The experiments were animated by a desire, a curiosity, really, to [find out]
what would happen if we interviewed children the way they were interviewed in a
particular case. For ethical reasons we can't really interview the kids the
same way; you can't abuse half the kids and have a control group that weren't
abused, you can't even interview the kids the way some of child protective
service workers and mental health professionals interviewed them. But within
the ethical constraints that we as scientists work [under], we would try to
design experiments to mimic the important aspects of some of these mass
allegation daycare cases. And we would discover that if we did to the kids
what the interviewers in those cases did, a certain percentage of the kids, not
the majority, but a significant minority, would begin to make the kind of
disclosures that some of the children in these cases made.|
Tell me specifically what they would they disclose, these children?
For example, in a lot of these cases, the trigger allegation, the first
disclosure, was made to a mental health professional, not to a social worker or
to law enforcement, but rather to a therapist, because there was a suspicion on
the part of the parents, teachers, law enforcement, that something untoward may
have happened, so the child was put into counseling. And at first the child
doesn't disclose, [it] may be three months before the child makes an explicit
disclosure. So we say, "Well, what was happening in those three months?"
Well, often what happens is a lot of pretend play, for example, the therapist
might say, and this was true in the Fijnje case. It was also true in the
Snowden case. It was true in the Country Walk case as well, where children are
asked to suspend belief for a moment. They're asked, "Let's pretend that
something happened. Let's pretend that he put his finger in your butt. Now
what would he have been wearing? Would it hurt? How would it feel? What
would you do? What would you say to him?" And so on. So there was this
repeated enjoinder to pretend.
Sometimes it was couched in role playing, so there would be an anatomically
detailed doll that would represent the defendant, and they would name the doll
after the defendant, for example, "This is Bobby. " And there would be a doll
the child would have selected to represent herself. And they'd say, "OK, now,
show us what you're going to do if Bobby comes into the room again. Let's
pretend he comes into the room." And you would see from the audio transcripts
of the sessions, things like the child karate chopping the defendant doll, for
example, and screaming for his father, "Dad, help me, help me! Bobby's come
here!" And the dad would often be right in the therapy session so he'd come
over and help the child. Well, we would try to design experiments that would,
not once or twice, but ten times in a row, [try] to mimic what happens once a
week in therapy for three months....
And what's the significance of that, the pretend piece of that?
The significance from a research standpoint is that, at first when you ask a
kid if something happened that never happened, something bizarre like, "Did you
ever go up in a hot air balloon and drop a watermelon on the sidewalk?" and
that's never happened, the first time you say it to a kid..., the kid says no.
And then say, well, "Let's pretend it happened. Now where would the balloon
land and who else was in the balloon with you/" and so on, and then you bring
the kid back a week later. Let's pretend a little bit more about the balloon,
and so on. By around the sixth or eighth week, what you find is that a
minority, but a significant minority -- in our study is somewhere around 34% of
the kids -- give you this very embellished narrative about going up in a hot
air balloon with classmates and having a picnic and dropping a watermelon on
the sidewalk and hitting someone, etc., etc. And it's got a beginning, a
middle, an end, it's very, very persuasive to people who you show the video to
of the kid in the tenth week saying this. If you just ask psychologists or law
enforcement people, we want you to watch this video and tell us if you think
this event really happened, they're blown away. But more importantly, the
child has begun to believe it happened as well. And the scientific
significance is [that] we've come to understand why that happens, why the child
has acquired this false belief in something. We sort of understand the
mechanisms by which that unfolds....
Is there a qualitative difference between such a memory and the memory of a
...There doesn't appear to be any difference that experts can pick up on. You
can toss a coin and do as well as experts at saying whether this is a real
event or a fictional event.... We call it false belief, because the child
deeply believes now what they're telling you. Thank God we deal with very
benign events like hot air balloons and not sexual abuse, because we and the
child's parents have difficulty debriefing the child. The child argues with
us. We say to the child, "Billy, that didn't really happen, that's just in
your head, you know, we've been asking you to pretend all these weeks, it
didn't happen." And Billy says, "It did happen!" "No, Billy, it didn't
happen." "You weren't there, it happened!" And so we and the parents have had
some difficulty trying to dissuade the children once they get over that hurdle
and they adopt the false belief.
Does the relatively benign nature of these experimental scenarios that
you're doing make it any more likely that a kid would accept such a scenario
than if, for example, you were saying, "And did you know that you were
physically tortured, you remember that scene down in the dungeon?"
...Maybe the experiments that we've done with the pretend work because they're
fairly benign events. But would they work, to use your phrase, if they
involved torture or personal embarrassment or pain? We've done other
experiments, and we've taken advantage of naturally occurring experiments of
nature to try to test that piece of the hypothesis. So, for example, we will
go into emergency rooms at hospitals where kids come in for suturing or blood
work or other kinds of painful procedures, inoculations at clinics, and we try
to do suggestive things about these much more salient personal events, again,
they're not sexual abuse, although some of them do involve things like genital
catheterization, anogenital exams by the pediatrician, and so on. They're not
perfect, they're societally sanctioned, unlike child sexual abuse, and there
are other things about them that are different, but if you put them in the
context of the studies we and others have done before and after, they're there
to sort of rule out alternative possibilities. And when you take them together
they suggest to me that there's probably no area that's out of play in terms of
suggestibility. I don't think you could say that because an event happens to a
child's body, to their anogenital region, you couldn't suggest something false
about it. We and others have demonstrated that's definitely not the
Some of your colleagues, many of them, perhaps, became, as we begin to see
this outbreak, I guess, is what you could call it, in the late '70s, early to
mid-1980s, of accusations of mass ritual abuse in collective situations,
daycare centers and schools and so on, a lot of your colleagues became sort of
semi pro expert witnesses, going from trial to trial to trial. You, generally
speaking, resisted that for the longest time and still do. Why is that?
I feel as though the adversarial context of these criminal courts is not the
context where I can best describe the research and the complexities of the
research.... I find that I best serve science staying out of that arena and
doing my research and leaving it to others to translate my research when they
feel it's relevant to cases they testify in, with the awareness that there's a
risk there that they may distort my findings one way or the other.
And yet in the case of the state against Bobby Fijnje down in Dade County,
Florida, a young man accused of the most horrific series of child abuse crimes,
you did become involved. Tell me how you came to that case.
There have been only three cases in my career that I've agreed to be involved
in. In Fijnje, when I was first contacted, I was contacted by the defense.
They called me at home, I said, "I don't go in as an expert witness," and I
gave them names of other people who do. And it was approximately a year later,
one of the names of the people I'd given them, they had apparently picked up on
and were using, and this person called me himself and said, "I've been working
with the defense in this case, but there's a piece that I can't do because it
involves your research, and would you do it." And this sort of conversation
unfolded over a few telephone calls and at the same time the prosecution
contacted me and were asking if I would be listed on their expert witness list.
So finally I sort of agreed to do it....
When you finally agreed to engage the case, and you began to look at its
parts, what did you see there, what was that case?
I saw a constellation of ingredients that worried me, because they seemed
similar to the sort of things that I and others were doing in our experiments
to produce inaccurate reports with preschoolers.
Such as what?
Well, for instance, there's something that we call stereotype induction in the
literature, which means that if you repeatedly tell kids that someone's bad,
sooner or later quite a few of those kids start acting in accordance with that.
They start fearing the person, they won't be in the room with him, some of the
kids will begin to confabulate stories about bad things the person did to them.
We and others have done lots of experiments on this where we induce stereotypes
in the preschoolers that someone takes something that didn't belong to him or
someone doesn't share with another or someone is clumsy and is always breaking
things or whatever. And we look to see what impact that has three, four months
later, and it does have an impact on kids' accuracy. They give you a lot of
this stereotyped consistent confabulation. And in Fijnje there was quite a lot
of that.... For instance, the interviewer says things such as, "Don't worry,
Bobby's in jail," or, "Did your mom and dad tell you he can't hurt children
anymore because he's in jail?" That kind of repetitive negative stereotyping
can be found, it's really littered throughout lots of the interviews in that
Conducted by whom?
The interviews in that case that were most worrisome to me were conducted
primarily by mental health professionals, not by law enforcement, not by child
So in essence what you were seeing was [that they were] asking kids
questions that are always framed in the context of "Bobby's a bad guy and a
scary guy, now let me ask you about this," [and by] that what they were doing
was planting the idea that Bobby was a bad kid, which would color their
Yeah, kids are cooperative conversational partners. They believe that you're
asking them about something because it probably happened. They want to please
you, they want to give you the answer that they think will make you happiest,
and especially if the first couple times they resist this and say no and you
keep bringing it up, they start to get the message that, "Well, maybe I've been
giving the wrong answer and I should switch." So the negative stereotype
induction frees kids. It allows them to use their imaginations about what
other things would be consistent with someone who's bad, so you start to hear
things about how, "Oh yeah, I remember, he made us kill a baby and put it in
the microwave and we cooked it and we ate it." So you'll hear some fantastic
things that come out of it that are consistent with the stereotyping. This is
just one ingredient, I mean, if that were the only thing, I would have
selectively looked through the evidence for cases where there was no negative
stereotyping. But in every case there was some ingredient that was worrisome
The thing that is striking to an outsider is that apparently when these
interview sessions would occur and something such as you just said about taking
a baby from a womb and putting it in a microwave and eating it, when that sort
of statement would come from a child, it didn't have a negating effect on
everything else the child said. In other words, people wouldn't say, "Well,
that's ridiculous, so this kid's obviously in a fantasy here." Why is
Well, there is some evidence that in true disclosure, that is to say, where a
child really was abused, you often get a combination of bizarre unbelievable
details with plausible details. So the fact that the kids were saying some
stuff that was incredible didn't as a kneejerk reaction lead people to say,
"Well, therefore the stuff that's not incredible must be false, too." Again,
there is some research that says that you can see both those, the true and the
false, in the same statement.
So we shouldn't necessarily say that any rational person could have seen
this kid was making this stuff up because they had this bizarre component.
They may well have been able to say, "Well, that's a piece of it, but the truth
is in here somewhere."
Yeah. A lot of most bizarre stuff in Fijnje had to do with [what] I would call
"self empowerment training" that some of the counselors were doing with the
Self empowerment training?
This was another of that constellation of ingredients that I found worrisome.
What you saw unfolding over the course of weeks, months, years of therapy is
something like the following: the therapist may have as her objective not a
forensic interview, she isn't trying to get the facts and only the facts, but
rather she's trying to bring to fruition some intrapsychic hurt for the kid and
interpret it. And the historical accuracy is secondary to that. From a certain
theoretical orientation it doesn't matter if what the kid believes is real or
not, it's psychologically real to them, so you work on it as though it's
So what you see is, for example, the therapist might use an anatomically
detailed doll to represent Bobby and they name the doll Bobby, and then a doll
to represent the child. "Now show us what you're going to do the next time you
see Bobby." So the kid'll come over and kick Bobby and take on this superhero
action figure kind of mentality, they'll put a cape, a Superman cape on the
child doll, and he'll fly around and he'll do things like he'll karate chop his
chains off and so on. Now some of those same kids, when they gave statements,
claimed things like they were chained by Bobby in the back of a truck and they
were taken to Bobby's parents' house three miles away and they were made to
watch Bobby's parents and sister fornicating on the bed, and then they karate
chopped their chains off and they beat up Bobby and his parents and then they
jumped out the window and they ran back to the Old Cutler daycare three miles
away. Well, it was clearly incredible, but you could see how it was seeded
through this self empowerment training over many months.
This self-empowerment training... I can understand its potential therapeutic
value for these children, but couldn't it also be somewhat dangerous in a
forensic context? In other words, if what it's going to [be used in] is a
You just put your finger on the important problem. This disconnect between a
forensic interview and a therapeutic interview. Yes, this may indeed have
therapeutic value, but to use it as your principal law enforcement evidence is
fraught with problems.
More about interviewing techniques.
You were asked at one point to in essence fulfill the role of a kind of a
mediator, as opposed to an advocate's defense or a prosecution witness,
regarding a proposed plea bargain for Bobby. Tell me about that. Who proposed
it and what did they want from you?
During a pre-trial deposition in Miami, the prosecution and the defense were
quarreling over whether or not the defense represented accurately to Bobby
Fijnje the plea offer that the state was making. Both sides agreed that I
would be a good person to go to Bobby and to relay to him exactly my
understanding of what the state was offering, so the prosecution asked me to do
it and the defense agreed that I should do it....
What is your memory of what that offer was?
My memory is sort of vague now, but I thought it was a maximum two years
private psychiatric hospital, a nolo contendere, no plea, it wouldn't be on his
record after he was released, he would have to apologize to the children and
their families, he would be under the control of the state probably in terms of
probation until he was of age, whatever that is, 21. I'm a little vague on it,
but I think that was the essence.
And it was not a confession exactly, but a concession that, "Yes I had done
this." Not exactly a guilty plea, but in essence, Bobby would have said, "Yes,
these things happened, but I'm not a hardened criminal." Do you have a memory
of the actual setting in which you had this discussion with the Fijnjes?
We met in a chamber off of the courtroom in Dade County, in Miami. Bobby's
mother, father, and he and I were sitting at the table. I described the
state's offer. Bobby's father is a very strong and strong-willed Dutch
gentleman. He was pounding the table. "No son of mine is going to say he did
something he didn't do. He can spend the rest of his life in jail rather than
admit to that stuff." I remember saying, "Mr. Fijnje, if it were you, fine.
But if Bobby were my child, I think I'd tell him to take the state's plea." I
remember saying, "I don't say this because I think Bobby's guilty. It's not
for me to say. I have a lot of concerns about the way the children's
statements were elicited. Perhaps Bobby is totally innocent, but I work with
kids that age. I work with jurors who listen to kids that age. They can be
extremely persuasive." Bobby was looking at life without parole in Florida if
he was convicted on any of the criminal counts. I said to Mr. Fijnje and Mrs.
Fijnje and Bobby, "Were he my child, I wouldn't roll the dice. I'd take the
offer. I'd swallow my pride. I'd apologize. I'd go into the psychiatric
hospital." Obviously it was bad advice from me. Bobby and his family rolled
the dice and he was acquitted on all counts....
You say now, and of course in retrospect it's easy to say I guess, that your
advice was wrong because Bobby was acquitted and yet, you gave that advice for
an understandable reason. Bobby was himself a kid at that time...
Although I believe my advice was the wrong advice -- he obviously didn't get
convicted -- I would give the exact same advice today. I wouldn't back off it
one inch. Bobby was 15 years old and a very young 15. He was looking at life
in one of the toughest penitentiaries in this country. I didn't have the
impression that Bobby was going to hold up well under those circumstances. If
he had done anything, it allegedly would have been done between the ages of 11
and 13 because he was taken into custody when he was only 13. So he was a very
young man. He had his whole life ahead of him....
Let me go to a couple of the particulars of the case. [With] one of the
alleged victims [referred to as D.M.]... there was this element about her
stories, the narratives that she was giving to therapists and to her parents,
that in some way, as it turns out, paralleled or perhaps even derived from
these fantastical cartoon videos and fairy tale stories.
There was a lot of discussion about the videos in the home that she had been
watching and how some of that got imported into some of her later claims. But
I was more impressed by the way the whole thing was triggered. I think she's
referred to as simply D.M. in the transcripts. D.M. initially resisted going
to church day care with the family. This was several months after Bobby had
ceased working there. The family [started] probing, "Why don't you want to go
with us anymore? You've been going there for years. You used to like it." At
some point she allegedly said to her family that she was afraid because Bobby
did rough things to her. The only example I can recall that she said was that
he kept throwing her up in the air very roughly and he wouldn't stop...
roughhousing. That was corroborated by some of the workers, that Bobby -- I
mean he was a kid himself -- he didn't really know when to stop.
So, they had some concerns, there were these anxiety attacks, she seemed to
have night tremors, there was some regressive toileting going on at the same
time, so she went into therapy. There wasn't anything that looked like any
kind of probative disclosure or even close to it for several months. It wasn't
until, as I recall, the tenth or twelfth week in therapy where you get the
first inkling of a disclosure. What troubles me is that at that point, that
particular therapist I believe started recording the sessions because now you
have something that's forensically quite relevant, a child's disclosure of
sexual abuse. So from then on, we can listen to the tapes and there were a lot
of these ingredients that I was talking about earlier that are of concern to
me. I always thought, "Gee, if she were willing to do that on tape, I wonder
what she did the first ten weeks before the tape was turned on." At the very
least, more of the same, but maybe it was even more suggestive.... And of
course what was happening in the home was totally off the record. People
surmise about the videos that she was watching and discussions, that sort of
thing, but we don't have a record of it.
I believe we're speaking of Suzanne Keeley. Now she doesn't do exactly what
you do for a living. Is your memory that she was a therapist, a licensed
therapist? What was her credential to be doing this sort of thing?
My memory is that she was a licensed mental health professional, that she did
counseling and therapy.
A counseling and therapy that would be perhaps more appropriate to treatment
than to a forensic application?
Oh, yeah. I don't believe she had any credentials in terms of forensic
interviewing. She had, as I recall, testified to attending some continuing
education type workshops, half a day, one day sort of things, occasionally
reading second-hand reports and things, but that's a far cry from being trained
as a forensic interviewer and I don't think she touted herself that way....
But she was an integral part of the prosecution to the degree that she even,
in the case of one girl I'm thinking of in particular, she actually helped to
prepare the child for testimony. Do you remember that?
As I recall, that particular child showed up for a videotaped anatomical doll
interview with Pam Gorman in Dade County carrying Dr. Keeley's anatomical dolls
with her. I remember watching that video. I'm a little vague on the details
but I recall when the child came in, Pam Gorman saw the child had her own dolls
and asked her about that and she said something like, "Dr. Suzanne gave me
these to practice," or something like that. It was some clear evidence that
there had been massive doll use in the counseling sessions; I believe Dr.
Keeley herself testified to perhaps 40% of the sessions using the dolls.
So here's a child who's coming to testify in a case that may send this other
child, Bobby Fijnje, to prison... who has been practicing with her dolls with a
therapist plainly to provide testimony that is not necessarily grounded in
I think in fairness to the mental health professionals that were doing what
turned out to be the law enforcement interviewing, the forensic interviewing,
they weren't aware of the reliability risks of the various tactics they were
using, whether it was fantasy, self-empowerment training, stereotype induction,
role playing with anatomical dolls, etc.
On the other hand, these were folks who were willing to participate in the
sending away of perhaps innocent human beings to prison. Wasn't it incumbent
upon these people to find out the possible complications of what they were
I won't presume to speak for their internal motivations, but as a sort of
bystander to this whole process, I can say that there's a very strong lure
there. One side or the other sucks you in. You become a team player.
Everything that you're told is filtered through that side. You end up wanting
to please that side. You put a spin on your testimony. You leave out certain
things that won't be to the advantage. That happens on both sides. It happens
on the defense side as well as the prosecution. Unfortunately in that case,
yes, to answer your question, she and others were on the side that was going to
put away essentially another child for life using techniques that have known
After the Fijnje, case you got involved, at least tangentially, after the
fact of his conviction, in the case of Grant Snowden. You were part of an
amicus brief filed before the court before a court. Tell me about that, what
was that about?
Well, my colleague Maggie Bruck and I -- we coauthored the book Jeopardy in
the Courtroom -- we have written in several cases "friend of the court"
briefs. These are cases where we had been researching the case anyway because
we want to use it in some research that we're doing so we know something about
the case. And we prepare an amicus brief whereby we review the scientific
literature that's pertinent to the details of that particular case, and we
submit it to the court free of charge, as do other organizations....We did one
of the Grant Snowden case.
And what was the related research? What did it pertain to?
Well, in looking at the children's disclosures in the Snowden case -- I think
L. was the court child in that and then there was G. and a number of other
kids -- we studied the disclosure process and then we brought to bear the
scientific studies that were most relevant to that part of this disclosure, for
example, there might be a very frequent enjoinder to pretend, for L. you see
this over and over again in the interviews prior to her and after her
disclosure. The therapist interviewer might say, "OK, let's pretend Grant put
his finger in your butt, or let's pretend this or let's pretend that." So
there was a lot of that. The interviewer would also shift and say, "Let's not
pretend now, let's just tell me what really happened." We would talk about the
effect in scientific studies of asking kids repeatedly to pretend to a point
where some of them have difficulty discriminating whether something really
happened or they just imagined it happened....
And what is that phenomenon of that technique....
It's called guided imagery, where you repeatedly guide a child to create images
of an event that may or may not have happened, and if you do it often enough
preschool kids have a real difficult time discriminating whether this really
happened, this image in my head, or whether I just imagined it to have
And so a child's intended truthful testimony may in fact be an artifact of
this interview process.
I think it's a fair statement to say that when a child's deliberately lying
they can fool some people but they don't fool everyone. But when a child has a
false belief, when, as a product of going through repeated suggestive
interviews, a child has come to believe something that's not true, that child's
very convincing. They believe it themselves. So their face has none of the
leakage it has when they're lying. Usually if you cross examine a child who's
lying for one or another motive, to gain rewards, to avoid embarrassment, to
protect a loved one, whatever, the child becomes inconsistent in their story.
When a child has a false belief they don't; it's a very elaborate embellished
narrative. It's very persuasive....
...What do you remember from what you saw of the interview
techniques applied by the Bragas in the Snowden case?
It was very similar to techniques in Fijnje in the sense that there was the
negative stereotyping. The kids were told Grant Snowden had been arrested, he
couldn't hurt other children. There was a very frequent enjoinder for the kids
to fantasize, to pretend. First they would ask the kid, "Did this happen or
not?" And the kids would say, "No, it didn't happen," or they didn't answer.
And then they'd say, "Well, let's pretend it happened. Did he touch you here
or there?" And then they would sort of try to get the kid out of the pretend at
certain points and say, "OK, now let's just talk about what really happened."
That kind of yo-yoing was happening throughout the interviews. They were
confusing to the kids. They were confusing to me, to even read the
transcriptions of the audiotaped interviews... There was a lot of confusing
questioning, there was a lot of yes/no, did he touch you here or there.
There was very little, "Tell me in your own words everything that happened."
We know from research that when you ask those kind of open ended questions kids
don't often give you a lot, but what they give you is accurate. The most
accurate disclosures you get are from asking those kinds of open ended
questions very soon after the alleged event by a neutral interviewer. And in
the Grant Snowden material that I reviewed with my colleague Maggie Bruck,
there was sort of a violation of all three prongs of that. The interviewer
didn't appear neutral, rather, that interviewer appeared to have a hypothesis
that this happened, that Snowden abused the kids. And therefore she employed a
variety of techniques including the negative stereotyping, the repeated
pretend play, the repetition of questions where if you say to someone, "Did
someone touch you here?" and they say no, and then you ask that question again,
"I'm going to ask you again, did someone touch you there?" well, the message
you're sending to children is their first answer was incorrect and therefore
they should change it. And preschoolage kids are disproportionately
susceptible to that kind of thing. So there was a lot of that.
This was south Florida, Dade County, late '80s, Bobby Fijnje. A place and a
setting that had by that time grown accustomed to the spectacle of these awful
cases.... It's not just one prosecutor who's fired up about a case and perhaps
a little overzealous, or one detective or one therapist or one concerned
parent. When it becomes a whole community, the media, an entire department of
a prosecutor, this whole population willing to believe, what is that?
I would say that if you looked broader than just the Florida cases, if you
looked around the country and even in Europe, the mass allegation day care
cases that really had a splash in the media were not characterized by a single
zealous prosecutor or a single concerned parent, but they were exactly what you
described. They were an entire community that rose to the call. The media
often was party to it. Parents, mental health professionals, law enforcement,
the courts, there was shared knowledge, this was constantly going on between
the media, the parents and mental health professionals. We heard that D.M.
said that W.K. was also in the room when Bobby did that. So then W.K.'s
parents ask, "W.K., well don't you remember that? D.M. says you were there
when Bobby did that." There's a lot of that. There's shared knowledge about
the indicia of pedophilia. For example, at the time, one of the popular, I
think I can call them myths, was that there are rings of pedophiles and they're
part of satanic cults, so parents and kids were quizzed for whether Bobby and
his associates wore pendants that were eight-sided and whether the number 666
appeared anywhere in writing or tattoos or so on. This information was swapped
back and forth. There was a large coterie of individuals including media,
parents, law enforcement that were reinforcing each other and sharing
What term can we apply to that fever that happens, that engulfs and takes
away reason? Is that hysteria?
Some people have called it hysteria, but the subjective sense that I had from
being there is that it resulted in a type of vigilantism. It was quite scary.
What do you mean by vigilantism?
What I mean by it is that the purpose of the investigation seemed to shift from
whatever the truth is to, "We got to get this guy and get him at all costs,"
because the decision had been made in the community's mind that child sexual
abuse was rampant, there are organized circles of people that are preying on
kids and that this guy is one of them. At all costs, we've got to take him
down. That's what I meant by vigilantism. I would contrast it with a more
open-minded approach that says well, our primary hypothesis is that he abused
the kids in this way. What's an alternative hypothesis? How could these kids
have come to say these things if they didn't happen, for example, and in a
fair-minded way test the alternatives.
Is it striking to you in any way, Dr. Ceci, that you and I have sat here and
talked about a phenomenon that Lord knows showed itself in all corners of this
country, But we're talking about [a number of] rather remarkable cases, that
occurred in a period of time in one place, the State Attorney's office in Dade
County, Florida, at the time that that office was run by Janet Reno. What
should we take from that?
Well, if I want to be glib, the way to become the Attorney General of the
United States is to aggressively pursue pedophilia. It's an easy crime to
hate.... But that is a sort of glib analysis. I don't know if that's true in
In the effort to make it, if you will, a child-friendly, a victim-friendly
process, understandably so, what Ms. Reno did down in Miami was to make people
such as the Bragas, to make specifically the Bragas, part of the law
enforcement system, literally an extension of it. In retrospect was that such
a good idea?
It was the beginning of a process that hasn't ended yet. By that I mean
jurisdictions across the country mimicked in large degree that model. They set
up specially equipped interview rooms with one way mirrors. They had specially
trained interviewers. I say it hasn't ended yet because the latest
instantiations on the model are having what are called integrated interviews
where you have, in addition to mental health, [you'll have] maybe law
enforcement and social services present to try to reduce the number of times
that the kid'll have to be interviewed subsequently. And this isn't the end,
either. It will keep changing. And the reason it keeps changing is because we
haven't got it right yet. We're trying lots of things....
That sexual abuse unit that Janet Reno created obviously resulted in some
notable successes and in some regard was emulated around the country. Did you
see anything that was perhaps not to be so admired and emulated?
Yes, I think that if someone had come to me and said how best can we go about
these investigations, then based on the research that was available at that
time I would have suggested things that were different. For example, the
interviewers themselves would have been forensically trained. They would have
been trained in light of the best scientific evidence that was available at
As opposed to the Bragas.
Yeah, I think they were trying to create things on line. I think that once
they were sort of nominated and put into this role [they] were using their best
clinical intuitions, I guess, to develop a protocol, but it isn't the protocol
that would have been dictated had you used research as your guide.
In the Snowden case [there was an expert who testified
that of 1,000 kids he interviewed about abuse] 995 ... had told him the truth.
And so what you had here was an expert who deals with children saying, as the
prosecutor would then interpret it, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you've
just heard a child expert saying that 99.9% of the time children tell the
truth. Very impactful statement, but not necessarily so, right?
Well, I think it is very impactful, but it's not accurate. We used to do this
as almost a parlor trick when we would go to scientific conventions. We would
show videos of kids to the audience, and these were very well trained
psychologists and psychiatrists, and we'd say to them, "OK, you think you can
tell if a kid's accurate or not. We want you to look at these videotapes and
you tell us, are they accurate?" And we would hand out forms where they would
rate their confidence for each videotape, whether it happened or not. And you
could toss a coin and do as well as professionals, because, again, these kids
on our tapes weren't lying. We had persuaded them that something happened that
didn't happen, and it became a reality for them. And once it becomes a false
belief, a reality for the kids, it's incorrect to say that 999 out of a
thousand kids are going to be accurate. Kids that are subjected to that same
barrage of suggestive techniques that we have been talking about, negative
stereotyping, fantasy inductions, question repetition and so on, a significant
minority in our studies will adopt false beliefs that no expert can detect.
And so of such kids there is no particular statistical figure.
There is no statistic. There can't be a statistic because the statistic would
have to be confined to cases where kids were subjected to that kind of
relentless suggestive interviewing over fairly long periods of time. And if
you had a population of a thousand kids that had been put through that and then
they were interviewed and you got statements from them, I can assure you it
wouldn't be 999 who would be giving accurate reports.
The importance of that particular testimony, not only in terms of whatever
impact it may have had on that particular jury, but in the larger sense, was
that it underscored a term that has been the thrust of all of these cases,
which is simply "believe the children, children don't lie." That motto doesn't
necessarily apply in these cases, though, does it?
Two things. One, it was always an oversimplification. It was used as a rallying
cry, almost a slogan, "believe the kids." And it presupposed a certain set of
motives that were often absent, motives that tilted toward truthtelling, when
in fact sometimes motives tilt the other way, they tilt toward avoiding
embarrassment or protecting a loved one or keeping a secret or sustaining a
game or gaining material rewards or whatever, that tilt it toward
non-truthtelling. Anyone who's a parent knows if you're at all attentive to
your child that they're not always truthful. When the motivational valance
goes a certain way your child will sometimes go that way despite you being a
good middle class ethical parent.
The other point is that some have argued that, while admittedly that was an
oversimplified slogan in the mid- to late '80s -- at the trials a lot of the
parents wore buttons in these trials, "believe the children," that now there's
been a backlash. As a result of people's research like myself, people are too
skeptical of what kids are saying, that if an interviewer slips in a leading
question here or there, the whole interview is considered tainted and therefore
that the prosecution of child sexual abuse has been greatly hampered. And now
you sort of have this image, "never believe the kids." I think that that's an
oversimplification as well. I think that the truth is really in between.