Should Children Be Allowed To Testify In Court?


Over the past ten years, more research has been done involving
children\'s testimony than that of all the prior decades combined. Ceci & Bruck
(93) have cited four reasons for this :

- The opinion of psychology experts is increasingly being accepted by courts as
testimony,

- Social research is more commonly being applied to the issues of children\'s
rights,

- More research into adult suggestibility in accordance with reason naturally
leads to more research into child suggestibility,

- Children are more commonly being used as witnesses in cases where they are
directly involved (i.e. sexual abuses cases), requiring the development of
better ways for dealing with them as special cases.

Some psychologists deem children to be “Highly resistant to suggestion,
as unlikely to lie, and as reliable as adult witnesses about acts perpetrated
on their bodies” (Ceci & Bruck 1993). However, children are also described as “
Having difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy, as being susceptible to
coaching by powerful authority figures, and therefore as being potentially less
reliable than adults” (Ceci & Bruck 1993). The suggestibility of child witnesses,
the effects of participation on children\'s reports, and the effects of postevent
information on a prior memory representation must be taken into account when it
comes to seeking answers to the reliability of their testimony, especially
because sexual abuse and sexual assault cases are a big part of children\'s
testimony and they are often the only witness.

Those psychologists who feel that children can be rated as “Highly
resistant to suggestion....” etc. seem to have a good argument, whereas those
who take the opposite view also seem to have just as valid an argument. Which
psychologists are right? Maybe both. It seems that without outside influences,
social encounters, or other interference\'s, children\'s testimony has the
potential to be quite valid. This is under ideal situations, however, which
unfortunately rarely occur.

One of the major problems when assessing the validity of child witnesses
is the suggestibility of the child. Ceci & Bruck (1993) define suggestibility
as “The degree to which children\'s encoding, storage, retrieval, and reporting
of events can be influenced by a range of social and psychological factors.” A
child\'s perception of events may be manipulated by many factors with misleading
questions being the most common way to assess a subjects suggestibility (Smith
& Ellsworth, 87). A misleading question according to Smith et al, is one that “
provides information that is inconsistent with the event witnessed, suggesting,
for example, the existence of an object that was in fact not present.” After
being asked leading questions, a subject is much more likely than a person not
asked leading questions to report the presented false information as correct.

This statement was validated by Kaufman and Richter\'s 1990 study. In
this study a number of young children (4 - 7 year olds) saw a short film
featuring a circus performance. A few weeks after watching the film, the
children were split into two groups. They were then asked (individually) a
number of questions relating to the film. The first group were asked leading
questions i.e. “What colour was the clowns hat” (where in fact the clown had not
been wearing a hat), while the other group was simply asked “Was the clown
wearing a hat”. Kaufman and Richter found that regardless of age, children
often answered the leading questions and accepted the fabricated information as
being the truth.

This study clearly shows that children can be manipulated by clever
questioning about a witnessed event. However, this study did not involve the
child interacting with the event i.e. the child did nit participate on any
emotional level by simply watching a video.

Rudy & Goodman (1991) conducted an experiment involving the effects of
participation on children\'s testimony. The main purpose of Rudy & Goodman\'s
work being to see whether the factors of age or participation influenced the
recall of a child. Their experiment involved thirty-six children (eighteen 7-
year olds and eighteen 4-year olds) going in pairs into a parked trailer with a
male stranger (a confederate). One child played games with the confederate while
the other child watched closely. Positive verbal and physical interaction took
place between the confederate and the participant, and positive verbal
interaction took place between the confederate and the bystander. The events
were videotaped and lasted about ten minutes. The children then returned
individually ten to twelve days later for a memory test and were asked to recall
everything he or she could remember about the day in the trailer. Various
questions were asked, which included specific and misleading questions. Rudy
and Goodman concluded that