Eyewitnesses are no longer the beacons of truth people once thought they were. For example, when stressful and unexpected situations unfold quickly, it is unrealistic to expect people to remember details well. Yet that was exactly what happened for many years. On the other hand, quite a few people have always approached the accounts of child witnesses with some skepticism, and today, the credibility problems of young witnesses are even more well-known.
Whereas mentally competent adults of average intelligence can communicate well, clarifying their thoughts and differentiating from fact and opinion, many children cannot do the same. This is true even with bright children; they are still developing the means to communicate, and their brains have a way to go. Now insert them into a high-pressure situation where adults are asking questions, many of which are complicated and in language they do not understand. The potential for miscommunication is huge, especially when interviewers have little or no rapport with a child.
Children are often interviewed at bad times. In general, the best time to speak with an elementary-age child about, say, an alleged sex crime is during the day when he or she is used to being in school to work and to focus. Instead, many children are interviewed after school when they would typically be playing, eating or even sleeping. Restlessness, hunger and drowsiness are just three of the many factors that can undermine the accuracy of an interview.
Children and adults see the world differently. A child may have watched a violent situation unfold but without accurate understanding of vocabulary terms and behaviors, have an entirely skewed take on it. Children may use the wrong words or misleading words because they simply do not know the correct language. Then there is priming; a parent or other adult may think he or she knows what happened and ask the child leading questions.
A child may be afraid of the consequences if he or she is truthful. Sometimes, they are not what adults expect. For instance, a child could be scared of having to move across the country or of losing a parent if he or she tells the truth, something that might never occur to a questioner.
Children are becoming more common in courtrooms. While many jurisdictions have improved the way in which they deal with younger witnesses, their credibility is far from secure, especially given the overall problems with eyewitnesses. If you are accused of a crime and there is a child witness, speaking with an attorney may help ensure your fair treatment.