Science of child abuse, its media presentation, and forensic considerations

Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Seattle, 12-16 February 2004.
Symposium 15 Feb 2004, 9:00-10:30 AM

Symposium Track: Responsible Science and 21st-Century Dilemmas

Organizer: Jennifer J. Freyd, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, 97403. Phone: 541/346-4950, fax: 541/346-4911, email: AAAS Fellow, Section J, Psychology,

Co-Organizer: Kathy Pezdek. Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Claremont Graduate University, 123 East Eighth Street, Claremont, CA 91711-3955. Phone/fax: 909/621-6900. email:


Symposium Synopsis

The study of child abuse, and the larger domain of trauma research, is inherently among the most political of research endeavors. Trauma studies intersect with many of the most controversial social issues of modern times. The role of trauma in our culture, particularly intergenerational violence and sexual abuse, rape, incest, and domestic violence touch deeply held beliefs and values in all of us. In addition, the study of trauma leads us into larger legal, social, and cultural questions, the meaning of violence in our society, and even varying cultural and religious views about human sexuality, the nature of the family, and the relationship between men and women.

We will examine the methodological approaches taken in some of the research in this area: its applicability and its limitations to understanding child abuse and trauma, including the way researchers frame their research questions, the way this research is presented to the media, and the way the media portrays this research. The presenters will also discuss how and why trends in scientific research, and the media presentation of this work, can foster disbelief in reports by victims, discount the experiences of real victims of sexual abuse, and create opportunities for misuse of research results in forensic contexts.



image: Jennifer Freyd

Misleading and Confusing Media Portrayals of Memory Research

Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD, Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon

Freyd is the moderator of this symposium. In her opening remarks she will comment on errors often made in coverage of research on memory for childhood abuse. These errors include imprecise use of terms and the conflating of conceptually distinct aspects of human memory. Freyd will suggest tools for clarifying the scientific issues, with the goal of promoting the advancement of science in this area, and with the goal of promoting the constructive and appropriate application of research results.
Handout: Misleading and Confusing Media Portrayals of Memory Research


image: Ross Cheit

Confidentiality and Problems Verifying Claims about Children’s Testimony

Ross E. Cheit, PhD, JD, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, Brown University

There is an obvious and recognized need to protect the identities of children testifying in child abuse cases. Most states provide basic protections aimed at protecting the names, addresses and phone numbers of alleged victims in these cases. Some state statutes protect the court record more broadly. Trial court judges also have the authority to issue protective orders seeking to seal sensitive evidence, particularly audio or videotapes of child interviews. Neither the literal effectiveness of these protections nor their broader consequences, intended and otherwise, have received much scholarly attention. This paper argues that some of the most intensely publicized cases—cases where privacy protections are simultaneously most relevant and most severely challenged—suggest serious cause for concern. Court orders have routinely been violated in high-profile cases, leaving the intended beneficiaries of these rules (children) with little or no protection. Despite these breaches in privacy, the scholarship about children’s testimony is surprisingly difficult to scrutinize. In the name of protecting anonymity, standards of scholarship in this area have suffered. Ironically, efforts to protect children’s privacy in criminal proceedings have apparently helped insulate a body of scholarship that unduly favors the defense position in these cases.
Handout: Confidentiality and Problems Verifying Claims about Children's Testimony


image: Frank Putnam

The Costs and Consequences of Child Abuse

Frank W. Putnam, MD, Professor of Pediatrics and Child Psychiatry at Children's Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati, OH.

The long term consequences of childhood maltreatment are often regarded as 'merely psychological' and therefore frequently dismissed as essentially inconsequential in terms of physical health and economic costs. Recent research, however, has identified significant impacts on physical health as well as dramatically increasing an individual's risk for costly disabling mental disorders such as major depression and suicide. It is now documented that childhood maltreatment and related adverse childhood experiences make a substantial contribution to many of our leading public health problems. Among these are drug and alcohol abuse, AIDS, tobacco use (heart disease and lung cancer), and major depression. Research is also providing evidence that child maltreatment results in dysregulation of neuroendocrine stress response systems and impairs early brain development. Although a rigorous economic analysis remains to be done, informed estimates of the costs of child maltreatment range from $50 - 100 billion dollar annually. Several child abuse prevention programs have proven their effectiveness, although results to date remain modest. Investment in child abuse prevention and early intervention research could have a substantial impact on several of the most costly public health problems facing the United States.
Handout: The Costs and Consequences of Child Abuse.


image: Thomas Lyon

Stranger danger and the false denial of sexual abuse

Thomas D. Lyon, J.D., Ph.D., Professor, USC Law School

Media coverage of stranger child abductions may distort public perceptions regarding the risks of child sexual abuse. Stranger abductions are popular in the media precisely because they are so rare, whereas sexual abuse by people familiar to the victim is quite common. The virtue of media coverage, however, is that close analysis of some high-profile cases reveals that victims and perpetrators are often involved in more mundane abuse that has gone undetected or was not believed. Stranger abductions that can be proven enable the public to accept and believe the familiar abuse that had been overlooked.
Handout: Stranger Danger and the False Denial of Intrafamilial Sexual Abuse,


image: Kathy Pezdek

False Memory Research: A Study in Problematic Research Paradigms

Kathy Pezdek. Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Claremont Graduate University

Kathy Pezdek is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Applied Cognitive Psychology program at Claremont Graduate University. As discussant of this symposium, she will identify cross-cutting themes in the papers presented. From her point of view as a cognitive psychologist, Pezdek will also discuss current methodological trends in cognitive psychology research that may sometimes have the effect of trivializing real memories of abuse victims.
Handout: False Memory Research: A Study in Problematic Research Paradigms