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April 20, 2015
Do Children Make Effective Witnesses?
Jennifer A. Weber
Argosy University Master’s Program
Research-purpose and design.
Case Study Example
Themes and Patterns
✤ Children are becoming
witnesses in court proceedings
from the rising divorce rates and
the increase in number of child
abuse and neglect cases;
therefore the need to put them
on the stand is increasing
whether to testifying as the
victim or in the determination of
April 20, 2015
Research-Design and Purpose
Do preschoolers and young children make effective witnesses when testifying in court
allowing for freely giving narratives that have not benefited from suggestibility, coaching,
false memory or confabulation?
Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics for the year 2000 show that 67% of sexual
assault victims where under the age of 18, 34% under the age of 12, and sadly that one
out of seven victims are less than 6 years old.
Data from the American Psychological Association report that 40-50% of marriages end
Given the above this power point presentation will examine and explore the role of the
child witness, the effects of testifying on children, and whether or not the testimony is
✤ The United States Court System was created and
developed on several checks and balances in the
hopes of equal justice for all in that the rights of the
defendants and victims are protected and maintained
throughout the judicial process, yet during the 70’s
child abuse convictions turned out to be miscarriages
of justices based on faulty investigative and interview
techniques resulting in the disbelief of children’s claims
of maltreatment (Dallam & Silberg, 2014).
April 20, 2015
Research on how effective child testimony is in the court system was gathered by completing a
literature review of peer-reviewed scholars articles along with a personal interview with a field
Developmental theory were moral maturity is determined by the way an individual reasons
about a dilemma and not necessarily the response to the situation (Beck, 2011).
Kohlberg believes that children accept rules and that their behaviors are determined by the
consequences progressing towards increased awareness of other perspectives including
reciprocity (Beck, 2011).
✤ Kelly Michaels, a day care teacher, was accused of several
accounts of child sexual abuse against children three to six years of
age in the early eighties while employed by the Wee Care Nursery
School located in Maplewood, New Jersey, that resulted in a
conviction with a 47 year sentence (Manning, 2007).
✤ Eventually her case was overturned because the courts found the
children were improperly interviewed with findings that the
investigators misled, coerced, frightened, bullied and even bribed
the children (Manning, 2007).
Ethical Considerations- evaluations of children remain very difficult
due to the very sensitive nature of the subject material of child maltreatment and custody disputes along with ensuring
appropriate interview techniques that will harness the truth without being leading, suggestible, or threatening.
✤ Appropriate Guidelines to Consider
✤ 1.02 Conflicts Betweens Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority
✤ 3.04 Avoiding Harm
✤ 3.05 Multiple Relationships
✤ 3.10 Informed Consent
✤ 3.11 Psychological Services Delivered to or Through Organizations
✤ 4.02 Discussing the Limits of Confidentiality
✤ 4.03 Recording
✤ 9.1 Bases for Assessments
✤ 9.02 Use of Assessments
✤ 9.03 Informed Consent in Assessments
✤ 9.04 Release of Test Data (Fisher, 2013)
✤ Tsilmak (2013) notes that children
between 3.5 and 4 years of age will begin
telling lies to avoid punishment and self
✤ Dallam & Silberg note that suggestibility to
changing an existing memory is more likely
than planting a memory of an event that
did not take place (2014).
✤ Decades of research on children memories
has demonstrated that a child can be an
accurate and reliable witness, and even
preschoolers can report their experiences
with detailed and accurate accounts
(Malloy, Johnson, & Goodman 2013).
✤ Testimony by young witnesses is affected
by cognitive, social, and emotional factors
in the sense that children cannot report
what they do not remember (Crossman,
Powell, Principe, & Ceci, 2002).
✤ Development of memory is central to the
child’s testimony because the accuracy
depends on the child’s abilities to recall
and remember events; therefore,
consideration of age, maturity, and
capacity of the child all need to be taken
into account when giving weight to their
voice (Ball & Kucinski, 2014; Crossman,
Powell, Principe, & Ceci, 2002).
✤ Otgaar, Sauerland, & Petrila (2013) suggest that there
is a phenomenon of false memories and suggestibility
that remains intertwined with basic cognitions that once
again relates back to the cognitive and developmental
level of the testifying child.
✤ The lesser the developmental age of the child and the
lower the cognitive status of the child the more likely
the child will be suggestible to altering memories of
✤ Overall, the validity and reliability of the chosen
resources ran from weak to good in that some sources
had similar theories backing the research questions, a
few actually had empirical data and statistics, and
some lack statistics to back their conclusion with
April 20, 2015
One tool the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale for Children, version 2, has two scales for
older children that measure suggestibility: yield (measure of willingness to acquiesce to
misleading questions) and shift (measure of tendency to change their responses to
negative feedback) (Miles, Powell, Gignac, & Thomson, 2007)
The Do’s- let the child lead the conversation, answer questions to the best of your ability,
and encourage child to use their words to tell the story.
The Don’ts- no probing questions, respond negatively or threaten to harm the abuser
✤ It all started with one little boy visiting his pediatrician telling a story about his
teacher from the Wee Care Day Care that resulting in an investigation by an over
zealous investigator named Lou Fonolleras and a child therapist that held
meetings to initiate discussion of sexual abuse along with sending home charts of
behaviors corollated to sexual abuse (Blackstone, 2009).
✤ Several children confessed to allegations of sexual abuse because of Fonolleras
sharing his history of sexual abuse, telling the children that their teacher Kelly
Michaels was in jail for being bad, and using positive reinforcement for desired
answers that lead to a conviction with a 47 year sentence for Kelly Michaels
✤ Case was overturned due to high volume of unrecorded testimony of improper
interviewing techniques that lead to suggestibility in children (Blackstone, 2009).
Themes and Patterns
✤ Running themes in similarity are asking children difficult
questions where the child is usually the only witness against
an adult defendant, and remaining cognizant of the child’s
abilities and limitations (Ball & Kuckinski, 2014; Malloy,
Johnson, & Goodman, 2013; Vandervort, 2013).
✤ Another commonality showed that cognitive skills increase
with age, children have a limited capacity to handle the event
and incoming information, and that unfounded allegations
can be determined (Brown, et. al, 2013; Crossman, Powel,
Principe, & Ceci, 2002).
Themes and Patterns-continued
✤ Differences noted by Otgaar, Sauerland, and Petrila (2013)
describe suggestibility as suggestive pressure, implantation
can be more pronounced in younger children while other
authors believe that events cannot be implanted.
✤ Brown, et. al, focus on confabulation verses liars by
reviewing fragments of memory especially in early childhood,
inaccurate and distorted memories, and difficulty in locating
memories in the brain; furthermore, there is discussion on
suggestibility, susceptibility to acquiescence and be
compliant in children (2013).
Information gathered during an interview
with a licensed professional counselor
regarding children on the witness stand to
remind the forensic psychologist they are
not the detective but a mediator with limited
dialogue that becomes a different role
when determining the best interest of the
child (M. Kelly, personal communication,
April 10, 2015). Overall M. Kelly’s opinion
correlated with the results found in the
research analysis in that the child’s ability
to testify is more related to developmental
age and cognitive abilities than a
chronological age (personal
communication, April 10, 2015)
✤ 1. What psychological impacts are there on a chid
when one parent pressures the child report abuse on
the other parent?
✤ Is there clinical research to support the notion that the
coached child will develop PTSD?
✤ How can differentiating between confabulation and
lying be objectively identified?
✤ This writer feels there needs to be more research into
the development of protocols or algorithms to establish
an ethical standard for interviewing small children that
has backed scientific evidence along with reliability and
April 20, 2015
The success of a child on the witness stand providing accurate memory recall
depends on the developmental age, abilities and limitations of that particular
child. It is also influenced by successful non-bias interviewing techniques and
procedures that gathers and collects information without probing questions and
free of coercion, threats, and susceptibly to acquiesce. It is in the best interest of
all those involved in protecting children from maltreatment or determining the
best interest of the child to follow scientifically backed interviewing guidelines so
that justice is served to those that are guilty of harming the innocent.
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