Statement Validity Assessment (SVA) is a tool designed to determine the credibility of child witnesses’ testimonies in trials for sexual offenses. SVA assessments are accepted as evidence in some North American courts and in criminal courts in several West European countries. The tool originated in Sweden and Germany and consists of four stages. Much of the SVA research is concerned with the ability of Criteria-Based Content Analysis (CBCA), one of the four SVA stages, to discriminate between truth tellers and liars. The Validity Checklist, another stage of the SVA procedure, has also attracted attention from researchers.
That a technique has been developed to verify whether a child has been sexually abused is not surprising. It is often difficult to determine the facts in an allegation of sexual abuse, since often there is no medical or physical evidence. Frequently, the alleged victim and the defendant give contradictory testimony, and often, there are no independent witnesses to give an objective version of events. This makes the perceived credibility of the defendant and alleged victim important. The alleged victim is in a disadvantageous position if he or she is a child, as adults have a tendency to mistrust statements made by children.
SVA consists of four stages: (1) a case-file analysis; (2) a semistructured interview; (3) a CBCA that systematically assesses the quality of a statement; and (4) an evaluation of the CBCA outcome via a set of questions (Validity Checklist).
The SVA procedure starts with the analysis of the case file. A case file should include information about the child witness (e.g., his or her age, cognitive abilities, relationship to the accused person); the nature of the event in question, and previous statements of the child and other parties involved. The case-file analysis gives the SVA expert insight into what may have happened and the issues that are disputed. The SVA analysis focuses on these disputed elements in the subsequent three stages.
A Semistructured Interview
The second stage of SVA is a semistructured interview where the child provides his or her own account of the allegation. Conducting a proper interview is never an easy task, but interviewing young children is particularly difficult because their descriptions of past events are notably incomplete. Therefore, interviewers routinely want more information than is initially provided, and they have to ask further, specific questions to learn more about an event. The danger interviewers face is that their questioning may become suggestive—that is, that the question suggests to the child what the answer should be and subsequently leads the child to providing that answer. Special interview techniques based on psychological principles have been designed to obtain as much information as possible from interviewees in a free narrative style, without inappropriate prompts or suggestions.
Criteria-Based Content Analysis
The interviews with the child are audiotaped and transcribed, and the transcripts are used for the third part of SVA: the CBCA. In this third part, SVA evaluators look for the presence in the transcripts of 19 criteria. The hypothesis is that truthful statements contain more of these criteria than do fabricated statements. Examples of these CBCA criteria are unstructured production (whether the information is not provided in a chronological time sequence), contextual embeddings (references to time and space: “He approached me for the first time in the garden during the summer holidays”), descriptions of interactions (statements that interlink at least two actors with each other: “The moment my mother came into the room, he stopped smiling”), and reproduction of speech (speech in its original form: “And then he asked: ‘Is that your coat?’”). These criteria are more likely to occur in truthful statements than in fabricated statements because it is thought to be cognitively too difficult for liars to fabricate them. Other criteria are more likely to occur in truthful statements than in fabricated statements for motivational reasons. Truthful persons will not be as concerned with making a credible impression on the interviewer as deceivers, because truth tellers often believe that their honesty will shine through. Therefore, liars will be keener to try to construct a report that they believe will make a credible impression on others and will leave out information that, in their view, will damage their image of being a sincere person. As a result, a truthful statement is more likely to contain information that is inconsistent with people’s stereotypes of truthfulness. Examples of these so-called “contrary-to-truthfulness-stereotype” criteria are spontaneous corrections (corrections made without prompting from the interviewer: “He wore a black jacket, no sorry, it was blue”) and raising doubts about one’s own testimony (anticipated objections against the veracity of one’s own testimony: “I know this all sounds really odd”).
The Validity Checklist
A CBCA evaluation itself is not sufficient to draw conclusions about the truthfulness of a statement, because CBCA scores may be affected by factors other than the veracity of the statement. For example, older children produce statements that typically contain more CBCA criteria than younger children, and statements are unlikely to contain many CBCA criteria if the interviewer did not give the child enough opportunity to tell the whole story. The fourth and final phase of the SVA method is to examine whether any of these alternative explanations might have affected the presence of the CBCA criteria in the transcripts. For this purpose a checklist, the Validity Checklist, has been compiled, which consists of 11 issues that are thought to possibly affect CBCA scores. By systematically addressing each of the issues addressed in the Validity Checklist, the evaluator explores and considers alternative interpretations of the CBCA outcomes. Each affirmative response that the evaluator gives to an issue raises a question about the validity of the CBCA outcome.
One issue mentioned in the Validity Checklist is inappropriateness of affect. This refers to whether the affect displayed by the child when being interviewed (usually via nonverbal behavior) is inappropriate for the child’s alleged experiences. For example, sexual offenses are emotionally disturbing and likely to upset victims. One could, therefore, usually expect a clear display of emotions from a truthful victim when being interviewed. Absence of these emotions may indicate that the story has been fabricated.
A second issue mentioned in the Validity Checklist is appropriateness of language and knowledge. This issue refers to whether the child’s use of language and display of knowledge was beyond the normal capacity of a person of his or her age and beyond the scope of what the child may have learned from the incident. When this occurs, it may indicate the influence of other people in preparing the statement. For example, to obtain custody, a woman may encourage her child to falsely accuse her ex-husband of having had an abusive relationship with the child. In an attempt to make a convincing case, the woman may have prepared the statement together with the child and may have coached the child in what to say.
A third issue on the Validity Checklist is examining whether the child demonstrates any susceptibility to suggestion during the interview. Statements of suggestible children could be problematic to interpret because suggestible children may be inclined to provide information that confirms the interviewer’s expectations but is, in fact, inaccurate.
SVA Research and Evaluation
Despite the fact that SVA assessments are used as evidence in court in several countries, it is unclear how accurate these assessments are because no reliable data regarding the accuracy of SVA assessments in real-life cases are currently available. To examine the accuracy of SVA assessments in such cases, it is necessary to know what truly happened in the disputed event. Obtaining this so-called ground truth is difficult because it can only be determined via case facts, such as medical evidence or other evidence, which indisputably links, or does not link, the alleged perpetrator to the crime. Such case facts are often not present in sexual abuse cases.
Research has been carried out in the form of laboratory studies, but it has mainly been focused on the third phase of SVA: the accuracy of CBCA assessments. In those studies, either children, but more often undergraduate students, told the truth or lied for the sake of the experiment. Such studies showed similar results for adults and children. In alignment with the CBCA assumption, many CBCA criteria were more often present in truthful statements than in fabricated reports. Overall, 73% of the truths and 72% of the lies were correctly classified by using CBCA assessments. Whether this reflects the accuracy of CBCA assessments in real-life criminal investigations is unknown. Students or children who tell lies and truths in an experiment are different from children who tell truths and lies in criminal investigations, and the accuracy scores therefore do not necessarily reflect the accuracy scores in criminal investigations.
There are reasons to believe that applying the Validity Checklist is sometimes problematic. It is possible to question the justification of some of the issues listed on the Validity Checklist, for example, whether the child displayed an absence of affect or inappropriate affect during the interview. This issue implies that the notion of appropriate affect displayed by victims of sexual abuse exists, whereas it does not. That is, in interviews, some sexually abused victims express distress that is clearly visible to outsiders, whereas others appear numbed and cues of distress are not clearly visible. The communication styles represent a personality factor and are not related to deceit.
Some other issues, such as susceptibility to suggestion, are difficult to measure. To examine a child’s susceptibility to suggestion, the interviewer is recommended to ask the witness a few leading questions at the end of the interview. Interviewers should only ask questions about irrelevant peripheral information, because asking questions about central information could damage the quality of the statement. Being allowed only to ask questions about peripheral information is problematic, as it may say little about the witness’s suggestibility regarding core issues of his or her statement. Children show more resistance to suggestibility for central parts than for peripheral parts of an event.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine the exact impact that many issues have on CBCA scores. For example, in one study, SVA raters were instructed to take the age of the child into account when calculating CBCA scores. Nevertheless, several criteria positively correlated with age. In other words, even after being instructed to correct the CBCA scores for age, the results still showed age-related effects, with older children obtaining higher CBCA scores than younger children.
Given these difficulties in measuring the issues and in examining the exact impact of these issues on CBCA scores, it is clear that the Validity Checklist procedure is more subjective and less formalized than the CBCA procedure. It is, therefore, not surprising that if two experts disagree about the truthfulness of a statement in a German criminal case, they are likely to disagree about the likely impact of Validity Checklist issues on that statement. One study revealed that Swedish experts sometimes use the Validity Checklist incorrectly, and this could be due to difficulties with applying it. First, although SVA experts sometimes highlight the influence of Validity Checklist issues on children’s statements in general, they do not always discuss how these issues might influence the statement of the particular child they are asked to assess. Second, although experts sometimes indicate possible external influence on statements, they are inclined to rely on the CBCA outcome and tend to judge high-quality statements as truthful and low-quality statements as fabricated.
In sum, although SVA assessments are used as evidence in (criminal) courts to evaluate the veracity of child witnesses’ testimonies in trials for sexual offenses, the accuracy of these assessments is unknown. However, research has shown that CBCA-trained evaluators make mistakes in classifying truth tellers and liars and that the use of the Validity Checklist is problematic for a variety of reasons.
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