Child Testimony: History and Psychological Aspects
The First 200 years of Child Testimony History
Over the past three decades, researchers in the field of eye witness testimony have identified ways of interviewing children that maximize their accuracy and decrease their level of stress while testifying (Zajac & Hayne, 2003). Witnesses’ statements are one of the most important sources of information in investigating crimes (Larson & Granhag, 2005). Such accounts are evaluated and it was decided two aspects are more vital than others (Larson & Granhag, 2005). First the account should be as detailed as possible and secondly for the account to be useful, it must be reliable (Larson & Granhag, 2005). In many cases where children are alleged victims, their testimony is the sole piece of evidence, due to lack of medical and other physical evidence (Landstrom et. al., 2007). To help children provide an accurate and complete statement many techniques are used, such as videotaped interviews, protective shields, and closed circuit testimonies (Landstrom et. al., 2007). This paper serves to provide insight into the historical lineage of child testimony, as well as the psychological components that encompass it and the projected future state of child testimony.
The earliest recorded instance of children testifying in the United States occurred in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). During the Salem Witch Trails a group of children gave false testimony of more than 20 residents of Salem Village and Salem Farmers (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). The claims made by the female child witnesses were of a fantastical nature (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). As a result the defendants were executed. Several years later, after the executions, some of the child witnesses publicly recanted their testimonies, setting the tone for the next 300 years of skepticism in regards to child testimony (Ceci & Bruck, 1993).
In Europe, the tone of child testimony was different (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). In fact this area of research flourished and was especially prominent in Germany and France (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). This is said to be attributed to the differing judicial systems in Europe verses the United States. (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). In Europe, an inquisitorial system of justice prevails (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). Therefore, a judge is required to call upon witnesses for questioning (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). Early 20th century, expert witnesses were psychologists who carried out experiments to examine the veracity of a child’s testimony (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). In contrast, the United States implemented an adversarial system, in which the use of opposing attorneys and a jury was considered sufficient to evaluate witness credibility (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). By the early 1900’s researchers such as Whipple, had already established a lack of credibility in child witness testimony (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). This was due to experiments in suggestibility with children, indicating how easily they changed and made up facts of testimony (Ceci & Bruck, 1993).
During 1924 and 1963 Europe continued to be a force in child testimony research (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). The United States, in the same time period, conducted similar research; however, the research was rejected in the legal profession (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). The consensus was that psychology had nothing to offer the law (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). A combination of case law and research on child testimony produced in the United States in the later half of the 20th century began to impact the way the legal profession viewed child testimony creating a bridge between the legal profession and what psychologists could offer in this regard.
Historical Societal Changes Effecting Child Testimony
The first of these occurrences took place in the 1970’s (Goodman, 2006). It is unknown how prevalent child sexual abuse was in the seventies as this was still not a time period in which societal norms allowed the discussion of open dialog concerning sexual abuse (Goodman, 2006). Newspapers emerged with stories of sexual abuse by priests (Goodman, 2006). The prevalence of this society ill was largely hidden, not just by Catholic Church, but more generally by a society in denial (Goodman, 2006). Previously in many states, children younger than 9 – 14 years were considered, depending on the state laws, incompetent to testify (Goodman, 2006). Therefore, a prosecuting attorney with a child victim/witness case had to convince the judge that the child was a competent witness and does not have a coached memory (Goodman, 2006). Moreover, pre-1970’s in many states, children’s claims of sexual abuse had to be corroborated by physical evidence or another eyewitness, both of which are unlikely, given that most child sexual abuse does not leave physical evidence and is conducted in private (Goodman, 2006). As a result, in the 1970’s many corroboration laws were lifted (Goodman, 2006).
By the 1980’s greater numbers of child sexual abuse cases emerged, however, a continuing problem of child suggestibility also arose along side these cases (Goodman, 2006). Child victims, upon adulthood, would recant their claims (Goodman, 2006). All of the victims recanting were male (Goodman, 2006). Psychologists continued to produce studies indicating the way a child victim/witness is questioned does lead the child to verbalize incorrect statements of memories (Goodman, 2006). Psychologists also concluded through research that stress hinders eye witness memory (Goodman, 2006). The 1980’s also produced research by psychologists proving that 4 and 5 year olds were resistant to suggestibility of questioning, and 3 year olds as with older children indicated high levels of suggestibility (Goodman, 2006). In 1985 the Child Witness Protection Act was born out of the ever increasing number of child witnesses coming forward in sexual abuse cases (Trowbridge, 2008). Rules excluding the testimony and hearsay of children have become relaxed, and many courts freely accepted the live testimony of very young children (Trowbridge, 2008). Thus, rules about the testimony of children were liberalized in most states (Trowbridge, 2008).
The State of Washington retains the old common law idea that the competency of a child witness to testify involves much more than a mere inability to determine truth from falsehood and understanding of an oath (Trowbridge, 2008). In Washington whenever a child under 12 years old is offered as a witness, the court must assume the initiative in determining his competency (Trowbridge, 2008). In 1967 in State v. Allen, Washington’s Supreme Court declared, “The truest test of the competency of a young child as a witness consists of the following: An understanding of the obligation to speak the truth on the witness stand, the mental capacity at the time of the occurrence concerning which he is to testify, a memory sufficient to retain an independent recollection of the occurrence, capacity to express in words his memory of the occurrence, and the capacity to understand simple questions about it,” (Trowbridge, 2008).
The 1990’s began to reflect research findings of the 1900’s (Goodman, 2006). It was now known that there were particular conditions under which children could be accurate or inaccurate (Goodman, 2006). Another major turning point for child testimony in the 1990’s was the introduction of close circuit television (Goodman, 2006). The U.S. Supreme court ruled in Maryland v. Craig (1990) that if, in a child sexual abuse case, the victim was so traumatized that he or she could not reasonably communicate (e.g., could not answer questions) at trial, the child could testify via closed circuit television, as long as a judge made that determination (Goodman, 2006). This change was spurred by the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right...to be confronted with the witnesses against him," (Goodman, 2006).
Psychological Aspects of Child Testimony
With current technology in neuro-imaging and further concrete understanding of the working brain, psychologist today report that a negative event actually solidifies greater accuracy of memory of the negative experience (Goodman, 2006). Today, it is the psychologist’s role to determine the effect of symptoms the child witness exhibits as a result of being in traumatic situations as sexual abuse, witnessing violence/crime, and even the traumatic event of giving testimony to a court of law in which they will have to relive events via questioning and cross examination.
Shielding During Child Testimony
In Coy v. Iowa (1988) the United States Supreme Court first addressed the issue of shielded testimony at trial. The court permitted a screen to be placed between the defendant and the witness during the child’s testimony because the Iowa Court found that child witnesses suffered emotional trauma from testifying in front of the defendant. Alt Law (1988) note that many States have determined that a child victim may suffer trauma from exposure to the harsh atmosphere of the typical courtroom and have undertaken to shield the child through a variety of ameliorative measures.
With the common goal of the judicial system and the field of psychology to protect children the creation of nationwide forensic child interviewing centers are now in place (Goodman, 2006). These centers are known as the Child Advocacy Centers or in California they are known as Multidisciplinary Interview Centers (Goodman, 2006). With the body of research by psychologists in regards to post traumatic stress, psychologists are now able to influence the judicial system and provide a buffering effect to further minimize the retraumatization of the child witness (Goodman, 2006). This entails consolidating the interviewing of children so that they do not have to be repeatedly interviewed by various authorities (Goodman, 2006). In addition this reduction of interviewing the child witness also insures that only the most highly trained individuals participate in the interviewing process of the child witness, thereby minimizing trauma and retrieving the soundest testimony the child can produce (Goodman, 2006). The interviews are typically taped and involve observation by police, district attorneys and child protective investigators behind a one-way mirror (Goodman, 2006).
Future Projections for Child Testimony
Projections of future child testimony will continue to include the psychological interviewing as well as continued psychological testing to determine a child’s maturity level, cognitive and ability and reactions to traumatic stressful events. As technological advances continue to develop and an even greater understanding of the mechanisms of the brain is revealed, child witness testimony will no doubt reflect the new insights gained by the field of psychology. Currently the literature on child testimony states the future of child witness interviewing should be measured on a continuum. It is proposed that interviews should not be judged dichotomously, as neither leading nor non-leading, but rather viewed as falling along a “leadingness” continuum (Goodman & Schaff, 2007). To guide further research a call is made to integrate complex applied and theoretical issues in the study of child witnesses (Goodman & Schaff, 2007).
The U.S. judicial systems as well as the field of psychologically are progressively more advanced in their understanding of child witness testimony compared to 300 years ago with the first child testimony cases in the Salem Witch Trials. Although the dilemma of child testimony still haunts us in the 2000’s we have learned a great deal on how to retrieve and secure child witness testimony and how to allow children to come forward with statements without fear of retribution or retaliation from society.
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