Research Profile: Dr. Kim Roberts
Many child-friendly accommodations exist in our society for one plain reason: children are different from adults. And Kim Roberts, a psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, is demonstrating that the legal system must also bear this difference in mind.
Roberts has been researching ways of effectively talking to children — around the ages of three to ten —when they are testifying in court or being interrogated. She states that children have distinct ways of interpreting and processing information.
“Children haven’t developed as many strategies as adults have to retrieve information,” said Roberts. “It’s not until they’re ten, 11 or 12 that they have the same set of strategies that we have to be able to pull up information when it doesn’t come quickly.”
But professionals in the legal system are largely not trained in child development and memory to cater to these needs. As a result, children are treated with similar expectations as adults.
“The legal system wasn’t developed with children in mind. So you’ve got these centuries of development where children were never considered in it. So the expectations are very, very difficult,” she added.
Roberts has conducted experiments in which children had to recall particular details of a staged event. Different interviewing strategies were tested to determine which were the most helpful or unhelpful in retrieving accurate memories.
As well, Roberts added that interview questions must be appropriately worded and structured to guide children towards providing the relevant information. Otherwise, questions may lead to misinterpretations by the child.
“If you were a witness to a crime and a police officer said to you, ‘Can you tell me what happened?’ What would you do? You would tell him what happened,” said Roberts.
“But if you think of the question, it is really a yes or no question. ‘Can you tell me what happened?’ ‘Yes, I can.’ Or, ‘No, I can’t.’ And that’s exactly how a lot of children will interpret it. They don’t understand that, really, they’re being asked to describe what happened. They think they’re being asked, ‘Can you tell or can’t you tell?’”
Roberts takes these kinds of understandings of child psychology and applies them to real-world situations by training professionals to use optimal interviewing techniques.
To support her interest in this field, Roberts previously trained the Ottawa Children’s Society and the Ottawa Police Service, giving regular feedback on their interviews. She found that their interviews improved significantly.
“They got far more information from children than they initially did,” said Roberts. “To the point that they would say the kids would bring up something else that they needed to investigate that they never would have known about by using their old techniques. So, yes, it does work.”
But Roberts admitted there was a limitation of requiring ongoing feedback for training to be very effective. Many professionals in the legal system don’t have the resources for this extent of training.
She suggested that a more long- term solution could be to educate professionals from top-down to know what to reasonably expect from children of different ages. Judges currently don’t need any training in child development.
On a hopeful note, Roberts thinks police organizations are very aware of their lack of training in dealing with children. She said they’re even “very thirsty” for training.
As well, Roberts will be going to a Crown Council Conference in British Columbia next week, which she sees as a positive indication.
“I’m really pleased that they’ve invited me because I think this is a good step in the right direction. And that they’ve identified this need — I’m really pleased that they’ve done that,” she said.