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Can children tell the truth? Evaluating claims of abuse

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2007 - Autumn


How, asked Michael E. Lamb, Ph.D. ’76, should police, psychologists and social workers evaluate children’s claims of sexual abuse? Speaking at pediatric grand rounds in April, Lamb, a professor at Cambridge University in England, said that a child’s testimony may be the only evidence. “Most incidents of sexual abuse take place in private,” he said. “In most cases, the primary source of information is the child.”

But children’s claims have received numerous courtroom challenges. Some forensic psychologists maintain that children can’t remember, that they indulge in fantasy and that they can’t distinguish between truth and inventions. These assertions, said Lamb, fail to withstand scrutiny. Children are just as reliable and truthful as adults, said Lamb, who wrote the protocol on interviewing children for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health.

But proper interviewing methods are essential. Numerous studies have found that open-ended questions elicit far more accurate information than leading questions. “As much as possible, keep the focus on specific incidents,” Lamb said. “The role of the interviewer is to let the child give you information. The less you say, the better the interview.”

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