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Dataset Details

Sensitively Assessing Children's Testimonial Competence

Dataset Number: 81


Investigator(s)

Saywitz, Karen

Abstract

Most courts require that all witnesses take an oath, or at least "promise" to tell the truth when testifying. To appreciate the oath, a witness must understand the difference between truths and lies, as well as his or her obligation to tell the truth. The courts, therefore, routinely question child witnesses regarding their understanding of truth and lies before allowing them to testify. This research project examines the most sensitive means by which to measure children's competency to take an oath.

Researchers conducted six studies using 475 children ages 4 to 7 years old. Two groups of children were tested: one group (352 children) were maltreated children under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County juvenile court, and the other group (123 children) were nonreferred children attending a university preschool. In each study the children were interviewed and tested by an examiner who gave them questions to answer and tasks to perform. The results show that

  1. young maltreated child witnesses exhibit serious delays in receptive and productive vocabulary
  2. the children's understanding of the meaning and morality of lying depends on how they are asked to demonstrate their understanding
  3. despite weak vocabularies, most maltreated children understand the meaning and morality of lying by age 5
  4. young child witnesses may not understand the request "promise to tell the truth".

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