The Reliability of Child Testimony

girl looking at court

Oftentimes, the only witnesses police investigators have are children. In such cases, it is appropriate to question the validity of the children’s testimony. How does it compare to adult testimony? Does the relative tendency of children to speak earnestly outweigh their lesser cognitive abilities?

Child development specialist of Cornell University, Dr. Steven Ceci believes that children and adults store memories in very different ways. He says the differences in the ways adults and children imprint memory is due to the influence of experience on adult witnesses and the lack of it in children. That does not mean, he says, that children are incapable of being credible witnesses- it means the ways in which their testimony can be credible are different.

The issue has grown in relevance, unfortunately, due to the recent increased incidence of traumatic childhood events like sexual abuse and physical violence. When these cases are brought before a judge, very frequently, the child’s testimony is the most critical factor in determining the character of a judge’s decision. This is not so because the child’s testimony is of the best quality- but rather because it represents the most pivotal factor in a case.

The problem of suggestibility, as in- the degree to which storage, encoding, retrieval and reporting of experienced events are influenced unduly by internal and external factors, is a major barrier to children’s providing reliable testimony. Leading questions which stem from interviewer bias is likely the single factor that most detracts from the reliability of child witness testimony. When an interviewer leads the child in a direction based on preconceptions about an indecent, the child is prone to give the answer the interviewer wants from either a desire to please or from suggestibility.

Dr. Ceci says that a person’s ability to give accurate testimony reaches its peak at about the age of 12. From there, he says, it begins to decline.

“The most important ingredient which drives the difference in memory is how much they know about the event prior to experiencing it. So, the 3-year-old is not terribly good at recalling what he saw because he does not have a script for the event about what happens in a given scenario,” he said.

In the 1980s, there was an epidemic of false/implanted memories being used ¬†as child-witness testimony. Children were asked leading questions and, Dr. Ceci said,”the children’s memories had been altered by the incessant and suggestive interviews they were subjected to.”

Interviewers can ask the wrong questions, or pursue the child- often relentlessly- with loaded and leading questions. In cases where the child’s memory is feeble or non-existent, the interviewer can easily implant a false memory.

Dr. Ceci said the problem can be alleviated, to some degree, by presenting the child with an interviewer of lesser stature. A janitor, for example, rather than a uniformed police officer- or a counselor rather than a teacher.

By removing pressures that might make the child feel urged to give the interviewer what the child thinks the interviewer wants, by using correct questioning techniques that are not leading, loaded, suggestive, or pressuring, and by choosing child witnesses as close to age twelve as possible, (when possible), the testimony of children can be reasonably considered more reliable. Child testimony, when gathered correctly, can often be the best and most accurate testimony  available to the court.