How attorneys question children about the dynamics of sexual abuse and disclosure in criminal trials

Stacia N. Stolzenberg, Thomas D. Lyon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations

Abstract

Little is known about how the dynamics of sexual abuse and disclosure are discussed in criminal court. We examined how attorneys ask child witnesses in sexual abuse cases (N = 72, 6-16 years of age) about their prior conversations, both with suspects and with disclosure recipients. Prosecutors' questions were more open-ended than defense attorneys, but most questions asked by either attorney were yes/no questions, and children tended to provide unelaborated responses. Prosecutors were more inclined to ask about children's prior conversations with suspects than defense attorneys, but focused on the immediate abuse rather than on grooming behavior or attempts to silence the victim. Prosecutors were also more inclined to ask about children's motives for disclosing or for failing to disclose than defense attorneys, but in most cases, failed to ask. Both types of attorney asked children about prior disclosures, although defense attorneys were more inclined to ask children to recall specific content in particular disclosures. On average, children were asked about five disclosure recipients, and denied disclosing some information in 93% of cases. Attorneys exhibited little sensitivity to the age of the child in selecting their questions. The implications of the results for improving the process by which abuse cases are tried in court are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)19-30
Number of pages12
JournalPsychology, Public Policy, and Law
Volume20
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 2014
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Child sexual abuse
  • Children's testimony
  • Disclosure

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law

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