Stephen Ceci wants an answer to what seems like a pretty simple question: How do you know when a child is lying?
Ceci is a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University and a nationally recognized authority on the reliability of child testimony. It's an interest that has taken him to the core of some of the most heart-wrenching court cases in U.S. history involving unspeakable allegations of child abuse.
The popular proverb that children are basically honest and always tell the truth went out the window following a series of sensational child abuse cases in the 1980s and 1990s that hinged primarily on the testimony of children.
Some adults who were clearly innocent watched their lives come apart at the seams when accused of heinous crimes against children, even if they were later exonerated. And, no doubt, some scoundrels escaped punishment because a child's testimony could not be believed.
Ceci and a couple of colleagues are developing a test that they believe could help investigators determine if a particular child is especially vulnerable to being swayed by questions asked by a social worker or investigator. They hope to come up with a scale showing how "suggestible" any young witness really is.
"There's lots of research that says younger children are more suggestible than older children, but that isn't terribly helpful because they want to know about a particular child who's making allegations," Ceci says. "Is this child more suggestible?"
That's a question that few raised in the 1970s when the federal government passed a well-intentioned law aimed at clamping down on child abuse.
The law gave states a financial incentive to force teachers and medical personnel to report any evidence of child abuse. That led ultimately to what the Los Angeles Times called the "lynch-mob syndrome."
No one set out, of course, to create a monster, but that's what eventually happened. It all came to a head in the 1980s with sensational charges against a child-care center in the Los Angeles suburb of Manhattan beach.
Seven adults at the center ultimately faced more than 200 charges in the McMartin preschool case. A series of trials, which ended in either acquittals or hung juries, dragged on for six years, costing taxpayers more than $16 million. Numerous lives were destroyed along the way, and it all finally collapsed because too many of the children simply could not be believed.
Some claimed they had witnessed a beheading, and were forced to drink blood, and subjected to horrible sexual abuse. Some even swore they had seen one of the adults at the center fly through the air.
A subsequent Grand Jury report laid the blame for the failed prosecution on the prosecutors themselves. Interrogators had been so aggressive, even to the point of telling some children they were "dumb" if they hadn't seen the things reported by some other kids, that in the end many of the children couldn't separate fact from fiction.
Other cases, including one a short time later in San Diego, had similar results. A child was snatched from her family, and her father forced into counseling for sexual abuse that he clearly did not commit. He was exonerated two years later when DNA evidence proved that a man who was in jail for raping another child was the perpetrator.