Last summer we attended the first International Conference on Child Protection
and Clients, held in the Netherlands, June 28-30, 1995. We gave the keynote
address and other presentations. Professionals and families from US, Canada,
Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Nederlands,
Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Argentina, Hungary,
and Belgium met and dealt with the same issues the proposed legislation
addresses. The amazing worldwide similarity of deep concerns and serious
problems with how authorities respond to allegations of child abuse makes
it abundantly clear that we have exported our problematical US system around
We have built a system that, while intended to protect children, often does more harm to children and families than good. From 1979 to the present every scientist who has investigated the level and type of error committed by the child protection system has concluded there is an unconscionable level of false positives, that is, saying there is abuse when there is not. These analyses have covered the entire range of disciplines from medical examinations to interviews to assessment and diagnosis. Scientific unanimity across so many years and so many parameters is highly unusual. The conference unanimously endorsed the need for much more attention to improving the accuracy of decision making than has heretofore been given.
Although the damage to a falsely accused person is obvious, it is not always fully realized that a child is also damaged by a false allegation and a mistaken decision. If a child is involved in allegations of abuse that are ill-founded and erroneous, it is not an innocuous, neutral, or benign experience. A child involved in a false allegation of abuse is subjected to highly destructive emotional abuse. The harm done to children when adults make a mistake and treat a nonabused child as if there has been abuse is severe and likely long lasting. Several years after the infamous Jordan case in Scott County, Minnesota, in 1984, the damage to the parents and children in the involved families is apparent. A recent in-depth research project in the United Kingdom on families who claimed to be falsely accused of child abuse documented varying degrees of trauma, some severe and long lasting, to the families involved, including the children. Other research studies also demonstrate the harm done to children.
The child protection system responds to abuse allegations with much reinforcement for making an accusation but has no accountability. An allegation produces large and immediate payoffs and has no cost to the system or the accuser if it is false. This makes the child protection system very vulnerable to manipulation and distortion by troubled and distressed persons pursuing their own private purposes.
The research literature now shows conclusively that young children are suggestible and can be led to produce erroneous accounts of abuse. The research also demonstrates that children may come to believe in mistaken memories and experience them as subjectively real when they are not. The consequence is that a nonabused child is made into a victim of abuse by the mistaken belief of adults. The San Diego County Grand Jury thoroughly and extensively investigated the child protection system in San Diego County. Their carefully documented review shows the damage that can be done to children by false accusations and mistaken intervention by authorities. Representatives from that Grand Jury have testified before congressional committees.
It is essential for the welfare of children to work towards increasing the reliability and accuracy of decisions made. An important step in accomplishing this is to audiotape or videotape all investigatory interviews with the child. Also any therapy sessions with a child prior to adjudication of an allegation should be fully documented as well. We have reviewed hundreds of hours of audiotapes or videotapes of interviews with children from all over this country. We have found that adult social influence is frequently found in accusations which are later determined by the justice system to be false. Both our research and the observations of other professionals demonstrate a high level of adult behavior toward children that is suggestive, coercive, leading, and contaminates the information gained from an interview.
There are several significant advantages to videotaping:
1. Videotaping permits an objective analysis of the techniques of the interviewer. Interviewers who claim that they did not ask leading questions are often found to have conducted highly leading and suggestive interviews. But when the interview has been conducted properly, the videotape verifies this, thus making it difficult to argue that the interviewer asked improper questions.
2. Videotaping provides an incentive for interviewers to avoid coercive, suggestive interviews and to improve their interviewing techniques.
3. Videotapes assure that the written report of the interview is accurate. Interviewers' written reports of the interview may often be inaccurate and misleading.
4. Videotaping can reduce the total number of interviews, thus reducing the trauma to child witnesses.
5. Videotaping preserves the child's exact statements, emotion, and demeanor when the child makes a disclosure about abuse.
6. In cases of actual abuse, videotapes encourage confessions or guilty pleas when the interview is noncoercive and the child is convincing.
7. Videotapes are useful to assess the strength of the child as a witness and can provide valuable evidence to help determine whether to pursue a criminal investigation and indictment.
The arguments advanced against interviewing primarily have to do with the state's fear that the defense will use the tape to attack the interviewing techniques of the interviewer and to unfairly discredit an inconsistent child. We do not believe these are valid reasons. If the interviews are poorly done, the solution is to improve the quality of the interviews, not to hide what really happened. The desire to protect an inconsistent and confused child cannot justify the suppression of evidence. The finder-of-fact is entitled to have all information about the child's statements, including inconsistencies, denials, and retractions, in order to make the most accurate determination possible about the child's reliability and credibility. The finder-of-fact is also entitled to have full information about the types of questions asked by the interviewer, particularly with a young child.
Another argument is that the videotaping equipment will make the child uncomfortable. This argument does not hold up in practice and is not supported by research on the effect of videotaping. Children generally quickly forget about the camera and, if this is a concern, the camera can be positioned behind a one-way mirror or unobtrusively.
It is sometimes argued that the investigator cannot always have videotaping equipment at his disposal. But there is no reason that the interview cannot be audiotaped. Although videotaping has significant advantages over audiotaping, audiotaping is far preferable to making no record at all.
In summary, there are no good reasons not to tape all investigatory interviews of children; there are only bad reasons.
Selected general references by Wakefield and Underwager
Underwager, R., & Wakefield, H. (1990). The Real World of Child Interrogations. Springfield, IL: C. C. Thomas.
Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1988). Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse. Springfield, IL: CC Thomas.
Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1994). Return of the Furies: An Investigation into Recovered Memory Therapy. Chicago: Open Court.
Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1991). Sexual abuse allegations in divorce and custody disputes. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 9, 451­p;468.
Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1992). Recovered memories of alleged sexual abuse: Lawsuits against parents. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 10(4), 483-507.
Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1994). Abusive behaviors alleged in two samples of likely false allegations. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 6(2), 72­p;86.
Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1994). The alleged child victim and real victims of sexual misuse. In J. J. Krivacska & J. Money (Eds.), The Handbook of Forensic Sexology, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Underwager, R., & Wakefield, H. (1995). Special problems with sexual abuse cases. In J. Ziskin (Ed.), Coping with psychiatric and psychological testimony: Fifth Edition. Los Angeles: Law and Psychology Press.
Selected references on the effects of false allegations
Robson, B. (1991, March). The Scars of Scott County. Mpls./St. Paul, pp. 48-53, 123, 125-131.
Robson revisited the families caught in false allegations in Scott County, Minnesota, in 1984. Robson reports that "Seven years later, the legacy of Scott County has been one of children crying for their parents in the middle of the night; of divorce and dysfunction among nearly all of the families involved; of perhaps permanent emotional damage to the accused and accusers alike."
Ten years after the first couple was acquitted and charges were dismissed against the others in the Scott county cases, one boy told them, "I get this sick feeling in my stomach when I think there are some people out thee who still think I was an abused child." This boy, 11 at the time and now 22, remains troubled, distrustful and confused by his experience. For another family, "nothing was ever normal again."
People claiming to be falsely accused of child sexual abuse reported significant stress from the accusation and investigation.
The authors discuss the trauma resulting from a child abuse investigation and note the large number cases of suspected sexual abuse that are not substantiated. They stress that professionals should be aware of the potential harm done to nonabused children when there is professional intervention that assumes abuse has occurred.
Patterson describes the significant harm done to the falsely accused parent in a sexual abuse custody situation. An immediate consequence is often that visitation is immediately suspended. Whether this is the result or whether there is contact under supervision, there is a strain on the relationship between the child and the accused parent. Even if this is later rectified, the parent has lost valuable time with the child. The author concludes: "We can never serve a child's best interest by denying him or her the love and affection of a parent who has himself been victimized by a lie" (p. 941).
The family in this case was destroyed and the parents and children all suffered depression, stress, rage, distress, hurt and alienation.
Families were negatively affected by false allegations in a variety of ways.
This is the account of the girl who suicided several years after having made a false allegation because of pressure from her mother. When she found out that her father had been imprisoned and later suicided as a result of her false allegation, she also killed herself.
Wexler believes that the war against child abuse "has become a war against children." He argues that our child abuse system is hurting the children that it is attempting to help.
Besharov discusses the high proportion of unfounded reports which make up an estimated 55% to 65% of all reports. This endangers children who are really abused since these unfounded reports drain resources and child protective agencies are less able to respond effectively to children who are in serious danger.
These pilot projects had the goal of finding ways to improve the investigation of child sexual abuse by enhancing the quality of interviewing, protecting the rights of persons accused, and reducing the trauma to children. They concluded that their innovations constituted a major improvement over the traditional approach to investigating child sexual abuse. The pilot project provided clear support for videotaping interviews and the professionals involved in the project agreed that videotaping helps lower trauma for children and contributes to the search for the truth.
This consensus statement was what emerged from a three-day meeting in 1993 in Sweden. The participants were well-known experts from different disciplines from Europe, North America, and the Middle East. This statement has been published in several different professional journals. The consensus statement recommends videotaping all primary investigative interviews: "[Videotaped] records permit review of the child's statement by a variety of investigators who would otherwise have to conduct separate interviews. In addition, video recordings allow a careful and dispassionate evaluation of the extent to which the quality of the interview may have distorted the information obtained. A video recording provides a means of evaluating what information, if any, is likely to have been affected by leading or suggestive questions and what aspects of he account seem unaffected by such questions."
McGough reviews the arguments for and against videotaping and reviews the arguments for and against it. She makes a strong case for videotaping and concludes that "pretrial videotaping of child witness's accounts is surely an idea whose time has come."
DeLipsey & James describe the experience in Texas after investigatory interviews were required to be taped: "Undoubtedly, the most distressing problems were the use of leading and suggestive questions and coercion to make the child confirm certain information. As professionals, we were challenged to evaluate our own credibility. . . . Our concern was that that these inappropriate interviewing techniques had been employed for some time but were not exposed until the statute was passed. We soon came to realize that the videotaped interview protected the rights of the accused as well" (p. 238).