In child abuse cases, children involved as either victims or witnesses must testify in court, and those testimonies are often crucial to the case’s resolution. In any other legal matter, the victim’s side of the story is an obviously crucial component of the trial proceedings. However, children are largely considered less emotionally stable and more vulnerable to suggestion than adults. Additionally, children often lack the communication skills of adults and can’t articulate traumatic events accurately.
Child witnesses or victims may provide telling and crucial testimony about the events in question in a child abuse case. However, it’s important to remember that court cases are meant to be impartial – the side that makes the most coherent, logical argument is usually the one that the jury believes.
HOW CHILDREN HELP AND HURT CASES
A child testifying to his or her own abuse may be traumatized by the experience or afraid to speak about the events in question out of fear of the abuser seeking reprisal. Most child abusers threaten their victims that they will hurt them if they tell anyone about what the abuser has done. As such, a child may not be able to provide a believable testimony before a jury, or a jury may simply deem the child too rattled to provide an accurate account of events.
When it comes to children called as witnesses, children are far more susceptible to intimidation and external influences. Children brought into a courtroom also experience an extreme degree of stress in most cases, and they may be more worried about getting in trouble for saying “the wrong thing” than they are about conveying the truth.
Attorneys on both sides of the table must tread carefully while questioning children on the stand. Attorneys aren’t allowed to “lead” witnesses or attempt to spur them toward a specific desired answer. Children respond much better to open-ended questions, but they’re often reluctant to speak about how the abuse in question affected them.
CHILDREN’S BEHAVIOR IN COURT
There have been several studies conducted concerning the reliability and accuracy of child testimonies in legal matters. The results of those studies don’t seem to indicate that children are any more or less reliable as witnesses than adults, but they do expose some key differences that should be considered:
- Children are less likely to lie and their memories improve with age. Younger children will have more difficulty remembering specific events than older kids, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t being truthful. Older children and adults are actually more likely to provide inaccurate accounts and information than younger children.
- When children do lie, they’re far more likely to be caught. Most people can’t pick up on when an adult isn’t being truthful. Most children lack the guile necessary to succeed in a lie, especially when the situation is serious. The only time a child may be inclined to lie in court is if the child is afraid of the abuser or thinks that they will be in trouble for telling the truth.
- Children are more susceptible to suggestion during interviews. Leading questions can cause children’s memories of an event to skew. Children are far more likely to re-rationalize their experiences when adults attempt to sway them. It’s important for pre-trial interviews to be thorough and avoid any questions that involve complex, abstract concepts or complicated jargon.
Children may be more vulnerable to suggestion and susceptible to intimidation, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be viable witnesses in a child abuse case. Children are far less likely to attempt to intentionally deceive a court. Attorneys need to approach child victims and witnesses with care and ask open-ended questions. Child testimony is invaluable to most child abuse cases, so these young witnesses must be handled with integrity and compassion.