example, in 1989,
Cornell University hosted an international conferences which
called together major researchers in the area of child testimony
(J. Doris ed. 1991). At that conference some researchers made
the following types of statements
(m)ost research on children as eyewitnesses has relied upon
situations that are very different from the personal involvement and
potential trauma of sexual abuse. Researchers have used brief
stories, films, videotapes or slides to simulate a witnessed event. A
few have used actual staged events but these events are also
qualitatively different from incidents of child abuse (Goodman &
Clarke-Stewart, p. 92-93).
As will become clear in our presentation, this statement no longer
characterizes the relevant research. Researchers have developed
paradigms to examine children's reports of salient and
personally-experienced events that involve their own bodies. No
longer do older maxims hold that when children are inaccurate in
their reporting about such events it is because they make errors
of omission (i.e, they fail to report important events) rather than
errors of commission (i.e. they insert inaccurate details). Rather
the newer research indicates that under certain conditions, young
children also make errors of commission about personally
experienced events involving their own bodies.
In the section below, we summarize some of the major findings
of this area of research. We also provide examples of how
different suggestive interview techniques were used in the
investigative interviews with the Wee Care children.
1. The Effects of Interviewer Bias on Children's Reports
A review of interviews of children suspected of sexual abuse
reveals that some interviewers blindly pursue a single hypothesis
that sexual abuse has occurred. In such interviews, the
interviewer typically fails to rule out rival hypotheses that
might explain the behavior of the child and as a result often
concludes that the child was sexually abused.
Some investigative and therapeutic interviewers claim that
such techniques are necessary because sexually abused children
are so scared or embarrassed that they will never willingly or
spontaneously tell any interviewer, including their own parents
of the past abuses. Therefore, they claim, it is necessary to use
all available strategies to get the child to reveal sexual abuse.
These strategies include the use of repeated leading questions,
repeated interviews, bribes or threats, and the induction of
stereotypes and expectancies (Ceci & Bruck, 1993a). Such
strategies may prove successful when the child has been sexually
abused; that is, the interviewer will be successful in drawing out
a report of sexual abuse from the child. However, as we document
below when interviewers have strong preconceived impressions
of what happened, these biases can also result in the generation
of false confessions from children.
The following three studies show that interviewers, who are
given false information about certain events, often shape
children's reports to be consistent with their inaccurate beliefs
about what happened through the use of leading questions and
other implicit suggestive techniques.
Clarke-Stewart, Thompson and Lepore (1989) conducted a study
in which 5- and 6-year-olds viewed a staged event that could be
construed as either abusive or innocent. Some children interacted
with a confederate named Chester as he cleaned some dolls and
other toys in a playroom. Other children interacted with Chester
as he handled the dolls roughly in a mildly abusive manner.
Chester's dialogue reinforced the idea that he was either cleaning
(e.g., "This doll is dirty, I had better clean it"), or playing with the
doll in a rough suggestive manner (e.g., "I like to play with dolls.
I like to spray them in the face with water").
The child was then questioned about this event several times,
on the same day, by different interviewers who differed in their
interpretations of the event. The interviewer was either 1)
accusatory in tone (suggesting that the janitor had been
inappropriately playing with the toys instead of working), 2)
exculpatory in tone (suggesting that the janitor was just cleaning
the toys and not playing), or 3) neutral and non-suggestive in
tone. In the first two types of interviews, the questions changed
from mildly to strongly suggestive as the interview progressed.
Following the first interview, all children were asked to tell in
their own words what they had witnessed (this is referred to as
"free recall"). They were then asked some factual questions (e.g.,
"Did the janitor wipe the doll's face?"), and some interpretive
questions regarding the janitor's activities (e.g., "Was the janitor
doing his job or was he just being bad?"). Then, each child was
interrogated by a second interviewer who either reinforced or
contradicted the first interviewer's tone. Finally, children were
asked by their parents to recount what the janitor had done.
When questioned by a neutral interviewer, or by an interviewer
whose interpretation was consistent with the activity viewed by
the child, children's accounts were both factually correct, and
consistent with the janitor's script. However, when the
interviewer contradicted the script, children's stories quickly
conformed to the suggestions or beliefs of the interviewer; by the
end of the first interview, 75% of children's remarks were
consistent with the examiner's point of view, and 90% answered
the interpretive questions in agreement with the interviewer's
point of view, as opposed to what actually happened. Children
changed their stories from the first to second interviews only if
the two interviewers differed in their interpretation of the
events; thus, when the second interviewer contradicted the first
interviewer, the majority of children then fit their stories to the
suggestions of the second interviewer. If the interviewer's
interpretation was consistent across two interviews, the
suggestions planted in the first session were quickly taken up and
mentioned by the children in the second session. Moreover, when
questioned by their parents, the children's answers were
consistent with the interviewers' biases. Finally, although the
effects of the interviewers' interpretations were most
observable in terms of the children's responses to the
interpretive questions about what the janitor had done, 20% of
the children also made errors on the factual questions in the
direction suggested by the biased interpretation, even though no
suggestions had been given regarding these particular details.
On a more practical level, these results suggest that if children
experience an ambiguous event (e.g., touching), depending on the
interviewers' beliefs about the touching, and how these beliefs
get translated into questions, children may relate that it was
good touching ("my teacher was only rubbing my back"), or bad
touching ("my teacher was rubbing my bum").
Pettit, Fegan and Howie (1990) examined how interviewers'
beliefs about a certain event affects (a) their style of
questioning children about those events and (b) the accuracy of
children's subsequent reports. Two actors, posing as park
rangers, visited the classes of preschool children to ask them to
help a bird find a nest for her eggs. During the presentation, one
of the rangers accidently knocked a cake onto the floor. When the
cake fell and shattered on the floor, there was an abrupt silence
and a halt to all activities. Seven children, who were members of
the class, did not view this event but had been taken to other
parts of the school. Two weeks later, all children were
questioned about the event.
Interviewers' beliefs about the event were manipulated. Some
interviewers had full accurate knowledge of the event. Some
were given inaccurate information (i.e. false beliefs). Other
interviewers were given no information about the event. The
interviewers were told to question each child until they found out
what happened, and to avoid the use of leading questions.
Despite the warning to avoid leading questions, 30% of all
interviewers' questions could be characterized as leading, and
half of these were misleading. Interviewers with inaccurate
knowledge (false beliefs) asked four to five times as many
misleading questions as the other interviewers. Overall, children
agreed with 41% of the misleading questions, and children who
were interviewed by biased interviewers gave the most
inaccurate information. Thus if an interviewer's belief is
contrary to what the child actually experienced, the interview is
characterized by an overabundance of misleading questions which
results in children providing highly inaccurate information.
A similar finding was reported by Ceci, Leichtman & White (in
press). Here, preschoolers were exposed to a touching-game, and
then were interviewed one month later. The interviewer was
given a one-page report containing information about what might
have occurred. Some of the information was accurate and some
was inaccurate. The interviewer was asked to conduct an
interview to determine how much information the child could, in
fact, still recall. The only instruction given to the interviewer
was that she should begin by asking the child for a free narrative
of what had transpired, avoiding all forms of suggestions and
leading questions. Following this, the interviewer was instructed
to use whatever strategies she felt necessary to elicit the most
factually accurate report from the child.
When the interviewer was accurately informed, she got children
to recall correctly most of the events that had transpired.
Importantly, there were no false reports when the interviewer
was correctly informed. However, when she was misinformed,
34% of the 3- to 4-year-olds and 18% of the 5- to-6-year-olds
corroborated one or more false events that the interviewer
erroneously believed had transpired. Thus, in the misinformed
condition, the children made errors of commission. After two
such interviews, children continued to give detailed, but false,
accounts of bodily touching (e.g., some falsely claimed that their
knees were licked and that marbles were inserted into their
ears). Finally, the children in the misinformed condition
seemingly became more credible as the interview unfolded. Many
initially stated details inconsistently, or with reluctance or even
denial, but as the interviewer persisted in asking about
nonevents, some children abandoned their denials and hesitancy.
These studies provide important evidence that interviewers'
beliefs about an event can influence their style of questioning,
which in turn can affect the accuracy of children's testimony The
data highlight the dangers of having only one hypothesis about the
event in question--especially when this hypothesis is incorrect.
Interviewers' biases, their blind pursuit of a single hypothesis,
and their failure to test alternate, equally believable,
explanations of the children's behavior are rife in the interviews
conducted with the Wee Care Children. These biases are revealed
in the interviewers' persistently maintaining one line of inquiry
(through the use of repeated leading questions, bribes and
threats) even when children consistently replied that the
questioned events never occurred. Interviewers' biases are also
revealed in their failure to follow-up on some of the children's
inconsistent or bizarre statements, for doing so might disconfirm
their primary hypotheses. A long section of interaction shown on
pages (PUT IN CORRECT NUMBERS circa 38-41) illustrates some of
these claims as do the following shorter pieces of dialogue in
which the interviewer (Q) engages one child (A) in the following
interactions during one of the initial investigatory interviews.
Q: Do you think that Kelly was not good when she was hurting you
A: Wasn't hurting me. I like her
Q: I can't hear you, you got to look at me when you talk to me.
Now when Kelly was bothering kids in the music room
A: I got socks off
Q: Did she make anybody else take their clothes off in the music
Q: Did you ever see Kelly have blood in her vagina?
A: This is blood
Q: Kelly had blood in her vagina
Q: She did? Did you ever get any of that blood on your penis?
A: No. Green blood
Q: Did you ever see any of your friends get blood on their penis
from her vagina?
A: Not green blood but red blood
Q: Tell me something, tell me about the piss box. The piss box
that's in the music room?
A: No, up there. All the way up there
Q: Is the piss box the bench at the piano? When you open up the
bench: is that the piss box?
Q: It is?
Q: And what happened, she would open it up?
A: And, popped it up
A: She popped it up and then what would you do?
A: Jump in it?
Q: Jump in it?
Q: And would you have to pee in it?
(about 10 questions later, the topic comes up again)
Q: So the pee-pee box is the bench at the piano and you flip it open?
Q: What is the pee-pee box?
A: This is the pee-pee box
Q: That's not a pee-pee box. That's a crayon box
Q.: Did Kelly ever make you kiss her on the butt?
Q: Did Kelly ever say--I'll tell you want. When did Kelly say these
words? Piss, shit, sugar?
A: Piss, shit sugar?
Q: Yeah, when did she say that, what did you have to do in order
for her to say that?
A: I didn't say that.
Q: I know, she said it, but what did you have to do?
(In this section, the child is asked to use anatomically detailed
dolls and different utensils)
Q: Okay, I really need your help on this. Did you have to do
anything to her with this stuff?
A: Okay. Where's the big knife at. Show me where's the big knife
Q: Pretend this is the big knife because we don't have a big knife
A: This is a big one
Q: Okay, what did you have to do with that? What did you have
A: No..take the peanut-put the peanut butter
Q: You put what's that, what did you put there?
A: I put jelly right here
A: And I put jelly on her mouth and on the eyes
Q: You put jelly on her eyes and her vagina and her mouth
A: On her back, on her socks
Q: And did you have to put anything else down there?
A: Right there, right here and right here and here
Q: You put peanut butter all over? And where else did you put the
A: And jelly
Q: And jelly?
A: And we squeezed orange on her.
Q: And you had to squeeze an orange on her?
A: Put orange juice on her
Q: And did anybody--how did everybody take it off? How did she
make you take it off?
A: No. Lick her all up, eat her all up and lick her all up
Q: You had to lick her all up?
A: And eat her all up
Q: Yeah? What did it taste like?
Q: So she made you eat the peanut butter and jelly and the orange
juice off of the vagina too?
Q: Was that scary or funny?
A: Funny, funny and scary.
This interview is one of many that shows how interviewers did
not seriously consider any evidence that was contrary to their
primary beliefs. Thus when children's responses contained
discrepant, inconsistent, incomprehensible or no information, the
investigators only considered these responses to be consistent
with the fact that abuse had taken place or else they chose to
ignore these statements. We are struck by the inconsistencies
and the bizarre statements made by the children in response to
the interviewers' questions. Most adults interacting with
children in these situations would try to figure out just what the
child was thinking about or why the child might be so confused to
make such statements. Yet this simply did not happen. The
children were never asked common sense questions such as: "Did
this happen to you or are you just pretending that it happened to
you?" or "Did you see this happen or did someone tell you that it
happened?" Children were never challenged about their
statements, "Are you sure that this happened or are you telling
me a joke?" Competent investigative interviewers would have
used such techniques in order to understand how the alleged acts
could actually be carried out in a short period of time in a very
Our contention that the Wee Care interviewers held
preconceived biases that these children were abused is not an
inference, but is based on their statements justifying the use of
their interviewing procedures. These interviewers believed that
their major objective was to get the children to admit to sexual
Dr Susan Esquilin, a child therapist, presided over two heavily
attended parent meetings when allegations were first made. She
conducted five group therapy sessions with the Wee Care
children and eventually assessed or treated 13 of the 20 child
witnesses. She stated that her goal was to induce the children to
discuss sexual abuse. In the first group therapy session, she told
the children that they were assembled together because of some
of the things that had happened at the Wee Care and with Kelly.
Based on courtroom testimony, it seems that 4 children made
allegations after their contacts with Esquilin. (5C, 11C, 14C, and
Lou Fonolleras, an investigator from the Division of Youth and
Family Services (DYFS), conducted 82 interviews with Wee Care
children and 19 interviews with Wee Care parents, between May
22 and July 8 1985. At trial, Fonolleras described his
interviewing techniques as follows, "The interview process is in
essence the beginning of the healing process." To rationalize his
use of persistent questions with the children, he stated, "because
it is my professional and ethical responsibility to alleviate
whatever anxiety has arisen as a result of what happened to
them." Fonolleras justified his telling children about other
children's allegations by saying, " children who needed some
reassurance...(that) they were not alone". Finally one other detail
is of importance in understanding the bias and pursuit of a single
hypothesis in Fonolleras' interviews. He himself had been abused
as a child. And in at least one recorded interview he uses this to
lead the child's testimony. At least 10 children made initial
allegations after their interviews with Fonolleras.
Eileen Treacy, an expert for the prosecution, also interviewed
these children several times between November 1985 and
February 1987. At trial she testified on her interviewing
techniques, "So you open the interview in an effort to
disempower Kelly of these super powers that she allegedly has or
that the kids thought she had and also to let the children know
that telling about these things was okay and they would be safe."
Finally, we do not limit our consideration of interviews to
those held between children with legal and therapeutic
professionals, but also extend these to conversations between
parents and their children. Although we do not have any
recordings or descriptions of the structures of these
conversations, parents were soon instilled with the belief that
abuse had taken place. Two weeks after 16C made the initial
allegation, Peg Foster a sex abuse consultant told the parents at a
school meeting that three children had been abused and urged
them to discover whether their own children had been abused.
Having documented that interviewer expectancies lead
preschoolers to respond in ways that are compatible with these
expectancies, and that the Wee Care interviewers possessed
strongly held expectancies that the children were abused, we now
review the components of suggestive biased interviews that have
the largest impact on producing inaccurate reports from young
2. The Effects of Repeated Questions
A number of studies have shown that asking children the same
question repeatedly within an interview and across interviews,
especially a yes/no question (e.g., Poole & White, 1991), often
results in the child changing her original answer. Preschoolers
are particularly vulnerable to these effects. Children often do
this because they seem to reason, "The first answer I gave must
be wrong, that is why they are asking me the question again.
Therefore I should change my answer". At other times, children
may change their answer to please the adult who is questioning
them; they reason that the "adult must not have liked the first
answer I gave so I will give another answer". At other times,
children's answers may change because the interviewer's previous
suggestions become incorporated into their memories.
For example, Cassel and Bjorklund (1993) questioned children
and adults about a videotaped event they had viewed one week
earlier. The subjects were asked leading questions and if they
did not fall sway to the lead, then they were asked a more
suggestive follow-up question. Kindergarten children were most
affected by this manipulation. As expected, compared to adults
and older children, they were most inaccurate in answering the
first misleading questions; but also when the second more
suggestive question was asked, they were more likely than older
subjects to change their answers and to incorporate the desired
answer into their second responses.
Interviewers of the Wee Care children frequently repeated
questions. They repeated questions when a child denied abuse or
when then the the child's answer was inconsistent with what the
interviewers believed. Although there are instances when
children tenaciously rejected the interviewer's persistent
suggestive questions, upon repetition of a question children
often changed their answers to ones that were consistent with
Q: When Kelly kissed you, did she ever put her tongue in your
Q: Did she ever make you put her tongue in her mouth?
Q: Did you ever have to kiss her vagina?
Q: Which of the kids had to kiss her vagina?
A: What's this?
Q: No that's my toy, my radio box.
Which kids had to kiss her vagina?
3. The Effects of Repeating Misinformation across Interviews
In most earlier studies of children's suggestibility,
misinformation was planted only one time. However, our review
of available transcripts reveals that not only is misinformation
repeated within interviews, but it is commonly repeated across
many different interviews.
A number of studies show that if children are repeatedly given
misleading information in a series of interviews, this can have
serious effects on the accuracy of their later reports (for a
review, see Poole & White, in press). Not only can the
misinformation become directly incorporated into the children's
subsequent reports (they use the interviewers' words in their
inaccurate statements), but it can also lead to fabrications or
inaccuracies which do not directly mirror the content of the
misleading information or questions.
For example, Bruck, Ceci, Francouer & Barr, (submitted) found
that children will give highly inaccurate reports about a previous
visit to a pediatrician's office if they are given multiple
suggestions in repeated interviews. The children in this study
visited their pediatrician when they were five years old. During
that visit, a male pediatrician gave each child a physical
examination, an oral polio vaccine and an inoculation. During that
same visit, a female research assistant, talked to the child about
a poster on the wall, read the child a story and gave the child
Approximately one year later, the children were re-interviewed
four times over a period of a month. During the first three
interviews, some children were falsely reminded that the
pediatrician showed them the poster, gave them treats, and read
them a story, and that the research assistant gave them the
inoculation and the oral vaccine. Other children were given no
information about the actors of these events. During the final
interview, when asked to recall what happened during the original
medical visit, children who were not given any misleading
information were highly accurate in their final reports. They
correctly recalled which events were performed by the
pediatrician and by the research assistant. In contrast, the
misled children were very inaccurate; not only did they
incorporate the misleading suggestions into their reports, with
more than half the children falling sway to these suggestions
(e.g., claiming that the female assistant inoculated them rather
the pediatrician), but 45% of these children also included non-
suggested but inaccurate events in their reports by falsely
reporting that the research assistant had checked their ears and
nose. None of the control children made such inaccurate reports.
Thus, when suggestions are implanted and incorporated, young
children use these in highly productive ways to reconstruct and
distort reality (see Chester Study above by Clarke-Stewart et al.,
and Sam Stone Study below by Leichtman & Ceci for similar
Unfortunately, we do not have any of the initial interviews with
the Wee Care children and thus we cannot ascertain the degree to
which the allegations that emerge in much later taped
investigatory interviews reflect earlier implanted suggestions.
It is also possible that some of the allegations that occurred in
these investigatory interviews reflect suggestions implanted
from earlier conversations with parents who were urged by
professionals and by other parents to look for signs of abuse in
It is also important to note that the suggestive interviews did
not end in July 1985 with the completion of Fonelleras'
investigation. Children were interviewed before they appeared
before the grand jury. Children were questioned by therapists,
and they were questioned by members of the prosecutors' office
leading up to trial. These children were also questioned by the
prosecution and the defense attorneys at the trial. (FOOTNOTE.
We have no precise figures on the number of times that each child
was interviewed between May 1, 1985 and the present time.
Appendix 1 represents an attempt to reconstruct the
interviewing schedule for each child. These figures are clearly
underestimates). A consideration of the research findings
suggests that if the children had not been abused, then this
magnitude of repeated suggestive interviews could have the
effect of increasing and cementing false reports.
4. Emotional Tone of the Interview
Children are quick to pick up on the emotional tones in an
interview and to act accordingly. There is much information that
can be conveyed in the emotional tone including, implicit or
explicit threats, bribes, and rewards. For example, in some
studies when an accusatory tone is set by the examiner, (e.g. "we
know something bad happened", or "it isn't good to let people kiss
you in the bathtub", or "you'll feel better once you tell", or "don't
be afraid to tell"), then children in these studies are likely to
fabricate reports of past events even in cases when they have no
memory of any event occurring. In some cases, these fabrications
are sexual in nature (see review in Ceci & Bruck, 1993b).
For example, four years after children played with an
unfamiliar research assistant for five minutes while seated
across a table from him, Goodman and her colleagues asked these
same children to recall the original experience, and then asked
them a series of questions, including abuse-related suggestive
questions about the event (Goodman, Wilson, Hazan & Reed, 1989;
also described in Goodman & Clarke-Stewart, 1991). At this
time, the researchers created what they described as "an
atmosphere of accusation", by telling the children that they were
to be questioned about an important event and by saying such
things as, "Are you afraid to tell? You'll feel better once you've
told". Although few children had any memory for the original
event from four years earlier, their performance on the
suggestive abuse questions was mixed. Five out of the fifteen
children incorrectly agreed with the interviewer's suggestive
question that they had been hugged or kissed by the confederate,
two of the fifteen agreed that they had their picture taken in the
bathroom, and one child agreed that she or he had been given a
bath. The important conclusion of this study is that children may
begin to give incorrect information to misleading questions about
events for which they have no memory, when the interviewer
creates an aura (emotional tone) of accusation.
There are many other studies in the social science literature to
show that reinforcing children for certain behaviors regardless of
the quality of the behaviors also increases the frequency of these
types of behaviors. Telling children "you are a really good boy" is
one of example of this. In some situation, when used
appropriately, these types of supportive statements make
children feel at ease and make children more responsive and
accurate than when they are provided with no feedback or support
(e.g., . Goodman, Rudy, Bottoms, & Aman, 1990). However, if used
inappropriately, these types of statements can also produce
inaccurate statements. Thus, it has also been found that when
interviewers are overly supportive of children, then children tend
to produce many inaccurate as well as many accurate details (e.g.,
Geiselman, Saywitz & Bornstein, 1990). Certainly, there appears
to be some trade-off in the effect of positive and neutral support
on the accuracy of children's reports.
Although the quality and quantity of positive support and
reinforcement provided in many of the research studies exemplify
good interviewing techniques, ones that most interviewers would
use, the types of "encouraging" statements made by some of Wee
Care children's investigators would never be considered as
acceptable examples of how children should be encouraged in an
McGrath: Do you want to sit on my lap? Come here. I am so proud
of you. I love big girls like you that tell me what happened -- that
aren't afraid because I am here to protect you. Did you ever see
what's this right here?...You got such pretty eyes. You are going to
grow to be a beautiful young lady. I'm jealous, I'm too old for you.
Detective McGrath rationalized this behavior by saying "this
way she may feel more comfortable and more at ease." However,
these statements may have far greater consequences; they may
change the balance of accuracy in children's reports.
Threats and bribes also influence the emotional tones of
interviews. However, these elements have never been
systematically investigated, because it would be ethically
impermissible to include such statements in research interviews
with young children. But from everything we know about the
principles of child development and about principles of
punishment and reward, these statements should dramatically
decrease the accuracy of children's statements.
In the Wee Care interviews, there are numerous examples of
bribes. Some children were given police badges in exchange for
their incriminating statements. Sometimes the bribe took the
form of promises to terminate the interviews ("Well, we can get
out of here real quick if you just tell me what you told me last
time we met" or, " Tell me what Kelly did to your hiney and then
you can go."). Sometimes uncooperative children were explicitly
threatened ("Now listen you have to behave" or, "You are acting
like a baby").
The Wee Care interviewers often created an atmosphere of
conspiracy and tried to enlist the children's cooperation. For
Your mommy tells me that you guys are interested in busting this
case wide open with us, is that right?
That's why I need your help, especially you older kids...because
you can talk better than the younger kids...and you will be helping
to keep her in jail longer so that she doesn't hurt anybody. Not to
mention that you'll also feel a lot better once you start.
These statements on the part of the Wee Care interviewers
reflect their biases and their attempts to get children to admit
abuse. And as we have argued, such statements may have
deleterious effects on the subsequent accuracy of young
5. The Effects of Peer Pressure or Interaction on Children's
The effects of letting children know that their friends have
"already told" is a much less investigated area in the field of
children's testimonial research. In addition, suggestions or
misleading information may also be planted by peers. However,
there are at least three relevant studies. First, Binet (1900)
found that children will change their answers to be consistent
with those of their peer group even when it is clear that the
answer is inaccurate.
In the Pettit et al study described above, there were seven
children who were absent from their classrooms when the target
event (the cake falling off the piano) occurred. Yet when
questioned two weeks later, six of these children indicated that
they were present. One presumes that these six children gave
false reports so that they would feel they were part of the same
group as their friends who did participate. Importantly, this
study also shows how the peer group's actual experiences in an
event can contaminate non-participants reports or fabricated
memories of the event.
Finally, Pynoos and Nader (1989) studied people's recollections
of a sniper attack. On February 24, 1984, from a second story
window across the street, a sniper shot repeated rounds of
ammunition at children on an elementary school playground.
Scores of children were pinned under gunfire, many were injured,
and one child and passerby were killed. Roughly l0% of the
student body, 113 children, were interviewed 6 to l6 weeks later.
Each child was asked to freely recall the experience and then to
respond to specific questions. Some of those children who were
interviewed were not at the school during the shooting, including
those already on the way home and those on vacation. Yet, even
the non witnesses had memories: "One girl initially said that she
was at the school gate nearest the sniper when the shooting
began. In truth she was not only out of the line of fire, she was
half a block away. A boy who had been away on vacation said that
he had been on his way to the school, had seen someone lying on
the ground, had heard the shots, and then turned back. In
actuality, a police barricade prevented anyone from approaching
the block around the school." (p. 238). One assumes that children
heard about the event from their peers who were present during
the sniper attack and they incorporated these reports into their
The investigators constantly told the Wee Care children that
their friends had already told.
"All the other friends I talked to told me everything that happened.
29C told me. 32C told me...And now it's your turn to tell. You
don't want to be left out, do you?"
"Boy, I'd hate having to tell your friends that you didn't want to
Parents also told their children that they had been named as
victims by other children. Child 1C finally disclosed to his
mother after she had told him that others had mentioned him as a
participant. The above evidence suggests that this strategy may
co-opt children into making false reports.
6. The Effects of being Interviewed by Adults with High Status
Young children are sensitive to the status and power of their
interviewers and as a result are especially likely to comply with
the implicit and explicit agenda of such interviewers. If their
account is questioned for example, children may defer to the
challenges of the more senior interviewer. To some extent, it is
this power differential and its recognition by the child that is
one of the most important explanations for children's increased
suggestibility. Children are more likely to believe adults than
other children, they are more willing to go along with the wishes
of adults, and to incorporate adults' beliefs into their reports.
This fact has long been recognized by researchers since the turn
of the century and has been demonstrated in many studies (Ceci &
Bruck, 1993a for review).
The Wee Care children were interviewed by law enforcement
agents or by social workers who made reference to their
connection to law enforcement agents. The children were
explicitly made aware of the status of their interviewers by such
"I'm a policeman, if you were a bad girl, I would punish you
wouldn't I? Police can punish bad people"
"I'm going to introduce you to one of the men who arrested Kelly
and put her in jail."
This is the first part
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