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Legal Practitioners’ Thoughts and Evaluations of Preschoolers’ Testimony in Child Sexual Abuse Cases

Licentiate thesis
Authors Emelie Ernberg
Date of public defense 2016-12-16
Opponent at public defense Julia Korkman
Publication year 2016
Published at Department of Psychology
Language en
Keywords Child sexual abuse, prosecution, children’s testimony
Subject categories Psychology, Applied Psychology

Abstract

Child sexual abuse (CSA) cases are notoriously difficult to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate. In Sweden it is estimated that only about one tenth of all reported CSA cases are prosecuted and CSA cases involving preschoolers are less likely to be prosecuted compared to cases involving older children. Preliminary investigations concerning preschool-aged children are complicated. Preschoolers typically have a limited ability to remember and retell events, and their testimonies are often difficult to evaluate. Thus far, prosecution in CSA cases involving preschool-aged children has not been studied exclusively and only very few studies have investigated how preschoolers’ testimonies are evaluated by legal actors. The aim of this thesis is therefore to shed some light on how preschoolers’ testimonies are viewed and evaluated by prosecutors and judges in a Swedish legal context. In Study I, 9 specialized child prosecutors (6 women, 3 men) took part either in individual interviews or in focus groups. The transcripts were analyzed thematically. The prosecutors said that children’s testimony was sometimes evaluated with criteria from the Supreme Court (e.g., length and richness in detail) and held at standards that do not comply with their witness capability. CSA victims were identified as vulnerable victims who had difficulty telling their stories. Some aspects of forensic interviews with preschoolers were described as problematic, and the prosecutors stated that the interviews sometimes went on for too long or that the interviewers had difficulties directing the youngest children as to the purpose of the interview. Building on the finding that children’s testimony may be evaluated with criteria from the Supreme Court and held at standards that do not comply with their witness capability, Study II aimed at investigating judges’ evaluations of preschoolers’ testimony. The study consisted of descriptive analyses of a majority of all court decisions (N = 145) in CSA cases involving preschoolers as complainants issued between 2010 and 2014. Reliability assessments of the children’s testimonies were more frequently made in acquitting verdicts and in cases with evidence of low corroborative value. Most criteria used for assessing the reliability of preschoolers’ statements were used in favor of their testimony, with the exception of the length criteria, which was mostly used against the reliability of preschoolers’ testimony. The findings are discussed in the light of research on preschoolers’ abilities to testify about CSA and some guiding implications for legal professionals working with these cases are offered.

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