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Emotional Effects of Testifying on Sexually Abused Children

NCJ Number
D Whitcomb; G S Goodman; D K Runyan; S Hoak
Date Published
7 pages
Child sexual abuse presents complicated issues of physical, emotional, and psychological trauma for its victims and may cause trauma for those who testify in court.
Three studies, conducted in the middle to late 1980's, addressed whether testifying in judicial proceedings benefited or harmed sexually abused children. The North Carolina study followed 100 child victims of primarily intrafamilial abuse who were involved in child protection hearings in the juvenile court setting. The Denver study focused exclusively on children who testified in criminal court and followed 218 children, most of whom were sexually abused by perpetrators not living with them. A study of child victim-witnesses explored how to successfully prosecute cases without further traumatizing child victims. Findings of all three studies did not conclusively show that testifying in court is either harmful or beneficial to sexually abused children. Testifying may impede the improvement process for some children (Denver study), or it may enhance the recovery of others (North Carolina study). Before testifying, all children scored high on measures of stress and anxiety. Maternal support was associated with improved mental health in children. Children who testified more than once did not improve as much as children who testified only once or not at all. Virtually all children, however, improved with time. Study procedures and instruments are described, and implications of the findings for policy and practice are discussed. 17 notes and 2 exhibits