"Where were your clothes?" Eliciting Descriptions of Clothing Placement from Children Alleging Sexual Abuse in Criminal Trials and Forensic Interviews

Thomas D. Lyon, University of Southern California
Stacia N. Stolzenberg, Arizona State University


The present study examined how attorneys in trial (n = 142), and forensic interviewers in investigative interviews (n = 155) questioned 5- 12-year-olds about the location of clothing during alleged sexual abuse. Discussions about clothing placement were commonplace in both settings, particularly in court. Fewer than one in five question-answer pairs about clothing placement were spontaneous mentions by children; most discussions were elicited by the questioner. When interviewers asked wh- questions rather than yes/no and forced-choice questions, children provided more elaboration, more detailed clothing information, and were several times more likely to describe clothing placement in a fashion that could not be captured by a single preposition (e.g., neither on nor off). The findings suggest that children’s descriptions of sexual abuse are subject to serious misinterpretation if interviewers ask closed-ended questions.