'Sweet Childish Days': Using Developmental Psychology Research in Evaluating the Admissibility of Out-of-Court Statements by Young Children

56 Pages Posted: 10 Apr 2011 Last revised: 14 Sep 2011

See all articles by Lynn McLain

Lynn McLain

University of Baltimore - School of Law

Date Written: 2010


A three-year-old child, while being bathed by her babysitter, innocently mentions that her “pee-pee” hurts. When the babysitter asks the child how she hurt it, she says, “Uncle Ernie (her mother’s boyfriend) told me not to tell.” A subsequent medical examination reveals that the child has gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted disease.

By the time of trial, the child is four and-a-half-years old. When questioned by the trial judge, she cannot explain to the judge’s satisfaction, “the difference between the truth and a lie.” Moreover, she has no long term memory of the incident. The judge rules the child incompetent to testify.

Can the child have made a reliable statement a year and a half before? Should the babysitter’s testimony be admitted, if it otherwise falls within a hearsay exception? If the statement is nontestimonial under Crawford v. Washington and its progeny the due process clause governs, rather than the confirmation clause.

The author’s thesis is that ruling on the admissibility of the child’s out-of-court statement should be informed by social science research in the field of developmental psychology. That research has shown that young children’s statements regarding recent events may be just as, or even more, reliable than adult’s observations and recollections. She proposes that if a child of the declarant’s age could have made a reliable statement of the type offered it ought to be admitted, and attacks on the child’s credibility should go to the weight of the evidence.

Even if the child is found competent and permitted to testify at trial, a young child’s testimony may be either not forthcoming (like that of an adult domestic violence victim) or simply ineffective due to the child’s being confused by complex questions inappropriate to her age.

The confrontation clause will not bar even testimonial hearsay statements when a child testifies at trial. The author argues that, in this situation, too, hearsay that passes the due process test should be admitted. Additionally, she argues that the judge ought to employ Evidence Rule 611(a) to preclude developmentally inappropriate questioning of young witnesses.

Keywords: children, evidence, child testimony, criminal law, admissibility, developmental psychology, courts, criminal procedure, child witnesses

JEL Classification: K14, K41, K49, K19, K39

Suggested Citation

McLain, Lynn, 'Sweet Childish Days': Using Developmental Psychology Research in Evaluating the Admissibility of Out-of-Court Statements by Young Children (2010). Maine Law Review, Fall 2011, University of Baltimore School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2011-12, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1804212

Lynn McLain (Contact Author)

University of Baltimore - School of Law ( email )

1420 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
United States

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