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

4. MEMORY IN CHILDREN (continued)

4. MEMORY IN CHILDREN (continued)

4.7 The Effect of Time on Forgetting Behavior in Children

The effect of time on memory is a forensically important area to examine, as there is usually a lengthy delay before children testify about their experiences. Additionally, delayed disclosures are often the case in sexual abuse, which means that by the time children testify, months if not years have passed. It is true that we all forget things over time. The saying "time heals" implies that over time, even sad and hurtful memories fade into the distance and are less powerful triggers of emotional distress. At the end of the day, the question that is of concern to the court is whether children can give reliable information about an event after a lengthy delay.

Typically, testimony involves memory over very substantial delays. Research in memory suggests that weaker memory traces are more susceptible to forgetting over time. Younger children are hypothesized to form weaker, more disorganized memory traces, therefore their memories are said to be more vulnerable to forgetting over a long period of time (Howe, 1991). To address this specific issue, a study by Quas, Goodman, Bidrose, Pipe, Graw, and Ablin, (1999) examined children's long-term remembering and forgetting for a painful medical procedure known as a voiding cysto-urethrogram (VCUG) which they had experienced up to three years earlier. Children aged three to thirteen were interviewed using either a free recall format or direct questions. It is interesting that children who experienced the medical procedure known as VCUG before they were aged three, did not have a memory for the procedure when they were interviewed several years later. Children who were age three when they underwent the VCUG performed much better in the long-term memory test, and if experienced at age five and older, most children remembered the experience.

The researchers found that children remembered more information after shorter delays than longer delays, but there weren't more inaccuracies associated with longer delays, just less information remembered! There were also no differences between older and younger children with respect to the number of inaccuracies after a long delay.

This has important implications for court testimony by children especially preschoolers. It suggests that as long as an event is experienced after a child is three, the age of the child may not be as significant a factor in memory as previously thought. With respect to time delay, these researchers' findings were consistent with that of others, specifically that all children remembered less after a longer delay, but what they did remember was accurate. Younger children did offer less information than older children, as expected.

These findings speak to the need to expedite matters, so that more complete accounts can be provided by children to the courts. When children forget relevant details, they appear less credible, and their testimony on the stand appears inconsistent with their initial statements given in investigative interviews shortly after disclosure.

The encouraging news is that the study also suggests that even very young children will have a memory for an event that was significant to them after a long delay, if they experienced that event when they were at least three years of age. Therefore, if one is contemplating having children aged three testify in court, this likely should only occur if the event they are talking about occurred a very short time before. Although children often can remember events they experienced in very early childhood (Fivush & Hudson, 1990; Howard, Osborne, & Baker-Ward, 1997), if this memory is not accessed quickly it fades, and then can then no longer be accessed. What we know from childhood amnesia is that it is usually present in adults for events prior to age three, but in children is less pronounced until they get older. Then they too forget their early experiences.

The only positive effect of having intervening years between an event and testifying is that children may undergo significant intellectual development, which impacts on their cognition and their language acquisition. As a result, their understanding of the event they experienced may be altered by their new found knowledge. This may be positive from a forensic point of view, in that children will have a better appreciation of the actual significance of the incident, and perhaps can explain what happened more clearly. Children may also have improved language skills, allowing a better description of the event with more richness of detail.

In any event, the research findings on the effect of time delays on forgetting behavior in children, emphasizes the importance of expediting court matters as much as possible to preserve children's complete memories for an event, but also indicate that children can have accurate memories for things that have happened to them even three years earlier.

4.8 Script Memory

Another interesting area of research in memory is that of script memory. Preschoolers have been shown to be quite sensitive to regularly occurring events, routinely forming scripts or generalized event representations based on prior experience (Farrar & Goodman, 1992). It is in this way that young children organize their past. What this means however, is that they have difficulty isolating a specific incident that occurred as part of a routine experience and may not differentiate a special event from scripted events. They use their script memory to fill in the gaps when they are trying to remember peripheral details that occurred on a particular day. For example, if the babysitter fondled them at lunchtime when they came home from school to eat lunch, they may not remember clearly whether there were other children there that day in the babysitter's home eating lunch. This forgetting or confusing whom else was there, would likely happen if other children usually attended the babysitter's on the same days of the week they did. They would in a general way remember other children routinely being there.

Older children are able to make those discriminations more easily, and may be able when searching their memory, to isolate a particular incident and day as standing apart from others. Younger children are particularly dependent on ‘script memory'.

4.9 Source Monitoring

According to Poole and Lindsay (1995), developments in cognitive, linguistic, and social skills contribute to age related changes in misinformation. Source monitoring errors occur when a memory derived from one source is misattributed to another source. The relationship that exists between age and source monitoring abilities is very complex. Many argue that young children may be more likely than adults to confuse memories from different sources when they are very similar to one another. However it has also been found that in some situations children as young as five years of age are able to identify the source of their memories.

In a study by Gopnik and Graf (1988), three and five year old children were shown drawers with different things inside them. Some of the children were shown what was inside, some were told what was inside, and others were given a clue of what was inside. The five years old children were 100% accurate in identifying the correct source of their knowledge about what was in the drawers, but the three-year-old children were barely above chance. Four-year-old children performed somewhere in between on this task. Consistent with other similar laboratory studies, preschoolers were found to have the most difficulty attributing the source of their memories about their information.

One of the problems inherent in this study and others like it, is the ecological validity and generalization of the findings. Is remembering the source of your memory for what is in a drawer in any way relevant to remembering if someone touched you inappropriately or if you were just told that some one touched you? The importance of the memory you are being asked to judge as your own can differ significantly from an experimental study to a real life situation. Even studies that have questioned children about personal experiences have had difficulty simulating real life situations.

What are the implications of this type of research for court testimony? Concerns have been expressed that children are sometimes presented with post event misinformation by parents or suggestions by interviewers, which they then adopt as their own perceptions and memories. Although the research certainly gives examples of children's difficulties with source monitoring, it must be emphasized that there are times when the results have more to do with the children not understanding the questions put to them, than a true inability to differentiate their personal memory from someone else's. Despite this concern, it is very important to always ask children if what they are reporting is indeed their own or another's memory about what happened, and to examine their exposure to post event information.

4.10 Highlights in Children's Memory

In summary, the following general assertions can be made about children's memories. Children do have accurate long-term memories for events that have happened to them in the past, and they can provide an account of these memories under the right conditions. It appears that younger children relative to older children remember fewer details. This might have more to do with their problems retrieving their memories than with their initial storage. Central details of an event, which are usually, plot relevant details are remembered more easily by all children. These are the most likely details remembered in free recall. As children get older and have a broader knowledge base, a greater number of peripheral details are encoded as well. There is certainly an effect of age on the quality of children's memory, but even very young children (age three) can provide forensically relevant information. Heightened anxiety can inhibit the encoding of peripheral details of an event in some situations by causing fragmented memory traces, but may also facilitate the encoding of central details that remain exaggerated in memory. Personally experienced events are more likely to be remembered by children, as they are the most salient. There are no gender differences in memory function.

Children unfortunately do not provide a full account of their memories in a free recall situation, but require assistance from the interviewer to narrate their experience (Lyon, in press). As Saywitz (1995) has pointed out, there are certain types of information that are not encoded in memory in young children, because the concepts have not yet been learned and are not well understood. Measurements (time, distance, age, and height), body parts, positions (first and last), relations and kinships (first cousin, aunt), and frequency (actual number) are some examples. Source monitoring of memories can be a problem for younger children (Parker, 1995). All memory traces fade over time for everyone, but these storage failures decrease with age, such that younger children's memories are more vulnerable to forgetting over time than older children (Brainerd & Ornstein, 1991).

Children can have much forensically relevant information to offer about things that they have witnessed or experienced. Care has to be taken in the manner in which they are questioned in order to preserve their evidence, yet encourage their disclosures. Expediting matters in court is advisable in order to insure that children can give a fuller account of their memory.

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