Academic journal article Human Ecology

Ceci Shapes Judicial Policy on Testimony of Children: For More Than 25 Years, Stephen Ceci Has Probed the Accuracy of Testimony Given by Children. His Credibility as a Researcher Enables Him to Have a Great Impact on How Judges Perceive the Information Garnered by Court Interviewers and Investigators

Academic journal article Human Ecology

Ceci Shapes Judicial Policy on Testimony of Children: For More Than 25 Years, Stephen Ceci Has Probed the Accuracy of Testimony Given by Children. His Credibility as a Researcher Enables Him to Have a Great Impact on How Judges Perceive the Information Garnered by Court Interviewers and Investigators

Article excerpt

When Stephen J. Ceci addresses members of the Family Law Association, he knows at least one thing most likely to be said about him.

"Judges who introduce me almost always say to the audience, 'I'll save you the bother of putting Dr. Ceci in your Rolodex; he isn't for hire,'" says the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology in the Department of Human Development, who has turned down more than 1,000 offers from organizations as big as the Boy Scouts of America, the YMCA, and the Catholic Church and celebrities as high profile as Woody Allen and Michael Jackson.

Why does Ceci refuse to be an expert witness? Because, he says, he learned early on that the adversarial atmosphere of the courtroom isn't the best venue for conveying science. And in steadfastly refusing to profit from his work, Ceci has gained the respect of judges across North America and Europe. They cite his publications in their decisions and invite him back again and again to give talks or seminars based on the latest research in children's testimonial competence and accuracy.

"Judges are understandably very wary of people who may have an alternative motive, so I never testify for either side," Ceci says, by way of explaining one of the reasons why--during the past 27 years--he has had such an impact on judicial policy.

Instead, Ceci offers the latest research findings from studies conducted in his own laboratory and those of other scientists--most notably his frequent collaborator Maggie Bruck, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine--to illuminate the issues that arise when law enforcement officers, social workers, court-appointed evaluators, lawyers, and judges deal with the testimony of children.

Misconceptions abound. Ceci's goal is to convey what the science shows about, for example, the way that children disclose whether they have been abused.

For more than 20 years, a group of beliefs that has come to be called the Child Sex Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS) has been accepted as true. The CSAAS posits that when children are abused, they delay reporting it--sometimes for decades. When they are asked directly, they will deny any abuse has occurred; yet after repeated questioning, they gradually begin to give fragmentary disclosures, little bits and pieces about how they were abused. Next, they recant altogether. Only later, when they are in what is perceived to be a psychologically safe situation, do they give a full and elaborate disclosure.

The CSAAS is routinely used by expert witnesses for both the defense and the prosecution.

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"So the first thing I tell judges is that neither side is right, that the CSAAS doesn't accurately capture the way abused kids disclose what happened to them," Ceci says. In analyses of dozens of published studies, Ceci, Bruck, and Kamala London of Johns Hopkins University separated out the methodologically sound studies on children's mode of disclosure from the abundance of poorly conducted ones and found that the only part of the CSAAS that is valid is that abused children typically deny any abuse has occurred when first questioned. The high-quality studies showed that children (even into adulthood) delay reporting what happened to them. And while it is true that children don't tend to spontaneously tell of their abuse, data show that the vast majority do tell, in full detail, when explicitly asked.

"It's important for judges to know what science shows, because this set of invalid beliefs animates the whole investigatory process," Ceci points out. "It motivates investigators and interviewers to pursue reluctant children, who may be reluctant because nothing actually happened."

Social workers and police officers who hold to the beliefs of the CSAAS will continue to question a child who, when asked directly, denies being abused. …

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