Alleged child sexual abuse : The expert witness and the court

University dissertation from Stockholm : Karolinska Institutet, Department of Public Health Sciences

Abstract: Background During the past decades, the evaluation of alleged sexual abuse has manifested itself as a major challenge for professionals working within the field of child maltreatment. A new role for psychologists and psychiatrists has been to give expert opinions regarding the credibility and reliability of child witnesses in legal proceedings. Although some aspects of evaluating suspected sexual abuse cases are close to traditional clinical work, other aspects necessitate new kinds of empirical and theoretical knowledge. Consulted experts have sometimes been accused of not meeting the new and different demands connected to such assignments. Professional efforts to determine whether a child has been the victim of sexual abuse or not has been the focus of an ongoing and heated debate in popular as well as scientific media. The overall aim of this study was to systematically explore how expert witnesses consulted in legal cases concerning alleged child sexual abuse have performed their task and collaborated with the courts. Method The study was based on reviews of court files and written expert testimony (mainly focusing psychological expert testimony). Data from 800 court cases of alleged child sexual abuse was included (all cases from Swedish district courts during four different years; 1985, 1989, 1992 and 1997). A combination of quantitative and qualitative methods were applied. Results The participation of expert witnesses decreased during the study period, from 25% of the cases (1985 and 1989) to 15% (1992) and 6% (1997). Logistic regression analyses showed that psychological expert participation was significantly associated with cases with young victims (< 7 years of age), cases with intra-familial abuse, and cases in which the suspect denied the charges (Paper I). The findings of the second study indicated that there have been communicative difficulties between expert witnesses and the courts. It appeared as if certain basic prerequisites for reaching a level of meaningful communication were not always achieved. Such prerequisites included a legally relevant focus for the expert's evaluation, a mutual understanding of certain central concepts, and a thorough description of the expert's reasoning, which would allow the court to review and analyse the expert's conclusions. The concept of 'quality' with regard to written psychological expert testimony (formal structure and content) was systematically approached in the third study, through the development of a reliable 12-item assessment tool (Structured Quality assessment of eXpert witness testimony [SQX-121, Paper III). In the fourth study, this assessment tool was applied on 121 (all available) expert witness reports from four different years, focusing the credibility or reliability of the child witness. Although the quality assessments according to the SQX- 12 improved over the study period, the results indicated that testimony concerning alleged child sexual abuse failed to follow many of the recommended standards. Expert reports produced by professionals applying statement analysis usually scored higher on the SQX-12 than did those written by more clinically oriented professionals. Published guidelines appeared to have had limited influence on actual practice (Paper IV). Professionals applying statement analysis as an assessment tool varied with regard to what features of the child's statements were emphasised and how such characteristics were evaluated. Special difficulties were connected to the interpretation of 'low quality' statements (Paper V). Conclusions The results of the study illustrates various complex aspects of the evaluation of alleged child sexual abuse in a legal context. Different interventions are discussed and suggestions are given for further development of collaboration between psychological experts and the courts. In addition to an apparent need for improved quality with regard to written psychological testimony, other major issues concern how experts can provide the courts with legally relevant information, and how courts can makeuse of complex expert knowledge and still uphold the integrity of the legal process.

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