Cross-examination, sexual abuse and child witness identity

Westcott, Helen L. and Page, Marcus (2002). Cross-examination, sexual abuse and child witness identity. Child Abuse Review, 11(3) pp. 137–152.



This paper presents extracts from cross-examinations with child witnesses who are alleged victims of child sexual abuse. The manner in which cross-examination may present a challenge to the child's identity as child, victim and witness is discussed. Specifically, the child may be portrayed as unchildlike, for example in their experience of sexual relationships or in their sexual knowledge. They may be portrayed as less than innocent, through references to previous contacts with social services or to other behaviours such as delinquency. Child witnesses may be depicted as instigators rather than victims, seducing the adult or seeking revenge through sexual allegations. Finally, children are easily accused of being poor witnesses, as being confused, untruthful and having fallible memories. The paper considers the dynamics and potential impact of such cross-examination practice within Finkelhor's framework of four traumagenics of sexual abuse: traumatic sexualization, betrayal, powerlessness and stigmatization. The potential for poorly conducted cross-examinations to create further problems for child witnesses, particularly in the area of identity, is highlighted, and it is suggested traumagenic factors in such cross-examinations may resemble those of abuse. The paper discusses practice implications for cross-examination, judicial intervention and witness support following implementation of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 in England and Wales. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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