In this chapter we provide an overview of psychological issues involving children’s capacities as witnesses. First, we discuss the kinds of cases in which children are usually involved. Across different courts, one most often sees children describing abuse at the hands of familiar adults. Second, we describe the difficulties children encounter in disclosing abuse, particularly when it is perpetrated by adults close to them. These dynamics lead most children to remain silent, and only the most forthcoming children to disclose. Third, we suggest a framework for assessing children’s allegations, in which child-generated and adult-generated information lie on opposite ends of a spectrum. Child-generated information is preferable because it minimizes the likelihood of adult influence. The primary problem with poorly trained interviewers is that they rely too much on recognition questions, in which the child merely accepts or rejects information the adult generates. Fourth, we discuss suggestibility, and review research demonstrating that recognition questions are not inherently suggestive. Rather, we argue that the primary problem with recognition questions is captured by the phenomenon of formal reticence, whereby children provide minimally responsive answers to questions based on the form of the question. Children routinely answer yes/no questions with unelaborated yes or no answers, and interviews filled with recognition questions lead to a host of problems, including responses that are underinformative and ambiguous, and questions that are linguistically difficult and fail to capture the child’s perspective.
Child Psychology | Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Developmental Psychology | Evidence | Family Law | Juvenile Law | Law | Law and Psychology
Date of this Version
Thomas D. Lyon, Kelly McWilliams, and Shanna Williams, "Child Witnesses" (March 2019). University of Southern California Legal Studies Working Paper Series. Working Paper 257.