When interviewed a week later, children were asked about mundane but untrue events (such as “Did Paco tear a book?”) and fantastic events (such as “Did Paco take you on a helicopter ride?”). Fifty-two percent of children who received reinforcement made false allegations that they had experienced fantastic events compared with 5% made by controls. In a second interview 2 to 3 weeks later, the children making fantastic claims maintained their allegations even when the reinforcement was discontinued.
The authors concluded that reinforcement quickly induces children to make persistent false allegations of wrongdoing.8 Corruptive effects on children’s statements have also been noted when children are asked to guess or speculate on what might have happened or when a question that they have already answered is repeated.9,10
Findings from these studies indicate that children will report false information when questioned suggestively about events that occur in a school setting. But will children also falsely report instances of being physically or sexually touched when, in reality, they were not? Current research indicates that children can and do make false allegations of being touched when misleading or inappropriate questions are used.
In a study by Saywitz and associates,11 5- and 7-year-old girls (n = 36) had an external genital and anal examination as part of a routine pediatric examination. Thirty-five girls in the same age range were not exposed to this type of touching as part of the pediatric examination. Of those girls not touched, 8% provided a false report that they were touched in their vaginal or anal area when they were asked directly if this occurred.11
In a subsequent study of 3-year-old girls who also underwent a pediatric examination, researchers asked strongly suggestive questions about a doctor touching their anogenital regions, such as “Show me on the doll how Dr F touched your genitals.” Among girls whom the doctor did not touch, 50% falsely claimed that the doctor had inserted objects into their anogenital cavities.12 Both of these studies indicate that children can and will make false allegations if inappropriate interview techniques, such as leading questions, are used.
Forensic interviewing of children
When interviewing children who are suspected of being victims of abuse, there are several important factors to consider. First, videotaping is strongly recommended to preserve the content of questions and answers. Videotaping is particularly important when the child is being interviewed to assess allegations that may lead to criminal charges or civil damages.
In general, the evaluator begins the interview process by establishing a rapport with the child while assessing his developmental level. At this early point in the interview, the examiner can ask the child basic questions with easily verifiable answers, such as the child’s age, where he goes to school, and the names of family members. The examiner should also ask the child about a known event, such as his age, birthday, or recent holiday, to ascertain the accuracy of the child’s recall.
A child’s understanding of basic spatial orientations such as “in,” “on,” “behind,” “on top” are important to establish during the initial phases of the interview in the event that a child later describes sexual activity in which such details may be particularly relevant. To demonstrate a child’s ability in this regard, the examiner can ask the child to place a crayon in a box, on top of the box, under the box, or partially in the box.