Anatomically Correct Dolls in Sexual Abuse Investigations

When child protective services agency social workers investigate child sexual abuse investigations, they often will give the alleged victim an anatomically correct doll and ask the child to point to the body part of the doll that corresponds with where they were touched on their own body.

It might seem like conducting interviews with anatomically correct dolls is a valuable tool for those investigating a child abuse case.

After all, it doesn’t sound unreasonable for preschoolers allegedly suffering from trauma to require extra assistance to communicate their experience. These children are too young to comprehend such occurrences, and outside-the-box measures could prove valuable.

But is this technique sound enough for the answers it coerces to be considered substantial evidence of any wrongdoing?

Despite these dolls providing a convenient mirage as a solution to these complicated investigations, they aren’t close to infallible. According to a publication of a debate, called “Anatomically Correct Dolls: Should They be Used as the Basis for Expert Testimony?” the scientific validity of this investigative method is up in the air.

While there are arguments for both sides of this matter, in our view the use of anatomically correct dolls is inappropriate and a part of the government’s case that is subject to attack.

If it Can Be Disputed, It Can Be Undermined

In the academic journal entry mentioned above, two child and adolescent psychiatrists debate on the affirmative and negative.

The very existence of this debate brings questions to the validity of this kind of evidence to corroborate an act of child sexual abuse. After all, the government bears the burden of proving, with evidence, that an act of sexual abuse occurred. Any questions about reliability cast a cloud of uncertainty over the process.

Even Alayne Yates, the M.D. providing the affirmative argument (i.e., arguing that the use of anatomically correct dolls is useful and appropriate) noted:

“[S]exually abused children probably are more likely than nonabused children to engage in sexual play when exposed to the anatomically correct dolls.”

But there’s still plenty that needs ironing out; likelihood and “probability” don’t make something ironclad. Yates herself admits that sexual play with dolls “is not proof positive that abuse did occur.”

In Defense of Anatomically Correct Dolls

Yates may be right that the use of anatomically correct dolls in child sexual abuse allegations may be a useful aid that facilitates communication with alleged victims of child abuse. However, it’s not something that can ever be made fully reliable. Perhaps it could be applied as a small cog in the case, but the usage of these dolls – at best – serves as something tertiary to more concrete proof.

That’s one reason why the California Supreme Court of Appeal made it incredibly challenging to admit evidence from anatomically correct doll interviews with children. Still, it is a grey area. If this technique is proven scientifically valid, it can hold weight with the legal system.

Under no circumstances should an accusation built solely on evidence garnered from a children’s interaction with an anatomically correct doll be enough for a family to be torn apart. Or, for an innocent person to end up on the Child Abuse Central Index (CACI).

The Suggestive Nature of Anatomically Correct Dolls

In the debate mentioned above, Lenore Terr was the psychiatrist arguing against the use of anatomically correct doll in investigative interviews.

Terr’s main problem with this technique is its reliance on shortcuts to expedite answers. The most proven diagnostic method with preschool children is asking open-ended questions, often while the children engage in unstructured play with regular toys.

It’s something that takes a lot of time, patience, and discipline. As far as diagnostic or forensic methods go, the open-ended questions combined with unstructured plays are superior investigative techniques.

Conversely, sexually anatomically correct dolls trigger one response and make the distinct request on the part of the child to “play sex.” The child could even be under the supervision of criminal investigators with no psychiatric training and still respond to the dolls in a sexual way.

Rather than encourage questioners to ask the child open-ended questions, the use of anatomically correct dolls often prompts questioners to ask close-ended questions such as, "Did someone touch you there?" The use of closed-ended questions taints the child’s response, which undermines the strength of the government’s case.

It is undoubtedly convenient and expedient as an investigative approach, and those looking to close a case might wish this technique to be valid, but that convenient techniques often lead to unreliable evidence.