“You Can Tell Me Anything”
Mother Jones|May/June 2020
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.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM MOTHER JONESView All

The Right Medicine

When covid treatments are politicized, science loses.

4 mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

Up Rooted

Forests have always migrated to survive. But now they need our help to outrun climate catastrophe.

10+ mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

Healing Requires Truth

A modern civil rights project seeks to reexamine hundreds of Jim Crow–era murders, and help families move forward.

10+ mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

Geography Class

Photographer Matt Black’s epic work of “critical cartography”

5 mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

Distant Learning

New immigrant students had the most to gain at Virginia’s Justice High—and the most to lose once the pandemic hit.

10+ mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

Field of Trees

The case for bringing foliage back to the Corn Belt

3 mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

Who You Gonna Call?

After Oakland cops drew guns on an accident survivor, a new kind of emergency responder rushed to the scene.

8 mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

SUCK IT UP

Is pulling CO2 out of the sky our climate salvation-or just another Big Oil boondoggle?

10+ mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

SWEET AND LOWDOWN

The hidden suffering behind America’s sugar habit

10+ mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

MAINSTREAMING MILITIAS

In Virginia, right-wingers who face down anti-racist demonstrators with AR-15s have earned an official stamp of approval.

5 mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021