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Date: Mon, 8 Aug 1994 11:20:32 -0400 (EDT)
From: Maggie Bruck
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We have presented a number of features that, when present in=20
interviews or interactions with young children, may greatly=20
compromise the accuracy of their reports. These factors include:=20
biased beliefs of the interviewer, the use of repeated questions, the=20
repetition of misleading information, the use of rewards, bribes,=20
and threats. Children's reports are at risk for being tainted if they=20
are interviewed by an intimidating adult, such as a police office. =20
Other important factors that contribute to children's unreliable=20
reports include the use of peer pressure, the use of anatomically=20
detailed dolls, and stereotype induction. Finally, some very recent=20
evidence indicates that merely asking children to repeatedly think=20
about whether an event occurred may have a profound negative=20
effect on their subsequent memories. These features characterize=20
many of the interviews of the Wee Care children. The following=20
excerpted interview, along with our annotated comments,=20
summarizes many of the points made in this section. The=20
interviewer, an experienced social worker, is denoted I, and he is=20
interviewing one child, denoted C. Occasionally a police detective=20
(P) joins the interview.
I:We have gotten a lot of other kids to help us since I last saw you.
C:No. I don=D5t have to.
I:Oh come on. Did we tell you she is in jail?
C:Yes. My mother already told me.
Comment: It is obvious that this interviewer was not neutral regarding the=
guilt, insinuating that because she is now jail he need not be afraid of he=
r, although it is not=20
clear that this child was ever afraid. Also note the use of peer pressure.
I: Well, we can get out of here real quick if you just tell me what=20
you told me last time.
Comment: There is no desire on the part of this interviewer to test an alte=
hypothesis; rather he desires the child to reaffirm on tape what he said in=
interview through the use of a bribe.
C: I forgot.
I: No you didn=D5t, I know you didn=D5t.
C: I did, I did.
I: No, come on.
C: I forgot.
I: I thought we were friends last time.
C: I=D5m not your friend any more.
I: How come?
C: Because I hate you.
I: Is it because we are talking about stuff you don=D5t want to talk=20
about? What are you a monster now? Huh? ....=20
Comment: This interviewing borders on being coercive. There is little resp=
ect for the=20
child=D5s wish not to discuss this matter.
I:We talked to a few more of your buddies - we talked to everybody=20
now. And everyone told me about the nap room, and the bathroom=20
stuff, and the music room stuff, and the choir stuff, and the peanut=20
butter stuff, and nothing surprises me any more.
Comment: Again, further evidence that no alternative hypothesis is being te=
interviewer essentially tells the child that his friends already told on th=
e defendant, and=20
that he, the child, should do the same.
C: I hate you.
I: No you don=D5t...You just don=D5t like talking about this, but you=20
don=D5t hate me.
C: Yes, I do hate you.
I: We can finish this real fast if you just show me real fast what you=20
showed me last time.
I: I will let you play my tape recorder....Come on, do you want to=20
help us out? Do you want to help us keep her in jail, huh? ...Tell=20
me what happened to (three other children). Tell me what happened=20
to them. Come on.....I need your help again, buddy. Come on.
I: You told us everything once before. Do you want to undress my=20
I: Let=D5s get done with this real quick so we could go to Kings to get=20
popsicles....Did (defendant) ever tell you she could get out of jail?
Comment: The interviewer comes close to bribing the child for a disclosure=
implying that the aversive interview can be terminated as soon as the child=
what he said earlier. Popsicles and playing with a tape recorder are offere=
Police: She could never get out.
C: I know that.
Police: Cause I got her... She is very afraid of me. She is so scared=20
I: She cries when she sees him (indicating the police detective)=20
because she is so scared... What happened to (another child) with=20
the wooden spoon? If you don=D5t remember in words, maybe you=20
can show me.
Comment: Note the authoritative statements of the policeman. There is no=
test the hypothesis that the defendant did not do what they believed she di=
d. Instead, we=20
see further attempts to vilify the defendant to make it more likely the chi=
confirm their hunch about her.
C: I forgot what happened, too.
I: You remember. You told your mommy about everything, about=20
the music room, and the nap room. And all the stuff. You want to=20
help her stay in jail, don=D5t you? So she doesn=D5t bother you any=20
more...Your mommy told me that you had a picture of yourself in=20
your room and there was blood on your penis. Who hurt you?
C; (Child names the defendant). =20
I: So, your penis was bleeding, oh. Your penis was bleeding. Tell=20
me something else: was your hiney bleeding, too?
Comment: The child never says to this investigator that his penis was blee=
ding. The investigator=20
provides this misleading information to the child.
I: Did (defendant) bleed, too?
I: Are you sure she didn=D5t bleed?
C: Yes.... I saw her penis, too.
I: Show me on the (anatomical) doll....you saw that? Oh.
C: See doodied on me...She peed on us.
I: And did you have to pee on her at all?
I: You did? And who peed on her, you and who else?
C: (Child names a male friend)
I: Didn=D5t his penis bleed?
I: It did? What made it bleed? What was she doing?
C: She was bleeding.
I: She was bleeding in her penis? Did you have to put your penis in=20
her penis? Yes or No?
C: Yeah...And I peed in her penis.
I: What was that like? What did it feel like?
C: Like a shot.
I: Did (friend) have to put his penis in her penis, too?
C: Yes, at the same time.
I: At the same time? How did you do that?
C: We chopped our penises off.
I: So, she was bleeding in her penis and you had your penis and=20
your friend=D5s inside her penis.
C: At the same time. =20
Comment: This type of exchange is very common in these transcripts : When t=
child says something that is not part of the interviewer=D5s hypothesis (in=
this case, that=20
the children chopped off their penises), the interviewer ignores it. There=
is no attempt=20
to pursue it, probably out of fear that the child may embellish this claim =
more incredible claims. Furthermore, in this last section, the child final=
ly begins to=20
make allegations after much initial resistance. Previous research indicate=
s that when=20
children want an interview to end, they often increase the quantity of fals=
(Pettit et al.)
At this point the child and interviewer began discussing a stream=20
of events in which the child alleged that the defendant urinated in=20
his mouth and he urinated in her mouth; he and others were made to=20
walk in her urine and slide on the classroom floor in her urine.
Nowhere in this interview, or numerous others by this and other=20
mental health professionals is there any evidence that an=20
alternative hypothesis was being tested. Specifically, there is no=20
attempt by this interviewer to try to get the child to assent to an=20
incompatible hypothesis, e.g., one in which the child=D5s pediatrician=20
put his penis in the child=D5s mouth, or the sheriff made him drink his=20
urine, or that he was just teasing about the defendant bleeding. As=20
can be seen, there is no attempt to encourage the child to deny that=20
any of this happened. Although it is not possible to know how much=20
of what the child is reporting is factually accurate, there is a=20
certain suspiciousness about his disclosures -- and this is even=20
more troubling in the interviews of some of his classmates. Partly,=20
this is due to the heavy-handed use of coercive tactics ("If you tell=20
me real quick, we can go get popsicles") refusal to believe that the=20
child has forgotten or has a legitimate motive for not wanting to=20
repeat an earlier remark he allegedly made to his mother, (e.g., the=20
child may realize the former statement is false), but partly there is=20
an absence of incredulity on the part of the interviewer which may=20
reflect some interviewers' confusion between taking everything the=20
child says seriously, vs. believing everything a child says. =20
To summarize, a consideration of the nature of the interviews=20
conducted with the Wee Care children raises a possibility that=20
their statements were in response to highly suggestive and coercive=20
interviewing techniques. Our analyses of the transcripts of the=20
initial interviews with the Wee Care children also reveal that=20
despite all examples of coercive and suggestive interviewing=20
practices, the children made relatively few accusations of sexual=20
abuse, and when these did occur, for the most part, these were one=20
word responses to investigator's suggestive questions. It is rare to=20
find any elaborated account by a child even after all the suggestive=20
interviewing practices. (An instructive exercise to support this=20
conclusion involves reading only the child's portions of the=20
interviews, deleting all of the interviewers' questions and=20
B. Children's Credibility
Although children's reports may be highly influenced by a number=20
of suggestive influences, this does not necessarily mean that the=20
children will appear credible when they parrot interviewers'=20
erroneous suggestions. Of particular concern is whether a juror, or=20
a child development researcher, or a child therapist can=20
differentiate children whose reports are accurate from those whose=20
reports were a product of suggestive interviews. The existing=20
evidence suggests that one cannot tell the difference between these=20
two kinds of children. The evidence is based on some of the results=20
from studies already discussed in this brief.
It will be recalled that in the Pettit et al study, there were=20
seven children who were absent from the classroom when a major=20
event occurred, and yet six of these children later reported that=20
they were present. On closer analysis, these researchers found that=20
the reports of three of these six absent children were=20
indistinguishable from those of their classmates who actually did=20
view the events. =20
Some researchers have opined that the presence of perceptual=20
details in reports is one of the indicators of an actual memory, as=20
opposed to a confabulated one (Schooler, Gerhard, & Loftus, 1986;=20
Raskin & Yuille, 1989). However, in the Sam Stone study for=20
example, the presence of perceptual details was no assurance that=20
the report was accurate. There was a surprising number of=20
fabricated perceptual details that children in the combined=20
stereotype plus suggestion condition provided to embellish the non-
events (e.g, claiming that Sam Stone took the teddy bear into a=20
bathroom and soaked it in hot water before smearing it with a=20
crayon; claiming that there was more than one Sam Stone; claiming=20
that they saw Sam Stone go to the corner store to buy chocolate ice=20
It is one thing to demonstrate that children can be induced to=20
make errors and include perceptual details in their reports, but it is=20
another matter to show that such faulty reports are convincing to=20
an observer, especially a highly trained one. To examine the=20
believability of the children's reports, videotapes of their final=20
interviews were shown to approximately 1,000 researchers and=20
clinicians who work on children's testimonial issues (Leichtman &=20
Ceci, in press). These researchers and clinicians were told that all=20
the children observed Sam Stone's visit to their daycare centers. =20
They were asked to decide which of the events reported by the=20
children actually transpired and then to rate the overall credibility=20
of each child.
The majority of the professionals were highly inaccurate. =20
Experts who conduct research on the credibility of children's=20
reports, who provide therapy to children suspected of having been=20
abused, and who carry out law enforcement interviews with=20
children, generally failed to detect which of the children's claims=20
were accurate and which were not, despite being confident in their=20
judgments. The highly credible yet inaccurate reports obtained=20
from the children may have resulted from a combination of repeated=20
interviews with persistent and intense suggestions that built on a=20
set of prior stereotypes. Similarly, it may become difficult to=20
separate credibility from accuracy when these children, after=20
repeated interviews, give a formal video-taped interview or testify=20
Similar results were obtained when psychologists who=20
specialize in interviewing children were shown videotapes of the=20
children in the Mousetrap study (Ceci, in press). Recall that these=20
children had been simply asked to repeatedly think about whether a=20
fictitious or real event had actually happened. Again, professionals=20
could not reliably detect which of the events in the children's=20
narratives were real and which were not. One reason for their=20
difficulty may be that they cannot imagine such plausible,=20
internally coherent narratives being fabricated. In addition, the=20
children exhibited none of the tell-tale signs of duping, teasing, or=20
tricking. They seemed sincere, their facial expressions and affect=20
were appropriate, and their narratives were filled with the kind of=20
low-frequency details that make accounts seem plausible, as shown=20
in the following account:
My brother Colin was trying to get Blowtorch (an action figure)=20
from me, and I wouldn=D5t let him take it from me, so he pushed me=20
into the wood pile where the the mousetrap was. And then my finger=20
got caught in it. And then we went to the hospital, and my mommy,=20
daddy, and Colin drove me there, to the hospital in our van, because=20
it was far away. And the doctor put a bandage on this finger=20
Some researchers are developing techniques that may ultimately=20
be used to detect when children's reports are accurate and when=20
their reports are inaccurate. These involve fine-grained analyses of=20
the linguistic content of the statements, the gestures, voice=20
quality, and other affective measures. However, these techniques=20
have not yet been validated on children who have undergone repeated=20
and highly suggestive interviews. Furthermore, even if such=20
techniques were available, they could only be used by highly trained=20
professionals, not by jurors, or even by specialists in child=20
development. These techniques are being developed precisely=20
because of the difficulty that professionals and non-professionals=20
all share in distinguishing between children's reliable and=20
To summarize, when children have undergone suggestive=20
interviewing or are exposed to some of the components of=20
suggestive interviews, they frequently appear highly credible when=20
they are inaccurate, even to well-trained professionals.
C. The Time-Course of Suggestibility Effects
How long-lasting are the effects of suggestions? Perhaps it=20
could be argued that suggestive interviewing techniques change=20
children's reports but only for a short time; and sometime after=20
suggestive interviews have ceased, then children's reports revert to=20
accurate accounts. Following this line of reasoning, if children's=20
accounts of events are consistent over long periods of time even=20
after the cessation of suggestive interviews, then these reports=20
must be faithful versions of what actually happened to the children. =20
This is a difficult but important issue to address. Based on some=20
anecdotal and scientific evidence, however, we argue that=20
misleading suggestions can indeed have long lasting effects; indeed,=20
they can sometimes give rise to life-long illusory beliefs. =20
The longevity of the suggestibility effects is primarily=20
influenced by the overall strength of the suggestions. Thus the=20
same factors that increase the risk of erroneous reports also=20
increase the longevity of these reports and beliefs. To repeat these=20
include such factors as: the forcefulness of the suggestions, the=20
perceived authority of the provider of the suggestions, the use of=20
threats and bribes, reinforcement for reports of abuse, negative=20
reinforcement or ignoring denials, retractions, or implausible=20
reports, creation of an accusatory atmosphere, peer pressure, and=20
the suggestive use of anatomically detailed dolls. =20
Further aspects of the social and mental life of the child may=20
serve to solidify and strengthen their false reports and false=20
beliefs long after the interviews are over. That is, if the children=20
continue to think about the suggested events and to talk about them=20
and to hear others around them talk about them, their beliefs in the=20
reality of these events may solidify.
These arguments are supported by numerous anecdotes of long-
lasting but erroneous memories of childhood events (e.g., see=20
Lindsay & Read, in press). Perhaps the most famous of these=20
involves the inaccurate memory of one of the great developmental=20
psychologists Jean Piaget (Piaget, 1962).=20
"..one of my first memories would date, if it were true, from my=20
second year. I can still see, most clearly, the following scene, in=20
which I believed until I was about fifteen. I was sitting in my pram,=20
which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Elysees, when a man=20
tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened round me=20
while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She=20
received various scratches, and I can still see vaguely those on her=20
face..... When I was about fifteen, my parents received a letter=20
from my former nurse...she wanted to confess her past faults, and=20
in particular to return the watch she had been given as a=20
reward...She had made up the whole story...I, therefore, must have=20
heard, as a child, the account of this story, which my parents=20
believed, and projected into the past in the form of a visual=20
The false memories were with Piaget for at least a decade.
A second piece of evidence to support the contention that some=20
children maintain their beliefs about fabricated stories that are a=20
product of suggestive interviews, long after the suggestions of=20
ceased, comes from the "mousetrap" study. Several weeks after the=20
last interview, one of the subjects who had told about his finger=20
being caught in the mousetrap was re-interviewed. When his=20
mother brought him to the lab, she told the experimenters that both=20
she and her husband thought that the study was completed, and=20
therefore two days earlier they explained to their son that the story=20
about the mousetrap was fictitious and had never happened. She said=20
that her son initially refused to accept this debriefing, claiming=20
that he remembered it happening when the family lived in their=20
former house. She and her husband continued to explain that the=20
whole story was just in his imagination, that nothing like this ever=20
happened. Despite the debriefing, the experimenters decided to re-
interview the child. When asked if he ever got his finger caught in a=20
mousetrap, the child stated that he remembered this happening, and=20
he proceeded to supply a richly-detailed narrative. When the=20
interviewer challenged him, asking him if it was not the case that=20
his mother had already explained that this never happened, the child=20
protested, "But it really did happen. I remember it!" While this=20
child=D5s insistence, in the presence of his mother, is not proof that=20
he believed what he was saying about this fictitious event, it does=20
suggest that he was not duping the adults for any obvious motive,=20
given that the demand characteristics were all tilted against his=20
claiming that he remembered this.=20
This child provides a vivid example of the long-last effects of=20
suggestions. His pattern of behavior is also common in other=20
children involved in Mousetrap studies. That is, there are also other=20
children who hold on to their original beliefs even when their=20
parents debrief them and tell them that the events were only=20
imagined (Ceci, Crotteau, Smith & Loftus, in press). And, there are=20
children who continue to say that the events occurred even when=20
they are told right before the final memory test that the=20
experimenter had it wrong (e.g. Ceci, Loftus, Leichtman & Bruck, in=20
press; Lindsay, Gonzales & Eso, in press).
These data suggest that the effects of suggestions may be=20
extremely long-lasting. Some children hold onto their beliefs long=20
after the suggestions have terminated.=20
Thus, if the Wee Care children's testimony was a product of=20
suggestive interviewing techniques, then their false allegations=20
might persist long after the interviews had terminated. It is also=20
important to note that these suggestive interviews continued for a=20
long time and still may be continuing to the present. That is,=20
although the investigative interviews ceased in July of 1985, all=20
but one of the 20 child witnesses were seen in therapy (IS THIS=20
CORRECT? ); some may still be in therapy. The children were=20
interviewed (and coached??) by the prosecutor's office before=20
appearing as witnesses at trial. Each child was interviewed two to=20
three times by Eileen Treacy before the trial; as we show below,=20
the interviews with Treacy were more suggestive and coercive than=20
those conducted at the beginning of the investigation.=20
ET: Let me ask you this; did she touch boys, did she touch girls,=20
did she touch dogs?
3C: She touched boys and girls
ET: Did she touch them with telephones? Did she touch them with=20
spoons? What kinda spoons?
ET: Can you make a mark where she hurt you?
....Make a mark. Just show me where Kelly hurt you. Then I can=20
show that to the judge
ET: Tell me about 7C. What happened to 7C?
3C: I don't know
ET: 7C told me about some of the stuff that happened to you
3C: (no response)
ET: She cares about you. Some of the kids told me that things=20
happened with knives at Wee Care. Do you remember anything=20
ET: I see and did the kids want Kelly to do that peanut butter stuff?
3C: I didn't even think that there was a peanut butter
ET: Well what about licking the peanut butter?
3C: There wasn't anything about peanut butter.
ET:(brings out dolls). Ok now what about the private areas? What=20
happened in the private areas?
4C: I don't know
ET: That's harder to talk about?
ET: Does it make you embarrassed?
4C: I don't know
ET: Did you ever see Kelly's private spots?
4C: I am not too sure
ET: What about her boobies?
4C: I don't even really know about..
ET: There's some pictures that Sara (McArdle, the prosecutor) has
4C: What kind of pictures?
ET: Kelly like doin something to 2C and I was so surprised. What=20
was she doing?
4C: Um, I forgot but I know she did it.
ET: She do something with a fork to 2C?
4C: Sara would know though
ET: Now when Kelly was touchin the kids with the spoons and the=20
knives, did she touch them inside of their private spots or outside?
4C: I don't remember.
ET: Did Kelly ever put her elbow on your private spots?
ROBERT CAN YOU PUT IN THE SECTION FOR 5C THAT IS=20
SUMMARIZED ON P. 35 AT THE BOTTOM OF DAN'S=20
SUMMARIES OF EACH CASE. IT STARTS ET LEADS LEADS=20
LIKE CRAZY NOW.
(after some questioning, Treacy gets 6C to say that Kelly's private=20
parts were the same as little girls)
ET: Did Kelly have hair?
6C: Nah, I know cause it's grown ups... I know about that
ET: So I guess that means you saw her private parts huh? Did Kelly=20
ask the kids to look at her private parts, or to kiss her private part=20
6C: I didn't really do that....I didn't even do it..
ET: But she made you
6C: She made me. She made me .. But I couldn't do it...So I didn't=20
even really do it. I didn't do it.
ET: Did it smell good?
ET: Her private parts?
6C: I don't know
ET: Did it taste good? Did it taste like chocolate?
6C: Ha, ha. No, I didn't even do it.
ET: You Wee Care kids seem so scared of her
6C: I wasn't. I'm not even.
ET: But while you were there, were you real scared?
6C: I don't know
ET: What was so frightening about her, 6C, what was so scary=20
6C: I don't know. Why don't you ask her?
ET: Did she drink the pee pee?
6C: Please that sounds just crazy. I don't remember about that. =20
In addition to the suggestions provided by mental health and=20
forensic professionals, it is possible that the parents of these=20
children continue to subtly suggest Kelly's guilt to these children. =20
Thus if Wee Care children indeed continue to report past incidents=20
of sexual abuse, it is possible that these reports reflect the long-
lasting effects of much earlier suggestions, or that these reports=20
reflect the effects of past and current suggestions which have been=20
maintained over the period of years (1985-to the present).
If the children were not abused, the beliefs of the legal=20
authorities, the therapists, and the parents may provide a=20
permanent architecture of suggestion to maintain the children's=20
false allegations and beliefs. In other words, living in an=20
environment where the primary belief is that"Kelly abused children"=20
provides a constant source of suggestion to these children; as a=20
result these children's reports and beliefs may be permanently=20
D. The Argument That Children Are Not=20
E. How To Obtain Reliable Reports From=20
Some critics may argue that this brief contains a biased=20
presentation of the literature; that there are a number of studies=20
that show that children are not suggestible, or that they are no=20
more suggestible than adults. It is true that we have focused on=20
those studies that emphasize the weaknesses of children's=20
memories, because the conditions in those studies have the most=20
relevance to the interviewing conditions of the Wee Care children. =20
Other studies that emphasize the strengths of young children's=20
memories (e.g, see Goodman, Batterman-Faunce & Kenney, 1992 for=20
a review) do not contain the same types of suggestive interviewing=20
procedures as described above. What characterizes many such=20
studies is the neutral tone of the interviewer, the limited use of=20
misleading questions (for the most part, suggestions are limited to=20
a single occasion) and the absence of the induction of any motive=20
for the child to make a false report When such conditions are=20
present, it is a common (although not a universal). (FOOTNOTE For=20
example Ornstein and his colleagues (Baker-Ward et al., 1993;=20
Gordon et al., 1990) found that when children were later questioned=20
on one occasion about their memories of the visit to the=20
pediatrician, 3-year-olds were more prone than 6-year-olds to=20
make false claims in response to suggestive questions about silly=20
events involving body contact (e.g., "Did the nurse lick your knee?").=20
Similarly, after one interview, Oates and Shrimpton (1991) found=20
that preschoolers were more suggestible than older children about=20
previously experienced events that involved body touching.END OF=20
FOOTNOTE) finding that children are much more immune to=20
suggestive influences, particularly about sexual details. Hence=20
studies of children's strengths were not cited in the main part of=20
this brief because the interviewing conditions of these studies do=20
not typify those under which the Wee Care children were=20
interviewed and therefore they have limited relevance to the issues=20
in this case. However, there are two important implications of the=20
studies which focus on the strength of children's reports.
The first point is that although children are mainly highly=20
accurate in studies in which they are interviewed by a neutral=20
experimenter, asked minimal leading questions, and not given any=20
motivation to produce distorted reports, there are nevertheless a=20
few children in such studies who do give bizarre or sexualized=20
answers to some leading questions. For example, in the Saywitz et=20
al. study of children's reports of their medical examinations, one=20
child, who never had a genital exam, falsely reported that the=20
pediatrician had touched her buttocks and on further questioning=20
claimed that it tickled and that the doctor used a long stick. In a=20
study of children's recalls of their visit to a laboratory (Rudy &=20
Goodman, 1991) one small child claimed that he had seen bones and=20
blood in the research trailer (see Goodman et al., 1992 , for=20
additional examples). Thus, children do occasionally make=20
spontaneous, strange, and unfounded allegations. However, as=20
Goodman and her colleagues point out, many of these allegations can=20
be understood by sensibly questioning the child and parents further. =20
Often these allegations reflect the child's source confusions or his=20
One can only imagine what would have happened were these few=20
rare spontaneous allegations followed-up in the same way as they=20
were in the Wee Care investigations. Perhaps participating=20
researchers and adults would have ended up being falsely accused of=20
many heinous acts. Also one can only imagine what would have=20
happened in the Wee Care case if the child's initial allegation that=20
"Kelly took my temperature" was investigated with the same=20
sensitivity and understanding that Goodman and her colleagues=20
showed in trying to understand their subjects' bizarre statements.=20
A second important implication of studies that emphasize the=20
strength of children's memories is that they highlight the=20
conditions under which children should be interviewed if one wishes=20
to obtain reliable reports. Again, when children are interviewed by=20
unbiased, neutral interviewers, and when leading questions are kept=20
to a minimum, and there is the absence of threats, bribes and peer-
pressure, then children's reports are less at risk for taint.
It is not our intention to write a section on "good interviewing"=20
practices in this brief. There have been several guidelines for the=20
interviewing of children in sexual abuse cases. (e.g, White, Santilli,=20
& Quinn, 1986; Yuille, Hunter, Joffe & Zaparniuk, 1993; also see=20
section in the Appeal document that examines New Jersey=20
interviewing procedures) At the most general level, all these=20
guidelines share the following common elements. Interviewers are=20
told to encourage the child to say as much as he or she can in his=20
own words about what happened (Can you tell me about what=20
happens at naptime?) Then more general questions to prompt recall=20
are asked (Can you tell me anything else?). Following this the child=20
might be asked more specific (not leading) questions to elaborate on=20
the previous description (e.g., Who is in the room at naptime?; Do=20
people do anything special at naptime?). And some interviewers=20
advocate the use of leading questions as a last resort, if the child=20
provides no information in the interview (Did anything scary happen=20
at naptime? Did anyone ever touch you in a bad place at naptime?). =20
The available Wee Care interviews indicate that interviews do not=20
unfold in this way. Rather, after establishing some rapport with=20
the children, the interviewers jump to specific and leading=20
Even those researchers who emphasize the strengths of=20
children's memories are highly critical of the interviewing tactics=20
used with the Wee Care children:
Although there may be times when one needs to ask specific=20
questions of children, several important caveats must be heeded. =20
First, in actual practice, leading questions should be avoided when=20
possible: Even if the child can maintain an accurate report, his or=20
her and the interviewer's perceived credibility are likely to suffer. =20
Second, there is a broad range of suggestion and coercion that can=20
characterize an interview, and probably almost everyone would=20
agree that some interviewers and parents go too far. Browbeating a=20
child through repeated suggestive questioning is quite different from=20
asking a few questions (Goodman, 1993, p. 15).=20
F. Missing First Interviews.
The first allegation in this case was made on April 30, 1985. On=20
May 1, 1985, the Essex County Prosecutor's office initiated an=20
investigation: between May 2 and May 8, they interviewed five=20
children and four parents. There are no electronic copies of these=20
interviews. Between May 22 and July 8, 1985, Lou Fonolleras, an=20
investigator from DYFS, conducted 82 interviews with Wee Care=20
children and 19 interviews with their parents. None of the=20
interviews were taped before June 19; less than half of the=20
children's interviews and none of the parents' interviews were=20
recorded. In addition, most of the other interviews are not recorded=20
(1985-present). There are no recorded interviews with 16C, the=20
child who made the initial allegation. Many of Treacy's interviews=20
were not recorded.
The failure to have audio- or video-taped records of the initial=20
interviews with these children makes it impossible to determine=20
the accuracy of the children's subsequent statements. There is=20
scanty information concerning how these children were initially=20
questioned, and also concerning how many times they were=20
questioned. Summaries of these missing interviews and electronic=20
recordings of later interviews in which children do make=20
allegations do not substitute for the missing original interviews. =20
Written summaries of unrecorded interviews are subject to a=20
number of distortions, especially if the interviewer is questioning a=20
number of children and parents daily, as was the case. It is a well=20
documented fact in the psycholinguistic literature that when asked=20
to recall conversations, most adults may recall the gist, but they=20
cannot recall the exact words used, nor the sequences of=20
interactions between speakers. This linguistic information rapidly=20
fades from memory, minutes after the interactions have occurred=20
(see Rayner & Pollatsek, 1990, for a review).
In the case of child witnesses, it is crucial to document the=20
details by which their reports were obtained. For example, we must=20
know whether and how often the interviewer asked the child leading=20
questions. We most know whether the interviewer prodded the=20
child's reports with the use of anatomically detailed dolls, etc. We=20
also must know the verbatim statements and questions of the=20
interviewer as well as the verbatim responses of the children. =20
Because this verbatim information fades most rapidly from memory=20
(within a matter of minutes), it is crucial that it be electronically=20
recorded. Without this information, one cannot begin to evaluate=20
the reliability of the children's allegations. It is also the case, that=
the gist of previous interviews may be inaccurately summarized in=20
later reports due to certain biases or misperceptions of the=20
interviewer. If the investigator has a bias that the child was=20
sexually abused, then this can color his interpretations of what the=20
child said or did; and it is this interpretation that appears in the=20
summary rather than a factual account of what transpired.
Finally, although there are some examples of taped interviews=20
(e.g., 3C) in which there seem to be few leading questions and in=20
which the child gives coherent reports of abuse, this is not the first=20
interview and it is impossible to evaluate the reliability of these=20
statements without knowing about the details of the first=20
interview. If in the first interview, this child had been subjected=20
to the same techniques that occur in the taped interviews, then the=20
reliability of this child's statements would be highly suspect.
G. Generalizing from Research to the Real World
A consideration of the nature of the interviews conducted with=20
the Wee Care children raises the possibility that their statements=20
were in response to highly suggestive and coercive interview=20
techniques. The social science research has documented how even=20
subtler forms of these techniques can produce highly inaccurate=20
reports in children. It is true that no study mirrors all of the=20
influences operating in any particular real-world case. Indeed,=20
many aspects of the interviewing procedures in the Wee Care case=20
will never be examined in research studies, because researchers and=20
their institutional review boards would deem the practices that=20
occurred in the interviews with the Wee Care children grossly=20
unethical, whether they be used on naive research subjects, on=20
children suspected of sexual abuse, or on children with confirmed=20
diagnoses of sexual abuse.=20
So, this brings us to the question of how much weight we should=20
attach to the social science literature, given that no study=20
perfectly mimics the constellation of variables observed in the=20
Wee Care interviews. As little as 3 or 4 years ago, experts in this=20
area would have had little empirical evidence upon which to base an=20
opinion. However, as is clear from our review of the literature, in=20
recent years a number of researchers across North America have=20
conducted studies that share many of the features of the Wee Care=20
This recent research indicates that suggestive interviewing=20
procedures can lead young children to give false reports of real-life=20
experiences which include erroneous claims about interactions=20
involving physical contact between an adult and a child. The=20
research also shows that very few young children would fabricate=20
detailed claims of bizarre sexual abuse in response to one or two=20
mildly leading questions. And, as we have seen, many of the Wee=20
Care children initially appeared to resist repeated and forceful=20
suggestions before capitulating to the interviewers' insinuations. =20
The research also shows, however, that with more powerful and=20
persistent methods of suggestion, such as those described in this=20
brief, a substantial percentage of children can be led to make false=20
reports of events that never occurred, including events that involve=20
their own bodies and that would have been quite traumatic had they=20
occurred. Based on this literature, and based on our analyses of the=20
Wee Care interviews, it is our opinion that the constellation of=20
factors operating in the Wee Care case would constitute an=20
extraordinarily powerful suggestive atmosphere, one that is far=20
stronger than those that have given rise to false reports in the=20
research studies that we have described in this brief.
Most scientists admit to being "fallibilists", that is, to=20
recognizing that knowledge is incremental, and therefore, while we=20
may never possess perfect knowldge about a phenomenon, we must=20
base our inferences on the most scientifically rigorous evidence we=20
have available. Thus, even though there is not one study that=20
reflects all the variables that were operative in the Wee Care=20
interviews, we do have scientifically adequate knowledge about=20
most of these, and this knowledge leads prudent scientists to=20
conclude that if a study did include the sum total of the variables=20
that were operative in Wee Care, we would obtain a large numbers=20
of erroneous reports by preschoolers. In fact, many of us believe=20
that the available evidence is such that we anticipate even larger=20
numbers of erroneous reports than were reported in the research=20
reviewed earlier in this brief. In sum, although there is always=20
some risk when generalizing from scientific studies to real world=20
analogs, scientists believe that the best basis for doing this is to=20
extrapolate from the corpus of research that comes closest to=20
matching the constellation of variables that operate in the real=20
world, even if the match is less than perfect. The alternative is to=20
eschew insights, predictions, or hypotheses gained from=20
systematic, controlled studies in lieu of anecdotes, personal=20
opinions, and ideological views. =20
We have argued that the investigation of child sexual abuse=20
allegations is a complex matter fraught with problems. Scientists=20
have begun to contribute important insights to these problems,=20
though clearly more research is needed. Regardless of the=20
complexities of the research, the present state of scientific=20
knowledge permits us to make the following general statements=20
about the reliability of the testimony of the child witnesses.=20
1. There are reliable age effects in children's suggestibility,=20
with preschoolers being more vulnerable than older children to a=20
host of factors that contribute to unreliable reports.
2. Although young children are often accurate reporters, some do make mist=
particularly when they undergo suggestive interviews; and these errors can =
involve not only=20
peripheral details, but also central, predictable (i.e., scripted) events t=
hat involve their own bodies. =20
It is also the case that suggestive questioning not only distorts children'=
s factual recall, but it also=20
has a strong influence on their interpretation of events.
3. Measures can be taken to lessen the risk of suggestibility effects. To=
date, the factors=20
that we know most about concern the nature of the interview itself--its fre=
quency, degree of=20
suggestiveness, and demand characteristics.
=A5 A child's report is less likely to be distorted, for example, after one=
than after several interviews (the term "interviews" here includes informal=
conversations between parents and child about the target events).
=A5 Interviewers who ask non-leading questions, who do not have a confirmat=
bias (i.e., an attachment to a single hypothesis), and who do not repeat cl=
ended yes/no questions within or across interviews, are more likely to obta=
accurate reports from children.
=A5 Interviewers who are patient, non-judgmental, and who do not attempt to=
create demand characteristics (e.g., by providing subtle rewards for certai=
responses) are likely to elicit the best quality reports from young childre=
Thus, at one extreme we can have more confidence in a child's spontaneous s=
prior to any attempt by an adult to elicit what they suspect may be the tru=
th. At the other extreme,=20
we are more likely to be concerned when a child has made a statement after =
4. Finally, it is also important that the court appreciate the complexity =
interrelationships of the factors affecting children's suggestibility. As =
in most areas of social=20
science, effects are rarely as straightforward as one might wish. Even tho=
ugh suggestibility effects=20
may be robust, the effects are not universal. Results vary between studies=
and children's behavior=20
varies within studies. Thus, even in studies with pronounced suggestibilit=
y effects, there are=20
always some children who are highly resistant to suggestion. We have seen =
this in our own=20
studies as well as in the transcripts of the Wee Care interviews: in some =
cases, no matter how=20
much an interviewer may try to suggest that an event occurred, some childre=
n will consistently=20
resist and not incorporate the interviewer's suggestion or point of view. =
On the other side,=20
although suggestibility effects tend to be most dramatic after prolonged an=
d repeated interviewing,=20
some children incorporate suggestions quickly, even after one short intervi=
ew (e.g., Clarke-
Stewart, et al., 1989 ).=20
The authors of this brief are fully aware of the immense=20
obstacles that face those who are charged with investigating and=20
reporting suspected child maltreatments. In no way do we want to=20
convey the attitude that we deny the seriousness of the problem of=20
child sexual abuse in today's society. The focus of our research and=20
our arguments, however, is that unless one is very careful in the=20
interviewing procedures that one uses with young children=20
suspected of abuse, that one may never make an accurate=20
determination of whether or not abuse occurred. This is because=20
there are a number of interviewing procedures that have the=20
potential to make non-abused children look like abused children. =20
These are the same conditions that were used in the interviews=20
with the Wee Care children. Given our present state of scientific=20
knowledge, there are no valid scientific tests to determine which of=20
the children's reports were accurate. The fact that these children=20
underwent extremely suggestive interviews makes the=20
determination of accuracy impossible.
The authors of this brief also wish to convey their deep concern=20
over the children in this case. Our concern is that if there were=20
incidents of sexual abuse, the faulty interviewing procedures make=20
it impossible to ever know who the perpetrators were and how the=20
abuse occurred. Thus poor interviewing procedures make it=20
difficult to detect real abuse. But we have further concerns. And=20
these involve the interviewing techniques which we view as abusive=20
in themselves. After reading a number of these interviews, it is=20
difficult to believe that adults charged with the care and protection=20
of young children would be allowed to use the vocabulary that they=20
used in these interviews, that they would be allowed to interact=20
with the children in such sexually explicit ways, or that they would=20
be allowed to bully and frighten their child witnesses in such a=20
shocking manner. No amount of evidence that sexual abuse had=20
actually occurred could ever justify the use of these techniques=20
especially with three- and four-year-old children. Above and=20
beyond the great stress, intimidation, and embarrassment that many=20
of the children so obviously suffered during the interviews, we are=20
deeply concerned about the long-lasting harmful effects of=20
persuading children that they have been horribly sexually and=20
physically abused, when in fact there may have been no abuse until=20
the interviews began. The authors of this brief will be permanently=20
disturbed that children were interviewed in such abusive=20
circumstances regardless of the ultimate guilt of the accused.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank