The Utility of Direct Questions in Eliciting Subjective Content from Children Disclosing Sexual Abuse

37 Pages Posted: 4 Mar 2019

See all articles by Stacia Stolzenberg

Stacia Stolzenberg

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

Shanna Williams

University of Southern California

Kelly McWilliams

City University of New York - John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Catherine Liang

University of Southern California Gould School of Law

Thomas D. Lyon

University of Southern California Gould School of Law

Date Written: March 1, 2019

Abstract

Background: Children alleging sexual abuse rarely exhibit emotion when disclosing, but they may be able to describe their subjective reactions to abuse if asked.

Objective: This study examined the extent to which different types of questions in child sexual abuse interviews elicited subjective content, namely emotional reactions, cognitive content, and physical sensations.

Participants and Setting: The study included transcripts of 205 Child Advocacy Center interviews with 4- to 12-year-old children alleging sexual abuse.

Methods: We coded questions for question type, distinguishing among invitations, wh- questions, yes/no and forced-choice questions, and suggestive questions. We coded both questions and answers for whether they referenced subjective content.

Results: When questions did not reference subjective content, the most productive questions were invitations, though they elicited subjective content less than 5% of the time. When questions specifically referenced subjective content, children were likely to explicitly mention such content, particularly in response to “how feel” and “what think” questions. Children’s responsiveness and productivity was enhanced by requests to elaborate on their subjective responses, and both emotional and physical reactions could be elicited. There was little evidence of non-responsiveness or counter intuitive reactions to abuse. Younger children were less likely than older children to provide subjective responses to questions that did not reference subjective content, but were no less likely to do so when asked questions with subjective content.

Conclusions: Children, even young children, can be successfully encouraged to provide subjective content about sexual abuse, particularly when free recall questions are supplemented with “how feel” or “what think” questions.

Keywords: sexual abuse, disclosure, subjective reactions, emotions

Suggested Citation

Stolzenberg, Stacia and Williams, Shanna and McWilliams, Kelly and Liang, Catherine and Lyon, Thomas D., The Utility of Direct Questions in Eliciting Subjective Content from Children Disclosing Sexual Abuse (March 1, 2019). Forthcoming, Child Abuse & Neglect; USC CLASS Research Papers Series No. CLASS19-8; USC Legal Studies Research Papers Series No. 19-8. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3345237

Stacia Stolzenberg (Contact Author)

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

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

Shanna Williams

University of Southern California ( email )

2250 Alcazar Street
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States

Kelly McWilliams

City University of New York - John Jay College of Criminal Justice ( email )

524 W 59th St
New York, NY 10019
United States

Catherine Liang

University of Southern California Gould School of Law ( email )

Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States

Thomas D. Lyon

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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