A Sexual Abuse Case Study: Children's Memories and Reports

Article excerpt

The present study examines how children, who had been exposed to a single act of sexual abuse carried out by an unfamiliar perpetrator (the same perpetrator in all cases), remembered and reported on the abuse in subsequent police interviews, Interviews with eight children were analysed with regard to the amount and type of information reported, and the number of times the children denied the sexual abuse. Documentation of the abuse (photographs and medical examinations) was analysed to verify that abuse had actually occurred. The majority of the children reported no, or very few, sexual details. Of all the event details reported, 7.6% referred to sexual acts and, in specific descriptions of the course of the sexual abuse, only 21% of the details were of a sexual nature. In addition, the youngest children expressed to the interviewer on almost 100 occasions that they did not wish to talk about the abuse. The present data indicate that children display difficulties when reporting on sexual abuse, even when the perpetrator is a stranger (i.e., when factors such as loyalty conflicts, dependence on the abuser, fear of negative consequences for the family may be excluded).


In December 1999, the police in Stockholm, Sweden, searched the apartment of a 29-year-old man who was suspected of storing drugs. These suspicions proved to be incorrect, but a box was found containing pictures of nude children and pictures depicting the suspect sexually abusing children. This discovery put an end to a drawn-out search for a perpetrator who had been abusing and assaulting children in the southern suburbs of Stockholm for several years. It was also the start of an investigation that disclosed more victims than were previously known to the police--the perpetrator confessed to abusing 17 children, but only six acts of abuse had been reported. In sum, the police interviewed eight children.

Because we had access to the police investigation, we were able to analyse the interviews with the children and to compare the children's reports to the documentation of the abuse and the perpetrator's confession.

Children's Reports on Sexual Abuse

A few case studies have investigated children's reports on sexual abuse when the abuse is verified by documentation (e.g., films and photographs) (Bidrose & Goodman, 2000; Leander, Granhag, & Christianson, 2005; Orbach & Lamb, 1999; Sjrberg & Lindblad, 2002a; Svedin & Back, 2003). Results from these studies show a similar pattern: testimonies from abused children tend to be incomplete and fragmentary. Children tend to omit sexual information, and some children deny being part of sexual acts, even when there is evidence that abuse did in fact occur. However, when children do tell about sexual abuse, they tend to be accurate.

Considering research on children's memories of stressful events, the vast majority of studies indicate that children remember stressful events well (e.g., Goodman, Hirschman, Hepps, & Rudy, 1991; Howe, Courage, & Peterson, 1996). Consequently, it is important to discuss whether omission errors, in sexual abuse cases, are due to lack of memory for the event or whether the child consciously omits the sexual information. Among the cognitive factors that are negatively associated with young children's ability to produce reports on sexual abuse are limited memory capacity (e.g., the child may be unable to create lasting memory representations for the abuse if it occurred before 3 years of age; Howe & Courage, 1993; Kail, 1988; Schneider & Pressley, 1989), limited language capacity (Fivush, 1993; How & Courage, 1993; Ornstein, Larus, & Clubb, 1991), and limited knowledge about the sexual acts (Bussey & Grimbeek, 1995). Young children's (i.e., preschoolers') limited knowledge regarding the severity of sexual abuse can either complicate children's reports (e.g., they may believe this is something adults normally do) or facilitate the report (e. …