Questioning the Child Witness
July 14, 2016 § 1 Comment
Children are often called as witnesses in chancery court. It should go without saying that some children, due to various factors, have to be handled gingerly in how they are questioned. Age, emotional maturity, emotional content of the testimony, education and cognitive development, and the courtroom environment all affect a child’s effectiveness as a witness. Other factors may as well.
The Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi have published a booklet entitled A Guidebook for Accommodating Children in Court that includes some helpful information on the subject. Here are some key points:
- Use simple grammar and concrete words; the child can better understand the questions.
- Children have a right to be asked questions they understand and should be informed that they should let the court know if they do not understand. Even so, some children may be reluctant to admit they do not understand if they think it is a question that they should understand, and some children may think they understand the question when they really do not. Every now and then a check question like “What do you think I just asked you?” may help make sure there is no misunderstanding.
- Children use the vocabulary they have. For instance, a child may describe having been “stabbed” in an episode when there was no knife used or even present; what the child is describing is what the experience felt like, because there are no other words in his or her vocabulary for it.
- Young children may not organize their thoughts logically, and often have limited understanding of space and time.
- To promote more accurate answers, use common, everyday words and phrases, and avoid legal words and jargon such as attorney, deny, subsequent to, take the witness stand, court (in reference to the judge), allegation, defendant, statement, oath, testify.
- Use names and places instead of pronouns and adverbs. Instead of “Was he there then?” ask “Was John at the apartment when you arrived?” Instead of “Were they all there?” ask “Were your mom, aunt Sue, and your brother Bill at the park with you?”
- Negative questions are most often misinterpreted. Avoid no, not, and never in your questions. “Did you go into the house?” is better than “Did you not go into the house?” And avoid double negatives.
- Start questions off with the main idea. “Did you hear the bell go off when you were eating with your family?” is more effective than “When you were eating with your family, did you hear the bell go off?”
- Avoid multi-part and multi-idea questions.
- Pausing is productive. Pausing between phrases, sentences, and after questions allows children to process their thoughts, which aids comprehension for more accurate communication.
- Cultural and ethnic differences can lead to differences in demeanor on the witness stand. Native Americans, for instance, may have long pauses in communication that can be incorrectly interpreted negatively.
If you can get a copy of this booklet, I think you will find it helpful. CAC’s address is P. O. Box 5348, Jackson, MS, 39296. Phone 601-940-6183. Their website is at this link.