Can children speak the truth?

Nov 4, 1998 at 12:00 am

In the late 1980s, a rash of allegations of child sex abuse rings awakened America to the prevalence of child sex abuse. But as cases wound through the courts, questions about children's testimony became central. How accurately can they recount the horrors of sexual abuse? How open are they to suggestions from hysterical parents or zealous police investigators?

Studies show that in the majority of cases children are able to truthfully testify against their abusers. But especially when the children are preschoolers, research says that improper questioning can elicit false and elaborate stories of satanism, bestiality and sex abuse from the most innocent of children. Overreliance on such testimony -- and the failure to electronically document the interviews for examination in open court -- can lead to the conviction of innocent people and the traumatization of innocent children.

When news of a large child sex abuse ring broke last year in Ypsilanti Township, we watched with interest as police built a case against 10 adults based largely upon the testimony of four children. We decided to attend the trial of one of the defendants, Donald Lee, to see how the testimony of one child witness played out.

The experience was at times an emotional quagmire that often raised more questions that it answered.