Archive for the ‘Child Suggestibility’ Category

posted by Edward Nichols, MSW, LCSW-R on Mar 3

Interviewing strategies and techniques have become controversial at a time when adults are increasingly attentive to the possibility of abuse.  Many of the children who are interviewed have not made explicit reports of sexual abuse but are instead evaluated because their behaviors or comments raise suspicions, because they have been in contact with potential abusers, or because they are considered “at risk” because physical abuse or neglect has been alleged.  The task of distinguishing between abused and nonabused children is complicated by a variety of factors that are beyond the control of investigative interviewers, including the increased exposure of children to sexual information, increases in the number of caretaking environments in which abuse might occur, and the possibility that conversations with concerned adults — primed by media coverage or their own life experiences –might have influenced or contaminated the children’s accounts.  Research on the impact of social influences, and the corresponding interviewing guidelines, reflect efforts to determine how such experiences might influence children’s answers to questions about abuse.

[For more on the factors that lead to false allegations of child sexual abuse see the Child Sexual Abuse Litigation Library which is available for immediate download.]

posted by Edward Nichols, MSW, LCSW-R on Feb 19

The forensic interview, also referred to as an investigative interview, is an essential component of the fact-finding process.  The goal of the interview is to gather information from a child in a developmentally sensitive, unbiased, and truth-seeking manner that will support accurate and fair decision-making in the criminal justice and child welfare systems.  Although information obtained from the interview might be useful for making treatment decisions, the forensic interview is not part of the treatment process.  Treating professionals are ethically bound not to conduct a forensic interview.

A forensic interview should be child-centered.  Although the interviewer directs the flow of conversation through a series of phases or steps, the child’s abilities should determine the vocabulary and specific content of the conversation.  The interviewer must be alert to developmental differences in language and memory and never assume what a child means by the use of a particular word.  For example, “oral sex” might mean talking about sex to a child.  Therefore, the interviewer should clarify potentially ambiguous words or phrases. Similarly, the interviewer must make certain to use words and concepts that the child understands.

It is critically important that the interviewer not begin an interview with a preconceived notion of what happened. During an interview, the interviewer should attempt to rule out alternative explanations for the allegations. For example, when a child uses terms that may indicate sexual touching, the interviewer should assess the child’s understanding of those terms and explore whether the touching might have occurred in the context of routine care taking or medical treatment. When a child reports details that seem inconsistent, it is the interviewer’s responsibility to clarify whether the events described could have occurred by exploring whether more than one event is being described or whether words are being used in an idiosyncratic way.  For example, “Daddy touched me down there with his finger and it hurt” could have a number of explanations:  The child complained of “pee” hurting and Daddy asked to see where it hurt and touched the area; Daddy touched the child for sexual reasons; or Daddy was applying cream for a severe rash.  It is important to generate several hypotheses about the case.  If the investigator entertains only a single hypothesis, there is a chance that the investigation might turn into an effort to “prove” the hypothesis rather than an effort to find the hypothesis that best matches the facts of the case.  Not only is this a poor investigative technique, it goes against the best interests of the child if the hypothesis is inaccurate.

Finally, the forensic interviewer needs the skills to interview children in a non-leading and non-suggestive fashion.  The interviewer should avoid introducing information or suggesting events that have not been mentioned by the child.  In addition, the interviewer should not project adult interpretations on situations and use comments such as “that must have been frightening.”  Many child sexual abuse cases have no medical evidence, no physical evidence, and no witnesses other than the child and the alleged perpetrator of the abuse.  Thus, decision-making in these cases must, in part, depend upon the child’s statements, corroboration, and the fact pattern of the case.  False allegations of  child sexual abuse do occur and investigators require tools to distinguish false allegations form valid allegations of abuse.

Generally forensic interviews are recorded via video.  It is part of my practice to review these videos in false abuse cases.  Leading or suggestive interviews can render the child’s testimony unreliable and this factor can lead to the successful defense of false child sexual abuse cases.

[For more information see The Child Suggestibility Litigation Library.]

posted by Edward Nichols, MSW, LCSW-R on Feb 16

There has been a flurry of recent research on children’s suggestibility.  Much of this research has focused on the special vulnerabilities of preschool children. The results of this research, coupled with basic empirical findings in developmental psychology, provide at least three reasons why young children are particularly susceptible to suggestion.

First, young children have special difficulty in producing narratives without relying on cues provided by an adult questioner.  Because cues are potentially misleading, the risk of inaccuracy increases.

Second, young children are especially deferential to adults’ perceptions and interpretations of prior events. If an adult communicates to a child that an event happened in a particular way, either explicitly or implicitly through the kinds of questions asked, the younger child is more inclined to believe it than an older child.

Third, young children have difficulty in identifying the sources of their beliefs.  They are more prone to confuse what they have been told with what they actually remember.

Additionally, preschool children are also particularly susceptible to accepting adults’ moral interpretation of others’ actions, making children vulnerable to suggestions that innocuous actions were immoral.

Another source of young children’s suggestibility is the difficulty in remembering the specific source of his or her beliefs — a task called source-monitoring.  Preschool children exhibit difficulties in recalling how they know a particular fact: because of something they saw, something they inferred, or something they were told.  Young children may therefore confuse what they have been told with what they actually perceived.

Children’s deference to adult interpretation can also be exploited by giving the child negative information regarding the person about whom questions are being asked.  Children’s source-monitoring difficulties can be heightened by telling them that the asked-about events have in fact occurred, giving them the means to visualize the nonevents.

My national practice is largely in the area of assisting defense attorneys in understanding the science that explicates the dynamics of the suggestibility of children and presenting that material to the court in a manner that protects the rights, and ultimately freedom, of the falsely accused.  To this end the Child Suggestibility Litigation Library has been created to document the appropriate science and legal methods used to establish child suggestibility in false child sexual abuse cases.

posted by admin on Feb 5

The suggestibility of children during a faulty interview process has been identified as an important factor contributing to false allegations of child sexual abuse.  Now, the Child Suggestibility Litigation Library puts at your fingertips the critical resource documents to demonstrate how to assert, establish and argue that suggestion has tainted the memory of the complaining witness and rendered the testimony unreliable – and thus inadmissible.  These critical documents – pleadings, exhibits, briefs and opinions – detail how two landmark cases were successfully argued to their respective state’s highest court. Additionally, there is a comprehensive national review of the state of the science and law in this area.

Available by instant Adobe PDF download, the searchable, printableLitigation Library is a must for anyone suspecting that suggestion may have played a role in the making of false allegations of child sexual abuse.

posted by idunno on Dec 5

My ex-boyfriend was accused of molesting his son a few months after I moved out. A month later his daughter stated she was molested as well. His ex wife had tried to “take” the kids just prior to this. She wanted them to switch schools and live with her more (she lived one county over) and even transferred them without his knowledge, to another school system two days before school started. We had them 90% of the time and she never wanted to keep them more until he asked to have their custody revised, saying that he had them full time and to keep them in our county school system. She was afraid we were trying to take the kids away from her, which we weren’t, and this got the ball rolling on her end. She started picking them on time, which she never did before, and kept them when she was supposed to. After I moved out, she started asking around to see if I was still there and who kept the kids while he was at work. She even had a friend of her asking me odd questions on a social site….such as, are you single or who are you living with. When she found out I left him, she accused him of molestation. The youngest supposedly accused first. He was 3 at the time and had very delayed speech problem. He could barely comprehend things or speak like a normal 3 year old so I can’t believe he came out and said this. He hadn’t seen the kids in 5 days when she called the police or reported it. I was with him and his son 2 days before he took them back to her and of course the child was NOT scared of him and was hugging him and sitting in his lap. Neither kids were ever scared of him. The oldest child was 6 at the time and just recently had “good touch, bad touch” teachings at school and I talked with her about it and she said no one had ever touched her or made her feel scared. The kids loved being with us and would usually cry when they had to go to their moms and step-dads house. Their father was a cop and the ex claimed they are scared of cops now and claimed he scared them with his gun, which they NEVER even saw. As soon as he came in from work, he put it on a high dresser in the bedroom, out of sight completely. We had cop friends in and out all the time and the kids were never afraid of them. They would play and read for out guests. His ex then claims that their paternal grandfather also molested the daughter and that the grandmother knew about it and let it happen. With each trip to court, there was more and more “stories” revealed. Everyone that knows my ex, KNOWS he didn’t do anything, nor did his father. This happened almost 2 years ago and the small-town lawyer he had didn’t really do his job so now the case is up in the air. There was no arrest and he was investigated. His father was never questioned but still they are not allowed any contact with the kids. I’ve done tons of research to help. We stay in contact even though we’re not in a relationship. Both kids were examined and the oldest has no signs of abuse. Supposedly the smallest child had a bruise? They said it could’ve been caused by constipation since he had that a lot but it could also be from abuse. She lied in court saying that the 3 yr old was potty trained until this happened, then he was constantly wetting himself but I had those kids more than anyone, since he worked long hours or slept during the day, he worked nights. The child was never potty trained. We tried for 6 months and it never worked. We had him in pull ups and she would send him back in diapers. She even admitted in court that she never wanted him to go to jail, she just wanted child support. She was claiming he was one week late on it. I feel that if she truly believes he did this, why wouldn’t she want him in jail? Doesn’t make sense. There’s a lot more to the story but this is the shorter version. He called your office one day last week but no one has returned his call so I decided to post since he doesn’t have a computer. Any advice would be appreciated. What can we do to get this dismissed or at least get him visitation? Can you refer him to a expert lawyer in GA?

posted by admin on Jan 25

Those falsely accused of child sexual abuse may now access a national website for assistance.  Both attorneys and those falsely accused my download resources from , or they may view topical videos.

Operated by Nichols Consulting, the national consulting firm assisting those falsely accused of child molestation, the comprehensive website includes updated national information and a blog.

Additionally, national help is available by calling the 24/7 national hotline at 800.400.8886

posted by admin on Jan 23

A comprehensive video is now available for immediate viewing that explains how Nichols Consulting provides the assistance needed to defend against false allegations of child sexual abuse.  This national consulting firm, that has been providing professional services for over 30 years, assists attorneys whose clients are the victims of false accusations of child sexual abuse.

This video, which features Edward Nichols, MSW, LCSW-R who is often acclaimed as America’s foremost clinical social worker. He has garnered the national reputation of advocating for the well-being of children by protecting them from those who would harm them in the context of false accusations of child sexual abuse.

Nichols’ national practice places great emphasis on exposing false allegation by demonstrating how children become victims of false allegations of child sexual abuse through improper interviews conducted by poorly trained personnel — particularly at departments of social services.  Help for the the falsely accused is available from Nichols Consulting’s comprehensive web site and is featured in this comprehensive video.

Nichols Consulting is located in central New York, but is available to help nationally.  Currently they have active cases in Illinois, Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Nichols consulting is as near as your telephone and operates a 24/7 hot line at 1.800.400.8886.

posted by Edward Nichols, MSW, LCSW-R on Jan 22

The problem of the suggestibility of young children in sexual abuse allegations has become one of great concern to those defending false accusations of child sexual abuse.  Clearly, when such allegations are false, it is incumbent upon the accused to provide an explanation to the court regard why a child would make such a false allegation and how such an allegation could evolve from a so called “disclosure” to a court proceeding.  We are happy to provide, in the context of the Child Suggestibility Litigation Library, the basic source documents that provide the information, insight, and practice wisdom that allows for the efficient and effective defense of false accusations of child sexual abuse wherein the issues of suggestibility, and thus the tainting of a child’s reports, are an issue.

The Litigation Library provides a comprehensive exposition of the detailed resource documents in two landmark cases:  State of New Jersey v. Margaret Kelly Michaels and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Gerald John Delbridge.  These two cases, appealed victoriously, provide all of the essential psychosocial concepts, and legal precedents, required to defend cases of false accusations of child sexual abuse, where child suggestibility is an issue.  A brief summary of these cases makes this clear:

Michaels involved the conviction of day care teacher on 115 counts involving various allegations of child sexual abuse committed on twenty children in her charge at the Wee Day Care Nursery in Maplewood, New Jersey.  On appeal, the court found evidence that child sexual abuse reports were founded on unreliable perceptions or memories caused by improper child interviewing and that admission of testimony premised upon those accusations of sexual abuse could lead to an unfair trial.  In reaching this conclusion, the court acknowledged the problem of relying on scientific and psychological theories in the context of considering the susceptibility of children to manipulative interrogations.  The court discussed the tension between the accepted legal standard that children as a class are not suspect witnesses, and the commonly held belief that children are peculiarly susceptible to undue influence. The court reviewed the various treatises written and relied upon the scientific and law enforcement communities regarding the susceptibility of children to improper child abuse interviews, and reached its conclusion as to the concept of “taint” by judicial recognition:

“We therefore determine that a sufficient consensus exists within the academic, profession, [sic] and law enforcement communities, confirmed in varying degrees by courts, to warrant the conclusion that the use of coercive or highly suggestive interrogation techniques can create a significant risk that the interrogation itself will distort the child’s recollection of events, thereby undermining the reliability of the statements and subsequent testimony concerning such events.” [State of New Jerseyv. Margaret Kelly Michaels, 642 A.2d 1372 (N.J. 1994) at 1379]

In analyzing the concept of taint as it affects the admissibility of proffered testimony, the New Jersey Courtlooked at its existing case law on the issues of suggestive pre-trial identification techniques, and the admissibility of testimony based on hypnotically induced recollections.  As those cases illustrate, evidence may be deemed inadmissible because it was corrupted by the manner in which it was collected.  The New Jersey court therefore concluded that taint was equally capable of corrupting the memory of a child witness during the interviewing for child sexual abuse.  The court identified various factors for assessing accusation of sexual abuse made by children, however, it cautioned that the list was not exhaustive and that the matter must be analyzed in the totality of the circumstances involve.  The factors identified in Michaels are: [1] the age of the alleged victim: [2] the circumstances of the questioning; [3] the alleged victim’s relationship with the interrogator; and [4] the type of questions asked.

To assist in the appeal of this case, a Committee of Concerned Social Scientists submitted an Amicus Brief which explicated the state of the science regarding the proper interview of children and how the interviewers in the Michaels case introduced suggestion and tainted the testimony of children.  This document, included in the Litigation Library, has become singularly important to establish a basic understanding of how to defend false allegations of child sexual abuse when improper child interviews have been employed. 

Ultimately, the defendant in Michaels prevailed and the New Jersey Supreme Court wrote:

“This Court has a responsibility to ensure that evidence admitted at trial is sufficiently reliable so that it may be of use to the finder of fact who will draw the ultimate conclusions of guilt or innocence.  This concern implicates principles of constitutional due process.  Reliability is the linchpin in determining admissibility of evidence under a standard of fairness that is required by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Competent and reliable evidence remains at the foundation of a fair trial, which seeks ultimately to determine the truth about criminal culpability.  If crucial inculpatory evidence is alleged to be derived from unreliable sources, due process interests are at risk.”[State v. Michaels, 642 A.2d at 1380 (internal citations omitted).]

The Child Suggestibility Litigation Library contains the following resource documents from Michaels:  The Amicus Brief by the Committee of Concerned Social Scientists, the Opinion of the New Jersey Superior Court [1993]; and the Opinion of the New Jersey Supreme Court [Decided June 23, 1993].

Next we turn to Delbridge, a case that changed the law in the state of Pennsylvania, and a case in which I consulted regarding the salient psychosocial issues.  This case involved two young children wherein it appeared that false sexual assault accusations were made based upon taint as a result of suggestive interviewing.  The problem was that this was a case of first impression with no precedent under Pennsylvania law to conduct a so-called “taint hearing” where the court probes into the interview process to determine if suggestive interviews may have tainted the testimony of the complaining witnesses.  Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court changed the law in Delbridge  and ordered a taint hearing.

The most interesting part of the study of Delbridge is that originally, when the case was appealed to Superior Court, the court agreed with the trial court.  When the case was further appealed to Supreme Court, the defendant’s position prevailed.  This case provides an opportunity to see how the principles first identified in Michaels can be misapplied or successfully applied. In asserting that a child has been subjected to a suggestive interview process that has tainted a child memory – thus rendering inadmissible – the litigator must be mindful of the finer nuances of both the legal and psychosocial points that must be asserted, established and successfully argued.  The Child Suggestibility Litigation Library contains the following resource documents from Delbridge:   The Brief Of Appellant before the PA Superior Court [filed April 10, 2000]; The Opinion of the PA Superior Court [March 2001]; The Brief Of Appellant to the PA Supreme Court [Includes Exhibits], The Opinion of the PA Supreme Court.

In a professional career spanning over 25 years, it has been a rare occasion to be as pleased about a project as I am with my participation in bringing the Child Suggestibility Litigation Library to those who advocating for those falsely accused.  I believe that these materials will not only assist those who may have been falsely convicted, but perhaps more importantly, prevent false conviction where child suggestibility is a crucial issue.