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Professor to Pursue Research on Maltreated Children

Professor to Pursue Research on Maltreated Children
USC Gould School of Law professor Thomas Lyon

The National Institute of Child Health and Development has awarded USC Gould School of Law professor Thomas Lyon a $2 million grant to refine and test the protocol he developed to interview maltreated children about their abuse – a method he developed with the previous support of a $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The new five-year grant comes on the heels of Lyon completing NIH-supported research on maltreated children’s reluctance to disclose their abuse. Bolstering the work is Lyon’s unparalleled access to thousands of maltreated children under the Los Angeles Juvenile Court’s jurisdiction and successful recruitment of comparable non-maltreated children.

Working with researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Toronto, Lyon perfected a protocol that encourages children to reveal truthful information without increasing the risks of suggestibility or influence. Two California agencies that train forensic interviewers and law enforcement statewide have adopted the protocol.

“We’re now devising new methods for increasing children’s willingness to disclose and studying how different types of questions either suppress details or lead to false reports,” Lyon said. “We will take these studies into the field to test the efficacy of approaches we’ve perfected in the lab.”

Lyon’s recent research demonstrates that legal approaches to qualifying children to testify are unnecessarily difficult and fail to predict whether children will testify honestly. He also has identified a simplified means of qualifying children to testify, which attorneys can use in court.

“Some legal authorities feel children are too suggestible and that you can’t believe them, while others argue that abused children are too scared to disclose,” Lyon said. “We’ve shown that a promise to tell the truth increases children’s honesty and that the right kind of rapport-building increases children’s productivity. We’re now working on other methods to improve their performance. Our goal is to establish evidence-based best practices for facilitating disclosure while avoiding false allegations.”

Lyon is holder of the Judge Edward J. and Ruey L. Guirado Chair in Law and Psychology at USC Gould. He is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School who earned his Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Stanford University.

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