By Tammy Hardiman
Until recently, it was believed that a child's memory of an event was
sufficiently unreliable to allow it to be used as testimony in a court
of law. It is now becoming clear that children are sometimes the only witnesses
to events, and it's important for their testimony to be used not
only in police investigations, but in the courtroom as well.
In fact, children are increasingly being allowed to testify about events
without corroboration from an adult witness. As a result, there are numerous
people in the justice system who want to know to what extent they can depend
on what a child is saying; in other words, how valid is the testimony?
Dr. Carole Peterson, a professor of psychology at Memorial, is interested
in determining the extent to which knowledge gained about a child's memory
in a controlled laboratory setting can be applied to a real-life situation.
For the past three years, Dr. Peterson -- with a grant from the Natural
Sciences and Research Council (NSERC) -- has been conducting research to
determine whether children remember events accurately when they are traumatized
In carrying out this research, several of Dr. Peterson's students spent
time at the emergency room of the Dr. Charles A. Janeway Child Health Centre
in St. John's recruiting children who were willing to participate in the
study. To be eligible for the study, which began in 1993, the children
had to have gone to the Janeway's emergency room with injuries classified
as trauma, which are mostly lacerations requiring stitches, and broken
More than 200 children participated. They were interviewed at their
homes approximately a week after the injury, then at six-month and one-year
intervals. They were asked questions about what happened during their injury
and their hospital experience. "As there were no laboratory controls
we didn't know exactly what happened to each child," Dr. Peterson
explained. "The only information available was from adult witnesses
of the child's injuries, and for many of the children there were multiple
witnesses. The adults always said the same thing, and there was never a
disagreement between what the adults said and the hospital records. Thus,
the adult reports were used as our 'gold' standard against which we compared
the child's information for accuracy." As well, the children's parents
-- who were usually the adult witnesses -- were asked to rate how upset
their child was on a scale of one to six, with one meaning "not upset
at all" and six meaning "extremely upset." Among the children
in the study group, there was a wide range of distress experienced at the
time of injury.
The age group that Dr. Peterson was most interested in was pre-schoolers, ages two to five, since the credibility of pre-schoolers' memories is most often questioned.
"The results after the second interview, six months after the injury,
had some surprising results," Dr. Peterson said. "We were surprised
at how much the children remembered. Two-year-olds only remembered about
half of the important information, but by three years of age children remembered
most of the event. The thing that was very surprising was how incredibly
accurate their information was. Only about 10 per cent of what three-year-olds
said was inaccurate. By this age, the children virtually never made mistakes
in terms of the important things that happened to cause their injuries."
Dr. Peterson observed that the children almost always gave inaccurate
information about the same things: the identity of the person who came
to their rescue, and what happened after they left the hospital. "When
they were hurt -- blood was going everywhere and they were screaming --
the person who got to them first was what they made mistakes about,"
she said. The children's accuracy was almost unaffected by emotionality;
how upset the children were and their level of distress made virtually
no difference to what they remembered. Children who were absolutely hysterical
were just as accurate as those who were less upset. During the interview
process, it was discovered that the methods used to question pre-schoolers
"Young children tend to say 'no' to yes/no questions regardless
of the question, because they don't understand what this type of question
means. They don't yet possess the mental faculty to evaluate the truthfulness
of the question and then verify this truth. For these children, yes/no
doesn't mean true or false; rather, they use it in terms of 'I don't feel
like talking' or 'I want toplay,'" said Dr. Peterson. "Unfortunately,
many people think these are the easiest questions to answer, thus they
are the ones that children are generally asked."
Specific questions best
Children respond well to questions which are more specific and the answers
they give are very accurate. The "wh-questions" -- who, what,
when, where, and how -- are more easily understood and answered by children.
"A child will give absolutely accurate information with a wh-question,
but the same question asked as a yes/no question will provide inaccurate
information," said Dr. Peterson.
Another facet of the study involved children of about one to two years
of age who could not verbalize what happened to them. Dr. Peterson was
interested in whether they could talk about the experience when they did
acquire language six to 12 months later. Generally children who experience
a traumatic event while still pre-verbal can't access the memory once they
begin to speak -- this phenomenon is known as infantile amnesia. Some children
in the study seemed to show non-verbal evidence that they remembered the
incident, but later there was little recollection of the event expressed
either through words or behavior.
One year after the initial injury the children were re-interviewed and many of them were asked misleading, suggestive questions -- the kind of questions often asked in court -- to see whether they would assimilate this information as part of their memories. Many of the children will be interviewed again two years after their injury. The results of these interviews are currently being gathered; nevertheless, the results to date suggest that children accurately remember forensically important information. They remember what caused their injury and are usually only inaccurate about factual information such as who reached them first once the injury occurred. These results could have important implications for testimony in courtrooms of the future.