Findings

Nine of the 14 New Zealand respondents stated that children are highly vulnerable to suggestion and that suggestion was a major cause of false allegations of child sexual abuse. Only three discounted suggestion as a realistic defence.

They're suggestible, I've no doubt about that, and I think the process can make them suggestible too. If they've had lots of interviews and [have been] asked leading questions, something ends up being drummed into them by interviewers or parents.

Emma Davies's contemporaneous study of cross-examination transcripts, from trials in the same area as that in which the New Zealand lawyers in this study practised, also shows how often suggestion is blamed. Davies found that suggestion was raised in 11 of 13 New Zealand cross-examination transcripts of children aged 12 and under, and in six of 13 transcripts of children between 13 and 17 (Davies, Henderson and Seymour, 1997; see also Brennan and Brennan, 1988). However the English lawyers, while still concerned with suggestion, reported using it less in court than did the New Zealanders. Four of the five commented on suggestion, all apparently endorsing it as a serious issue, all giving detailed descriptions of possible situations in which it could become a risk.

[A] complaint by a child is only as good as the circumstances that generated it Supposing you... find out that at the time when the child went to the police, the parents were in the middle of a divorce battle and there was a raging custody battle over the child. I don't think I need to say any more.

Both nationalities attribute responsibility for suggestion to (in order) evidential interviewers, counsellors, parents, and the police. Of the New Zealanders, three blamed parents (especially mothers) for suggestion, two blamed the police, and nine attributed responsibility to evidential interviewers and other clinicians. Similarly, two of the English blamed family members, invariably identified as mothers, who are often blamed by ex-partners for making false allegations (Kennedy, 1992), and four blamed evidential interviewers, police and social workers generally.

Additionally, four New Zealanders and three English respondents described a scenario in which something 'the child... has said... has been taken out of context, and in the present climate of believing everything... has then become... a whole big criminal trial all these months later'. This defence was often referred to as 'snowballing'.

It's usually a sort of throw-away line [where] the child might have said to Mummy 'Daddy does this' or 'I've seen Daddy sexing'... the mother, will interpret that to mean Daddy has somehow interfered with the son or daughter, and that can snowball.

In addition to adult misinterpretations, one New Zealander and three English also cited a defence which the English called 'horseplay', in which a hypersensitive and suspicious child misinterprets innocent touching. Two of the English described this as one of the most common defences to child abuse.

The other [main] defence is [this]:... mistake and misinterpretation. ...I don't confront child witnesses 'head on' if I can, I prefer to run a case on the basis 'yes, he put his hand on your knee, but you misunderstood, you misinterpreted. ...As soon as the defendant put his hand on your knee, as soon as he put his arm around you, and gave you a kiss, because you have never known that from another human, it totally threw you and you misinterpreted it.'... That's the way I like to defend.

This comment is similar to several indicating some respondents believed that even occasional exposure to educational information about sex abuse was suggestive.

[They say] where you get these things taught to you at school... [children] are so much on the look-out for them that they tend to see abuse where there is none.

An English respondent threw her net even wider:

Whether that's suggestibility by the influence of a single adult, or whether it is suggestibility by the present climate we live in, there's quite a bit of it about, I'd suspect. It's something that's discussed in schools as openly as anti-drugs projects, there've been so many campaigns that have had high-profile TV, media generally [exposure]. Go into a telephone box and you see numbers for Childline [an English telephone helpline for abused children]. There's a climate that's out there to receive this.

It is unfortunate for real child victims if they are likely to be viewed suspiciously merely because they are educated to complain if abused. These comments, about the suggestiveness of educational materials, also raise interesting parallels with the well-recognised prejudice against sexually experienced women who complain of rape. Experienced women are less likely to be believed (and if believed their injuries are likely to be assumed to be lesser) than sexually ignorant women (Kennedy, 1992;

Lees, 1996). It is possible that a similar attitude prevails among some lawyers with regard to children so that an aware child is prima facie a less trustworthy complainant than an ignorant child. The equation of ignorance with innocence in the following comment is interesting in this context.

[S]ometimes that may come down to the hypersensitive awareness. Maybe now a child in close proximity to an older, usually male, who picks them up or something, may perceive that something that's innocent to be abusive in a way where once when they were left in their more innocent frame of mind they never thought of it as being abuse.

Overall, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of the lawyers interviewed believed children to be far more suggestible than modern research has found them to be, envisaging children as fragile witnesses whose reality is able to be swayed by relatively little. The findings in this study parallel those ofLeippe and colleagues (1989) to some extent in that 91% of their defence lawyers and 70% of their prosecutors believed that children were much more suggestible than adults.

0 0

Post a comment