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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Essay on Difficulties in Investigating Child Abuse Cases

            There is a common understanding that children are incapable of lying.  Instinctively, they will tell the truth.  For this reason, it is natural for a person to consider and think that a child can be a good witness to a crime.  Most especially when the child himself or herself is a victim of the crime, for instance child abuse cases, there is greater reason to get the child to testify in court against the perpetrator of the crime.

The Federal Rules of Evidence does not require that a witness to a crime must be of a specific age or must have reached a particular level of mental discretion.  Rule 601 of the Federal Rules of Evidence is clear on this: “Rule 601 every person is competent to be a witness except as otherwise provided in these rules.”  The minimum requirement for the testimony of a witness to be admitted in court is that the witness must be capable of perceiving and capable of making known his perceptions to others.  So long as the child can perceive by means of all his senses that facts to which he is testifying and so long as he can relate to others what he has perceived, then he is qualified to become a witness.  It is because of these reasons that a child may be qualified to become a witness.  It is also the same reasons why children can be credible witnesses as well.  (“Just How Credible Is a Child Eyewitness,” 1) 

            In reality, however, getting a child to serve as a witness in any crime poses certain difficulties for an investigator.  The situation even becomes more difficult if it is the child-witness who was the victim of a sexual abuse and that he is being asked about the crime committed against him.  Thus, while the testimony itself may be credible but the source of the testimony may be not. 

There are certain issues that may affect the child’s testimony.  These issues may pertain either to a) the time when the child perceives the event to which he testifies to and b) the time when the child relates what he has perceived at the court.  Each of these issues present difficulties for an investigator that may derail him from arriving at the truth. 

            One of the issues is perception.  In view of the child’s limited knowledge and understanding of the severity of the situation, it is possible that the child may make the decision to purposely omit certain details about the incident or even deny that such an incident did in fact happen.  It is also possible that because the child lacks awareness of what acts are considered social taboos or what acts are considered social unacceptable and appalling.  It is possible that the child may not even remember what happened because he does not find anything extraordinary about the sexual abuse. (Leander et al 6) According to Goodman-Brown et al, young children do not necessarily experience the same level of shame as do other children because they do not have the same awareness of the taboo surrounding sexual abuse or of society’s opinion that child sexual abuse is unacceptable.

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            Moreover, even if it happens that the child is of sufficient age and discretion to be able to know what sexual abuse is and that sexual abuse need to be reported to the law enforcement officers, the investigator may still have difficulty extracting the details of the alleged sexual abuse from the child.  While the child may want to tell the truth about the incident that happened to him, it is possible that because of the difficulty in relating the event to the police investigator.  One of the difficulties is in the aspect of influence.  When there is a considerable lapse of time since the occurrence of the sexual abuse, the parents, guardians or other persons of authority ma have exerted undue influence upon the child so that when the child relates the event it may no longer accurate.  This concern is supported by psychological research.  Psychologists say that the younger the child is the more he is susceptible to the suggestive statements of the people around him. (Debra Ann Poole and D. Stephen Lindsay, 2001, p. 24)  The influence is so powerful that the child can no longer distinguish in his memory what he ha actually seen and what his parents have suggested to him.       

            Another difficulty in investigating child abuse cases is that the possibility of the child’s memory being altered need not necessarily come from third persons.  It is most likely that the child himself may have contributed to the alteration or distortion of his original memory.  Research shows that getting a verbal description from the child of the perpetrator of the crime interferes with his recollection of the actual perpetrator of the crime.  Psychologists call the phenomenon where the verbal memory overshadows the visual memory verbal overshadowing.  (Amina Memon and Rachel Rose p. 1)  Psychologists say that when the child attempts to make a verbal description of the perpetrator of the crime, this act itself may distort his original memory.  When the child has described the criminal in a particular way most of the time he is unwilling to reconsider the possibility that he may have given a wrong identification of the perpetrator.  Thus, the act of telling a story adds to the distortion, which in turn affects the underlying memory of the event. 

            The situation is also difficult even if the person responsible for the child abuse is someone whom the child is familiar with.  While it is a proven fact that children remember stressful events well, it is still possible that the child may purposely omit materials facts about the child abuse when the child has been abused by a family member or a family friend. (Leander et al 6)  According to researchers, loyalty to a family member may be a motivating factor when a child purposely fails to report a sexual abuse or when a child omits material facts about the sexual abuse committed against him.  Fear of negative consequences may also be considered another reason that may present difficulty on the part of the investigator.  For instance, the perpetrator may threaten the child that should he report the incident to the police, he or any member of his family may be harmed.  

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