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00Dec03c Research about children's fantasies

[Source: Asgl List. original source unknown.]

Science: an old but very interesting clipping from 1996: ------------------------------------------------------------

Children often fabricate stories of sexual abuse

29 May 1996

WELLINGTON -- Ground-breaking New Zealand research indicating that many children fabricate stories of sexual abuse when questioned by adults is before an international forum in Paris.

The research by the mainstream Hamilton psychologist Dr Jane Rawls and financed by the Law Foundation, received publicity when she presented her findings to the Law Society's conference in Dunedin this year.

Dr Rawls told how a team of lawyers, police and psychologists got an unpleasant surprise when it assessed a study group of 30 five-year-olds - seven reported they had been sexually abused. All 30 had been in the care of one man. The seven told of genital touching, the man putting his hands under their upper clothing, of his touching their bottoms and making them touch his.

The revelations were an unpleasant surprise because the assessment team knew there had been no abuse. The children had invented the incidents. Their every moment with the man had been videoed.

The youngsters had been taking part in what was intended as a routine study into children's disclosures under questioning.

Dr Rawls has a private practice as a child and clinical psychologist in Hamilton, and as a specialist report writer for the Family Court and a consulting expert witness in the High Court.

She says she was amazed at what the study showed.

Depending on the way questions were asked, the children's accuracy of recall about a range of situations at their first set of interviews ranged from 13 per cent to nil.

For some of the children, these errors seemed harmless, including - climbing ladders, going to other rooms, having other children present, wearing elaborate costumes and tickling with feathers.

What was frightening was that errors appeared to evolve with repeated interviews and, for many, were first reported when diagrams of body parts were used.

The belief that children do not lie - or remember wrong - when alleging sexual abuse has been shaken internationally by much-publicised examples of wrongful arrest and imprisonment.

But an absolute trust in the child persists among many abuse workers. The trust-the-child theory holds that children do not lie to get someone into trouble, only to get out of trouble.

The research by Dr Rawls, finding that responses to questions are often wrong and that many children invent stories of inappropriate touching, throws more doubt on the wisdom of acting on child claims without strong corroborative evidence.

Dr Rawls says she was not trying to replicate or assess [social] services procedures.

Interview questions were either closed ("Did he touch you on the ?"), open ("What happened?") or a mixture of the two. Those who got it most wrong were children who were asked closed questions.

The children took part in a series of four videotaped and observed sessions in which a male adult, a research assistant called Trevor, played a dressing-up game with each child.

There was "appropriate" touching when items such as hats and jewellery were worn, and sometimes the child was asked to keep a minor secret. A body-parts diagram, similar to those used in evidential interviews, was used in the second interview to make the child's reporting easier for him or her.

When the children were interviewed for the first time about the initial dress-up session, open questions resulted in an average accuracy of 32 per cent correct, the mixed questions 20 per cent, and closed questions 9 per cent.

Questions about the last dress-up produced accuracy levels for open questions of 13 per cent, mixed 4 per cent and closed 0.

Nearly one-quarter of the total sample (24 per cent) reported "inappropriate" adult-child touching, although there had been none. Three reported genital touching, two also referring to touching under their upper clothes. Two more children reported that the adult touched their bottoms or they touched the adult's bottom. Two others reported mutual touching under clothing.

Children's diagram markings to illustrate touching was found to be substantially inaccurate.

No child volunteered his or her "secrets". But when asked to disclose them, 23 per cent always declined, 27 per cent sometimes described them accurately and sometimes did not "disclose", 20 per cent consistently provided accurate accounts, 10 per cent gave some true and some false accounts, and 3 per cent no accounts or a false one.

Seventeen per cent described fictional events that included inappropriate touching and said they were the "secrets".

Dr Rawls also found that only 40 per cent of the five-year-olds could, after varying degrees of exposure to examples, provide an acceptable definition of truth, lies and promises.

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