Factors affecting the reliability of children’s forensic reports: An updated review


An updated review*

Kamala London, Sarah Kulkofsky, and Christina 0. Perez

Child maltreatment is a major societal problem. In the United States, over four million cases of child maltreatment are investigated each year (Pipe, Lamb, Orbach, & Cederborg, 2007a). Propelled by a rash of high-profile infamous childcare and satanic ritualistic abuse cases from the 1980s and 1990s, a corpus of research has emerged to outline the interview contexts that help and hinder children’s reports of past events. In this chapter, we update our review of the contemporary research findings on factors affecting the reliability of children’s forensic reports with relevant research released in the decade since the publication of our original chapter. In the first half of the chapter, we review the literature on autobiographical memory and suggestibility. In the second half of the chapter, we review contemporary research findings regarding whether and how sexually abused children tend to tell others about the abuse.

Autobiographical memory

Understanding children’s ability to provide complete and accurate reports of past events in forensic contexts requires an understanding of children’s developing memory systems. Crucially important in this regard is research on the development of autobiographical memory. Autobiographical memory refers to memory about personally experienced events. Some authors specify that autobiographical memories are only those memories that are long-lasting and centrally involve the self (e.g., Nelson, 1993b; Nelson & Fivush, 2004). Memories of personally experienced events that may be more likely to be forgotten or do not centrally involve the self are sometimes referred to as event memories or episodic memories. Autobiographical memories and more general event memories appear to rely on the same underlying neurological systems (Nelson & Fivush, 2004) and thus appear only to differ in the meaning or significance of the event. Thus, research on both autobiographical memory and event memory is relevant here.

The research on the development of autobiographical memory has shown that, by around 2 years of age, as children begin to develop stable self-concepts and the language of narrative, they begin to show the ability to talk about past events (Nelson & Fivush, 2004). At this young age, however, children’s reports often require a great deal of adult prompting. Children’s responses to open-ended prompts such as “Tell me what happened” tend to include very little detail (Fivush, 1993). Throughout early childhood children’s ability to provide detailed and elaborate accounts of past events continues to improve so that, by about age 6, children are able to provide more complete and elaborate accounts of past events (Fivush, Fladen, & Adam, 1995; Hamond & Fivush, 1991).

Many studies of children’s autobiographical memory focus on naturally occurring events, and thus memory accuracy cannot be assessed since the researchers themselves do not know what happened. However, maternal reports tend to confirm the accuracy of children’s statements (e.g., Fivush, Gray, & Fromhoff, 1987). Other work using staged events for which statements can be verified has also shown high rates of accuracy (e.g., Leichtman, l'illemer, Wang, Koreishi, & Han, 2000). As such, young children’s spontaneous recall of personally experienced past events is often characterized as accurate albeit incomplete.

However, the enthusiasm for the accuracy of children’s spontaneous statements should be tempered to some degree. It is certainly not the case that all spontaneous statements made by young children are accurate. In particular, if the child is interviewed about confusing events or events that run counter to their knowledge, then the accuracy of the child’s report may be compromised. For example, Ornstein and colleagues (Ornstein, Merrit, Baker-Ward, Furtado, Gordon, & Principe, 1998) had children experience a mock medical examination in which some common features (such as listening to the child’s heart) were omitted and atypical features (such as wiping the child’s belly button with alcohol) were added. When children were interviewed about the event after a 12-week delay, 42% of 4 year olds and 74% of 6 year olds spontaneously reported that at least one of the common features was part of the examination although it was not. Similarly, Goodman and colleagues (Goodman, Quas, Batterman-Faunce, Riddelsburger, & Kuhn 1994) interviewed children about a painful genital catheterization procedure. Among the children who were 3 to 4 years old, 23% of free recall statements were incorrect. Finally, Kulkofsky,Wang, and Ceci (2008) had preschool-aged children engage in a pizzabaking activity that included a number of unusual, non-schematic elements (e.g., the pizza was baked in a refrigerator). At one week 24% of children’s free recall statements were classified as incorrect. Thus, although children in the above studies were largely accurate, children’s spontaneous statements are not completely error- free. Given that in forensic settings young children are often interviewed about events that may be ambiguous and may not fit their current knowledge base, these findings may be particularly concerning.

In addition to often being incomplete, young children’s recall of personal memories are also dominated by scripts. Scripts are generalized accounts of what usually happens in a given situation (Nelson, 1993a). For example, an adult’s script for going to a restaurant may include waiting to be seated, reviewing the menu, ordering the meal, eating, and paying the bill.Very young children show better performance in reporting scripted information compared to information about specific events (Hudson & Nelson, 1986). Further, young children have more difficulty distinguishing between specific episodes of repeated events (Farrar & Goodman, 1992). When forensic interviewers are interested in a single novel event, children’s reliance on scripts may not prove problematic; however, in the context of child maltreatment cases, children often are interviewed about repeated events. Thus, children’s reliance on scripts in these contexts may create difficulties in obtaining complete and accurate accounts of specific episodes.

Finally, although children are able to report memories of childhood experiences, and may report memories of younger ages than adults are able to recall (Fivush & Schwarzmueller, 1999), there does appear to be a limit to how early in childhood children can remember. Specifically, children show difficulty with remembering events that occurred prior to the onset of language. For example, Peterson and Rideout (1998) interviewed young children about a visit to an emergency room that occurred when children were between 13 and 34 months old. Eighteen months later, only children who were 25 months and older at the time of the injury were able to verbally recall any details of the event, even though at the time of the interview these children had the requisite verbal ability to do so. Similarly, Bauer, Wenner, and Kroupina (2002) interviewed 3 year olds about a previous experience in the lab when they were between 13 and 20 months of age. Only children who had been 20 months of age spontaneously provided verbalizations that indicated memory for the event, although children at all age groups showed non-verbal evidence of memory. In a related study, Simcock and Hayne (2002) exposed children who were 27,33, and 39 months old to a novel event and then tested their memories six months and one year later. At both the initial exposure and at the memory interviews parents reported children’s vocabulary, including their vocabulary that was pertinent to the novel event. At both the six-month and one-year tests, no child used words to describe the event that had not been part of the child’s vocabulary at the time of the original event. Taken together, these results suggest that later verbal recall of an event is, in part, dependent on children’s language ability' at the time of encoding.

Children’s language abilities also play a significant role in the accurate recall of autobiographical memories. In the decade since the publication of our chapter, language abilities have emerged as an important cognitive factor in the accurate retrieval of autobiographical memories. Klemfuss (2015) argued task demands differ between various methods of questioning children (e.g., open-ended prompts vs. direct/misleading questions) and thus draw upon separate domains of language abilities. In theory, spontaneously recalling memories calls on children’s

expressive language abilities, while understanding and responding appropriately to direct questions targets children’s receptive language abilities. Among a sample of 64 preschoolers, Klemfuss (2015) found increases in children’s expressive language skills predicted more correct responses during free recall, whereas increases in their receptive language skills predicted more correct responses to misleading questions. In a review of the eyewitness literature spanning approximately 30 years, Perez, London, and Otgaar (under review) found support for Klemfuss’s (2015) theory regarding the differential contributions of language abilities to children’s eyewitness memory. Across 35 studies, children’s accurate free recall was most consistently related to measures of expressive language, while accurate responses to direct (non-leading) questions were most associated with measures of receptive language. These findings are important given research indicates that maltreatment hinders children’s language development and thereby limits their ability to recount their experiences (Beers & De Beilis, 2002; Benedan, Powell, Zajac, Lum, & Snow, 2018; Cicchetti, Rogosch, Howe, & Toth, 2010; Howe, Cicchetti, & Toth, 2006; Otgaar, Howe, Merckelbach, & Muris, 2018; Porter, Lawson, & Bigler, 2005).

When children participate in the forensic arena, they frequently are asked to provide details about events that occurred months or even years ago. This raises concerns about how well children can remember events after a significant delay. The results of a number of studies of children’s memories of unique naturalistic events (e.g., hurricanes, medical procedures, trips to Disneyland) indicate that, although there is forgetting, preschool and school-aged children do accurately recall details about personally experienced events with delays of months and even years (e.g., Bahrick, Parker, Fivush, & Levitt, 1998; Hammond & Fivush, 1991). For example, Peterson and colleagues (e.g., Peterson, 1996; Peterson & Bell, 1996; Peterson & Whalen, 2001) examined children’s long-term memory for emergency room visits. Children (ages 2 to 13 years) were interviewed as soon after the visit as possible and then, depending on the study, they were interviewed six months to five years later. Preschoolers reported fewer details than older children did, but even 3 year olds (but not 2 year olds) recalled some central information about highly salient events.

The research on autobiographical memory development suggests that in general young children’s spontaneous reports of personally experienced past events are largely accurate although they can be quite sparse. However, accuracy is impaired when children are asked to recall confusing or ambiguous events and children’s reliance on scripts may lead to further memory errors. Furthermore, recent research suggests children’s language abilities are important predictors for retrieval of autobiographical memories. Findings regarding the differential contributions of language in children’s accurate recall highlight the importance of keeping children’s language abilities in mind during interviews as well as in competency assessments (Klemfuss & Ceci, 2012). Finally, there is a limit to how far back children can remember, and thus, the veracity of memories recalled before the onset of language should be considered suspect.

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