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The Science of
Children's Testimony

Memory,  Suggestibility, Language, Interviewing


Jason J. Dickinson, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Montclair State University 

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What is a Forensic Interview?

Forensic interviews are used to elicit testimony from a witness or suspected victim. They are triggered by an outcry,  a suspicion, or when authorities believe a child is a material or bystander witness to a matter under investigation. Forensic interviews are conducted in both criminal and civil matters. 


Forensic interviews employ careful strategies to maximize the accuracy, clarity, and completeness of children's testimony (while avoiding confirmatory lines of questioning). They possess two defining features: First, they are investigative in nature (i.e., they are neutral, fact-finding conversations that inform legal-decision making). Second, they are child centered, meaning they are developmentally appropriate and encourage children to tell their story in their own words.


What Is a Forensic Interview Protocol?

Strategies for questioning children are packaged in forensic interviewing protocols. These protocols are semi-structured and consist of phases  each phase is designed to solve a unique conversational problem (e.g., rapport building, narrative practice, raising the topic of concern). Today, those who question children have an array of protocols to choose from.


Which protocol is "best?" Though some organizations do a better job than others of incorporating evidence-based techniques into their protocol and training, the use of a particular protocol determines neither the quality of an interview, nor the reliability of a child's testimony. Much more important is the extent to which a given interview followed best-practices.


Do Forensic Interviewers Need To Be Licensed Or Certified?

Forensic interviewing serves an investigative function rather than a clinical service. Therefore forensic interviewers are not licensed or certified. Though an agency that employs forensic interviewers may require a specific degree or level of education, there are no degree requirements for conducting an interview, or for becoming a professional interviewer. Not everyone that conducts an interview claims the "forensic interviewer" title. Detectives, for example, regularly interview victims and witnesses but do not consider themselves forensic interviewers.


Though educational training in certain fields may complement an interviewer's skill set, more important is that the interviewer is formally trained and follows best-practices. Most interviewers take an initial multi-day training and then participate in a peer-review program once a year.

Some individuals claim to be a "certified forensic interviewer." However, any training program is free to offer its own "certification." In fact, there is no accrediting body for the forensic interviewing profession. This is true for those who interview children, as well as those who interview adults.

What Is Suggestibility?

Suggestibility occurs when post-event information influences the encoding, storage, retrieval, and/or reporting of one's memory. Suggestibility can occur before or after a forensic interview (by exposure to misinformation by peers or adults) or during the forensic interview (suggestive or leading questions, casting the suspect in a negative light). Children generally become less suggestible as they grow older, but there is no upper age limit. All people, including adults, are susceptible to suggestibility to some degree.

A good forensic interview addresses suggestibility in several ways: (1) it discourages the use of suggestive questions and techniques, (2) it leverages evidence-based questioning strategies that promote accuracy, and (3) it explores alternative explanations for allegations.

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What Are Interviewing Aids?

The use of interviewing aids to elicit children's testimony is  controversial. Proponents of interviewing aids, such as anatomical dolls  and anatomical diagrams, argue they cue memory and help children overcome motivational  or language barriers to disclosing by having them "show" rather than "tell" what happened. Interviewing aids are primarily used in two ways: to elicit disclosures and to clarify disclosures. The distinction is important. Using aids to elicit disclosures is more likely to generate false reports.


Today, it is generally accepted that anatomical dolls should not be introduced prior to a disclosure due to the significant risk of eliciting a false report. Many interviewers nevertheless use anatomical diagrams for this purpose. However, there is no evidence that young children can use diagrams at an earlier age than anatomical dolls to communicate touch, or that they produce fewer errors.

Are Interviewing Aids Suggestive?

There are a number of inherent problems with interviewing aids. Some children fail to grasp their symbolic nature. Even when children understand their representational purpose, it does not necessarily mean they can use aids to communicate personally experienced events. (In addition, correct gender identification of diagrams and the correct labeling of body parts does not predict accuracy.)

Body diagrams have been found to produce significantly more intrusion errors compared to non-assisted verbal questioning (Poole & Dickinson, 2011). Other research has found that a significant minority of children cannot  use diagrams for their intended purpose. False reports of touching made by these "exuberant false-reporters" do not stem from common memory errors. Rather, they reflect lack of cognitive control (executive function). In addition to limitations related to children's memory and cognition, it is not uncommon for interview aids to be paired with leading and suggestive questions.

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Is Children's Testimony Reliable?

Assessing the reliability of children's testimony can be challenging, particularly when there is little physical or corroborating evidence. In some cases children's reports are incomplete or lack the level of detail desired by investigators. Though even preschool aged children can make remarkably accurate witnesses, suggestibility does not have to be heavy-handed to influence children's reports, and false reports can contain convincing contextual detail. In addition, children's testimony is subject to other sources of error not related to suggestibility.

Assessing the reliability of children's testimony requires an understanding of how children's language and cognition interact with various case features and external pressures to shape the accuracy of their reports.


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