Children's Memory & Linguistic Abilities in Child Sexual Abuse Allegations

There is an expansive and expanding field of study which highlights the severe limitations of a child's statement when it comes to both the psychological and legal application of a child's report in the context of a child sexual abuse allegation.

By itself, a child’s report may not prove or disprove allegations of child sexual abuse. In fact, a child’s statement may even make finding out the truth more difficult. Firstly, it's impossible to ignore the pre-investigation influences the child may have been susceptible to (such as someone coaching the child what to say). Secondly, the inherent immaturity of a child presents a challenge.

The influence of both suspicious adults and investigators who may, however unintentionally, lead the child to claim false events in an attempt to please an adult must be considered.

The powerful influence an adult can have on a child can lead to false convictions, even when there is no concern about Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.

Quite often, those concerned about the unreliability of a child's sexual abuse allegation explore two main avenues: the limitations of a child's memory, and the linguistic challenges faced by a child in an investigation or legal setting.

The Problem With Memory

The concept of a child's working memory is well known among educators and those who work with young people. It is part of a child's executive functioning and tends to dictate what enters the child's long-term memory.

However, if a child has any condition - from ADHD to dyslexia - there can be disturbances in the working memory, which are liable to lead to inconsistencies.

Childhood sexual abuse is experienced through a construct "captured in a distorted time." While the idea of "physical time" is acknowledged widely as being objective, the issue of psychological time is both subjective and subject to distortion and illusion. (See Thomas D. Lyon & Stacia N. Stolzenberg, Children’s Memory for Conversations About Sexual Abuse: Legal and Psychological Implications, Roger Williams University Law Review, Vol. 19:411.)

Memory is also subject to alteration dependent on mood, trauma, mental state, and cognitive abilities.

While children, to the best of their ability, may express what they believe actually happened, their perception of truth and reality is far from definitive.

Finding the Right Words

When it comes to a child providing testimony in a legal setting, there are also linguistic issues to consider. A lot of literature around children's statement focuses on whether a child should be allowed to testify, as well as how they testify and what happens afterward.

However, the reality of the legal system is that it is ill-equipped for a child's limited understanding of language and interrogation-style communication.

For example, research has shown that legal jargon, or legalese, confuses children. It has been shown that when children are asked complex, multi-part questions, they may provide a different answer than when more simple terms are used. (See the article cited above.)

Studies have shown that where the children don't understand the questions, their answers are subject to change. This is of no surprise to parents, but can lead to false convictions and false findings of abuse.

A Dangerous Mix

This discrepancy between the different perspectives of adults and children can make getting to the truth in child sexual abuse cases significantly challenging.

In a doctoral thesis entitled “Interviewing Child Witnesses,” by Anneli S. Larsson of Goteborg University, it was highlighted that the limitations of language and memory could often lead a child to present an incomplete picture. The notion of significance is under-developed in children.

Children often do not know what is relevant for adults to know while reporting events, and they may not understand why one fact may be more relevant than some other fact and why.

When issues of trauma and sexual abuse are a part ofa child's retelling of events, it can be impossible to discover the truth from a child's perception of reality.

It is essential then, whenever a child is solicited for their statement, to factor in the challenges of both memory and understanding to get the most accurate picture possible.

Simplifying questions, as well as reducing as many external influencees as possible, are important steps which need to be taken to get the most accurate version of events and to understand the experiences of the child.

It is also vital to ensure that the child is separated from any outside influence or suggestion so that they are not tempted to deliver an answer to "please" an adult, or somehow provide what they hope is the 'right' answer.