Thomas Lyon, USC professor of law and psychology, has been awarded a $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study why maltreated children are reluctant to disclose their abuse.
The goal of the research, Lyon said, is to find ways to encourage children to reveal truthful information without increasing the risks of suggestibility of influence.
“Most research on child witnesses in the past 15 years has emphasized the risks of false allegations caused by suggestive questioning,” Lyon said. “What has been neglected are problems that come up when truly abused children are reluctant to disclose their abuse. The reasons may be that they are afraid, embarrassed or simply immature.”
Research has found that most adults who disclose childhood abuse never mentioned the incidents to anyone as a child. Abused children, who later testify, are often discredited in court because of inconsistencies and reticence in talking about the abuse.
Lyon � along with Jodi Quas, an associate professor of psychology at UC Irvine, and Kang Lee, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto � will examine honesty in maltreated children in several phases:
The first phase will examine maltreated children’s understanding of truth and lies and factors that may influence disclosure. In part, this research will contribute to legal methods for determining children’s competency to testify.
The researchers will determine the developmental trajectory of children’s conceptions of the morality and consequences of disclosure and non-disclosure. For example, the researchers will examine whether and at what age children believe that promises to keep secrets for adults should be kept, even if the secret involves wrongdoing by the adult.
The second phase will examine maltreated children’s truth-telling under various conditions in order to determine what influences children to disclose information. For example, the team of professors will follow up on research they have conducted in which maltreated children were more likely to reveal secrets when they promised to tell the truth and were reassured that telling would not get them into trouble.
The third and fourth phases of the research will examine whether maltreated children’s true and false narratives can be discriminated by analysis of the children’s verbal and nonverbal behavior, including their facial expressions and body language, and whether lay people or professionals can differentiate children who are disclosing truthfully from children who are either concealing information or providing false information.
In all phases, the performance of abused children will be compared to non-maltreated children to determine whether the maltreated children’s life experiences lead them to think or behave differently.
The interdisciplinary research program integrates developmental psychology and the law in order to make recommendations for practice.
Lyon is actively engaged in training social workers, attorneys and other professionals how to interview children using research-based methods proven to both increase the amount of information children can provide and minimize suggestibility.
“The results of this research, in addition to contributing to our understanding of child development and the effects of maltreatment, will have enormous practical value in helping professionals develop the most sensitive means for questioning children about topics that are usually kept secret, but are of essential value to the law,” Lyon said.
“Children are too often silenced by abuse,” he said. “Our goal is find the safest means for them to speak.”