Child Witness Credibility

By Lisa Kalich, PsyD, ABPP

In the 1980s, a number of high profile multivictim child sexual abuse cases captured the attention of the nation. The most notorious of these was the McMartin preschool case, which made history as the longest and most expensive criminal trial to that date. Though no convictions were obtained in the McMartin case, the trial set a precedent for the ways in which child sexual abuse victims would be viewed1, and many professionals came to believe that the children had lied under the coercion and suggestion of their therapist, Kee MacFarlane.2

Prior to questioning by MacFarlane and her colleagues at the Children’s Institute International, most of the children denied being molested. After extensive taped interviews in which the children were told that their friends had divulged abuse, 360 of the 400 children also reported sexual abuse. In a now infamous demonstration of what not to do in child sexual abuse cases, MacFarlane used rewards and leading questions to obtain the children’s allegations. Some have asserted that, with these faulty techniques, she coaxed unusual and unlikely tales of a dark world underneath their preschool, inhabited by satanic figures, dead rabbits, and secret rooms.3

Although a great deal of research concerning children’s memory existed at the time, there were few studies that addressed their capabilities as witnesses. This controversy sharply divided professionals, some insisting that children could not merely imagine such atrocities and that memories of sexual abuse were typically valid, with others referencing the vulnerable nature of memory and the powerful techniques of suggestion employed by investigators.

In the thirty years since the McMartin trial concluded, the study of child witness credibility has advanced significantly. Today, most police departments utilize a developmentally appropriate multidisciplinary interview (MDI) to enhance the accuracy of children’s recall for events; to minimize the potential influences of repeated interviews; and to protect the child from further traumatization. Typically, MDI interviewers undergo training to learn techniques to maximize accuracy in interviewing children; however, the quality of forensic child interviews varies widely, and some professionals may inadvertently utilize techniques known to be problematic.

Techniques to be avoided include4:

  1. Reinforcement or positive consequences, such as giving or implying praise or approval for saying or doing something
  2. Negative consequences or disagreeing with a child’s assertion or implying that the child is somehow inadequate or disappointing to the interviewer
  3. Cowitness information or other people, which consists of telling the child that the interviewer has already previously received information from someone else (e.g. parent, other alleged victim, etc.) about the topics of the interview
  4. Leading or suggestive questions (e.g. He touched you underneath your clothing, didn’t he?)
  5. Asked and answered or repeatedly asking the same question (or undergoing multiple interviews or speaking to multiple people about the alleged abuse), as children may change their responses, believing they have answered incorrectly the first time

Research suggests that underreporting or failing to report child sexual abuse occurs at a substantial rate, and most allegations of child sexual abuse are true; however, false allegations do occur at a non-negligible rate5 ranging from 2-5%, with claims of false touching (as opposed to more intrusive forms of abuse) and claims occurring in the context of custody disputes being the most prone to false reporting. False allegations occur more frequently when coercive or problematic interview tactics like those detailed above are used. Ideally, an interviewer should first elicit a spontaneous narrative prior to asking more specific or clarifying questions. The interviewer may also find it useful to practice recall for a neutral event prior to introducing questions about the alleged abuse. Open-ended questions (e.g. What happened next?) should be utilized as often as possible.

Unlike many other crimes, child sexual abuse is unique in that there is often a dearth of physical evidence available, and many times the only evidence against a particular defendant are the statements of the alleged child victim. In this circumstance, attorneys may request the opinion of a forensic psychologist regarding the quality of the forensic interview obtained by law enforcement or potential factors that may hinder or strengthen the child’s credibility. The determination of whether or not child sexual abuse occurred would not be considered an appropriate referral question.

Essential considerations in assessing the credibility of an allegation of child sexual abuse include the child’s age, developmental maturity, and cognitive and language abilities; the nature of the allegations (spontaneous versus elicited); the quality of the forensic interview(s); and the availability of corroborating or disconfirming data. Other factors, such as repeated questioning by a non-offending caregiver, should also be considered.

In evaluating the reliability of an allegation of child sexual abuse, it is also important to note that it is not uncommon for children who have been sexually abused to recant or retract allegations; to include bizarre or unbelievable details in their reports; or to have limitations in their memory for past events. With regard to children’s memory, one of the most robust research findings is that recall (and resistance to suggestibility) improves with age. Though older children acquire and store more information than younger children, the duration and repetitiveness of an event likely improves memory accuracy, and younger children are capable of providing accurate accounts of events. Through a thorough analysis of these factors, a forensic psychologist can assist counsel by providing an opinion as to the reliability of a sexual abuse allegation.

1Summit, R. (1994, Spring). The dark tunnels of McMartin. The Journal of Psychohistory, 21(4), 397-416; Eberle, P. & Eberle, S. (1993). The Abuse of Innocence: The McMartin Preschool Trial. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
2 Garven, S., Wood, J., Malpass, R., & Shaw, J. (June, 1998). More than Suggestion: The effect of interviewing techniques from the McMartin Preschool case. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(3), 347-359; Nathan, D. & Snedeker, M. (1995). Satan’s silence. New York: Basic Books; Reinhold, R. (1990, January 25). How lawyers and media turned the McMartin case into a tragic media circus. New York Times, p. 1D.
3Wood, J. M., Schreiber, N., Martinez, Y., McLaurin, K., Strok, R., Velarde, L. D., Garven, S., & Malpass, R. S. (1998, March). Child interviewing techniques in the McMartin Preschool and Kelly Michaels cases: A quantitative comparison. Paper presented at the biennial conference of the American Psychology-Law Society, Redondo Beach, CA.
4Wood, et al. (1998).
5O’Donohue, Cummings and Willis in The Frequency of False Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 2018, Vol. 27, No. 5, 459-475.
Dr. Lisa Kalich is a Board-Certified Forensic Psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She may be reached at (415) 385-9701 or .