“You Can Tell Me Anything”

Mother Jones|May/June 2020

“You Can Tell Me Anything”
Are robots the key to getting kids to open up?
By Samantha Michaels

CINDY BETHEL WAS 6 when her babysitter’s neighbor started molesting her. Worried what else would happen if she told her parents, she confided in her stuffed panda instead. Sometimes she acted out the abuse with Barbie and Ken dolls. A few years later, the same teen neighbor raped her on a woodpile outside his house. She didn’t tell anyone about the assault until long after she moved away from her Ohio hometown.

Even if she had spoken out, investigators may have struggled to get her full story. Young children often say what they think adults want to hear, and kids are easily influenced by an interviewer’s word choice, tone, and body language all of which can lead them to provide false information. Children’s testimony helped condemn innocent people during the Salem witch trials. And in the 1980s, panic about alleged satanic abuse at daycare centers spread when social workers nudged kids to accuse their caregivers. A series of studies in the 1990s, led by a psychologist at Cornell University, found that prolonged suggestive questioning caused more than half of 4- to 6- year-olds to recall details about life experiences that had never occurred.

Even well-trained interviewers make mistakes, like forgetting to ask open-ended questions, says Zoe Klemfuss, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies children’s memory and forensic interviews. “You’re cognitively having to do so many things at once, while being sympathetic to the child, while getting legally relevant information,” she says. The stakes are high: Tens of thousands of kids testify at criminal trials every year.

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May/June 2020