the child terror
commentary by dr. stephen ceci
see below for text
Names of all children and their families have been changed.

This is the transcript of Dr. Stephen Ceci's commentary on Dr. Laurie Braga's interviewing techniques in her interview with the primary child witness in the Snowden case, child (not her real name).

Braga: Well, sometimes little children come, and they say that a grownup touched them in a private place. Do you know what a private place is?
Leslie: (Shaking head in the negative.)
Braga: Do you know what this is called here? That's called your vagina, and that's a private place. It belongs to you, not to anybody else, and these here, those are your breasts, and that's private, too.
Leslie: And you pee-pee is right here.

Ceci: Right here, what you're seeing is something that today would be recognized quickly as something not to do. And that is to say everything is coming from the interviewer. Nothing is coming from the kid. For example, you don't say to the Leslie, "This is what this is called." First of all, you find out what they call it. You don't present anatomical dolls undressed. Not that there's a standardized procedure for it, but you don't do it that way. And you try to let the child generate most of the narrative rather than being didactic like this.

Braga: Yeah; and did you know that grownups are not supposed to touch children's private places?
Leslie: (Nodding head.)

Ceci: Okay. Now, what you're seeing here is crossing over the line from a forensic interview to, for lack of a better word, a prevention or mental health interview. She's lecturing the child about what grown-ups should and should not do. "You know, it's naughty to ever let someone touch you there or kiss you there when you don't have clothes on." This isn't a forensic interview. This crosses the line.

Braga: Let's suppose if a grownup tried to touch you, do you know what you should say?
Leslie: What?
Braga: "No." You should say, "No, I don't want you to do that," but let's suppose a grownup tried to do that, and you still said, "No," and they still did it. It wouldn't be your fault.
Leslie: No fault?
Braga: No, because a lot of children come, and they talk to me, and they feel very sad, because they think that they did something bad, but they didn't.

Ceci: See, again this is far afield from an accepted forensic interview. She's invoking peer pressure. She's creating a context of accusation.

Braga: Lots of children come to me and say...

Ceci: Yeah, the atmospherics are all accusatory. Other kids come and tell me about bad things. The implied message is that's what we're here to do today as well. I'm a nice person, you want to please me. There are naughty things that adults do when they do this or that. So, it's really crossed over the line. This is no longer a forensic interview, if it ever was.

Braga: Mommy and Daddy said that, after you used to go there a lot, then last year, when J. would go, and you would go over there to pick up J., that sometimes, you wouldn't want to go, and I just wondered if maybe you didn't want to go because you were afraid...

Ceci: What you're seeing here is an accepted mental health practice. If you're trying to deal with interpsychic conflicts then this kind of suggestion, she's suggesting that maybe you're hurt, maybe you don't feel good. That may have its place in therapy. It has no place in a forensic interview. It's very suggestive.

Braga: Mommy and Daddy are not going to be mad at you. They would be so proud if you could tell, because, you know what?

Ceci: You're seeing something crossing the line from what I would call subtle reinforcement to almost being a bribe. "Mommy and Daddy will be so proud of you, if you tell." Again, these are departures from accepted forensic practice.

Braga: Did this happen in the living room or the bedroom?
Leslie: In the living room?
Braga: In the living room? What about the shower? Did it ever happen in the shower, in the bath tub?
Leslie: It happened in the shower.
Braga: In the shower?
Leslie: Too.
Braga: In the shower, too, so it happened more than one time?

Ceci: What you see, not just this piece but the whole interview, is a rather endless repetition of very directive questions. Was it living room or kitchen? Was it shower or bathtub? Now, kids have response sets or biases. They're much more likely to take the second things that you say. They assume that one of those two is always the answer and they tend to like the second one, the last one that you say. There's very little coming from the child. There's very little self initiation from the child. There's no what I would call free narrative where the interviewer says to the child, "I'd like you to tell me, in your own words, everything that happened." Now, when you do that, the child doesn't tell you a lot, but what they tell you tends to be highly accurate. And then you just sit there and you stare at the child and say, "Uh hmm. And what else?" And it's a little unnerving at first for the kid when you do this, but that's exactly the way to get a free narrative with minimum taint. And that isn't what she's doing. In fairness to her, that's not what any of them were doing 15 years ago.

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