Sexual Abuse Victimization and the Child Witness in Canada: Legal, Ethical, and Professional Issues for Psychologists

Article excerpt

Abstract

Child sexual abuse is a serious and tragic reality. Unfortunately, some children who disclose sexual abuse are revictimized by undergoing countless interviews and through testifying in open court. The Canadian legal system has made a number of significant reforms in the last few decades regarding the rights of child witnesses and, in particular, the rights of those who have disclosed sexual abuse. This paper provides an overview of the law in Canada as it pertains to child sexual abuse victims and witnesses, and reflects on the role and responsibilities of psychologists who work with child witnesses. It reviews the effects of protection reforms and preparation programs on children who must testify, examines some of the current major issues in the research literature in the area of interviewing and assessing sexually abused children, and considers the role of the psychologists as expert witness in court. In addition, it discusses potential ethical dilemmas for psychologists who work with child witnesses, and proposes recommendations for research and clinical practice.

Child sexual abuse has become a very serious concern in Canada over the past two decades (Deswirek Sas, Wolfe, & Gowdey, 1996). The increase in known child sexual abuse cases (see Bertrand, Hornick, & Bolitho, 1995; Ceci & Crotteau Huffman, 1997), has led to an increase in research on the effects of the disclosure process on young children. Although children may act as witnesses in a variety of situations, child sexual abuse victims are the ones most often in contact with the justice system (Yuille, 1988). Many child witness reforms have been specifically designed to protect child sexual abuse victims. Very few children actually have to appear in court (approximately 5% of those children who disclose abuse) as most sexual abuse cases are resolved by plea bargaining during the first year after the allegations are made. Resolution by trial, however, can take up to 12 to 16 months (Martone, Jaudes, & Cavins, 1996). As a result, many researchers and clinicians have shown concern for the stress that child victims may endure for potentially long periods after disclosure, and have advocated for reforms to protect and educate child witnesses (e.g., see Deswirek Sas et al., 1996).

Indeed, some of the recent changes in the legal system were created to protect children from the court system. Other reforms were aimed at empowering, or educating, child witnesses about the court process as a means of reducing the stress involved in testifying. Children's testimony, however, is of limited value unless it is perceived as credible (Cashmore & Bussey, 1996). Thus, child witness reforms allow more flexible rules of evidence, even when a child is the only witness to a crime. Traditionally, psychologists have been mainly involved in the assessment and implementation of services for abused children (Melton & Limber, 1989); more recently, they have become more involved in the process of forensic investigation and related court proceedings (Pearce, 1990). In this paper I review a number of important issues for mental health professionals who work with child witnesses, particularly those children who have disclosed sexual abuse. I begin with an overview of Canadian federal and provincial child witness reforms, and then examine the issues, current research and laws related to: (a) protecting and empowering child witnesses, (b) interviewing children about abuse, and (c) the role mid ethical responsibilities of the psychologist as expert witness.

Background: Canada Acknowledges the Rights of the Child Witness

Until the 1980s, children rarely appeared as witnesses in Canadian courts. Children were typically viewed as inaccurate sources of evidence, unable to distinguish fantasy from reality (Yuille, 1988). During the 1980s, Canada experienced dramatic changes in its societal awareness and understanding of child sexual abuse, largely as a result of the Badgley Report (Badgley, 1984). …