Eliciting the Truth from Child Witnesses

Numerous studies have shown a developmental progression in the amount of information children recall, with younger children typically recalling less than older children (e.g., Gee & Pipe, 1995; Goodman, Aman, & Hirschman, 1987; Goodman & Reed, 1986; Marin, Holmes, Guth, & Kovac, 1979; Oates & Shrimpton, 1991; Saywitz, 1987). Age in itself is not sufficient to account for the variability in children's recall, however, since variability in recall among children of similar ages is common (Leichtman, Ceci, & Morse, 1997; Pipe & Salmon, 2002; Quas, Goodman, Ghetti, & Redlich, 2000; Quas, Qin, Schaaf, & Goodman, 1997). Furthermore, when task demands are manipulated by using recognition rather than free-recall tasks, for example, age effects are attenuated or even disappear (Ceci, Ross, & Toglia, 1987b; Cole & Loftus, 1987; Jones, Swift, & Johnston, 1988; Saywitz, 1987), indicating that variables other than what the children actually know or remember about their experience contribute to age-related differences in memory. Thus, age per se does not provide an accurate index of children's ability to recount personal experiences (Goodman & Schwartz-Kenney, 1992) but rather serves to summarize the influence of a number of variables relating to children's abilities, the effects of which may differ across interview/recall contexts.

Studies of the development of autobiographical memory show that younger children's impoverished recall, relative to older children and adults, may be due in part to limited retrieval skills, metalinguistic deficits, and immature narrative skills (for reviews see Gordon, Baker-Ward, & Ornstein, 2001; Nelson & Fivush, 2004; Ornstein, Haden, & Hedrick, 2004). Developmental differences in the selection and use of cognitive strategies, both for encoding and retrieval (see Schneider & Bjorklund, 1998 for review), affect children's ability to talk about past events, and therefore the amount of support they may need to help them describe the event completely. Encoding and retrieval strategies develop with age and experience, and the use of effective retrieval strategies is usually associated with increases in recall and reporting of information (Flavell, 1970; Ornstein et al., 2004). Young children may use strategic behaviors when explicitly instructed to do so but still not benefit as much as older children (Flavell, Miller, & Miller, 1993). In other words, younger and older children may use the same strategies but recall different amounts, possibly because the cognitive effort required to implement the strategy decreases the recall capacity of younger children (Miller, 1990). Older children do not need to invest as much cognitive effort because strategy use becomes more automatic with age, thereby enabling more effort and attention to be allocated to retrieval (Schneider & Bjorklund, 1998). As children become older, they also become better at generating internal retrieval cues, which makes them less reliant on support provided during the interview (Quas et al., 2000).

Deficiencies in the retrieval of accurate event-related information may arise from errors in children's source-monitoring—that is, the ability to identify the source of one's knowledge or memory, particularly if interviewers pose leading or misleading questions that refer to details observed, experienced, or heard about in other contexts (Roberts & Blades, in press; Roberts & Powell, 2001). Inaccurate source-monitoring during the retrieval process may lead children to incorporate and report information that they have heard from others, seen (e.g., on television), or imagined. Children may use or remember information without remembering where they learned it, or they may attribute their knowledge to the wrong source (Roberts & Blades, 2000).

The clarity and completeness of children's testimony is also affected by their developing communicative abilities. The vocabularies of young children are much more limited and less descriptive than those of adults (Brown, 1973; Dale, 1976), and their statements are likely to lack adjectival and adverbial modifiers (de Villiers & de Villiers, 1999). Misunderstandings between children and interviewers may occur because children's rapid vocabulary growth often leads adults to overestimate their linguistic capacities and thus use words, sentence structures, or concepts that exceed the children's competencies (Saywitz & Camparo, 1998; Saywitz, Na-thanson, & Snyder, 1993; Walker, 1994). Despite their apparent maturity, young children—especially preschoolers—frequently use words before they know their conventional adult meaning, may use words that they do not understand at all, and may understand poorly some apparently simple concepts, such as "any," "some," "touch," "yesterday," and "before" (Harner, 1975; Walker, 1994). Furthermore, children frequently use very concrete and restricted interpretations of words (e.g., a child may refute a question about something that happened at "home" if the child lives in an apartment) and idiosyncratic vocabulary, as well as comparisons or references that fall outside of the listener's knowledge base (e.g., "he looked like my English teacher"), making their accounts ambiguous.

Increases in the amounts of information reported by children as they grow older may also reflect their increasingly sophisticated skills as narrators. Young children are still developing their metalinguistic abilities—coming to know what listeners want to know and how to report information coherently, monitor the success of their communication, and modify strategies as necessary to ensure that the listener has understood (Lamb & Brown, 2006; Saywitz & Snyder, 1996). For this reason, young children may not understand that their intended audience (e.g., the interviewer or jury member) is naïve with respect to what they have experienced and thus may fail to provide sufficient detail to ensure complete and accurate reports. Typically, in interactions between children and adults, children are questioned by adults who are already knowledgeable about the topic of conversation (Lamb, Orbach, Warren, Esplin, & Hershkowitz, in press). By contrast, alleged victims of abuse are often the sole sources of information about the suspected events. If children fail to appreciate that the interviewer has little, if any, knowledge of the alleged events or if they attribute superior knowledge to the adult interviewers (e.g., Ceci, Ross, & Toglia, 1987a; Ceci et al., 1987b), they may refrain from reporting all they know. In addition, if children infer that interviewers would prefer particular responses, in attempting to be cooperative conversational partners they may compromise their accounts rather than communicate their actual experiences (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995). In the forensic context, therefore, interviewers must be sensitive to children's perceptions of their knowledge and status. To facilitate comprehensive and accurate reporting by children, for example, interviewers should emphasize that they do not know what the children experienced and that it is thus important for the children to tell as much as they know (e.g., Sternberg, Lamb, Esplin, Orbach, & Hershkowitz, 2002).

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