Of the nearly 3.6 million children who were the subjects of a Child Protective Services investigation in 2006, maltreatment was substantiated or indicated in 28%. Nearly 9% of these substantiated/indicated cases were related to sexual abuse allegations.1 When sexual abuse is alleged, children may face investigative interviews, family disruptions, a change in their school environment, mental health counseling, and even trial court testimony. This article reviews factors that affect the reliability of children’s statements and provides guidelines for evaluators to help minimize the risk of their contaminating a child’s report of sexual abuse.
Reliability of child sexual abuse allegations
Factors to consider when evaluating the reliability of sexual abuse allegations include an assessment of the child’s memory and suggestibility. Reporting a memory requires a person to perceive the event, retain the memory, and retrieve the memory when asked to do so.
Memory can be divided into 3 categories: recognition memory, recall memory, and reconstructed memory. In general, recognition memory is the least complex form of memory: one need only recognize a single stimulus that he or she has had. Children as young as 3 years are fairly reliable at memory tasks that involve basic recognition of objects they have seen. By age 6 years, children can recognize a familiar face nearly as well as an adult.2
In contrast, recall memory requires the reconstruction of what the child saw or experienced without the benefit of a prop or prompt. In this situation, a child who is interviewed may fail to report all or part of an event he experienced. This is known as an error of omission and is more commonly observed when preschoolers are interviewed than when older children are.
An error of commission is the endorsement of having experienced something that did not actually occur. It can result from deliberate lying, confusion between different memories that are similar, and difficulty in distinguishing real from imagined events.3,4
Reconstruction memory involves the process of extracting a memory that is not spontaneously volunteered through questioning or other types of prompts, such as pictures or videotapes. An original memory trace can be altered by the suggestions of other people who interact with the child, through inappropriate investigative interviews, or from therapy provided by clinicians who do not appreciate the influence of suggestibility on childhood memories.
Ceci and Bruck5 defined suggestibility as the “degree to which children’s encoding, storage, retrieval, and reporting of events can be influenced by a range of social and psychological factors.” One of the most famous cases involved alleged child abuse at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Seven defendants were charged with over 300 counts of abuse that involved more than 100 children. Many of the allegations were extremely bizarre and highly unlikely. After 7 years and at a cost of $15 million, none of the accused were found guilty.6
1. US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families. Child Maltreatment 2006.Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 2008.
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4. Foley MA, Santini C, Sopasakis M. Discriminating between memories: evidence for children’s spontaneous elaborations. J Exp Child Psychol. 1989;48: 146-169.
5. Ceci SJ, Bruck M. Suggestibility of the child witness: a historical review and synthesis. Psychol Bull. 1993;113:403-439.
6. Yuille JC, Tymofievich M, Marxsen D. The nature of allegations of child sexual abuse. In: Ney T, ed. True and False Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse: Assessment and Case Management. New York: Brunner/ Mazel; 1995:34-35.
7. Garven S, Wood JM, Malpass RS, Shaw JS 3rd. More than suggestion: the effect of interviewing techheniques from the McMartin Preschool case. J Appl Psychol. 1998;83:347-359.
8. Garven S, Wood JM, Malpass RS. Allegations of wrongdoing: the effects of reinforcement on children’s mundane and fantastic claims. J Appl Psychol. 2000; 85:38-49.
9. Ceci SJ, Huffman MLC, Smith E, Loftus EW. Repeatedly thinking about non-events: source misattributions among preschoolers. Conscious Cogn. 1994;3:388-407.
10. Krahenbuhl S, Blades M. The effect of question repetition within interviews on young children’s eyewitness recall. J Exp Child Psychol. 2006;94:57-67.
11. Saywitz KJ, Goodman GS, Nicholas E, Moan SF. Children’s memories of a physical examination involving genital touch: implications for reports of child sexual abuse. J Consult Clin Psychol. 1991;59:682- 691.
12. Bruck M, Ceci SJ, Francoeur E. Children’s use of anatomically detailed dolls to report genital touching in a medical examination: developmental and gender comparisons. J Exp Psychol Appl. 2000;6:74-83.
13. London K, Bruck M, Ceci SJ, Shuman DW. Disclosure of child sexual abuse: a review of the contemporary empirical literature. In: Pipe ME, Lamb ME, Orbach Y, Cederborg AC, eds. Child Sexual Abuse: Disclosure, Delay, and Denial. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum; 2007:11-35.
Garven S, Wood JM, Malpass RS. Allegations of wrongdoing: the effects of reinforcement on children’s mundane and fantastic claims. J Appl Psychol. 2000; 85:38-49.
London K, Bruck M, Ceci SJ, Shuman DW. Disclosure of child sexual abuse: a review of the contemporary empirical literature. In: Pipe ME, Lamb ME, Orbach Y, Cederborg AC, eds. Child Sexual Abuse: Disclosure, Delay, and Denial. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum; 2007:11-35.