During the last week, three defense experts—Ann Hazzard, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Emory University; Nancy Aldridge, a child specialist at Briarcliff Psychological Associates in Atlanta; and William Bernet, a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University—have highlighted the problems with the investigation that led to the molestation charges against Chickamauga, Georgia, kindergarten teacher Tonya Craft. They noted that repetitive questioning by interviewers who "won't take 'no' for an answer" (as Aldridge put it) may lead children to believe they have not answered correctly; anxious to please adults, they may then supply the answer they sense the interviewer wants. The same sort of thing can happen when parents who have heard rumors of abuse (and who have repeatedly discussed the subject with other parents, reinforcing each other's suspicions) grill their children. Children tend to incorporate information suggested by adults into their memories to the point where they cannot distinguish between what actually happened and what adults told them.
It is therefore very important for interviewers to avoid preconceptions, leading questions, and persistent grilling that signals they want to hear something other than what the child has reported so far. Hazzard, Aldridge, and Bernet all agreed that the interviewers in this case repeatedly failed to follow those guidelines, citing specific examples of unprofessional methods, including both biased questioning and failure to follow up on answers that did not point in the direction they wanted. Amazingly, one interviewer failed to videotape or otherwise document the moment when she says one of the girls, after repeatedly denying that anything untoward had happened, finally claimed Craft had abused her. Bernet, who said he had never in his career heard of such a lapse, repeatedly called the interviewers "inept" and described the police investigation as "shoddy."
This is not just a matter of dueling experts. First, the defense experts are far more knowledgeable and credible than the interviewers who talked to Craft's accusers, who seemed unconcerned about the possibility of eliciting false accounts of abuse and testified that they were not familiar with research on how adult expectations can contaminate children's memories. Second, there are numerous red flags in the questions asked by the interviewers, the answers given by the children, and their subsequent testimony in court that strongly suggest the girls were coached or pressured to remembers things that never happened. (See my previous posts on the subject here.) Based on this record, Bernet's description of the interviewers' methods is perfectly justified.