Can Children be Reliable Courtroom Witnesses?
For centuries, the law has had mistrust on statements and testimonies given out by children. Justification of lack of trust was brought about by the fact that the children were viewed incapable of differentiating facts from fantasies.
The basis of this notion is supported by the fact that sometimes children lie, especially about sexual abuse due to incitement by immoral parents (Tasman & Goldfield, 1991). However, in the last two decades, children have been incorporated as witnesses in courts due to child abuse and for prosecution of offenders. In turn, this has led to a question on whether children are reliable as witnesses in courts
The reliability of the information provided by children has always raised concerns in the court system. Various researches have been carried out with an aim of determining whether the information provided is reliable or not. Recent researches have shown that children can remember a lot of information especially if they had personal experiences with them, or if the information is meaningful to their lives.
It has also been noted that children are likely to experience memory loses after long delays when compared with adults. Research has also been instrumental in revealing that children can describe an event accurately, in the time of questioning as well as in future time without omitting some details. An ironic discovery has also been made about children when it comes to revealing of information.
It has been discovered that though children can make false allegations, the greatest risk of information taken from children is having false denials and retractions. The court can easily learn from the reactions of children when they make false allegations knowingly, since they do not persist on them.
There are also special characteristics exhibited by some of the children when they are being interrogated. Special attention is given to disabled children. Disabled children are surprisingly more accurate in providing accurate and complete information as compared to children without disabilities (Tasman & Goldfield, 1991).
It is also evident that children who have learning problems are likely to find it hard to answer close questions, that require yes and no answers. It is therefore notable that in children with disabilities, information is more treasured by forensic experts and is usually sent to forensic psychologists for expert opinion.
There are various reasons that have made the court system to continue having mistrust on the information provided by children. The case of Salem Witch and trials is such a case. In this case, children that were put on the stand testified of seeing people transform to animals and the animals flew at night. The fact that these information provided by children did not make any sense made it hard for courts to even consider the testimony of the children.
The testimony by the children contained many fantasies that made the judges reject indefinitely the testimonies that they were giving. The fact that children develop event memory in every scenario also raises concerns whether children can be used as witness in court and their testimonies trusted.
Children have the tendency of giving information from personal perspective. In this kind of information giving, children tend to form a script of how things take place. Such information in courts cannot be used since it makes no sense of convicting someone without having enough evidence from the testimony provided. The reaction of children is a stressful condition, and raises concerns whether the testimony they provide should be used or not.
The fact that testifying against a perpetrator of a crime to children comes with so many feelings raises concerns on the objectivity of the testimony that is being provided. Children tend to fear testifying against perpetrators, and there is evidence that some have tried to commit suicide so that they cannot be involved in testifying.
It has also been observed in courts that children cry when testifying against a perpetrator and many recesses been called to calm down the child. To some people, this might be seen as guilt to the perpetrators: however, to the courts it is not always that the perpetrator committed the crime, as there could be several things that may lead to such a reaction by the child (Tasman & Goldfield, 1991).
The emotions of a child at the same time may make the judge and the forensic officers not know whether to trust the information provided by the child. The fact that the children are stressed when giving such crucial information may make them not the best candidates of trust in the courts.
Children are also known to encode fewer details about a certain crime than adults do. They are also known of misperceiving of events and in turn, they tend to encode wrong details about a particular crime as compared to older children or adults. The meaning of this is that if a child is subjected to a court of law to give out information as well as an adult. The two parties might give out information, which defers in a big scale.
Such is not accepted in a court of law, as a case needs to have objective information to deliver the desired verdict. Research has also shown that the level alertness amongst children does not change much with children after they are born. The meaning of this is that children might be unaware of some instances that might take place and they might not recognize them.
Such details that children may fail to capture might be the ones they are needed to come up with the verdict of the case. The fact that they are not able to reveal them if need arises also discredit them on whether they are to give out reliable information in a court of law that can be relied on by the jury or the judge.
The disclosure of the information by children is also a subject of debate whether the testimonies they give out should be trusted or not. It is evident that children may fail to disclose abusive experiences and they at times deny them when they are asked about them. It has always being suggested by people that suggestive questioning can be used to elicit details about a certain crime.
It is especially useful when information is needed about a child who is oppressed sexually who feels; ashamed, embarrassed, or guilty of the abuse that was committed to her and may feel hesitant to talk about it. However, it has also been suggested that questioning in a suggestive manner may lead to elicit false statements by children.
The way of questioning to get information from a child should be such that it is not biased. If incase biased information is given out. The child has a likelihood of revealing the wrong information or the child giving misleading information that may lead to the wrong decision been arrived at.
When it comes to identification of witnesses in a court of law, the children decision is a mix up. Young children have a high chance of recognizing a perpetrator when he or she is in the lineup of people who are suspected of the crime.
However, the case is different if the perpetrator is not on the lineup of the supposed committers of the crime, children may choose someone who as not there when the crime was committed. The fact that they end up choosing a person from the line up if incase the perpetrator is not in the lineup leaves so much on be desired on whether their testimony should be put in consideration.
There has also been considerable evidence that children have a high susceptibility of being affected by post-event contamination. According to a research done by Poole and Lindsay children between the ages of 3-8 years, mothers were told to read stories to these children and the children were later supposed to give responses to the same.
At the end of the reading, it was revealed that the children gave out some of the information that they were not contained in the story.
There have also been tests that have revealed that children can recall fictitious events as if they actually happened. Later, when the children were given a chance to reconsider the source of the sources of the memories, the older children withdrew their incorrect memories. However, this was not the case when it came to the younger children, as they still stuck to their original version of their stories.
The results of this research has so much to offer on whether we should consider the testimonies of the children in a court if law. The fact there is the risk that some children may still stand with erroneous views or decision they make of a certain scenario is scarily to the court system.
It is important also to note that there is need for a witness to stand by what he or she believed happened in a certain crime. The fact that they may keep changing their statements is problematic in knowing which statement is right or wrong.
Unlike adults, children are at times threatened by courts setting. The courts are campaigners of telling the truth and when that come up children at times results to keeping quite. Such happens in case of the crimes the children were involved are embracing in nature and they have to tell it to a bunch of strangers.
Children might not tell it due to embracement and the fear that comes with it (Fisher & Lerner, 2005). The problem is even worse if the comes to cross-examining children, as children are usually fearful of the questions they are asked that they do not at times answer them. The children are also threatened by the type of attire that is won by the judges on the court of law.
The lobes and the language jargons used by the forensic officers and the judges do not form party of the repertoire of the children. Some of the language used in the courts many cause scare to the children and may reduce their effectiveness in delivering of the testimony.’ The problems that children experience in the courts can be divided into the following broad categories: inappropriate language vocabulary, Complex syntax, and general ambiguity.
The language that is used in courts as earlier noted is not common to children and might not be accommodative to them if incase it is not simplified. Language complexity is inclusive of clauses with multiple meaning, linguist features that are negative and usage of passive voice.
Cross-examination that includes usage of unclear questions may also be a problem to them (Fisher & Lerner, 2005). The difficulties that are brought about by communication have been noted by the legislature and in turn, it has led to creation of a person known as the intermediary to help. The purpose of the intermediary is to simplify the content that is contained by the information shared in the courts.
He or She does this by removing the hostility and aggressions contained in the questions and paraphrase it to a language friendly to the child. Though the intermediary may do a lot of justice to the children in explaining to them what they are not in understanding it is still clear that the intimidation the courts offers to the child still is in existence.
Children especially the young ones lack the understanding that comes with the procedures that occur in courts. The fact that that witnesses are brought under oath means that someone is supposed to act in a certain way of conduct. Having young children in courtrooms means that some of them do not understand the seriousness that comes with it.
In turn some of them may not work towards the goal of telling the whole truth that pertains to the crime in question. Some children may give incorrect information or keep on changing their testimonies and this is not what is considered in the court of law.
Children are also considered easily influenced or swayed away from what they mean their statement (Ogloff & Shchuller, 2001). The way the questions are put by the interviews may make children answer them the way they are not supposed to and the interviewer might have a different meaning all together. The behavior, the demeanor, and the altitude of the interviewer may also affect the stand of the child.
If the behavior of the interviewer is such that it is polite to the child it may make the child change the tone of what he or she was to say about the perpetrator of the crime. The opposite if this happens when the interviewer is harsh to the child undergoing questioning and the child talks harsh of the perpetrator.
Another issue that is brought about reliability of the information shared by children is sexually relating questions to reporting sexual molestation.
Some, children are usually not comfortable or at times out of knowledge of this information especially if they are of very young age. Such question discredits them in a court of law because they may not have the knowledge of some of the questioned asked. Even for those who understand the questions, they may feel embraced in speaking about it to strangers who they do not know.
Children who are oppressed sexually may feel embarrassed when speaking the information in public since considers the actions shameful. It is also evident that there has been abuse of these procedures to bring to doubt to claims made by using them to avoid conviction of the defendants.
Though children may provide information that may not always be trusted there other determinants on whether the information is to be trusted or not. On such players is the juror, the altitude the juror has towards children determines if the information provided is to be trusted or not. Other characteristics that influence the credibility of the information provided by children the defendant characteristic. A child testimony is more credible to both the judge and the jury if the accused has a criminal record in the past.
The testimony is also more credible to the juror if the victim is of different race as the child and this makes it sensitive. Another dependable characteristics is the situation the child is in, a child who testifies in front of camera appears more relaxed that a child who testifies in a court of law.
In this two scenarios, the juror may be tempted to believe the testimony of the child who acts more emotional that on the other (Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 1998). Attorney trial tactics is another factor that can affect whether the testimony of the child is credible top the testimony to the court.
The opening and the closing arguments can induce the court on accepting the verdict of the courts. Victim characteristic can also affect whether the child testimony is going to be believed by the court or not, though indirectly when the child is of the same sex as the juror. Due to this, characteristic women who have molested adolescent boys have seen linier sentences exerted on them
Since the testimonies of the children are most of time not trusted by the courts, alternative means need to be used to ensure that perpetrators of crime do not go free since there is mistrust on the children testimony. Incorporation of the expert opinion is necessary. A physician is a good candidate to give facts that are related to the child molestation incidents.
Such information is important in making sure that a crime is dealt with and that a person who is not guilty is in castrated. The evaluation of the health of the child is an important undertaking in proving whether assaulting of a child occurs or not (Greene & Heilbrun, 2010).
When considering whether to include children as witnesses in any case, it is of importance to make some consideration is put into place. To start with the age of the children should be such a consideration children, it is evident that younger children are not able to reject some of the question that are asked by lawyers especially when they are cross examined.
Identification of the perpetrators should also be used to determine whether the child should be used as a witness. A child who would not be able to identify the perpetrator in the lineup should be excluded from the witness list, as he or she may not make a good witness.
In bid to make sure that children are not affected by the presence of the defendant, especially in an abusive case scenario, the testimony of the child should be taken out of the court or somewhere where the child does not meet the defendant. This will make the child give a more accurate information unlike when facing the defendant who might have threatened him/her. The question of the reliability of the information that is provided by the child is dependent on the child in question.
It is therefore the duty of the judge and the forensic experts to determine whether the child should part of the witness list to testify in a case. However, it before the child is subjected to question in they should be kept away from the defendants to avoid any incidences of intimidation. Care should be taken by juror to ensure that the information they get from children is accurate so that there are minimal incidences of conviction of individuals who have not committed the crime (Ogloff & Shchuller, 2001).
It is also important to ensure that the investigation is carried out at a shorter time after it happens if children are to be included as part of the witnesses since they are more likely to give accurate information at such a time unlike if they are made to wait for long.
Though research has shown that the credibility of the testimonies given by children is subjective in nature, at some scenarios especially when a child faces molestation it is necessary that a child be incorporated as part of the witnesses. In case there is inclusion of a child in the witness list, several things need to be included so as to ensure that the child is consistent with the testimony he or she gives.
To start with, the child needs to be kept away from the supposed perpetrator of the crime since the perpetrator may instill fear on the child. Another thing that should be put in perspective is to make sure that the trial is carried out as soon as possible to avoid instances of the child forgetting some of important details about the crime.
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Greene, E., & Heilbrun, K. (2010). Wrightsman’s Psychology and the Legal System. Califonia: Cengage Learning .
Ogloff, R. P., & Shchuller, R. A. (2001). Introduction to psychology and law: Canadian perspectives. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Pellegrini, D., & Bjorklund, D. F. (1998). Applied child study: a developmental approach. New Jersey: Taylor & Francis.
Tasman, A., & Goldfield, M. (1991). Review of psychiatry. Alexadria: American Psychiatric Pub .