Child Witnesses: Honest but Less Reliable

Child on the witness stand.
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Children testifying in court are perceived to be more honest than adults, but their limited memory, communication skills, and greater suggestibility may make them less reliable witnesses than adults.

The multi-disciplinary research, the first of its kind to examine judges' perceptions of child witnesses, was led by Queen's University Child and Family Law scholar Nick Bala. It addresses how judges assess the honesty and reliability of children's court testimony, and how accurate their observations are. It also makes recommendations for how to train child protection professionals and judges to most effectively frame their questions to child witnesses.

The research has important implications for educating child-protection professionals, including judges.

The findings are based on two related studies that merge traditional legal scholarship on children's truth-telling, and a national survey of child-protection professionals that assesses perceptions of child witnesses and truth-telling, with judges' responses to mock interviews.

"Assessing the credibility of witnesses; deciding how much to rely on their testimony; is central to the trial process," says Bala. "The assessment of credibility is an inherently human and imprecise enterprise.“

The research showed that social workers, other professionals working in child protection, and judges correctly identify children who are lying at only slightly above chance levels after watching mock interviews. Judges perform comparably to other justice system officials and significantly better than law students.

Children Face Disadvantages

While the mock interviews don't replicate the judge's courtroom experience, "the results show that judges are not human lie detectors," says Bala.

The research also indicates that defense lawyers are more likely than prosecutors or others who work in the court system to ask children questions that are not appropriate to their developmental level. These questions use vocabulary, grammar or concepts that children could not reasonably be expected to understand. This leaves child witnesses at a disadvantage to respond honestly.

Less Likely to Deceive

The survey asked Canadian judges about their perceptions of child and adult witnesses on such issues as suggestibility, leading questions, memory, and perceptions of honesty in child witnesses. It found that children are perceived as:

  • More susceptible to suggestibility during pre-court interviews
  • More influenced by leading questions
  • Less likely than adults to intentionally set out to deceive during court testimony.

Psychological Research on Child Witnesses

According to psychological research, Bala summarizes that a child's memory improves with age. For example, at age four, children can accurately describe what happened to them as far back as two years. Also, even though older children and adults have better memories, they are more likely to give inaccurate information when recalling past events compared to younger children.

Bala's research also suggests that children and adults provide more details when asked specific questioned rather than open-ended questions. However, children usually try to answer these types of questions, by giving answers to the parts of the question that they understand. When this occurs, the child's answers could seem misleading.

Using this knowledge to refine techniques when questioning children can help improve the accuracy and completeness of a child's answer. Bala says such techniques include, "showing warmth and support to children, mimicking the vocabulary of the child, avoiding legal jargon, confirming meanings of words with children, limiting the use of yes/no questions and avoiding of abstract conceptual questions."

It is also interesting to point out that when older children are repeatedly asked about an event, they tend to try to improve their description or provide additional information. However, younger children often assume being asked the same question means that their answer was wrong, so they sometimes change their answer entirely.

Judges Need Training on How Children Should Be Questioned

Funded by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the research suggests that all new judges should be trained in how children should be questioned, and about the types of questions that children should be able to understand.

Effective communication with children and developmentally appropriate questions which children can reasonably be expected to answer makes them far more reliable witnesses.

To minimize the deterioration in children's memories, the delay between the reporting of an offense and the trial should be shortened, the study also recommends. Several meetings between a child witness and the prosecutor before testifying will also help minimize a child's anxiety, the study notes.

SourceJudicial Assessment of the Credibility of Child Witnesses

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Your Citation
Montaldo, Charles. "Child Witnesses: Honest but Less Reliable." ThoughtCo, Feb. 18, 2021, Montaldo, Charles. (2021, February 18). Child Witnesses: Honest but Less Reliable. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "Child Witnesses: Honest but Less Reliable." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 25, 2021).