Take home message: This new research shows public defenders in a South-Eastern state have better knowledge of the science on child witness reliability than jury-eligible laypeople (a sample of college students) but not as good as forensic psychologists. Defenders should consider improving training in this area, retention of experts when needed, and the limited knowledge of the average juror.

Full report: Julie Buck, Amye Warren, Maggie Bruck & Kathryn Kuehle (2014), “How Common is ‘Common Knowledge’ About Child Witnesses Among Legal Professionals? Comparing Intervieweds, Public Defenders, and Foresnic Psychologists with Laypeople.”Behavioral Sciences and the Law.


Sample: 137 public defenders from a south-eastern state in the U.S. Also surveyed were 39 forensic psychologists, 44 investigative interviewers, and 192 jury-eligible college students.

The Details: The researchers asked 12 questions of public defenders, forensic psychologists, ‘investigative interviewers’ (employees of child protective services, child advocacy centers, and sheriff’s departments) and jury-eligible college students. The questions concerned the reliability of child witness testimony and addressed issues of almost unanimous scientific consensus.

The researchers found: Public defenders were only 56|PERCENT| accurate in their knowledge.

Public defenders with more experience of child abuse cases were significantly more knowledgeable, but far from flawless (67|PERCENT| accurate).

Forensic psychologists were significantly more accurate than other groups (overall accuracy rate of 80|PERCENT|).

Public defenders were generally more skeptical of child witness accuracy than other professionals, though this skepticism did not extend to the use of anatomical dolls, which have been shown to increase false reports of abuse in children.

The results for public defenders are below:

Item Correct answer |PERCENT| Public defenders correct
1. When asked an open-ended question,
such as “What happened next?”, young children's answers are usually as
accurate as those of adults.
2. When asked a strongly leading
question, such as “He told you to keep it a secret, didn't he?”, young
children's answers are usually as accurate as those of adults.
3. It is necessary to ask leading
questions to get young children to disclose abuse, because they are too
afraid or embarrassed to report it.
4. If an interviewer believes that
abuse occurred, then it is okay for the interviewer to ask the child
suggestive questions (e.g., “Did he touch your private parts?”).
5. Suggestive questioning (e.g., “Did
he touch your private parts with his hand?”) by an interviewer is okay once
the child has already disclosed sexual abuse.
6. If a young child does not report
or does not seem to remember much information, it is okay for an interviewer
to ask what might have
happened or what they think happened.
7. If an interviewer believes that a
child has been abused even though the child denies it, the interviewer should
keep interviewing the child until he or she discloses abuse.
8. When
questioning a child about sexual abuse, an interviewer should say things such
as, “Don't be afraid to tell me what she did to you” or “You will feel better
once you tell me.”
9. If a young child provides
inconsistent information over time (adds some details and drops others), it
means an abuse allegation is false.
10. If children play in a sexual way
(demonstrate sexual touching) with anatomically detailed dolls, it means they
have been sexually abused.
11. Using anatomically detailed dolls
(dolls with genitals) increases the amount of accurate information that young
children report.
12. Using anatomically detailed dolls
increases the amount of false information that young children report.
Overall accuracy rate   56|PERCENT|

For more information about the findings in this study, or to discuss how to apply it to direct advocacy, please contact Andy Davies through the form below.