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Sex abuse: direct approach may aid recall.

A new study suggests that sexually abused children may best remember whether their genital area had been touched by an adult if asked directly about such experiences with the help of an anatomically detailed doll. Moreover, children show considerable resistance to the types of misleading questions that may inadvertently crop up in sexual abuse investigations, maintain psychologist Karen J. Saywitz of Harbor-University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center in Torrance and her colleagues.

Their study, published in the October JOURNAL OF CONSULTING AND CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY, represents a rare attempt to develop guidelines for obtaining information about sexual abuse from children, based on an analysis of youngsters' memories for a real-life situation -- genital touching by a pediatrician during a routine medical exam.

Such instances differ considerably from actual cases of child sexual abuse, caution Saywitz and her co-workers. In addition, questions about sexual abuse usually occur within repeated clinical interviews and stressful cross-examinations in the courtroom. Nevertheless, these data suggest that mental health clinicians and lawyers should not resort to direct questions about specific forms of abuse only as a last measure in sex abuse cases involving children, they contend.

"Our results indicate that although there is a risk of increased [memory] error with doll-aided direct questions, there is an even greater risk that not asking about [genital] touch leaves the majority of such touch unreported," the researchers conclude.

In actual sexual abuse evaluations, police officers or lawyers often first ask children general questions about what happened, then give them anatomically detailed dolls or other props to act out the incident, and finally ask specific -- and sometimes misleading -- questions about genital touching and sexual behavior.

Saywitz's group studied 72 girls, half of them 5 years old and half age 7. In each age group, half the girls received a standard medical check-up conducted by a female pediatrician with their mothers present, including a vaginal and anal examination. The remaining girls underwent the same procedure without vaginal or anal touching. Either one week or one month later, experimenters asked half of each group to report what the physician did to them through free call of the visit, with demonstrations using an anatomically detailed doll, and in response to direct and misleading questions.

Only eight of 36 children who underwent the genital exam remembered vaginal touching through free recall and six through doll demonstrations; four children correctly reported anal touch in free recall and in demonstrations. No children in the untouched group recalled or demonstrated that genital touch had occurred.

In contrast, 31 girls who received a genital exam disclosed vaginal touch in response to an interviewer's direct question accompanied by pointing to the doll's vaginal area. When asked direct questions, 25 girls in the same group reported anal touch. One child in the other group falsely reported vaginal touch under direct questioning, and two youngsters falsely reported anal touch.

Older children displayed better memory after one week than their younger counterparts, but this difference disappeared after one month.

Children made few errors in response to misleading questions (such as "How many times did the doctor kiss you?"), but younger children showed a greater tendency to err when misled.

Children's reports of when the exam occurred and the pediatrician's age and height achieved greater accuracy when the interviewer used age-appropriate questions, such as "Is the doctor old enough to be a mommy?"
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Title Annotation:asking children about sexual abuse
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 19, 1991
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