In child abuse investigations and trials, the statements of the child are often the crucial (sometimes the only) evidence that a crime occurred. And the child’s earliest statements to adults about the supposed abuse are particularly significant. This is problematic because there has been little research done to determine how accurate children’s memory is for their conversations with adults.
A recent article by Monica Lawson and Kamala London, “Tell Me Everything You Discussed”, discusses a recent study where researchers attempted to gain a clearer picture of what children accurately remember from previous conversations with adults.
To analyze this ability, researchers paired each of ninety (90) eight-year-old children with an adult for a one-on-one conversation. Researchers were looking to track what the children later remembered overall about these conversations (“gist recall”), their memory of their own statements, their memory of their adult partner’s statements, and their ability to recall question-answer pairs from the conversation.
The children’s memory of these conversations was assessed after either a one-week or a three-week delay. Not surprisingly, researchers found that children remembered more about their conversations after a week than after three weeks, but in neither instance did the children remember very much about their conversations: children remembered 7% after one week and 4% after three weeks. While a majority of their free-recall statements were correct, an entire third of their statements were not.
National organizations specializing in child abuse investigations, such as the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, encourage investigators to test alternative hypotheses in child abuse allegations. This is difficult to do if a child cannot accurately remember and recount previous interactions with adults.
This study found that all the participating children were able to remember their previous one-on-one conversations with adults and to recall the general topic of the conversation. Though children in the study were usually able to quote themselves, they usually had significantly more difficulty quoting anything their adult partner said during the conversation. To forensic investigators, this finding is concerning because they often want to know not only the content of the child’s allegation, but how that allegation may have been obtained and what prompts the child received from an adult.
The study’s authors suggest that, because not much research of this kind has been done, more studies are needed to more fully understand children’s ability to recollect previous conversations in a number of different contexts. They also suggest that additional studies focus on determining how well children are able to identify the source of recollected information.