Eyewitness Memory in African American Children from Low-Income Families

By Nida, Robert E. | Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, October 2018 | Go to article overview

Eyewitness Memory in African American Children from Low-Income Families


Nida, Robert E., Merrill-Palmer Quarterly


Researchers seeking to establish the credibility of young children as witnesses in court proceedings have focused considerable attention on the developmental changes in eyewitness memory and susceptibility to suggestion (Bruck, Ceci, & Principe, 2006; Pipe & Salmon, 2009). Although many social and psychological factors may influence the quality of young children's reports, children cannot provide accurate information about things they cannot remember, which is a fundamental premise that has guided a number of research studies over the past 2 decades (Pipe & Salmon, 2009). Research on children's memory for personally experienced events has revealed age-related changes in memory and suggestibility, with older children exhibiting superior levels of recall performance and less susceptibility to suggestion. Much of this research, however, has focused almost exclusively on middle-class, Caucasian children even though middle-class children are not necessarily representative of the population of children who are typically called on to provide testimony (Ceci & Bruck, 1995). Although physical and sexual abuse occurs across all socioeconomic groups, the majority of reported cases involve children from lower-income households (Gray, 1993; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1993; Walker, Bonner, & Kaufman, 1988). Therefore, the focus of the present study is the extent to which low-income minority children are capable of providing accurate accounts of their experiences.

A number of investigators have turned to various medical procedures in an attempt to learn more about the development of children's eyewitness memory (Paz-Alonso, Larson, Castelli, Alley, & Goodman, 2009; Salmon & Brown, 2013). Although medical procedures may vary markedly, a number are considered to have forensic implications in that they involve extended bodily contact and may also be invasive and stressful (Peterson, 2012). For example, lumbar punctures (LPs) and the voiding cystourethrogram (VCUG)-an x-ray procedure involving urinary bladder catheterization-are considered highly stressful and invasive And anogenital examinations are also invasive and potentially stressful and embarrassing to the child (Goodman, Hirschman, Hepps, & Rudy, 1991). By contrast, routine physical examinations tend to be more benign, but may involve a variety of component features, which may include gentle touches such as tummy palpitations and/or somewhat mild and potentially stressful actions such as inoculations and blood draws. Medical settings, therefore, have served as a natural "research laboratory" that has afforded investigators the opportunity to examine children's memory for both relatively benign and stressful procedures (Salmon & Brown, 2013).

The routine physical examination has been used as a plausible stimulus event in a number of research studies and for a variety of good reasons. First, it has been argued that certain components of a well-child checkup parallel some attributes of physical and sexual abuse. For example, children are instructed to remove clothing, and physicians and/or nurses make bodily contact with the child. Additionally, certain aspects of the checkup may be perceived to be pleasant (tummy palpitations) or unpleasant (shots and/or venipuncture). Secondly, through the cooperation among doctors and nurses who perform the procedures, investigators can know what component features of the physical examinations each child received, enabling investigators to maintain a level of control that would normally occur in laboratory settings. Thirdly, the well-child checkup is a relatively complex, multicomponent event that may include upward of 25 discrete acts administered by the nurse or doctor (e.g., checks heart with a stethoscope and tests hearing). It should be noted, however, that some noteworthy limitations accompany the use of the well-child checkup as an analogue to abuse. Unlike physical or sexual abuse, bodily contact and other interactions on the part of the doctors and nurses are publically sanctioned. …

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