The Interaction Between Children's Developmental Capabilities and the Courtroom Environment: The Impact on Testimonial Competency



From birth to ten years of age, children learn to discriminate and articulate sounds, comprehend increasingly more complex questions, and give more complex intelligent answers (Saywitz & Goodman, 1996). They learn the meaning of words, how words are used in sentences, and the rules of language that dictate the way the words are connected to produce different meanings. This is not an easy task. In court, child witnesses of all ages are expected to respond to questions put to them on the stand in an intelligible and credible manner. Adequate language skills are a pre-requisite.

In the first two years of life, children develop conceptual machinery to link object names with their referents. As any parent will attest, children become little naming machines, learning new words at an exponential rate. At first, there is a tendency for them to apply the same words to different classes of objects (e.g., calling all animals "doggie"; all drinks "juice"; or all transportation vehicles "cars"). Once they learn a referent for an object however, they begin to do the opposite too, believing that only their dog is a doggie and that all the other dogs are something else. Through the process of social learning, children model what they hear, learning to generalize when appropriate and respecting singular cases when necessary.

The generalization process involves the process of abstract thinking, specifically the ability to categorize items by their similarities and to extend terms to objects that share certain characteristics. Words like "fruit" or "animals" which develop later, are considered hierarchical terms which include classes of items with similar characteristics. An interesting example of an abstract hierarchical term used during a cross-examination of a very young child is given by Singer and Revenson (1996). In the case they describe, a preschooler denies seeing a weapon at the scene of a murder, but later on when asked more specifically if he has seen a gun, he answers yes. The problem of course is that the child has not yet learned the hierarchical term "weapon" to refer to objects such as guns, knives etc. Once a direct question is put to the child using vocabulary and concepts he can understand, he is able to provide the information to the court. In this case, it is lucky that the lawyer pursued another line of questioning with the child.

3.1 Toddlers

Most children by age two, have about five to six hundred words at their disposal. They do not however have the ability to organize these words together into full sentences. It is readily apparent that a significant discrepancy exists between a toddler's receptive language abilities and expressive production. For example telling a two-year old to "pick a ball off of the floor" is likely to be understood and depending on the mood of the child, carried out. However the child will not be able to repeat that exact command to an interviewer if asked to do so. He might be able to say ‘ball' and ‘up' in a two or three word cryptic sentence, or maybe not. The ability to produce a complete sentence with the correct verb and appropriate prepositions is not developed until the child is older, at least three.

3.2 Preschool Aged Children

Preschool aged children (three to five) have a greater lexicon (store of words and idiomatic expressions) available to them. A general rule is that they understand words that have only one or two syllables (Saywitz, 1995). They can usually speak in short full sentences and their recognition vocabulary can be quite impressive. Once again however, their receptive language skills surpass their expressive speech. Their appreciation for the grammatical rules of language is still very unsophisticated and they have considerable difficulty using the past tense, often phrasing their responses in the present even when describing things they have already done.

3.3 Early Primary School Aged Children

In the case of early primary school aged children, prepositions can still present a challenge. Confusion often arises when terms such as "before and after", "under and over", "in and out", "first and last", "in front and behind" are used. It is advisable to canvass a child's understanding of those terms before engaging in the questions. Generally, the research on language acquisition in children suggests that by the time children are between the ages of five and seven, they have developed sufficient language skills to participate in everyday language, but are not so proficient in language use that they should understand everything about a language task. Sentences with a preponderance of difficult words and complex syntax are likely to be misunderstood.

3.4 Late Primary School Aged Children

Due to a limited vocabulary, primary school aged children lack descriptive adjectives, making the provision of details and an elaboration of their accounts difficult. By the time they are in grade three, they have generally developed an increased ability to make better sense of questions put to them, as their receptive speech has increased and their reasoning ability is more sophisticated than preschoolers. Around the age of eight, they have learned to distinguish between different speech acts such as commands, complaints, requests and promises, and are able to recognize these speech acts in both their direct and indirect forms (Walker, 1993). This is important because these speech acts form the basis of conversational skills. What should be remembered is that all of children's language skills co-exist along side their cognitive development and vice versa. Communicative ability remains dependent on the child's available cognitive structures.

As we study conversations that take place between children and adults, we realize that young children (under 10) do not necessarily interpret words in the same manner as adults. They may interpret words literally, that is, either very narrowly or very broadly. Schumann, Bala and Lee (1999), suggest that young children's interpretations of the word "touch" is an example of under extension or narrow use, because children commonly understand "touch" to mean only with the hand and not another part of the body. In this example, one can easily see how a narrow use of a term might present a challenge to a child's credibility in a sexual abuse case where the child's body was "touched" by the accused's mouth or penis, but the child responded no to the question "Did he touch you?" in court.

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