Research Psychologist Stephen Ceci discusses the psychological factors that must be considered when interviewing young children in judicial settings.
It may come as a surprise to some people that nearly three million young children in the U.S. are interviewed each year by law enforcement, child protection, and mental health professionals.
Child witness testimony can go off track for a variety of reasons, some having to do with biology. Young children's brains aren't fully mature, especially the centers of the brain that are important in tracking and monitoring memories, and discriminating real memories from suggestions, dreams, and fantasies. There are also what we call cognitive or mental reasons. Young children don't know all the strategies to refresh their memories that older children and adults know.
Then there are also social reasons. Young children are more eager sometimes to please the interviewer, and may tell the interviewer what they think he or she wants to hear as opposed to what they really remember. Combine all these reasons with suggestive and repetitive techniques used in questioning and you've got a whole galaxy of cognitive, biological, and social factors that can derail a very young child's testimony.
As a research psychologist, I'm encouraged by the growing interest in how our research can be applied. Judges' organizations and state bar associations request workshops on child witness credibility. Often, those workshops develop into uniform guidelines, manuals, and materials for interviewing children.
Whether testimony is being given in neglect proceedings, child abuse or sexual abuse cases, witness to a crime, or product liability, it's enormously important to maximize the accuracy of what children are saying for their own sake and for the sake of justice.
Dr. Ceci's Web site at Cornell University includes information on his publications as well as a biographical statement. http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/sjc9/bio.html.