In the previous section, we discussed over 20 experimental studies that
examined children's interactions with dolls. Although the data, taken
together, do not present persuasive evidence for the value of dolls in forensic
and therapeutic settings, there are small pockets of data that would appear to
provide some support for the validity of doll-centered interviews.
Specifically, the results of the studies that examined the doll play of abused
versus non abused children provide the most support for the use of dolls in
forensic and therapeutic interviews. However, we feel that these types of
studies are not very relevant to the issue of the diagnostic utility of
anatomically detailed dolls because those interviewing procedures bear little
relationship to the procedures used in actual interviews with children
suspected of sexual abuse. In the latter situation, children are rarely
observed for over an hour in a free play situation, nor are these children
merely asked to undress a doll and name its body parts. Rather, children are
asked direct, leading, and misleading questions about abuse with the dolls, and
they are often asked to reenact alleged abusive experiences. Often, when
children do not respond to the interviewer's questions, they are repeated or
As one example of the dubious generalizability of the studies in question,
consider the following
example from the Little Rascals day-care case. Mrs. E was the mother of one of
the suspected abuse
victims, and her testimony concerned the police officer's first interview with
her son Fred.
She eavesdropped on the doll-centered interview from an adjacent room, and
testified as to what she
heard through the wall:
Mrs. F: She (the female officer) asked Fred what he liked to play with. He
went and got some of his He-Man guys, and he said that those were what he
wanted to play with. After a few minutes of the playing back and forth she
said she had dolls with her. And he said, no, he preferred playing with
his. And she said, you know, she had some she wanted him to see.
I couldn't see what was going on, but at some point the dolls came out.
I remember clearly saying, "You do realize the difference between little
boys and little girls, and little boys have a penis and little girls have
opening here," and that's when my husband and I looked at each other and got
real upset, and realized for the first time that we were talking about some
type of sexual abuse here. My husband wanted to stop the interview right
then. I asked him just to hang on and let's see what Fred has to say.
She asked him about pretending and did he know how to pretend, and he
said "yes." . . . She asked him to pretend that this doll was Mr. Bob and
this (other) doll was him. I remember him at one point saying, "I don't want
to be the girl doll." He kept getting his toys back out. I don't think he
was very attentive. He didn't like playing with her toys.... At some point,
and I'm not sure how, because it was difficult sometimes to hear her because
she was speaking softly, she demonstrated something, I'm surmising
because she said, "Have you ever seen anyone do this," and "Have you ever
seen this?" Um, at one point was his he said, "That's gross." I'm not sure
what he saw, but that was his reply.
Attorney: Had your son ever been exposed to that type of anatomical
doll prior to this occasion?
Mrs. F: No, but after she left he understood intercourse. He asked
me why anybody would want to do that which I think was
inappropriate for someone that age. He thought it was
pretty disgusting, and thanks to their interview at that
young age he was well versed in what it was.
A number of the procedures used in this interview are absent in the
experimental studies described in the first part of this chapter. First, the
child was asked to pretend that the dolls represented the defendant and himself
Asking the child to pretend may have overridden the understanding that he
should be telling the truth, because he was given permission to pretend. Next,
this child was given instruction on the sexual parts of the doll. Finally, it
seemed that the interviewer manipulated the dolls into sexually explicit
positions. In this one case, it does not appear that these suggestive
techniques were associated with the child making allegations of sexual abuse.
In fact, this one child appeared to react negatively to the whole interview.
However, it is still possible that a non abused child who was interviewed in
this manner might be easily coaxed into pretense play that mimics the sexual
demonstrations of the interviewer, especially if he were to be interviewed a
second time. In other words, maybe little Fred might react differently the
second time he is interviewed with the dolls, not because they are valid
diagnostic tools, but rather because he has become bored with doing the
ordinary things with them and begins to explore their cavities. This is the
essence of one of the criticisms of doll studies that we raised in the first
part of this chapter.
In our materials, there are numerous other examples of a disjunction or
mismatch between research procedures and clinical practices that further
caution us against drawing generalizations from the research literature to
clinical or forensic practice. The examples provided by Mrs. F. are far from
unique. Adults manipulated dolls in a number of sessions we reviewed.
Sometimes parents were co-opted into this role. For example, another parent in
the Little Rascals case described a therapy session involving her young
daughter; her daughter's therapist, Ms. J.; and herself:
Mother: And I asked her, "Does this doll look like Mr. Bob?"
And she said, "Sort of
And then she was standing near me, and Ms. J. was over there because this had
turned into such a spontaneous thing. She didn't have a tape going to record
the session; she was over there trying to write down what was being said.
And Ms. J. asked me to ask her-she was mouthing it-if Mr. Bob's penis was soft
And I did. I said, "Was Mr. Bob's penis soft or hard?"
And she said, "It was soft." And I said, "How do you know?" She said, "Because
I had to touch it."
And then I said-she [Ms. J.] asked me to ask her what position his penis was
in. All of this was very embarrassing. And I said, "Barbara, was Mr. Bob's
penis like this," holding it up (indicating), "Or was it like this?" holding it
down (indicating), "Or was it like this?" (holding it straight out). So Ms. J.
handed-gave me or instructed me. I'm not, you know, sure exactly how we got
the doll, gave me the female adult anatomical doll and I undressed the doll and
I said, "Barbara, does this doll look like somebody you've seen?"
In another interview in the same case, an experienced child interviewer showed a videotape to the jury of a doll-assessment interview that she
conducted with one of the child witnesses. This interviewer, like Bar-
bara's mother, undressed the dolls before the child had a chance to respond
whether she was dressed or undressed. Then the interviewer pointed to various
parts of the doll's anatomy and asked the child questions of a sexual nature.
Our research on 3-year-old children's interactions with anatomical dolls
suggests that children may supply answers about how they think they were
dressed or how they think things looked by simply looking at the doll and
reporting what they see on the doll (Bruck, Ceci, Francoeur, & Renick, 1995
. For example, in our study, we had the children take the socks off the doll,
and then we asked them whether their socks were on or off during their
pediatric examination. In all cases, the children replied that their socks
were off during the examination. We suspect that they took their cues for this
inaccurate answer by looking at the doll. Of course, none of
their socks were off during the pediatric examination.
In the Little Rascals case, dolls also were used in many therapeutic
and investigative sessions with the children. In one memorable example,
after Sue had been in therapy for a number of months, she was interviewed with
the dolls three times in one week. Interviews were carried out with her
therapist and the investigating police officer, and the final interview was
conducted by another mental health professional at a university hospital unit
that specialized in the assessment of sexually abused children.
The latter interview was videotaped and presented as evidence by the
prosecution. Note the following interaction at the beginning of this
Interviewer: I've got some special dolls here; they're special because they
have all their body parts. Have you ever seen dolls like this before, that
have all their body parts?
Sue: (shakes her head no)
It is not clear whether this highly trained interviewer had reviewed the record
of this child and had known that this child had been subjected to many
doll-centered interviews. Certainly, given the publicity of this case, she at
least might have suspected that there had been previous interviews. Even
several years later, when she took the stand, this interviewer did not qualify
her remarks about her interpretation of this interview, given her knowledge
that this child had multiple previous interviews with the dolls.
From: Jeopardy in the Courtroom-A Scientific
Analysis of Children's Testimony by Stephen J.
Cecil and Maggie Bruck, American Psychological Association, 1995.