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Published: 03 October 2017
Author: Kate Malone

How reliable are memories in cases of child abuse?

Criminal Justice Report findings - Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recently released its Criminal Justice Report which concluded, among other things, that survivors’ memories of abuse are remarkably reliable.

As human memory plays a part in almost every case involving childhood abuse, the Commission’s findings have important implications when considering the quality of personal memory as evidence.

Our experience in dealing with clients who have suffered abuse is that they have difficulty recalling many of the specific details of their abuse. Understandably, many have blocked out some memories of abuse or simply cannot recall the specific details due to the passage of time.

Clients also report that it is not unusual for additional memories to surface after several discussions relating to their childhood abuse. But do the limitations of human memories mean that the evidence of survivors is somehow of a lesser quality?

The “memory research” contained within the Criminal Justice Report offers a detailed survey of the current literature on memory in relation to reports of child abuse and its role in prosecutions. Importantly, it addresses several misconceptions about memories.

How reliable is a child’s memory?

In situations where children are giving evidence about their experience of abuse, it is easy to assume that their memory is unreliable or that the child suggestible to outside influence.  The memory research challenges this assumption.

It found that while a child’s ability to explain an experience or event increases with age, children as young as two years old were found to be able to provide behavioural re-enactments of one-off or novel events even if they could not verbally explain the event.

How reliable is an adult’s account childhood abuse?

The research found that it was normal for adults to forget abuse committed against them as children, as all human memories inevitably decline over time. However, this loss of memory in relation to the abuse may only be temporary.

The studies also suggested that the majority of people (between 70 – 85%) were not susceptible to adopting false memories of abuse. To quote the research: “person’s knowledge of their personal life is more stable and less error-prone than memory for one-off episodic events. Gaps in memory are normal, but central, distinctive and personally significant aspects of events are likely to be encoded and retained.”

The same studies were divided as to whether or not stress and trauma strengthened or impaired memory.

The research also suggested that repeated events were likely to be remembered differently from single events. This is supported by our own experience as lawyers representing survivors of abuse who tell us they suffered multiple incidents of abuse by the same offender, but cannot recall the circumstances of each individual incident.

The research confirms that this memory phenomenon is not uncommon. For repeated events people generally develop “a schema or ‘script’ for the core or gist features of that type of experience in their long-term memory.” The conclusion is that while memories of repeated events often contain minor inconsistencies, a person’s recall of the “gist of an event tends to be accurate and long-lasting.”

The Commission suggests that issues related to human memory ought to be properly addressed within the criminal justice system. We would suggest that these issues also ought to be addressed within the civil justice system as well.

For example, the Commission suggests that police, legal practitioners and judges could benefit from being given up to date research relating to memory for childhood abuse survivors. This could lead to an improvement in questioning techniques so that survivors are able to give more accurate and reliable accounts of their memories of abuse.

While human memory is clearly not infallible, the research of the Commission highlights that our misconceptions of the limitations of human memory, particularly in relation to childhood abuse, are often incorrect and certainly are not as problematic as originally thought.

Further training of professionals involved in the justice system, as suggested by the Commission, would help dispel misconceptions about the reliability of memory in cases of child sexual abuse.