National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse

National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse

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Thomas Lyon - leader in the field of interviewing children for abuse - From his colorful van,
USC professor Thomas Lyon runs experiments about getting kids to talk -- and tell the truth.
His research has been influential in how children are treated in the justice system.
  USC professor at the intersection of children and justice

Thomas Lyon, who holds a rare dual professorship in law and psychology at USC, is a leader in the field of interviewing children for abuse and criminal cases.

by Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times

March 19, 2012

The interview begins on a cheerful note. USC law professor Thomas Lyon asks a 4-year-old to tell him about her last birthday. She says she took ice cream, chocolate and cake, "mixed it up and ate it." Then she shared some with her brothers.

Lyon gently turns to the tragic matter at hand. "Tell me why you came to talk to me; tell me what happened," he asks the child, the only eyewitness to a homicide. At first she mumbles "hmm" a few times and rocks in her chair as Lyon repeats the question.

And then she starts talking about seeing her mother stab the child's great-grandmother in their home. "She was killing her by the bike," the girl says. "I see," Lyon continues. "And how did she kill her?" "With a sharp knife," she says.

With that exchange, Lyon, then a consultant for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, elicited key information the police could not. That videotaped session is often viewed around the country by social workers, lawyers and law enforcement authorities who want to improve how they interview children in custodial, abuse and criminal cases.

Lyon, a Harvard-trained attorney with a doctorate in psychology from Stanford, is a leader in the field. His work has helped show that open-ended, nonjudgmental questions can prompt more detailed narratives from children, whether about birthdays or murder. His federally funded research also shows that getting a child to promise to be honest actually makes it more likely that they will tell the truth.

Lyon, who is 50 and the father of two teenagers, said there is no trauma in his past that propels his interest in child abuse. In fact, he said, warm memories of his Nebraska upbringing made him want to work with children during his adult career. After law school, he worked in the Los Angeles County Counsel's children's division and then studied child psychology. At USC, where he's taught since 1995, he holds a rare dual professorship in law and psychology, combining a passion for justice with a wonkish pursuit of data.

"Actually I find abuse work often terribly depressing, but what keeps me in it is how great the kids are despite the abuse they suffer. They still tend to be really resilient, really interested in things, really excited about stuff," he said. "And that's inspiring."

His field has generated debate among psychologists and lawyers for decades. The McMartin preschool case in the 1980s in which children's allegations of sexual abuse and satanic rituals were found to be unreliable underscored how controversial the topic of children's memory can be. Afterward, much research focused on avoiding coercive questioning and false accusations.

That emphasis was valuable but swung too far toward skepticism and ignored larger problems of underreporting and secrecy, said Lyon, who is past president of the American Psychological Assn.'s child maltreatment division.

"Anyone who works with abused kids knows the kids are afraid and threatened and reluctant and ashamed," said Lyon, who has a soft-spoken manner.

Critics say Lyon tends to be too pro-prosecution. Elizabeth Loftus, a UC Irvine law and cognitive science professor who has consulted for the defense in abuse and murder cases, including McMartin, said she thinks Lyon's experiments on children's truth-telling are worthwhile. But she said Lyon "sometimes is so attached to the idea of child abuse, as horrible as it is, that he overlooks other things like civil liberties of accused people."

Lyon said he is not out to convict the innocent but wants the criminal justice system to understand how memories of childhood abuse can last through adulthood.

Lyon is among the experts who have trained sheriff's deputies in interviewing methods that they've subsequently used in recent abuse cases in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said L.A. County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Dan Scott. Sheriff's investigators spent months interviewing past students of a former teacher at Miramonte Elementary, who has been charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct.

Mary Murray, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, recalled a case involving a 6-year-old boy who was a key witness to the torture and murder of his mother by his father. Lyon obtained detailed videotaped statements from the child about hearing the beating and seeing his mother collapse. He was adopted by his paternal grandfather, and at trial two years later, the boy said he couldn't recall anything; the video was allowed as evidence, and the father was convicted.

"It sounds and looks really easy until you try it yourself and hit a brick wall," Murray said. Lyon "is able to mine a child for whatever information a child has to offer."

Lyon is a prolific researcher who receives substantial federal backing. Grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to him and collaborators are expected to total $3.6 million over a decade by 2015.

Much of Lyon's current federally funded research does not directly involve crime but focuses on what helps children honestly recall events.

Some of the experiments are conducted with abused or neglected children at the dependency court in Monterey Park. Others are done during visits to schools near USC in a special van turned into a playroom with a table, toys and a hidden video recording console. Citing privacy rules, Lyon did not allow a reporter to attend the sessions but made tapes available.

In one set of experiments, an adult warns the children, ages 4 to 9, not to tell anyone that they played with, and sometimes broke, a toy; then another adult tries to elicit the truth.

A fidgety 6-year-old named Terrell is encouraged by one of Lyon's assistants to play with a Lego house but urged to keep mum about it; then another adult coaxes a confession. "She tell me to trick you," Terrell spills.

Others show what good liars young children can be. Like a loyal mobster facing the FBI , Ashley, 6, sticks to her story. Even though she did play with the forbidden toys and broke one, she insists she didn't. But in what may have been a pang of guilt, she asks, "Are those breakable?"

One of the studies tests what Lyon calls "the oath." The interviewer asks children to promise to tell the truth and reassures them that nothing bad will happen if they do. About 40% then provided accurate accounts, double the number of those who were not asked to make the promise.

Other experiments show children are more likely to tell the truth when they are informed that an adult recounted what had happened in the playroom.

Some experts question the relevance to abuse cases, saying children would face much more pressure to stay silent. Lyon concedes that many children did lie and that resistance would be higher in child abuse. Although there is no easy solution, he said, it is important to check which methods make things worse and to later test promising ones in abuse cases.

At USC law school, he is training the next generation of child interviewers. During a recent class, his students showed tapes of their practice interviews about Christmas celebrations, using Lyon's techniques. In one, a 9-year-old says his mother made holiday doughnuts and told him to eat just one. Unprompted, he confesses to snagging a second. "I got a little sneaky," he says, smiling.

HOME
why we started this site
RECOVERY
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RESOURCES
help stop child abuse
ABOUT
a little about us
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