Marcin Borowski, a psychologist and sexologist from the Medical Specialist Health Center in Tworki, talks about experts dealing with the problem of child abuse, demonizing their partners and unconsciously exerting pressure on children.
What is the most important thing in dealing with children who are victims of sexual assault?
To help establish the truth. Usually, the child that is a victim of such assault is the only witness to these events, other than the potential perpetrator, which means that children play a double role: of both a victim, and a witness.
This is an extremely difficult situation, the most important of which is...
The age of the child.
Indeed. According to the provisions of the Civil Code, a minor is a person who is under the age of eighteen, but for instance, Article 200 of the Polish Criminal Code defines any person under the age of fifteen as a minor.
A very important reservation must be made here, because few people are aware of it. Well, the entire proceedings in cases of molestation of minors are actually based not so much on the testimonies of the victimized children, but mostly on the opinion of an expert who, participating in the hearing, must write an opinion on its basis. This is another area where a lot of errors, inaccuracies and irregularities can occur – and often unfortunately do occur. All of which can cause harm to an innocent person.
Is the Polish state prepared for this? If an expert has to participate in every hearing, I wonder if we have so many specialists properly prepared for this role in the country.
You have touched on the crux of the problem. But let's start from the beginning. Firstly, in cases of child molestation, there should indeed be only one hearing, which must be recorded so that its course can later be reproduced during the court proceeding.
But before the case goes to court, it is necessary to gather sufficiently strong material in the preparatory proceedings in order to charge the suspect. For this, of course, it is necessary to interview the victim, i.e. in this case the child, which is done by the judge in the presence of an expert. In an ideal world, this expert prepares an unquestionable opinion, because he is well prepared for his role, has many years of experience, and is quite simply a professional.
Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world.
We do not live in an ideal world, but rather in distorted reality. To charge someone, it is very often necessary to question the child, in which the suspect's lawyer also has the right to participate. But realistically there is no chance of this actually happening, because often no charges have been brought against the suspect before the child is interrogated. And in this situation, he does not have a legal defender yet! And this is often used later – when the charges are already prepared, there comes in a lawyer who, defending his client, demands the child to be questioned again so he can ask his additional questions, since he could not do that earlier.
You have said that the proceedings are based on the expert's opinion, and this is another area where errors occur. Does this mean that not all experts are properly prepared for their role?
In 2010, Agnieszka Sikorska-Koza conducted some research based on the analysis of court records and expert opinions from between 1998-2007
It turns out that nearly 40 percent of experts go beyond their authority. Unfortunately, we have a lot of experts who do not know their competences. Moreover, I also find some fault in lawyers who ask questions beyond the jurisdiction of experts. I will give an example from my own professional life. The defendant's lawyer asked me "whether the child's testimony could be the result of a conscious distortion of reality", which was nothing else but a question dressed in an elegant formula, whether the child deliberately lied. Meanwhile, this is a question that no expert can answer because it is not within our competence. And although lawyers know this, they notoriously ask such a questions. My experience indicates that these 40 percent stated in Agnieszka Sikorska-Koza's research is significantly underestimated. Several years ago, the book "Law and Psychology" was published in Poland, in which the nineteen-factor model of Steller and Koehnken was described, based on which the credibility of the testimony of a minor can be assessed. For many psychologists, including those who are forensic experts, this model has become an especially important point of reference, - a „Bible", so to speak. Meanwhile, this model was later revised, and some later studies even discredited it.
You evaluate your environment quite critically...
I do not want it to sound like that, but in my experience, many people acting as experts do not have the appropriate experience in these matters, and there are some that can only be described as simply bizarre. They, by simplifying it somehow, boil the matter down to the following thesis: "If a child says that he was molested, he was molested. And if he says he wasn't molested, he was molested, but the trauma is so great that the child has supplanted it. ” In short, we have a big problem with experts in Poland. It also results from the fact that very few specialized trainings are carried out here, and in addition, some of them are of quite poor quality. And let me remind you that the fate of a person may depend on what an expert write, so this is, to some extent, playing with human life.
Do children often miss the truth when testifying in child molestation cases? I do not mean to say that they are lying, because this term implies intentional action...
It all depends on who we mean. Professional literature assumes that a three- or four-year-old child can testify, but this is not the rule. After all, we know that you can get a coherent statement from a three-year-old, but this is not a case for every three-year-old. In any case, the situation is different in the case of pre-school or early-school children, and the motivation and other statistics would be different in case of teenagers. It goes without saying that teenagers are more likely to consciously miss reality, as they often use lies to justify some of their own actions. Such things have been, are and will be happening. This does not mean that we always receive the truth and only the truth from children from these younger groups, because they, in turn, are much more susceptible to various types of suggestions. It is more likely that the younger child will give false information – I do not consciously use the word lie here – because of the way the interview was conducted and not because someone deliberately persuaded them to tell an untruth.
It is a fairly common opinion that younger children rarely lie. Is that true?
In general, this thesis is true in the sense that younger children rarely consciously tell untruths. But let us imagine a child coming from a relationship in which there is a conflict between parents, in the background there is a divorce case, and consequently a case for custody, establishing contacts and so on. All this evokes intense emotions in adults, but at least some of these emotions – especially when the conflict is chronic – are also shared with children. If this conflict between parents escalates, if it is prolonged, then most often mothers, because the child usually stays with them, begin to recognize their husband or partner as an incarnate evil, demonize him, but they do not always do it consciously. Of course, in nine out of ten cases they consider that they have been harmed, and at some point, there is a situation that they lose contact with this man and the child becomes the only link between the spouses. In the sense that the father occasionally takes the child on weekends or holidays. After a few days of stay, the child returns to the mother and she notices, for example, some redness in the groin or around the anus. In this situation, it is a natural reaction, the mother begins to ask questions, explore the topic, inquire. When giving her testimony, she stipulates that she did not suggest anything to the child, did not impose any opinion and this is even true, there were no explicit suggestions. But the mother revolved around this topic, she kept coming back to it...
It is a natural, since she has the right, and maybe even the obligation to feel anxious.
The child reads the mother's emotions. She sees that she is much more interested when the child says that she has been affected by her father in intimate areas. The mother no longer asks if this touching occurred during the bath, because a child of several years old will not bathe themselves and the father simply had to take care of it. And in addition, as a rule, fathers are not the most proficient in hygienic caretaking of children, most have not done it too often before, not to say incidentally, hence some redness in the intimate areas of the child. On this basis, the mother believes that there has been some abuse, which has been described many times in the English-language literature on the subject. I have had dozens of such conversations with mothers and this pattern repeats itself. When I ask if they are sure that such abuse has actually occurred, I most often hear denials. "No, I'm not sure, but you have to find the truth. I would of course call for this to be untrue, obviously no parent wants their child to be hurt. But internally, emotionally, they are already one hundred percent convinced that the harassment has taken place. I once asked one of the mothers what she would do if the court rejected the allegations of molestation and allowed her ex-husband to have normal contact with the child. She replied that she would have no choice, that she would of course accept the court's decision, surrender to the verdict. But then "I will sit my ex-husband in front of me, we are adults, I will look deep into his eyes and say: Only you and your daughter know what really happened and you will bear the blame for it for the rest of your life".
So, she was convinced that harassment has occurred.
It is a mechanism of demonizing the ex-partner resulting from feeling of perceived harm. When I asked these women if they had received any disturbing signals before, they always denied it. Immediately afterwards, they added that when the father bathed the child, they always closed the door to the bathroom and that these baths lasted a long time. These women internally are almost always convinced that harassment has occurred, so in conversations with children they reinforce the content that would prove it. These are open questions, they do not suggest anything, but they revolve around the topic so much that the child sees that the parent, most often the mother, is very interested in the topic, that by talking about it the child gains the mother's attention.
We have not exhausted the topic, on the contrary, we have only just begun to explore it. I suggest we continue our conversation in the next episode.
Interview by Piotr Gajdziński