The popular policeman and other cases: Allegation of Sexual Child Abuse - Wagenaar, Crombag (2005) - Article
False accusations of sexual abuse during custody cases are not rare. With regards to allegations of sexual child abuse, the most important issue is determining the value of the testimony of the child as a witness. Investigating alleged abuse should be done by following these three steps. First of all, the psychologist should point out the base rates and their implications for the decision process. Secondly, the psychologist should explain how in such cases there may be more false allegations than in other types of cases. Thirdly, reasonably alternative scenarios that could have produced a false allegation should be described and considered.
It is important to examine if the accusing parent had a motive and an opportunity to make a false accusation. Custody in itself is already a motive. When it comes to the opportunities, there are several things to consider. First to be considered is the limit of what kind of story the child can be taught. Also important is the child’s medical history. Genital problems offer an opportunity for the accusing parent. Another opportunity comes through the risky habits of the alleged perpetrators, such as walking around the house naked or bathing together.
Sometimes psychologists are required to examine the truthfulness of a child’s testimony. However, the assessment of truthfulness should be done by a judge or jury, and not by a psychologist. The role of the psychologist is providing the psychological factors and considerations that should be taken into account. Two approaches are possible.
In the process approach the focus is on the manner in which the interview of the victim was held. There are several criteria for a good interview:
The interviewer is well trained and experienced. Also, his/her work needs to be peer-reviewed at least once a year.
The only people present in the interview room are the child and the interviewer. The child must be made aware that they are being recorded, that someone is watching from behind the screen, and that there is no parent, relative or custodian watching or listening.
A good contact with the child needs to be established. If the relationship does not fulfill the following conditions, the interview cannot be continued. The first condition is that the child can answer simple autobiographical questions in an appropriate matter. Secondly, the interviewer needs to test if the child is vulnerable for suggestion. Finally, the child needs to understand why the interview is being held and that anything can be said, as long as it is the truth.
The interview is in the child’s native language.
The interview is divided into different stages. In the first stage, the child tells her own, uninterrupted story. In the second stage, open questions can be asked. There should not be any discussion, only elucidation of unclear issues.
The interviewer is neutral, does not stigmatize or implicate the suspected person, and does not offer therapeutic assistance.
The interviewer does not draw any conclusions.
In the product approach the focus lies on the content analysis of the victim’s statements. It is recommended to pay attention to the following criteria:
Can some reported details be physically impossible?
Are statements inconsistent with previous statements, statements of other witnesses, or other known facts?
Is the statement internally inconsistent?
Are there relevant questions that remain unanswered?
It can be hard to distinguish between the two approaches, because they are often intertwined. It should be that if the process is correct, the product is correct. And if there is a bad process, it will be hard to get a good product. Otherwise, a product might be correct (a truthful statement) even though the process is wrong (a bad interview), and vice versa. Even though there is a positive relationship between process- and product-quality, the size of this effect is unknown. The conclusion is still that improper interview methods increase the chances of obtaining false information.
The criteria-based content analysis gives nineteen criteria that are indicative of veracity. The more criteria are met, the more the child’s testimony is considered to be truthful. Some important criteria are quantity of details, logical structure, reproduction of speech, superfluous details, unusual details, and self-deprecation.
Problems with the criteria-based content analysis
One of the problems with this approach is that of none of the criteria a significant relationship with truthfulness has been established (e.g. a detailed testimony is not necessarily more often true). Another problem lies in the validity, which must be based on an objective and independent categorization of true and untrue stories (which can only be done in a completely controlled situation). A final problem is that this approach cannot distinguish between an untrue story that is believed by the child and a deliberate false testimony.
Analyzing nonverbal behavior contributes very little to finding out if a statement is true or not. Differences in facial expressions while truth telling and lying were very small. Also, a police interview is very different from a laboratory experiment. Such an interview can be very stressful, make the person look nervous and therefore guilty.
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