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Many Problems with Child Witnesses Are Likely Here to Stay

As some cases have shown, there can be many problems with witness testimonies. Often, these issues start with investigators. For example, officers may have administered an unfair photo identification or lineup or asked a witness leading questions. Sometimes, other things cause problems, such as dim lighting or a cross-racial identification, to name two scenarios. Once in a while, a witness outright lies.

And then there are child witnesses. They bring their own host of problems, and traditional witness issues are frequently magnified. For one thing, it can be easier to lead a child witness than an adult witness. These issues are not necessarily good for criminal defense. Some law enforcement agencies use specialists trained in interviewing children, but smaller or more rural municipalities may not have immediate access to that kind of resource.

Language problems

Children rarely have an "adult" grasp on language. That is, they may have a hard time accurately expressing themselves. What happened, who was present, and how and when things occurred can all be vague or confusingly explained, and law enforcement authorities do not always do their due diligence in communicating with children on their level. Children may struggle to understand adult terms and questions. This can be especially true for children with some disorders.

Power Imbalance

Even though children may not have an adult grasp on language, many do grasp what could happen if they are completely honest about what happened. Their first priority may be helping someone, perhaps a parent, or ensuring that a family stays together. Maybe they have been abused, and they are too scared to say anything bad about their abuser or someone they like.

The story changes

Once something a witness says is on the record, credibility problems are likely to occur if the witness later wants to change some aspect of a story, and a child witness can have a harder time explaining why the story has changed. Suppose a child said first that it was her neighbor Joe who burgled the apartment. If he or she says two weeks later that it was her Uncle Robert, authorities may have difficulty getting a judge or jury to accept the new statement. In fact, some children change their accounting of events many times. This can be due to a genuine misidentification or to leading the witness, intimidation and other tactics.

In any criminal case, it is essential to have good counsel. An experienced and capable defense attorney can review potential problems regarding statements by witnesses and take appropriate measures.