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Children's Suggestibility

Children's Suggestibility. What is suggestibility?. Suggestibility can be defined as the degree to which one's " memory " and/or " recounting " of an event is influenced by exposure to suggested information or misinformation .

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Children's Suggestibility

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  1. Children's Suggestibility

  2. What is suggestibility? • Suggestibility can be defined as the degree to which one's "memory" and/or "recounting" of an event is influenced by exposure to suggested information or misinformation

  3. Why is children’s suggestibility an important consideration when assessing for CSA? • In most cases of suspected CSA, the child’s abuse-related statements are the only evidence relating to sexual abuse • Thus, it is important to determine whether the child was influenced in some fashion to make false allegations, e.g., by being asked leading questions

  4. The Attack on the Interviewer • Those who conduct screening/evaluation for CSA are often criticized for “leading” children to make false allegations of sexual abuse. • According to the National Center on the Prosecution of Child Abuse, this is currently the most often used defense in child sexual abuse cases. • It is also one of the most effective defenses in CSA cases.


  6. Inappropriate leading and coercive interviewing of children has occurred in some highly publicized cases

  7. The Kelly Michaels Case • In 1988, a school teacher named Kelly Michaels was convicted of 115 counts of sexual abuse against twenty 3 to 5 year-old children • She was sentenced to 47 years in prison.

  8. The Kelly Michaels Case-Appealed • The Appeals Court of New Jersey later reversed her conviction on the basis that the interviews of the victims were highly leading. • The Prosecution then appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

  9. The New Jersey Supreme Court orders “taint hearings” • The N.J. Supreme Court upheld the reversal of conviction. • The Court found that the interviewing in this case was so flawed that, if the prosecution decided to retry the case, they must first hold a pre-trial “taint hearing” and show that despite improper interviewing techniques, the allegations of the child witnesses were sufficiently reliable to admit them as witnesses at trial.

  10. Excerpt from transcript of a child interview in St. v. Michaels Q Did Kelly have hair? [referring to privates] A Nah, I know ‘cause it’s grown ups . . . I know about that. Q So I guess that means you saw her private parts, huh? Did Kelly ask the kids to look at her private parts, or to kiss her private part or . . . A I didn’t really do that . . . I didn’t even do that. Q But she made you.

  11. Later in the same interview (after the child has denied kissing Kelly’s private parts) Q Did it smell good? (referring to Kelly’s privates) A Shhh Q Her private parts? A I don’t know. Q Did it taste good? Did it taste like chocolate? A Ha, ha. No, I didn’t even do it . . .

  12. Child Interview (continued) Q You Wee Care kids seem so scared of her. A I wasn’t. I’m not even. . . Q But while you were there, were you real scared? A I don’t know. Q What was so frightening about her, what was so scary about her? A I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her?

  13. In some cases, children were: • Told about the allegations of other children (contamination); • Not permitted to go to the bathroom or see their mother until they provided allegations (coercion); • Bribed with ice cream, etc. to provide allegations (bribery).

  14. ARE CHILDREN “SUGGESTIBLE”? YES. Some children are suggestible—at least under certain circumstances

  15. Conditions Under Which Children Are Most Likely To Be Suggestible • When leading questions are asked repeatedly—especially with very young children (3 and 4 year olds are most suggestible) • When children don’t understand that it’s important to tell the truth • When they think it’s okay to “guess.” • When they don’t think it’s okay to “correct” the interviewer’s mistakes

  16. The “New Wave” in Suggestibility Research • Stephen Ceci (Cornell) and colleagues • Research designed to MAXIMIZE children’s suggestibility

  17. The “Sam Stone” studyThe Impact of Stereotypes and Leading Questions and Guessingon Young Children’s Accounts

  18. 5 & 6 year-olds 40% 3 & 4 year-olds 72% “SAM STONE” STUDYPercent of children assenting to false allegations after 7-10 weeks of leading interviews:

  19. Why were these children so suggestible?

  20. Researchers often have to go to great lengths to lead children to provide elaborate accounts of non-events • A singular misleading question does not typically elicit elaborate accounts of non-events—even from 3- and 4-year-olds. • “We really had to work hard to get children to provide detailed accounts of non-events” Stephen Ceci

  21. AGE was the primary factor (when combined with repetitive Leading Questions, Guessing, & Stereotyping) • The children in this study were 3 to 6 years old • Preschoolers (especially 3 and 4-year-olds) are far more suggestible than older children and adults • 10-11 year-olds are essentially equivalent to adults with regard to their ‘memory’ being influenced or distorted by suggested information

  22. The NATURE OF THE QUESTIONING was a factor • Children were repeatedly asked highly leading questions for 7-10 weeks • This sometimes happens in real-life cases; although probably not often

  23. “Stereotyping” was a factor • For several weeks, children were repeatedly told stories about Sam Stone being clumsy and as accidentally destroying things. • In real-life cases, children sometimes overhear one parent speaking badly about the other parent—but not usually about sexual abuse

  24. Children were encouraged to “GUESS” When children said they did not know who ripped the book or got the teddy bear dirty, they were asked: “Who might have ripped the book/gotten the teddy bear dirty?”

  25. There was no emphasis on TELLING THE TRUTH Kids are not required to tell the truth in all situations, i.e., playing games, telling stories, casual conversations Kid’s don’t assume that telling the truth is important in all situations

  26. Young children who were not led or encouraged to guess during the Sam Stone study were quite accurate • “Of the 3- and 4-year-olds who were not exposed to repetitive and highly leading questions or stereotypes about the ‘offender,’ and who were not asked to “guess” answers, 90% were still accurate after three months.” Stephen Ceci

  27. “Source Misattribution” • Misidentifying the Source of one’s MEMORY

  28. Did it really happen or did I only hear about it? • The “Mousetrap” Study

  29. Source Misattribution does occur under certain circumstances-especially with 3 and 4 year olds

  30. Nevertheless, “most” of the preschoolers did not come to affirm that these ‘fictitious’ events had occurred • 66% resisted repeated leading questioning about negative and positive fictional events over 7—10 interviews • When interviewed two years later, nearly 80% of the children who had succumbed to leading recanted the allegations they had been led to make


  32. Anatomical Dolls and other props can serve as “Distracters” • This is especially true for children under 5 years old and for older children who tend to be distractible.

  33. Dolls of any sort should not be used by very young children for demonstration purposes • Children younger than approximately 3½ years old have not yet mastered “symbolic representation” and are therefore unable to use dolls and other props to accurately depict what they have experienced. • It is less risky to use them for body parts identification

  34. Position of APA’s Task Force on the use of Anatomical Dolls(1995) • Research to date mainly supports the use of AD Dolls as a communication or memory aid for children 5 years or older, albeit with a certain risk of contributing to some children’s errors if misleading questions are used along with the dolls.

  35. Other Media Are Less Controversial and Often as Effective As Anatomical Dolls • Research to date has not shown that Anatomical Dolls are far superior to less controversial media for eliciting accurate accounts from children • Non-anatomical dolls • ‘Cookie-cutter’ and Stick-figure Drawings • Anatomical drawings (however, such drawings might provide sexually naïve children with new information, i.e., pubic hair) • Interviewers should always attempt to elicit a clear “verbal” description of sex acts

  36. Similarities Between the Research and “some” real-life cases • Sometimes children are questioned for weeks or months in a highly leading fashion by well-intentioned but biased parents, therapists, investigators and others. • Sometimes children are influenced by what they overhear, i.e., angry parent talking to a friend about the other parent. • Sometimes (though probably rarely) parents or others deliberately influence children to make false sex abuse allegations.

  37. Beware of the Misapplication of Suggestibility Research to Real-life Sex Abuse Cases • Much of the suggestibility research has limited “ecological validity,” i.e., the extent to which the research mimics real-world situations • Sexual abuse differs in many ways from the type of events that researches have attempted to ‘lead’ children about, such as: • Sam Stone accidentally soiling a teddy bear or ripping a book • Getting one’s finger caught in a mousetrap

  38. According to Ceci, it was not easy to lead children to make false allegations—even when the allegation did not relate to sexual abuse • It is probably far more difficult to lead children to make false allegations against someone they know and love (e.g., a parent) than it is to lead them to make such allegations against a stranger (e.g., Sam Stone)

  39. Beware of the Misapplication of Suggestibility Research to Children of Different Ages • Because there are significant AGE DIFEERENCES in suggestibility, it would be inappropriate to generalize research findings about preschoolers to older children • By the time children are 10-11 years old, they are essentially equivalent to adults with regard to suggestibility

  40. Suggestibility is NOT a UNIDIRECTIONAL phenomenon • Children can be ‘led’ in more than one direction • Some non-abused children can be led to make false allegations of sexual abuse • It is also true that sexually abused children can be led to deny or minimize their abuse. In fact, this is probably far more common than non-abused children being led to falsely claim they were sexually abused

  41. Six Ways to Reduce the Risk of "Leading" Children During Investigative Interviews

  42. Six Ways to Reduce the Risk of “Leading” Children During Investigative Interviews • Encourage ‘reality-based’ “truthful” reporting • Develop rapport • Avoid asking leading questions • Rely on open-ended questions as much as possible • Discourage guessing • Empower the child to disagree with you and to correct your mistakes

  43. Excerpt from a Competence Hearing Involving a Young Child Judge: What happens when you tell a lie? Child: I could go to Hell. Judge: Is that all? Child: Isn’t that enough?

  44. #1: ENCOURAGE CHILDREN TO TELL THE TRUTH • Kids don’t necessarily assume that telling the truth is important during investigative interviews and they need to be told. • Use a developmentally appropriate means of assessing their understanding of “truth” and “lie”

  45. Developmental Considerations When Questioning Children About “Truth” and “Lie” Even though kids as young as 3-years-old often recognize the difference between lying and telling the truth and recognize that lying is ‘bad,’ they often appear incompetent when they are questioned in a developmentally inappropriate fashion

  46. AGE-RELATED TRENDS IN CHILDREN’S COMPETENCE TO TAKE THE OATH Children under 9 or 10 are not good at: explaining differences defining terms generating examples

  47. Developmentally Inappropriate“Truth-Lie” questions for children under 9 • “What’ is the difference between the truth and a lie?” • “What does it mean to tell the truth?” • “Can you give me an example of a lie/the truth?”

  48. The Lyon & Saywitz Method of Assessing Young Children’s Competence to Take the Oath • Many children as young as 3 and 4 have been found to be competent when using this method. • Involves four “difference” tasks and four “morality” tasks

  49. Introduction of the Truth-Lie Task “I talk with lots of children. It’s important that they always tell me the truth. So, before we begin, I want to make sure that you understand how important it is to tell the truth.”

  50. TRUTH VS. LIE TASK Here's a picture. Look at this animal--what kind of animal is this? OK, that's a [child's label]. LISTEN to what these girls say about the [child's label]. One of them will tell a LIE and one will tell the TRUTH, and YOU'LL tell ME which girl tells the TRUTH. (point to girl on the left) THIS girl looks at the [child's label] and says "IT'S a [child's label]." (point to girl on the right) THIS girl looks at the [child's label] and says "IT'S a FISH." Which girl told the TRUTH?

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