The dangers of relying on child memories

Martin van Beynen has a good article (as usual) on the Peter Ellis Supreme Court hearing. There’s one area I want to highlight:

The allegations followed a comment by the 4-year-old son of a former creche parent that he didn’t like “Peter’s black penis”. His mother had authored a handbook on child sexual abuse and had recovered memories of being sexually abused herself. She would go on to accuse another male worker at another creche. …

The children were very young and had been asked to recall intimate details of events that happened when most of them were between 3 and 5 years old.

One issue was whether the children’s memories or accounts had been contaminated even before they attended their specialist interviews. Many of the children’s parents had questioned their children about possible abuse before the interviews and swapped stories. Some children had met for play dates, and social workers who worked with a core group of parents had spread information.

The interviews themselves were also open to criticism. Many of the children were interviewed multiple times. If children said nothing happened, they were not believed. More probing would ensue.

One child was interviewed five times, another six. Few of the children showed any signs of distress in their revelations, and as a matter of principle were almost never challenged on inconsistencies, impossibilities and contradictions.

Their often disjointed accounts were regurgitated by the interviewers in neat summaries and the child was then asked to continue.

Even without all the obvious contamination in the Ellis case, a child’s memory can still be a mixture of real and imaginary.

My four year old son insists he had a sister. He says she died a long time ago. He often tells other people about his dead sister. She normally died from falling into a volcano it seems. Once she was killed by dinosaurs. I have told him many times he has never had a sister. Sometimes he thinks it might be a cousin. But normally it is a sister.

This has taught me how very dangerous it can be to take at face value what a three or four year old says. Of course they often tell the truth, but also they often do not know the difference between imagination and reality.

Comments (57)

Login to comment or vote

Add a Comment

%d bloggers like this: