Expert Testimony: Children as Witnesses

A child provides information through questioning, testimony or identification.

Lyn Haber, Ph.D., provides expert testimony on the factors that affect the accuracy of children as witnesses.

Interview procedures: who questions the child, the experience of the interviewer, how many people are asking questions, where the interview takes place, and who is present.

Questioning Protocol: how questions are asked, use of models, how the child answers (show v. tell), use of leading, misleading, biased, presuppositions, and repeated or pressured questions.

Linguistic Level: comprehension and production of language in the case.

Suggestibility: who has discussed the crime with the child, when, and how often.

Age of Child at time of crime; time elapsed between crime and child’s first report; age at time of testimony.

Factors that are Likely to Make Children’s Memory Accurate: (a) the event was familiar in the child’s experience; (b) the child immediately tells the event to a trusted adult; (c) the child’s language level is adequate to describe the event coherently; (d) no one pressures the child to tell what happened; (e) the child is questioned appropriately by a trained specialist; (f) the questioning takes place in a familiar or safe environment; (g) no discussion of the event occurs thereafter with the child; and (h) the child then testifies under emotionally safe and supported conditions.

Factors that are Likely to Make Children’s Memory Inaccurate: (a) the event was novel; (b) the event was frightening; (c) the child first reported the event to an unfamiliar person or to an authority figure; (d) the child’s language level was very elementary (this problem can be addressed by appropriate questioning); (e) incorrect questioning procedures were used; (f) the child was questioned in an unfamiliar, frightening setting; (g) the child was required to report the story often; and (h) the child testified in an unsupportive context.

The best sourcebook on child witnesses is: Stephen Ceci and Maggie Bruck (1995). Jeopardy in the Courtroom; A Scientific Analysis of Children’s Testimony. Washington: American Psychological Association Books.

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