Children As Witnesses

Children As Witnesses

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Every day a child is called on to testify in a courtroom.  Children who have to testify in open court are easily influenced by outside sources.  This paper will show the reasons children should not be used as witnesses in a courtroom.  I will show all the different influences that a child receives and prove them uncredible.  The interview process can influence a child greatly. Ceci and Bruck (1995) found a study that shows that child witnesses may be questioned up to12 times during the course of an investigation.  The questioning process can take up to a year and a half to be completed.  Children are not capable of remembering exact details for that period.  Their answers to questions will change each time he or she is asked.  This is because they do not retain information in the same way as an adult.  Most studies have shown that children start to lose their ability to recall an event accurately only 10 days after the original event has happened.  Another factor in a child’s ability to recall an event is stress. A child can go into a shock stage and repress all memories of what has happened to them.  These memories may not resurface for many years. This affects a child’s ability to identify the suspect in photo and live line-ups.   The amount of stress a child goes through affects their ability to answer questions in an interview, if they cannot remember what has happened, how are they supposed to answer the myriad of questions the interviewer will ask them.   Many people think that children do not lie.  It is not that they lie, they just cannot remember what happened a year or two ago when they were much younger, perhaps only a year or two old.  The truth is children do lie. “One study shows that twenty three percent of abuse allegations are false and there was insufficient information to determine the truth in another twenty four percent” (Slicker W.D., 1999, Child testimony ¶ 16).  Fear is also a factor in children lying or not providing adequate information.  Lepore (1991) says that studies show in most abuse cases the suspect will usually bribe the child or threaten them into secrecy.  This causes the child to become afraid to tell the truth, and they will begin to deny what has happened or even worse not report the abuse at all.   The way an interviewer phrases a question will influence a child.

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  This is called   “Stereotype induction” (Ceci and Bruck, 1995) Interviewers refer to the suspect as a ‘bad person’ or say that this person has done ‘bad things’.    They have already put into the child’s head that the suspect has done something wrong.  Ceci and Bruck (1995) state, “To summarize, stereotype induction is a technique that is used by interviewers to help frightened or ashamed children to disclose the details of their abuse or a witnessed event.  However, as evidenced by the scientific literature, the use of this technique, particularly in the hands of biased interviewers, may seriously tarnish the accuracy of children’s reports.”  Ceci and Bruck (1995) found a study where five and six-year-old children witnessed a staged event that could possibly be misinterpreted.  These children witnessed a janitor, named “Chester”, clean toys and dolls in a playroom in their school.  Different people who used different wording in their questioning then interviewed these children.   The interviewers used either a suggestive tone (stating that Chester had been acting inappropriately) or a neutral tone that was not suggestive.  When the non-suggestive interviewer asked the questions the children’s answers were exactly what had happened.  When interviewed by the suggestive interviewer the children told a very different story.  90% of these children agreed with what the interviewer was suggesting instead of what truly happened.  If this had been an actual case, the man “Chester” would have spent many years in prison for something he did not do, all because of a biased interviewer using stereotype induction. The interviewers themselves, because they spend a great deal of time with the child, have an immense impact on the child.  Interviewers use repeat questioning to confuse young children.   The interviewer will rephrase his or her question several times.  With the use of repeat questions, the child starts to wonder if maybe the first answer they gave was incorrect since they are being asked the same question again.  Children are always seeking approval from adults.  When one wants to get the truth, or the answer he or she wants, from a child just ask them the same question repeatedly. Ceci and Bruck (1995) have found that if the child in question has not been abused, the scale of repeat questioning could lead to false allegations.  There are many reasons for repeat questioning; one is that many different people in different areas of the legal world must interview the child.  The second is that repeating interviews gives a witness ample time to remember all the details of an event.  However, children answering questions this many times frustrates them and they will start making up answers to try to get themselves out of having to answer more questions.  The legal system knows how these forms of questioning affect young children yet they are still used everyday to make a child say what the interviewers want them to say. Children have been known to have difficulty distinguishing reality from fact.  Lepore (1991) has found that this ability develops with age.  Children hear stories that other children have told them and sometimes will get this confused with what has happened to them.  In addition, children have very vivid dreams.  There is many times where a child does not remember whether what has happened to them has truly happened or if the abuse was just a dream.   Parents are a very large influence in a child’s life, based on their personal beliefs and even the way that they themselves were raised.   These things directly affect the way a child will answer questions when interviewed.  Parents also have the innate ability to get their children to say things that may not be true or are not the whole truth.  Lepore (1991) has found that children are afraid or are intimidated by authority figures.  Children also think that their parents are all knowing.  When parents use stereotyping, this has a large impact on how a child feels about the suspect.  The parent will refer to the suspect as a ‘bad person’ and the child will believe this to be true.  On the other side of the spectrum, a parent will tell a child the person in question is a good person and would never do anything wrong, and the child will often start to wonder if something bad truly did happen to them.  Many people feel that parents are always a good influence on a child, and that parental influence is not a factor.  The truth is parental influence is one of the largest factors in abuse and custody cases.  One parent in a custody case will make the other parent out to be an unfit parent.  Vetkamp (2003) stated, there are those who feel that children testifying in court may have a positive impact on the child.  He states that pro-child testimony advocates feel that the “experience could be cathartic, provide a feeling of control, provide vindication, and symbolically put an end to and unpleasant experience”.  However, this is not usually the case.  Although testifying in court may provide a child with some sort of vindication, the long-term effects on a child are much worse and cannot be taken care of simply by testifying in a courtroom.  The child will always have memories of what has happened to them.  From personal experience, one never forgets what happened to him or her when he or she is a victim of child abuse.  These memories stay with them for many years throughout his or her adult life.  They may only remember small amounts but these memories will affect the child for the rest of their lives. In conclusion, children should not testify in a courtroom.  They do not have the mental capacity to be considered credible witnesses. The whole process is too stressful on the child, and on all parties involved.  These child witnesses have been influenced by many outside sources and should in no way be testifying in an open courtroom.  Is placing a person’s future in the hands of a child who may not accurately remember what happened to them in school that day a good idea?  Is using a child who had been influenced by many outside sources as a key witness something that should be reconsidered by the judicial system?ReferencesBruck, M. & Ceci, S.J. (1995) Jeopardy in the courtroom: a scientific analysis of        children’s  testimony. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Leopre, S.J. (1991).  Child witness: cognitive and social factors related to memory and  testimony.  Retrieved March 29, 2006. From  http://www.ipt-forensics.com/journal/volume3/j3_2_1.htmMarsil, M. F., & Warren, A. R. (Winter 2002). Why children’s suggestibility remains a       serious concern. (child abuse litigation). Law and contemporary problems, 127.       retrieved March 12, 2006, from InfoTrac OneFile database. [Journal article from       database]Slicker, W. D. (November 1998). Child testimony (Florida family law). Florida bar      journal, 46.Retieved March 10, 2006, from InfoTrac OneFile database. [Journal        journal article from database]Veltkamp, L.J. MSW, BCD, Chair, CSW and the law committee Luftman G., (Summer 2003).   The pros and cons of children testifying in court. The clinical social work federation.   Retrieved April 6, 2006, from  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=1  2106756&dopt=Abstract
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