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Researcher Deirdre Brown. Photo/Robert Cross/Supplied

The Kiwi researcher trying to improve the reliability of child testimony

Deirdre Brown of the Victoria University of Wellington is at the forefront of efforts to improve the questioning of children and identify false memories.

Deirdre Brown, a senior lecturer in psychology at Victoria University of Wellington, was a first-year student when the Peter Ellis case blew up. “It highlighted how important it was that we understood what children bring to the table, what interviewers bring to the table and how that combination can produce good information or not-good information,” she says. “And the stakes are really high.”

Brown began to look in depth at children’s memories of stressful events during her honours degree, under supervisor Margaret-Ellen Pipe, a pioneer of children’s testimony research in New Zealand and now a professor of psychology at City University of New York.

After a Marsden Fund grant in 2014, Brown, in collaboration with co-researchers Michael Lamb of Cambridge University and Charles Brainerd of Cornell University, asked whether children’s memories would be different if they’d personally experienced an event and whether those recollections were more or less accurate depending on age. Until then, the research that courts relied on to show they should not discount the memories of young children involved memory tasks – using lists of words, for example. In those tests, older children were more likely to make mistakes than younger ones.

Read more: Child testimony: Could the Peter Ellis case happen again?

Brown set up a health examination for children aged five to 13 that included checking their ears, vision, glands, throat and temperature, but deliberately left out one key element – having their heart and lungs checked with a stethoscope. The researchers wanted to find out whether the children, when asked a couple of days later to recount what had happened during the check, would say that they’d had the stethoscope test when they hadn’t, and whether their memories were more accurate the older they got.

In general, says Brown, the children didn’t make mistakes very often. Of the 346 children studied, only 45 (13%) falsely and spontaneously responded that they’d had their heart and lungs checked.

But when asked specifically whether they had been checked with a stethoscope, 46% agreed that they had. And it was the younger children who were more likely to agree – the opposite of the word-test findings. She acknowledges the limitation that plagues this research – an innocent health check is not sexual abuse – but says children would be even less likely to (spontaneously) falsely report something more significant.

Brown has since received a further $840,000 from the Marsden Fund to examine children’s false memories of events they had experienced and the best ways to question children in criminal and welfare investigations.

This article was first published in the September 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.