Can We Trust Elicited Memories From Allegedly Abused Preschoolers?

As a society, it's difficult for us to address those uncomfortable, awkward issues that tend to fly in the face of our core beliefs.

This includes how we handle allegations of abuse from preschool children. It's been ingrained into most of us that we are to take these stories at face value—and understandably so. The mere thought of our young ones being harmed and mistreated makes us see red.

But this emotional response makes many people think illogically; they fail to remember that children, especially under the age of six, don't quite comprehend the world the way we do.

Sometimes, this line of thinking hinders the way even trusted professionals conduct themselves. Yet little is discussed about the damage misinterpretations of the truth, and false allegations have on the families impacted by such failures.

Something that seems like a completely authentic horror story of abuse coming from the mouth of a younger child often ends up being a case of memory source misattribution.

What is Source Misattribution?

Source misattribution (aka, source confusion and unconscious transference) is a form of memory error. It happens when a person does not recall the source of their own memories.

A research paper called "Repeatedly Thinking about a Non-event: Source Misattribution among Preschoolers" offers a detailed examination into this issue with young children. (See Stephen J. Ceci, Mary Lyndia Crotteau Huffman, Elliott Smith, Elizabeth F. Loftus, Consciousness and Cognition 3, 388-407 (1994).)

Preliminary findings from a research program suggested that all children are vulnerable to source misattribution. However, it appears that preschoolers are more susceptible to this kind of memory error when the procedure is tweaked to create mental images.

It's not so much that these young ones are "lying" about what's happened, as it is a false interpretation of the truth. What it does reveal, though, is that preschoolers think they experience an event that they only thought about.

Furthermore, there's a lesser chance that preschoolers differentiate the acts of two separate individuals who are the same age.

Do Field Professionals Encourage Source Misattribution?

It's only been in the past several decades where techniques such as the cognitive interview, anatomical dolls, and repeated questioning have been used with children who've been potentially abused.

According to many experts, there is a distinct trade-off that comes with the benefits of these techniques. While they do increase accurate reporting, there's also the glaring negative of false reports.

In the research paper mentioned, much is made of children's suggestibility when subjected to elicitation methods.

How is Source Misattribution Encouraged?

Leading questions are one way that false reports are invoked. This even rings true when the situation concerns something like genital touching.

It is worth pointing out that the paper being discussed points out that children are still capable of recalling vital information with accuracy. The validity (or lack thereof) of their memories largely depends on whether the interview keeps making "erroneous suggestions" or "subtly rewards the child for inaccurate answers."

Also, through studies of tape recordings in sessions, another technique used was to encourage children to think deeply about a potential memory. The conclusion was that this could create multiple sources of one memory, some of them being imagined.

How Can Source Misattribution Be Used to Defend the Falsely Accused?

The challenges these kinds of allegations present are unavoidable. Of course, everybody’s top priority is the safety of a child.

But to act like false allegations don't occur – for any number of reasons – is naive.

Stakes are incredibly high in these scenarios – so these allegations must be investigated thoroughly. This can be exceptionally tricky because sometimes it is a matter of the accuser's word versus that of the accused—and there's not much else to work off.

Meaning, in the absence of physical proof, such as DNA evidence, how a child is interviewed becomes a key factor in the defense strategy.

To form the best defense for a falsely accused client, an attorney must do everything to discredit the interview process. If a child protective worker or police investigator veered off course in their interview, it would be a vital facet in proving your innocence.

The Onus isn't on the Falsely Accused

If an accusation is deemed legitimate by authorities, it necessitates that those involved in obtaining the information follow the most stringent legal standards.

Otherwise, the tactics being used to elicit an accusation out of a preschooler lose credibility. It then becomes much likelier to disprove the whole allegation and help you move on from this trying situation.