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Distributed February, 2004
Contact Kristen Cole

Privacy protections for children often fail in sexual abuse cases

Violations of privacy protections often occur in the most intensely publicized child abuse cases, says Ross E. Cheit, associate professor of political science and public policy. As a result, children can be further victimized by false reports about their testimony. Cheit presented his findings Sunday, Feb. 15, 2004, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting.

SEATTLE, Wash. — Instead of insulating children from media inquiries and defense arguments, court orders to protect the privacy of young complainants involved in criminal proceedings often prove faulty, says a Brown researcher. Serious problems in confidentiality provisions need to be corrected to ensure the anonymity of children after criminal sexual abuse trials, when false reports about cases sometimes occur.

Although most states have statutes aimed at protecting the names, addresses and telephone numbers of child complainants in sexual abuse cases, trial court edicts have been violated after a case goes on appeal because appellate court clerks do not always enforce the protective orders or are simply unaware of them, according to Ross E. Cheit, associate professor of political science and public policy.

Cheit presented his research on “Confidentiality and Problems Verifying Claims about Children’s Testimony” as part of a panel titled the “Science of Child Abuse” at 9 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 15, 2004, during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Seattle.

One way children are victimized is the promulgation of erroneous media coverage and scholarship on their cases, Cheit said. Inaccurate scholarship on a case can be particularly difficult to disprove because of the very privacy protections set in place to protect children. Privacy protections often create a shield behind which reporters or defense-friendly sources can find protection.

“Confidentiality provisions intended to protect children have had the perverse consequence of insulating scholarship that unfairly impugns children,” Cheit said.

Cheit cites recent examples of questionable reporting about sexual abuse cases in both an academic journal and popular media. One example is a review article about child suggestibility in the peer-reviewed journal, Developmental Review. The author includes three case studies, each a short paragraph in length, as examples of suggestive questioning in child sexual abuse cases, but does not identify the sources, said Cheit.

A related example is the Oscar-nominated movie Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary film about a sexual abuse case that leaves the impression the defendants were unjustly found guilty. While giving the Friedman family members time to present a defense, the movie presents only one of the 13 boys who were part of the criminal complaint.

“Is this man representative of the other complainants in the case? Or, alternatively, does the movie highlight the least persuasive of the complainants and omit the most persuasive ones?” Cheit asked in his paper. “It is impossible to answer the question because the names of these men are protected by state law, making it difficult or impossible to identify, let alone interview, them.”

Some of the most influential writings about child suggestibility – the idea that an interviewer can plant memories in a child’s mind by suggesting untrue ideas – include references to the court proceedings without citations that would allow a researcher to verify the claims, said Cheit.

Violations of child privacy protections can be either innocent or deliberate, according to Cheit. In Rhode Island, for example, strict rules protecting children’s privacy are routinely violated in defense briefs on appeal. The state and the court meticulously use the youngsters’ initials only, but defense lawyers frequently file briefs using full names, he said.

In other cases, however, protective orders have been deliberately violated. Videotaped interviews with children in several of the best-known child sexual abuse cases from the 1980s were leaked to defense-friendly sources, Cheit said. Whether violations of privacy protections are innocent or deliberate, children can be victimized after a verdict is rendered if biased sources have identifying information about children involved in a sexual abuse case.

Cheit recommends barring publication of claims about court testimony when they do not provide a way for independent scholars to scrutinize the claims. An attorney and scholar, Cheit is currently writing a book about problems maintaining the privacy of child victims.


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