November 14, 2016 – Victim Age and Disclosure

Teresa HuizarGood morning and happy Monday.  I hope this finds everyone well.  I realize that all of us spend an immense amount of time not only conducting forensic interviews, but also thinking and talking about them and examining them from every possible perspective.  So today I bear that in mind as I ask you to focus on them yet again, but I believe that a new study out of Australia merits raising the issue once more. 

The article, published in Child Maltreatment, is titled “The Relationship between Children’s Age and Disclosures of Sexual Abuse During Forensic Interviews.” [1]  And while this may seem like ground that’s been covered before, the researchers actually examined the relationship in different, and informative, ways.  They not only looked at the linear relationship between age and disclosure, but they also examined the relationship within the context of additional variables likely to affect disclosure, “such as child-suspect relationship, as well as characteristics that have not been previously examined but may influence disclosure:  suspects’ histories of violence and sexual assault.”  Id., p. 2.   

To do so, the researchers examined data gathered from a police case management database of children ages 3-16 years with a report of at least one sexual offense in the 12 months of 2011.  This resulted in a pool of 527 cases, “of these, 466 (88.4%) children had a forensic interview and 61 (11.6%) refused the interview.”  Id., p. 4.  And, “[o]f the 527 cases, 348 (66.0%) had at least one form of corroborating evidence….” Id

The findings of the study showed that “[o]verall, 81% of children disclosed at least one incident of child sexual abuse in the forensic interview.”  Id.  And, not surprisingly, they found that age did indeed have “significant relationships with children’s disclosures during forensic interviews – both alone and in interactions with other case characteristics.”  Id., p. 6.  So, for instance, while they found that disclosures increased with age, they also found the picture to be somewhat more nuanced:  “disclosures increased with age from 3 up to 11 years, then decreased to 16 years.”  Id

Moreover, they found “five interactions between age and other case characteristics on disclosure.”  Id.  For example, they found that the “interaction between age and relationship suggest that when the abuse was intrafamilial, the youngest children had the lowest rate of disclosure; this rate of disclosure increased with age.”  Id.  They also found that, “for children who did not disclose before the forensic interview, disclosures increased with age.”  Id., p. 7.  But, for children who had disclosed before the interview, “younger children and adolescents were less likely to disclose during the forensic interview than school-age children.”  Id.  Finally, they found that “[t]he interaction between age and violence history indicated that when suspects had convictions for violent offenses, school-age children were most likely to disclose, followed by adolescents and younger children.”  Id., p. 8. 

The article offers alternative explanations and theories for each of the findings.  For instance, in discussing the interaction between a child’s age and either having disclosed or not having disclosed prior to the interview, the researchers posit that “younger children who previously disclosed may not have disclosed again during the forensic interview due to the formality of the setting…. Second, the interview situation may not have supported younger children’s recall as much as older children’s.”  Id., p. 7. 

But of even greater interest than their explanations are the implications they identify for future research and practice.  For example, they note that “[t]he current results may be used to identify groups of children who may be particularly vulnerable to case attrition – whether it occurs through children recanting, refusing to cooperate, or investigators not proceeding – due to low disclosure rates.  One such group was adolescents who were abused by a suspect with a history of violent offending….” Id., p. 9.  To identify those cases, “investigators may need to regularly review the suspect’s history of violence prior to an investigative interview.”  Id.  Moreover, “this may indicate that investigators should spend more time building rapport with adolescents and taking steps to ensure their physical safety.”  Id.

And while it is always true that investigators and interviewers should use the findings to consider whether “children from particular age ranges may benefit from targeted interventions to support their disclosures in forensic interviews, depending on the specific circumstances of the suspected abuse,” id., this study gives specific information that can help us focus in on which children need what kinds of interventions.  So I urge you to download this article and share it with your colleagues and team members.  The more we can fit our interviews to our children’s needs, the more everyone will benefit from the services we provide.

 As always, I thank you for all your hard work and dedication and for all that you do on behalf of children and families.

Warm regards,  
[1] Full text of this publication may be found in the National Children's Advocacy Center's Child Abuse Library Online (CALiO ™) or by contacting the NCAC Research Digital Information Librarian. CALiO ™ is a service of the National Children's Advocacy Center (NCAC). | 516 C Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002 US

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