New book co-authored by Cornell psychologist examines children's reliability in court

Are young children reliable witnesses in court? How easily are their memories distorted? How can interviewing techniques and repeated questioning affect children's reports of events? What can professionals do to elicit accurate testimony from children?

These questions are explored in the new book, Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children's Testimony, co-authored by award-winning developmental psychologists Stephen J. Ceci, Ph.D., of Cornell University and Maggie Bruck, Ph.D., of McGill University.

Published by the American Psychological Association ($29.95), the 336-page text is written in clear, accessible language and intended not only for social scientists but also for non- academics, particularly professionals who work with child witnesses -- including mental health practitioners, forensic investigators, attorneys and judges -- as well as parents and other non-professionals interested in cases involving children as witnesses, such as sexual abuse, custody, neglect and criminal cases.

"A blend of credible and non-credible claims by young children often coexist within a single allegation, rendering the task of deciding the truth quite difficult," said Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Psychology in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. "Claims that children should almost always be believed exaggerate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, whereas claims that children's disclosures should be greeted with skepticism minimize their strengths and exaggerate their weaknesses." Ceci and Bruck, therefore, review the scientific literature on children's suggestibility and memory and discuss how children's memories can be influenced. The book comprises 18 chapters and covers:

  • seven case histories in detail, beginning with the Salem Witch Trials, in which children were key witnesses; " the prevalence of child abuse and child witnesses in court; 
  • the structures and dynamics of conversations between children and adults and how these may apply to forensic and therapeutic interviews with children;
  • the studies related to children's suggestibility and memory and the implications of the most recent research on the use of techniques that can influence children's testimony, including interview bias, repeated questioning and suggestive interviewing techniques;
  • the pros and "(mostly)" cons of using anatomically correct dolls;
  • the recovery of repressed memories of early childhood sexual abuse;
  • age differences in the reliability of reports and what may account for these differences;
  • professional conduct, particularly ethical and professional concerns;
  • the generalizability of the studies discussed in the book, warning of both overinterpretation and underinterpretation.

"Jeopardy in the Courtroom" is, happily, the most complete and even-handed summary of the validity of children's testimony," says Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., of Harvard University. "Although this clearly written book will not satisfy those who want a simple yes or no answer, it will gratify those who appreciate the subtlety and complexity of children's memories."

"Ceci and Bruck, who are pre-eminent researchers and experienced trial witnesses, greatly advance the public debate about the proper role of investigators, clinicians, expert witnesses, lawyers and judges in evaluating the role of child witnesses in the American legal system," adds Lucy S. McGough, J.D., of Louisiana State University Law Center.

Ceci, who does research on the suggestibility of children's memories and on the nature of intelligence, teaches courses in developmental psychology and perspectives on human intelligence. He also is working to launch a non-partisan "think tank" at Cornell that uses international experts to prepare amicus briefs on individual cases involving children. The briefs would take the place of having to hire expert witnesses and putting children through the trauma of being cross-examined in court.

Ceci also has collaborated recently with Urie Bronfenbrenner of Cornell to develop a new bio-ecological model of human development that proposes that the "engines" of effective human development are the enduring relationships and activities a child has that become progressively complex over time. That development, in turn, is largely influenced by the impact of both historical events and individual life transitions.

Ceci is the recipient of numerous honors, including the 1994 Robert Chin Memorial Award from the Society of the Study of Social Issues, which he won with Bruck, for the best article on child abuse; an NIH Research Career Scientist award; and a Senior Fulbright-Hayes Fellowship. Ceci is also the author or co-author of more than 150 scientific articles, chapters and volumes including his acclaimed book, "On Intelligence, More...Or Less."

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