The possibility of a child's testimony being 'tainted' exists when children talk to other witnesses about an event, a doctoral thesis has claimed.
Emma Roos af Hjelmsater from the University of Gothenburg in her thesis, has examined children's vulnerability to co-witness influence and also presented methods that can be used for more effective testimony by them.
In a study of children aged 7-13, she compared two sets of child witnesses - one that had had no previous conversations about an event, and another in which some of the children listened to a co-witness' account of the same event - an account that contained some misinformation. The results showed that the information provided by the co-witness influenced the children to make errors when they reported about the event.
'The children were influenced to add false information, that is, some of the things they reported had in fact never occurred. But they were also influenced to omit true details', says Roos af Hjelmsater.
'If a witness reports false details the investigation may be led in the wrong direction, and ultimately this may even result in the wrong person being convicted. On the other hand, if a witness leaves out or falsely denies a correct detail, crucial aspects may be neglected, and the case might never reach closure,' she adds.
She points out that it is important to study factors that may affect the reliability of eyewitness testimony and to consider what type of event and information the testimony concerns.
'Previous research has often concluded that children are both unreliable as witnesses and easy to influence. However, my thesis shows that when children report about central aspects of a personally experienced event, their reports can indeed be quite reliable', says Roos af Hjelmsater.
A positive finding of the thesis said that when the children were asked to record their memories in a questionnaire, they were able to recall the details more accurately after two weeks.