How Attorneys Question Children About the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse and Disclosure in Criminal Trials

13 Pages Posted: 30 Oct 2015 Last revised: 6 Nov 2015

See all articles by Stacia Stolzenberg

Stacia Stolzenberg

Arizona State University (ASU) - School of Criminology & Criminal Justice

Thomas D. Lyon

University of Southern California Gould School of Law

Date Written: 2014

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.

Keywords: child sexual abuse, disclosure, children's textimony

Suggested Citation

Stolzenberg, Stacia and Lyon, Thomas D., How Attorneys Question Children About the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse and Disclosure in Criminal Trials (2014). 20 Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 20 (2014); USC Law Legal Studies Paper No. 15-34; USC CLASS Research Paper No. CLASS15-32. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2682830

Stacia Stolzenberg

Arizona State University (ASU) - School of Criminology & Criminal Justice ( email )

411 N. Central Avenue
Phoenix, AZ Arizona 85004
United States
6024960495 (Phone)

Thomas D. Lyon (Contact Author)

University of Southern California Gould School of Law ( email )

699 Exposition Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States
213-740-0142 (Phone)
213-740-5502 (Fax)

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