South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

Laboratory based studies on children's suggestibility

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The first factor which often leads to suggestive interviewing is the age of the child. When young children are questioned in an open-ended format the accuracy of the information they provide is the same as that provided by older children and adults. Young children differ from older age groups, however, in that they spontaneously provide less information.(22) One of the greatest difficulties confronting an interviewer of young children is therefore trying to obtain information from them. 'They frequently respond to adults' questions by looking vague, commenting about something else in the immediate environment, or saying "I don't know". To engage their attention and direct them to the content of the interview, interviewers often resort to asking leading and direct questions to obtain information. It is under these conditions that the inaccuracy of the younger children's reports increases. They acquiesce to the interviewer's suggestions which are more salient at the time than the past event they are being questioned about. In court cases, the pre-court interviewer often resorts to asking leading or suggestive questions based on his or her knowledge of the case, and this casts doubt on the reliability of these children's reports. Did the child really experience the abuse, or does she or he only think they experienced it because the interviewer has suggested that she or he did?

The second factor that promotes the use of leading questions by adults concerns the content of the memory. Specifically, embarrassment about reporting sexual abuse can inhibit children's disclosure of sexual information. This is clearly demonstrated by five and seven year old children's reporting of two types of routine medical examination: one involving genital touch and the other for scoliosis, not involving genital touch.(23) Seven year old children who underwent the scoliosis examination recalled significantly more accurate information than all the five year olds or the seven year olds who experienced the genital examination. The seven year olds who underwent the genital examination, however, spontaneously reported the same amount of information as the five year olds. They revealed that their lack of reporting was not a memory problem, because when asked specific questions about the genital examination they provided as much information as their peers who underwent the scoliosis examination. This study shows that seven year olds were reluctant to disclose embarrassing information. It also shows that while it is true that most studies find that older children report significantly more information than younger children, these results derive from contexts where children report on emotionally neutral, albeit sometimes stressful, events. When children are required to report on embarrassing events which more closely approximate the sexually abusive episode, the results change. Clearly, children's reporting of witnessed events is not only dependent on their competence to report information, but also on their willingness to report it.

In sum, for younger children, less information is spontaneously reported when asked under conditions of free recall, and for many older children who have been abused the nature of the material they are reporting will serve to inhibit disclosure. Because of these difficulties, children need to be asked specific questions in order to disclose abuse, and interviewers, particularly in forensic settings, find it difficult not to frame these as leading questions. When they do so, it can be argued that children succumb to the suggestive questioning of the interviewer and may report abuse when it did are also reluctant to disclose abuse by non-family not happen. In contrast, as indicated earlier, others have vehemently argued that children are highly resistant to suggestion, particularly about matters that are personally relevant and related to abuse, and that leading questions do not reduce the reliability of children's evidence. This latter position, however, is becoming increasingly more difficult to defend. What is certain is that the disclosure process is problematic for child sexual abuse victims. This is echoed by the findings of some recent field studies which also underscore that disclosure of such personal experiences can be difficult for both younger and older children.

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