When Children Testify About Abuse

In every case of child sexual abuse that goes to trial, it is often the child’s testimony that is the most crucial part of the prosecution’s case.    Since the child is typically the only real witness against the suspected abuser, successful prosecution depends on how credible the child will be.   This is especially true when there is no forensic evidence available and the case rests on the child’s word against the suspect’s.

According to the Story Model of juror decision-making, people sitting on a jury are swayed by the side telling the most believable “story” about what actually happened.   After hearing conflicting accounts from the plaintiff and the defendant, the side with the most coherent account tends to be the one that is believed.   Defence attorneys are often required to interrogate child witnesses to shake their confidence or otherwise suggest that the child was coached into making false or inaccurate statements about the client.   Given the serious nature of the charge and the likelihood of the defendant being classified as a sex offender for life, the attorney is strongly motivated to cast as much doubt as possible on the child’s testimony.

What kind of questions need to be asked during forensic interviews to persuade children to tell about what happened to them?   And why do many juries have trouble accepting this testimony?

To read more, check out the latest post on my Psychology Today blog.

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