WHY CHILDREN ALTER THEIR STORIES DURING THE LEGAL PROCESS
March 7, 2014
Summary: Studies conclude that nearly all victims of child sexual abuse are telling the truth. Yet, the moment a child makes the allegation, the gravity of the topic places them at a huge disadvantage. As a result, some children tell incoherent stories – or worse, recant their story altogether. This harsh reality is likely why so few child molestation cases are prosecuted.
Many studies in the field of pediatric psychology have concluded that when children bring forth allegations of sexual abuse, nearly all of them are telling the truth. The logic behind this assessment is that the sexual nature of an abuse is beyond the reasonable grasp of a child, and that the allegations are often too graphic to fabricate. If that’s the case, why aren’t there more victims speaking out against their abusers? There are several complicating factors involved when a child comes forth with an allegation – most of these factors are unknown to the child before they speak up, and when these factors rear their ugly head, it can simply be too much for a child to bear.
Don’t underestimate the burden placed on the child in these cases, it is momentous. Being that the average victim of child sexual abuse is a 9-year-old girl, we will look at it through ‘her’ point of view. She places herself in grave jeopardy by telling the truth; she will likely be rejected by her abuser and possibly her family. In some cases, she might be removed from her family, or her family might be torn apart – and she will think it’s her fault. Once in the courtroom, she will have to relive the nightmare all while feeling guilty and ashamed – and be subject to harsh cross-examination. This of course doesn’t take into account any threats of reprisal the abuser might make to the victim.
Yet, the difficulties persist beyond the burdens placed on the victim. The verbiage used in a legal case is very much adult in nature – the vocabulary of a 9-year-old girl is streamlined in comparison, to put it kindly. To be more frank, many younger children will not know the clinical terminology for their ‘privates’ etc. When a child victim is required to use these terms in their statements, it can have the effect of sounding rehearsed to a jury. In one particular case, the victim (now grown) admitted that she knew there was “absolutely no way” she could prove that she wasn’t a “confused kid who invented a convoluted story.” Here’s the problem; young victims can be dismissed for sounding rehearsed or inconsistent – that rigs the trial in favor of the adult abuser.
Perhaps now you can understand just how strongly the deck is stacked against victims of child sexual abuse. Even if the child ‘wins’ in the courtroom, they still stand to lose a lot, for the reasons stated above. Many kids simply are too frightful of being re-victimized to move forward with charges, or will alter their stories. In the example where the grown victim couldn’t prove her story was right, she claimed that the initial conversation with her parents had completely frozen her to the point that she couldn’t even think to sit down in a chair because of the immediacy. Later when she was interviewed by the police, she admitted to giving answers that would limit further questioning. To recap, there are ‘incentives’ to a child altering their story, or recanting altogether:
– It’s hard to give an accurate story when placed under the immense pressure that children face while reporting an abuse.
– Children have to adopt adult words into their testimony; words they likely don’t understand. Their feelings are vague, while our words are specific.
– There is often a lingering fear that the mother/father has “coached” up the victim’s testimony
– The child might be pressured to recant or change their story by their family. This is especially so when the family has something to lose if the child tells the complete truth.
Thus, it’s no wonder that so many child molesters go unreported – a FBI assessment concluded that only 10% of child molestation cases are reported. Surely, the heavy burden placed on the children, and that the courts are unintentionally tilted in the favor of the adult, factors into this disturbing statistic. For the cases that are brought forth, it requires extra diligence by police departments when interviewing these victims. It is a necessity that our investigators be able to walk the fine line of getting the whole story from the child victim and preparing it in a manner that the lawyers and courts can understand; while doing this, they must also ensure that the victim’s family situation is not further deteriorated. This is a lot to ask of our investigators and our victims; unfortunately, it is a necessity. These brave victims that step forward might or might not realize this, but by them coming forward they likely have prevented more children from becoming victims.