6 Oct 2016

Nothing but the truth: can children be reliable eyewitnesses

From Our Changing World, 9:06 pm on 6 October 2016

Psychologist Deirdre Brown has been researching the subject.

Child playing

Can children be relied upon to give evidence? Photo: Jurgen Onland

A tug-of-war plays out between two children in a busy playground; one child falls over and grazes his knee, just as the other child decides to run away with a toy that both children want to play with.

A teacher comes to the fallen boy’s aid and asks what has happened.

The answer should be simple. Instead, the boy on the ground explains that the other child hit him and proceeded to push him over.

Children can be rambunctious, cheeky, unwittingly funny - and they can also get away with saying the unexpected and sometimes untrue, while projecting nothing but the truth. And whether we like it or not, adults aren’t always capable of detecting when a child may be presenting them with false information.  

“[Just like adults], children do all sorts of things when they lie and body language is not a very reliable indicator of truth or not … Equally, children change their answers when they’re telling the truth,” says Dr Deirdre Brown, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Victoria University.

Child's eye

Children have the ability to recall accurate information. Photo: Tom Hickmore

Part of Deirdre’s research has involved looking at how children are questioned in interviews, and whether they can be relied upon to give accurate details as eyewitnesses. She works with Child Youth and Family and the NZ Police, and says that for various reasons it can be challenging to elicit the truth from children. Younger children, for example, don’t have a sense of time, which makes it difficult for them to understand when events have occurred in the past, and for how long.

Formal interviews involving a child’s experience of maltreatment also need to be handled carefully, because a closed line of questioning can have bearing on the outcome.

“We don’t have a good way of measuring - even for adults [who are] looking back into their childhood - whether or not the things they’re talking about have happened or not. [And] unfortunately, the kinds of questions that a concerned adult would ask are also precisely the kinds of questions that might lead the child to develop a different kind of memory to what they were talking about in the first place.”

This is the very crux of the problem, says Deirdre, because there is nothing about false memories that lets us identify whether they’re true or not.

She says that while children can be relied upon to provide accurate information, there are also times when children let their imaginations get the best of them, which can have serious implications for someone who is being falsely accused.

Deirdre Brown

Psychologist Deirdre Brown. Photo: RNZ / Sonia Sly

Deirdre conducted research with human figure drawings that are used worldwide for forensic interviews with children.

The study was undertaken at Lancaster University with a group of 5-7-year-olds. It was a staged event to look at how children might recall information and record it.

“In this particular study we had children interact with someone who was acting as a photographer, [who dressed] them up in a pirate’s costume while touching them in a number of different places.”

The scenes were videoed and ‘intentional’ identical touches were made on each child: patting on the shoulders, wriggling the feet, adjusting a waistband, attaching an earring and wriggling the ear, putting on a wristband and squeezing the wrist.

Later, the children were given a task -- to draw a cross at each point on the figure drawing to indicate where they had been ‘touched’.

They were later interviewed, with their parents observing from another room, and the outcome was astonishing.

Outlines of children's body

In Deirdre's study children were asked where they were touched. The images on the left showed correctly where the children were actually touched, while the images on the right indicate the places where some children later claimed they had been touched. Photo: RNZ / Sonia Sly

While some children marked the drawing correctly, in other cases marks were left out. Most disturbingly, some additional marks were placed around the genitals and buttocks, and some of the children responded with comments such as “...she touched me and it made me feel sick … she tickled my bottom … she kicked me on the chin and it bled.”

The children were confident and convincing, and able to provide details of events that never actually occurred. Needless to say, the parents were shocked.

Deirdre says that there are a number of reasons why children might be compelled to include information that never happened, including the fact that some of the children became so involved in the task that they saw it as as kind of puzzle or colouring activity.

Children are also motivated to get the answers right, and depending on how they’ve been interviewed, their answers may continue to change. In this case, Deirdre says the thought process for a child play out something like this: “if you’re asking me questions about these things then it must have happened, and I should make a cross here because that’s how I will be good in this interview.”

In New Zealand, says Deirdre, the figure drawings are only used at the end of an interview to clarify what has already been said. “That’s the distinction [because] often in this study [the children] were saying entirely new things ... I think there are a number of reasons why these could be harmful.”

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