Pursuing the Truth the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth

Forensic Interviews with Child Victims or Witnesses of Abuse


Maltreatment is widely recognized as one of the more serious forms of trauma that children experience, and there is now a substantial literature documenting its adverse effects on children's behavior and adjustment. Yet often in cases of maltreatment such as sexual, emotional, or physical abuse, the child victim is the only available source of information about what has happened. How well, then, do children remember and report such stressful, painful, and/or distressing experiences when they are victims of, or indeed even witnesses to, traumatizing experiences (for example, the homicide of a parent or sibling)? Because of the importance of children's accounts of such experiences for intervention (both legal and clinical), many researchers, especially in the last decade, have examined children's memories of abusive incidents. Our goal in this chapter is to review our current understanding of children's abilities to recall and recount instances of abusive experiences, particularly in the course of an investigation where "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" is of paramount importance.

In pursuing "the truth" about an alleged instance of child abuse, the ability of the alleged victim to give a clear and comprehensive account of his or her experience is crucial, because corroborating or alternative sources of information are frequently unavailable. Eliciting "the whole truth" while at the same time ensuring that it is "nothing but the truth" is especially challenging for forensic interviewers because children's spontaneous accounts of their experiences are typically too brief to be useful in forensic interviews, and yet the pursuit of more detailed information may lead to errors in recall and reporting. These issues speak to both the completeness and the accuracy of the elicited testimony. Over the past 25 years it has become abundantly clear that both the amount and the reliability of information reported by children may be enhanced or reduced by several factors, including those pertaining to the developmental level of the child, characteristics of the event in question, and techniques used by interviewers to elicit testimony. In this review, we discuss how the amount and quality of information elicited in forensic interviews with children reflects the behavior and capacities of not only the child witness but also the adult interviewers.

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