The sexual assault case of a three-year-old girl that drew national attention last year and again recently has sparked debate on two issues — the credibility of young victims and proof of lack of consent.
In cases of sexual abuse, the child is often the only source of evidence that the crime occurred. Thus the child’s testimony is the most important evidence in the case. In developed countries such as the US and the UK, child victims are usually interviewed by police officers or social workers who have been specially trained to conduct interviews with children.
A huge amount of research shows that young children can provide detailed and accurate statements if they are interviewed properly. For example, trained police officers usually follow guidelines specially designed for children where the interviewer asks simple, “child-friendly” questions that are age appropriate and more likely to obtain accurate information.
In the case of the sexual abuse of the three-year-old girl, the Taiwan High Court ruled that the girl’s testimony was not substantiated by crime scene and medical evidence. The question we need to ask is: Was the quality of the girl’s testimony poor because of bad interviewing by the police officer?
It is unreasonable for the court to assume that a three-year-old girl is as capable as a teenager or an adult in describing her experience. Instead, we should question how the interview was conducted. Did the police officer ask questions that are too difficult for a three-year-old to understand? Did the interviewer prepare the child for interviewing by explaining the purpose of the interview and building rapport with the child? The court should question the quality of the interview before ruling that the child is an unreliable witness.
The court also ruled that the prosecutors failed to prove that the act was committed against the child’s will because she had not cried nor complained after the alleged crime. What the court failed to consider is that most children do not understand what sexual abuse is and therefore do not recognize inappropriate touches. If the three-year-old girl did not know she was being abused, it is not surprising if she did not indicate resistance.
According to the law in most developed nations, an adult having sexual intercourse with a minor below the legal age of consent constitutes statutory rape, based on the principle that a minor is not capable of consent and that any apparent consent by a minor could not be considered legal consent. The fact that proof of lack of consent is still required by law in Taiwan is a gross oversight of children’s vulnerabilities and a violation of their rights.
The conclusion that can be made from all the arguments about this case is that anyone dealing with child victims should have some training in child psychology. Police officers and social workers that interview child victims must be properly trained so they understand what children are capable of explaining, and what they cannot, as well as the types of questions they should ask to obtain the most detailed and accurate information. This is especially important for developmentally disabled children.
Forensic interviewing training should be a compulsory component in police and social work training. We should protect the rights of children who have been abused and help them provide the testimony needed to bring offenders to justice.
Teoh Yee-San has a doctorate from the University of Cambridge and is now in the department of psychology at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.
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