Children with intellectual disabilities can be competent witnesses but in many cases are not investigated or taken to court, says the Society For Research In Child Development. The research was conducted by researchers at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. The study was announced on April 15, 2015, and was published in the journal Child Development.
Part of the reason these children are not interviewed is that prosecutors are concerned that children with intellectual disabilities could adequately describe their experiences and be believed by juries. The study shows that these children can describe their experiences as well as typically developing children who are at the same development level or mental age, especially soon after the event.
“Interviewers should interview children with intellectual disabilities as soon as possible after a disclosure of maltreatment, and they should consider developmental level and severity of impairments when evaluating eyewitness testimony,” said Deirdre A. Brown, the study’s lead author and a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
The study compared typically developing children with children with intellectual disabilities to determine how they could recall an experience when interviewed later. The protocol used for the children were very similar to the methods used by investigators who are assessing child maltreatment allegations. The researchers used both leading and misleading questions similar to those asked during cross examinations during a court proceeding.
The study divided 194 British children into several groups. Two groups of children ages seven to 12 years old were diagnosed as either having a mild or moderate intellectual impairment. The other group was typically developing children who were four to 12 years old. One group of intellectually disabled children was the same chronological age as the typically developing children while the other was the same developmental age.
All of the participants took part in a team event with health and safety-related activities such as learning how to care for cut or how to tie a bandage. Halfway through the event, they witnessed an argument regarding the equipment. Half the students were interviewed a week after the event, and again six months later. The other half were only interviewed once six months after the event.
“Our findings show that children with intellectual disabilities can provide accurate and detailed information about their experiences when interviewed properly,” said Brown.
Children with mild levels of intellectual disability performed as well as their typically developing counterparts at the same developmental level or mental age in how much they remembered, the accuracy of their accounts, and their responses to suggestive questions
Children with more severe intellectual disabilities (in the moderate range) could still provide useful descriptions of what they experienced, but were less able than typical children at the same developmental level and those with mild levels of intellectual disabilities
All the children remembered more information in the six-month interview and were less suggestible and more accurate than in the interview one week after the event
Children who were interviewed only once at six months were more accurate and less suggestible
Younger typically developing children and those with mild levels of intellectual disabilities were similar, but did not recall as well as older typically developing children
Children with more severe intellectual disabilities recalled even less than the youngest typically developing children.
“There is no reason why children with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities should not be provided with the same access to the investigative and judicial processes that would be initiated when typically developing children make disclosures of maltreatment,” said Brown. The process could include repeated interviews, using open-ended style of questions, and delaying more focused questions until later in the interview.