Sex Abuse: Direct Approach May Aid Recall

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, October 19, 1991 | Go to article overview

Sex Abuse: Direct Approach May Aid Recall


Bower, Bruce, Science News


A new study suggests that sexually abused children may best remember whether their genital area had been touched by an adult if asked directly about such experiences with the help of an anatomically detailed doll. Moreover, children show considerable resistance to the types of misleading questions that may inadvertently crop up in sexual abuse investigations, maintain psychologist Karen J. Saywitz of Harbor-University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center in Torrance and her colleagues.

Their study, published in the October JOURNAL OF CONSULTING AND CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY, represents a rare attempt to develop guidelines for obtaining information about sexual abuse from children, based on an analysis of youngsters' memories for a real-life situation -- genital touching by a pediatrician during a routine medical exam.

Such instances differ considerably from actual cases of child sexual abuse, caution Saywitz and her co-workers. In addition, questions about sexual abuse usually occur within repeated clinical interviews and stressful cross-examinations in the courtroom. Nevertheless, these data suggest that mental health clinicians and lawyers should not resort to direct questions about specific forms of abuse only as a last measure in sex abuse cases involving children, they contend.

"Our results indicate that although there is a risk of increased [memory] error with doll-aided direct questions, there is an even greater risk that not asking about [genital] touch leaves the majority of such touch unreported," the researchers conclude.

In actual sexual abuse evaluations, police officers or lawyers often first ask children general questions about what happened, then give them anatomically detailed dolls or other props to act out the incident, and finally ask specific -- and sometimes misleading -- questions about genital touching and sexual behavior. …

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