As we have once again been reminded, the sexual abuse of children is an ongoing tragedy, one that creates multiple long-term problems for the victims. Police and prosecutors often find themselves at a disadvantage; such crimes tend to take place in private, and the victims — many of whom cut themselves off emotionally from the experience as a form of psychological self-protection — are often reluctant witnesses.
So how can authorities get these traumatized kids to explain what happened in sufficient detail to bring a criminal case against their perpetrators? A 2010 study provides an intriguing answer: tap into their emerging talent as budding artists.
Writing in the journal Child Maltreatment, psychologist Carmit Katz of the University of Cambridge and Irit Hershkowitz of the University of Haifa describe an experiment featuring 125 Israeli children between the ages of 4 and 14. The 31 boys and 94 girls “were believed to have been abused sexually on a single occasion by a perpetrator who was not a family member,” they write.
All the children were first interviewed using a protocol developed to elicit information from young abuse victims. “Interviewers are instructed to use open-ended questions as much as possible,” they note.
Afterwards, half the children were given a pencil, an eraser and a blank sheet of paper. The interviewer gave them specific instructions: “Now I would like you do draw what happened, and then we will continue.”
Seven to 10 minutes were allowed for drawing. When the children were finished, the children were asked to again tell the entire story of the incident “from beginning to end.” The interviewer added “You can also look at the drawing if you want.”
The other children took a break of seven to 10 minutes, during which they rested or played. Afterward, they, too were asked to recount the story again in its entirety.
The researchers found “a remarkable increase in the richness of statements” among children who had drawn a picture of the scene, compared to those who had simply taken a break between the two interviews.
“Although all types of detail were enhanced, drawing had an especially strong impact on the number of central details, which are the once that specify the core of the sexual incidents and indicate the seriousness of the offense,” Katz and Hershkowitz write.
“The advantage of drawing is especially impressive because it was introduced after the interviewers have exhausted the child’s memory using open-ended questions,” they add, noting that sketching the scene “elicited large amounts of new information.”
The researchers present a twofold explanation for why the drawings prompted more detailed responses.
“From a cognitive perspective, the drawing may have served as an aid that stimulated the children’s memories,” they write. “Because drawing presents visual cues, it may provide an especially powerful prompt to memory.”
“As far as emotions are concerned, drawing may have helped reduce anxiety and empower children, allowing them to perform better when interviewed,” they add. “Empowering children seems to motivate them to become more active in the [memory] retrieval process, and may be especially important when children have been disempowered by abuse.”
As the researchers note, the use of props such as anatomically detailed dolls have proved problematic, as they “may contaminate children’s memory.” Avoiding that problem while eliciting potentially vital information may be as simple as asking: draw me a picture.