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...
References: Bernstein, D. A., Roy, E. J., Srull, T. K., Wickens, C. D. (1994)
Psychology, 3rd edition
Ceci, S & Bruck, M. (1993). Suggestibility of the Child Witness: A
Historical Review and Synthesis, Psychological Bulletin
Lefrancois, G. R. (1992). Psychology, 2nd edition. Wadsworth Publishing
Luus, C. A. E., Wells, G. L., & Turtle, J. W. (1995). Child
eyewitnesses: Seeing is believing
Rovee-Collier, C. et al. (1993). Infants Eyewitness Testimony: Effects
of Postevent Information on a Prior Memory Representaion, Memory and Cognition,
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