In The Fascinating Science of Child Witnesses, Newroom journalist Eloise Gibson reports on recent studies into child witnesses and the ways researchers are redesigning interview techniques to elicit the most accurate evidence from them. It is hoped that these improved methods will make it easier to prosecute allegations of abuse and other crimes against children, without increasing the risk of wrongful convictions.

[Deirdre] Brown studies childhood memory, including how to help victims of child abuse give the most accurate testimony. Equally important is helping children reveal when there’s been no abuse, she says. “We want children to be protected, but we also don’t want lives ruined because of wrongful convictions.”

Brown’s field of study grew out of Peter Ellis’ conviction in the 1990s for abusing children at Christchurch Civic Creche. In that case and a couple of similar cases in the United States, kids were asked closed, leading questions that threw doubt on their testimony. Researchers wanted police to do better, and the field of child interviewing was born.

Brown helps train the specialist child interviewers working for the police and Oranga Tamariki. Especially with sexual abuse, children are often the only witnesses apart from the alleged perpetrator. Yet children are suggestible, still learning language, and not always tellers of logical stories. They can give highly reliable accounts, says Brown, but they need to be questioned correctly.

The techniques have been specifically designed for children (a class of witness particularly prone to suggestibility and the risk of memory distortion). However, even adult memories can be fallible and malleable.  And some of the risks that could improperly influence testimony  (eg using closed or leading questions, introducing loaded information that the witness hasn’t disclosed themselves) hold true for any prospective witness, regardless of age. Lawyers who are responsible for briefing witnesses should watch these developments with interest.

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