From the excellent documentary Innocence Lost , the below article discusses the issue with repeated questioning of a child. I recommend paying close attention to the mother’s questioning of the child prior to the child speaking with a therapist. It illustrates how children change their mind after repeated questioning. A child will attempt to satisfy the adults when questioned repeatedly.
In the Little Rascals case, there are no electronic recordings of the initial interviews with the children. On the basis of the available evidence, it seems that many children denied during initial interviews that anything sexual had happened. Some of the children talked about hitting or spanking in the day-care center, but they mainly made these claims about other children (in the next chapter, on stereotype induction, we will address these reports of hitting in more detail). The only child who made any statements that may have been indicative of abuse was Carl P. But this was not the first time that Carl had been questioned. His mother had been questioning him since at least the beginning of December; initially, he had denied any wrongdoing at the center, although he later said that Mr. Bob had played “doctor” with some of his friends, but not with him
During Officer Toppin’s 2-hour interview, when Carl was asked to show on the doll how Mr. Bob played “doctor,” he inserted his finger in the doll’s anus and pulled on the doll’s penis (the interpretation of these behaviors is covered in chapter 12). After demonstrations on the doll, the investigators asked him to show on his own body “what playing doctor was.” According to Toppin’s trial testimony, Carl grabbed his penis “and took his hand like he was inserting his finger in his rectum…… But when asked “how Mr. Bob played doctor,” he replied, “I don’t think he does it anymore.” According to Toppin’s recollections of this unrecorded interview, Carl initially stated that this happened only to two of his friends, but not to him; later in the interview, he also said it happened to him. None of the other children made similar claims in their first interviews.
Parents in the Little Rascals case also interviewed their children. When the first allegations became public, many parents refused to believe them; they remained loyal to the Kellys. However, as more and more chil- dren made allegations, even the faithful began to have their doubts. Some parents admitted to relentlessly questioning their children until they finally gave sway and admitted to abuse. According to some parents, this process took more than 10 months. The testimony of one of the mothers illustrates how some of these children may have been questioned at home, prior to any of the investigative interviews, and how allegations of sexual abuse may emerge when young children are repeatedly questioned by their parents.
Mother: First time I questioned him, we were laying on my bed and was just, you know, “Do you like Mr. Bob,” “Do you like Ms. Betsy,” um, “Has Mr. Bob ever done anything bad to you”, “Has Mr. Bob ever spanked you,” and as we were talking I got more specific with him; I asked him, “Had Mr. Bob ever touched his privates,” I didn’t feel like he really knew what his privates were called that, and so I asked him has Mr. Bob ever touched your pee-bug,” “Has Mr. Bob ever touched your hiney,” “Has he ever put his finger in your hiney.” I was using very specific questioning.
Attorney: And what were his responses?
Mother: He thought it was funny. He was laughing at me when we were just talking in general. . . . He was so young. He wasn’t even three years old then.
Attorney: Was that the only time you questioned him?
Mother: No, it went on. When I was asking him that first time if Mr. Bob had ever spanked him he kept on saying, “No,” and I kept on asking him, “Has he ever touched your pee- bug,” and finally he took his hand and he slapped it on his privates like that (indicating), and he said, “He did that.” And I asked him about a rope, did anybody ever tie him up with a rope…. and he said, “No.” And then he said they played a bonkey game, at the day care. And I said, “Well, who do you play the bonkey game with?” And he played the bonkey game with Anthony and Mr. Bob, and, um, they used a rope when they played the game. So I got a tie belt out of the dresser drawer, and, you know, I told him to show me how he was tied up with that rope. And he tied it around his feet with the rope. And when I relayed this conversation to Sally (her best friend), then there was a lot of concern . Sally felt like I needed to and listening to the rumors and all, I did proceed to question him further.
[Attorney then asks why she asked him about the rope and being tied up.]
Mother: I don’t know. Everything I was getting I was getting from Eleanor (parent of non indicting child), but I couldn’t tell you for sure that I heard that from her. I don’t know. I heard it from somebody…
. Attorney: Now, tell me how that developed that you began to get statements from him that raised a question in your mind of sexual abuse.
Mother: Dick was being questioned a lot from that first time on (i.e., the end of January), quite often. And then that last week then it was probably a few hours every day thing. And on that Friday (the end of April), I got a response out of him…Um, he told me that Mr. Bob had put his penis in his mouth and peed on him.
Attorney: Now, are those things that he just came up with on his own?
Mother: No, sir, he did not.
Attorney: How did he come up with those kind of statements?
Mother: Because I asked him…he had been hearing it at least once a week since I first started questioning him and then that last week he was hearing it every day.
Attorney: Now, the questions you asked him about…whether or not Bob had put [his] penis in his mouth and peed on him and that kind of thing, was that part of the information you had been receiving as types of allegations that had been made?
Attorney: Now, up to this point in your questioning of Dick you said that you had been fairly specific in your statements to him about asking him whether or not Bob did this or whether or not Bob did that; did you name specific acts to him?
Mother: Yes sir, “Did Bob put his finger in your hiney,” things like that, yes, sir, I did.
Attorney: And did some of the time you get no answer to those questions?
Mother: It was “no” the majority of the time,…most of the time he didn’t know what I was talking about.
[After this child assented to his mother’s questions, she called Brenda Toppin, the police officer, to make a report.]
Attorney: Did you tell her (Officer Brenda Toppin) that basically you had just gotten answers in response to your questions, yes or no type answers? Or did you relate it as a story coming from Dick?
Mother: As a story coming from Dick…I don’t really think I told her anything he was asked. I just told her the major part of what he said, that Mr. Bob had put his penis in Dick’s mouth and had peed on him right there.
Attorney: Now, in spite of the fact that Mrs. Toppin told you that he had made no statement to her about sexual abuse at that time, did she offer any opinion to you as to whether or not Dick had been abused?
Mother: I asked her if she thought Dick had been abused, and she said, “On the record I can’t tell you; off the record, I would say yes,” and there’s a whole lot more to come.
[According to this mother, Officer Toppin interviewed Dick in the evening. After the interview, Toppin told the mother that although Dick had not made any allegations of a sexual nature, she felt that he would feel more comfortable with his mother in the room. When the mother asked him questions, Dick did not assent to the allegations of sexual abuse.]
The above testimony from the Little Rascals case makes clear the lack of information available to the court about the style and frequency of the non recorded interviews. Because none of the original law enforcement or therapeutic interviews appear to have been taped (or if they had been, none reached the courtroom), it is impossible to evaluate their suggestiveness. All that is known for sure is that although the children initially denied the abuse, they eventually admitted to it–usually after many months and intervening interviews.
Similarly, there is also scanty information concerning the style and frequency of the interviews in the Michaels case. Importantly, to our knowledge, there are no electronically preserved copies of the initial interviews with the children, nor with their parents. Several weeks into the interviewing of the children, the prosecutor’s office decided that the investigators should audio tape their interview. The team began to record those children who had not fully divulged their disclosures. Although there are some examples of taped interview in which there seem to be few leading questions and in which the child gave a coherent report of abuse, these were not the initial interviews, and thus it is impossible to evaluate their validity without knowing about the details of the prior interviews.
From: Jeopardy in the Courtroom-A Scientific Analysis of Children’s Testimony by Stephen J. Cecil and Maggie Bruck, American Psychological Association, 1995.