New research from Cambridge University and others shows that, with sensitive ing, young children can be reliable witnesses in cases of abuse.
Children provided remarkable amounts of free recall information in response to open prompts which did not direct them."
—Professor Michael Lamb
A new study shows that children as young as three or four years old can talk informatively and accurately about experiences - including incidents of abuse - if they are ed by specialists who understand children’s strengths and weaknesses. Its findings, published today in the journal Child Development, may prompt a review of current practice by police and social workers.
The research - carried out by psychologists at the University of Cambridge, University of Haifa, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the USA, and the Israeli Child Investigation Unit – challenges accepted thinking. It has long been believed that young children are incapable of providing useful information about their experiences for a variety of reasons, including their limited memory and communication abilities, and their egocentric inability to recognise that listeners do not have the same knowledge of past events that they have.
"In the light of this recent research, we need to rethink the way in which we approach young witnesses," said Michael Lamb, Professor of Psychology at Cambridge University. "All too often we under-estimate children’s abilities to remember and describe their experiences – and the consequences of this are very grave. Young children are often the only possible sources of information about abuse, and if we do not them, we will not be able to protect them or other possible victims."
According to the NSPCC, as many as one in seven children in the UK are abused, emotionally, physically and sexually, although only a tiny proportion of those responsible for this abuse are ever tried in a court of law. The reasons for this are many, including beliefs in the superiority of non-punitive interventions, children’s unwillingness to testify, and failures to obtain information of sufficient quality from the young victims.
"When very young children are involved in distressing incidents of abuse, often made more complex by both delayed reporting and confusions among multiple instances of maltreatment, the ing process becomes even more emotionally charged. There is an understandable impulse among professionals to ’help’ the child along with leading questions and to avoid ’making things worse’ by going back over them in detail," said Lamb.