Telling the truth

A very British tradition  Credit:Paul Albertella from Flickr Creative Commons
A very British tradition Credit:Paul Albertella from Flickr Creative Commons

New research from Cambridge University and others shows that, with sensitive ing, young children can be reliable witnesses in cases of abuse.

Children provided remarkable amounts of free recall information in response to open prompts which did not direct them."
—Professor Michael Lamb

A new study shows that children as young as three or four years old can talk informatively and accurately about experiences - including incidents of abuse - if they are ed by specialists who understand children’s strengths and weaknesses.  Its findings, published today in the journal Child Development, may prompt a review of current practice by police and social workers.

The research - carried out by psychologists at the University of Cambridge, University of Haifa, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the USA, and the Israeli Child Investigation Unit – challenges accepted thinking. It has long been believed that young children are incapable of providing useful information about their experiences for a variety of reasons, including their limited memory and communication abilities, and their egocentric inability to recognise that listeners do not have the same knowledge of past events that they have.

"In the light of this recent research, we need to rethink the way in which we approach young witnesses," said Michael Lamb, Professor of Psychology at Cambridge University. "All too often we under-estimate children’s abilities to remember and describe their experiences – and the consequences of this are very grave. Young children are often the only possible sources of information about abuse, and if we do not them, we will not be able to protect them or other possible victims."

According to the NSPCC, as many as one in seven children in the UK are abused, emotionally, physically and sexually, although only a tiny proportion of those responsible for this abuse are ever tried in a court of law. The reasons for this are many, including beliefs in the superiority of non-punitive interventions, children’s unwillingness to testify, and failures to obtain information of sufficient quality from the young victims.

"When very young children are involved in distressing incidents of abuse, often made more complex by both delayed reporting and confusions among multiple instances of maltreatment, the ing process becomes even more emotionally charged. There is an understandable impulse among professionals to ’help’ the child along with leading questions and to avoid ’making things worse’ by going back over them in detail," said Lamb.

Investigators and other professionals often claim that young children under the age of five or six years do not have the cognitive skills needed to answer questions competently and so should not be questioned formally about sexual or physical abuse. This results in incomplete understanding of the abuse, and typically ensures that criminal processes will not be initiated. Many perpetrators of abuse are thus never confronted, treated, or arrested and go on to abuse again. Their victims suffer untold damage.

The quality of ing plays a vital role in all investigations. In a recent example that came before the UK Court of Appeal, Judge Sir Nicholas Wall harshly criticised the quality of the official conducted by police officers investigating alleged incidents of abuse involving a child aged four and a half. He stated that the ignored much of the guidance available to officers and showed "(1) an inadequate establishment of rapport; (2) absolutely no free narrative recall by the child; (3) an abundance of leading questions, and (4) no closure".

In their study of nearly 300 three- to six-year-old alleged victims of abuse, Michael Lamb and Carmit Katz of Cambridge University, Irit Hershkowitz of the University of Haifa, Yael Orbach of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the US and Dvora Horowitz from the Israeli Child  Investigation Unit analysed transcripts of s to see how preschoolers understand and respond to questions about their experiences.

Their findings suggest that children as young as three years old can give an accurate account of events, if ed in a sensitive manner by ers who understand the types of questions that are most likely to elicit reliable information from young children.

"Our study involved preschool children in Israel who were all suspected victims of abuse. It showed that young children were able to take part in extended s, answering up to 84 questions in a single session, if they were adequately prepared for questioning and the questions themselves were appropriately framed," said Lamb.

The Israeli children ed had reported being sexually or physically abused. They were ed using a structured guide designed by Lamb and colleagues when he worked at the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) before 2004.  This Protocol incorporates the findings of research on children’s abilities, and has been adopted by a number of agencies around the world because it has been shown to produce better quality s than any other technique to have been studied.