Memory Reports During Forensic CSA Interviews

As we have said, children's memory reports are often the key evidence of guilt in CSA cases, but gathering reports that are sufficiently detailed to support prosecutions is problematical owing to the age of the typical victim. When looking at cases based on memory reports, the victims are primarily preschool children and children in the first few elementary grades (pertinent statistics can be found in Poole & Lamb, 1998). Memory development is far from complete in this age range. When it comes to CSA, a particular problem with children of this age range is that when they are asked to provide a narrative of a recent, salient life experience ("What happened when you went to the mall yesterday?"), the result is often either no report ("I don't know") or a report that is highly truncated ("We ate lunch"). (See Howe [1991] for experimental evidence of the limited narrative recall of young children.) Obviously, these are not the sorts of reports on which prosecutions of child sexual predators can be based. The good news is that even very young children will report many details of their experiences when they are interviewed with more pointed questions. For instance, although "What did you do when you went to the mall yesterday?" may produce only an "I don't know" answer, questions such as "Did you see a clown?," "You ate some pizza for lunch, didn't you?," "You shopped for birthday presents, didn't you?," and "Did your mom buy some groceries?" may provoke rapid, confident answers of "no," "yes," "yes," and "no," all of which prove to be accurate when the facts are checked with the child's mother. The parallel circumstance in CSA investigations is that young children who disclose sexual abuse may provide no usable information when asked to give a narrative of what happened, but they will typically provide usable information when questions refer to specific abuse details. Because perpetrators cannot be convicted and are hence free to re-offend without memory reports from victims, some legal experts (e.g., Lyon, 1995;

Myers, 1995) have argued for the inclusion of questions about specific abuse details in CSA interviews.

The inclusion of such questions would certainly reduce false negatives (when guilty suspects are not identified as perpetrators), but it may also increase false positives (when innocent suspects are identified as perpetrators). The latter concern was prompted by a long tradition of research on the effects of suggestive questioning in both the adult memory literature and the adult social psychological literature (for a review, see Brainerd & Reyna, 2005). The general finding that prompts this concern is that suggestive questioning of adults, even questioning about crimes of which they are victims or to which they are witnesses, stimulates false-memory reports of events that did not happen (e.g., Kassin & Kiechel, 1996; Loftus, 1997; Wells et al., 1998). Common sense says that young children's memories are far more fragile than adults'; thus, if suggestive questioning falsifies adults' memory reports, should it not do likewise, and to an even greater degree, with children's memory reports? Surprisingly, some legal experts proposed that although the answer is yes in general, the answer is no for CSA. More explicitly, while not denying the well-established susceptibility of adults' memory reports to suggestive questioning, and while not denying the equal or greater susceptibility of children's memory reports to such questioning, it was proposed that children's memories of CSA belong to a special category of stored information—namely memories of trauma to children's bodies—that is not affected by the normal distorting influences of suggestion (Ceci & Friedman, 2000).

Was this claim merely wishful thinking? No; this argument had a scientific basis, although not one that was as firm as legal experts thought, that seemed to confirm the argument. Some prior studies had been published that focused on children's memory for experiences that were sexualized in nature. For example, two studies that are frequently mentioned in this connection are those by Saywitz et al. (1991) and by Rudy and Goodman (1991). Saywitz et al. questioned girls who had received a pediatric examination. The researchers included direct questions of the type that, in forensic CSA interviews, yield detailed allegations of abuse in children who would not provide such details in narratives. They interviewed 35 girls, and they found that only 1 of them provided a false report of being touched on the genitalia and only 2 provided a false report of being touched on the anus. Rudy and Goodman went one step further and studied the effects of suggestive questioning about sexualized experiences. They studied a group of children who played with a strange adult in a controlled experimental situation in which the adult-child interactions followed a predetermined script. Some days later, the children were questioned about these interactions, and some of the questions were suggestive ones that resembled questions in CSA interviews (e.g., "How many times did he spank you?" "Did he put anything in your mouth?"). The adult did not do any of these things, of course. The participating children were 4- and 7-year-olds. Less than 10% of the 4-year-olds and none of the 7-year-olds gave false answers to these suggestive questions.

Although this seems to settle the issue, the results are not as unambiguous as they look. The most important problem is a technical one that is well known to researchers but is not well understood by people who are not steeped in the scientific method (e.g., legal experts). This is the problem of null effects: the logic of statistical inference from samples to populations enjoins that one can never draw a positive conclusion from a failure to reject the null hypothesis; if researchers failed to detect that children's memories were falsified by suggestive questioning, it does not follow that no such falsification can happen. A null effect is not positive evidence of anything because it can always be the result of any number of unknown factors that could not be controlled in the experimental design or the result of known factors that were not controlled. Here, it has been pointed out that the level of suggestion sometimes consisted of only a single question about a single false event. In actual CSA interviews of child victims that are conducted by police investigators, suggestive questioning is sometimes stronger and more extensive. Relevant data on this point have been reported by Bruck and Ceci (1999) and by Ceci and Bruck (1995), who reviewed records of many court cases. Their review showed that actual field interviews of children in CSA cases involved problematic tactics such as demonizing suspects who are under investigation, telling children that other children have already made allegations against suspects, asking children to visualize being abused by suspects, and repeatedly asking questions that do not initially produce abuse allegations. However, their review involved selected cases, not a random sample of cases nationwide, and hence it failed to provide normative evidence about average levels of investigative practices in CSA cases.

Another important point about the Saywitz et al. (1991) and Rudy and Goodman (1991) studies is that although they did not produce statistically reliable evidence that direct or suggestive questions stimulated false memory reports about events associated with children's bodies, as noted, some children did make false reports in response to such questions. Although the percentages were low, considering the thousands of sexual abuse cases that are reported each year in the United States, those percentages would translate into a large absolute number of false reports.

More than any other single event, the need for such research was made apparent by the longest and perhaps the most controversial CSA prosecution in U.S. legal history: the McMartin preschool case (State of California v. Buckey, 1990). To many people, this case epitomizes the levels of suggestion and potential tainting of victims' and witnesses' memories that can occur during CSA investigations. In the summer of 1983, the mother of a 2-year-old child who attended a preschool in the Los Angeles area reported to her local police department that her child had been sexually abused by Mr. Raymond Buckey, the son of the owner of the preschool. The mother told the police that she had taken her child for a medical examination after she had noticed a spot of blood on the child's anus. Approximately 2 weeks following her report, her child was interviewed by police investigators, and the child's statements appeared to the investigators to confirm the alleged CSA. The local chief of police, Mr. Harry Kuhlmeyer, then drafted a highly suggestive letter and sent it to the parents of children who were currently attending or had formerly attended the McMartin preschool. The letter informed parents that a CSA investigation of Mr. Buckey was being conducted, and it asked parents to question their children about whether the children had been witnesses to or victims of sexual crimes involving any of the following acts: genital fondling, oral sex, bust or buttocks fondling, sodomy, rectal penetration with a thermometer, or the taking of nude photographs of children. Because the letter was sent to a large number of people, a local child advocacy center (Children's Institute International [CII]) was employed by the police department to conduct sexual abuse interviews of the children of any families who came forward. Hundreds eventually came forward and were interviewed, and the interviews were preserved on videotape. Approximately 6 months after the initial CSA report to the police, CII staff diagnosed over 350 children as having been sexually abused at the McMartin preschool. This resulted in the filing of over 100 counts of CSA against Mr. Buckey, his mother, and other teachers at the preschool.

The case continued to progress slowly and had still not gone to trial by the beginning of 1986, when all charges against defendants other than Mr. Buckey and his mother were dropped. Finally, 4 years after the original police report, in July of 1987, Mr. Buckey and his mother went to trial on 65 counts of CSA. The trial continued until January of 1990, when the jury returned with a verdict. Mr. Buckey's mother was acquitted on all counts, Mr. Buckey was acquitted on 52 counts, and the jury was hung on the remaining 13 counts. Most interesting from the perspective of false-memory research, the jurors' statements in post-trial interviews made it clear that they had grave reservations about whether the allegations of abuse that had been obtained in child interviews were false-memory reports. They stated that, on the one hand, they were convinced that some of the children had been victims of CSA. The jurors also stated, though, that they could not return convictions against either defendant on any of the counts because the videotapes of the child interviews revealed that they were fraught with leading and highly suggestive questions. Later in 1990, Mr. Buckey was retried on 8 of the 13 counts on which he had not been acquitted, but the result was the same: a hung jury. Prosecutors then decided that further retrials would be fruitless.

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