The Christchurch Civic Creche Case

News Reports Index

1993 Jan-May

The Press
May 18 1993

Children 'show signs of abuse'

Children who had given evidence against a childcare worker facing sexual abuse charges showed many of the signs commonly exhibited by abused children, the High Court was told yesterday.

Dr Karen Zelas, a child psychiatrist specialising in children and the supervisor of the Department of Social Welfare unit that interviewed 116 children connected with the Christchurch Civic Childcare Centre, said each child exhibited a cluster of the characteristics connected with abuse.

The characteristics were expressions of anxiety and were not solely confined to sexually abused children, she said.

Dr Zelas was testifying for the Crown against Peter Hugh McGregor Ellis, aged 35, who denies 25 charges of sexually abusing children in his care at the creche between 1986 and 1992.

Dr Zelas analysed the evidence relating to each of the children and is giving the court an assessment of each child in terms of intellectual attainment, mental capability, emotional maturity, and characteristics consistent with sexual abuse.

Evidence showed many of the children had suffered from sleep, disorders, including nightmares' and night terrors, and distress at going to bed, she said.

Some complained of bodily aches and were fearful about going to the creche and being separated from their parents.

Some of the complainants had slipped back in their toileting development after attending the creche and this was accompanied by a reluctance to go to the creche toilet and other toileting problems, she said.

Avoidance behaviour was also exhibited by the children and several were fearful of certain people, especially men.

Parents had described some of the children engaging in sexualised play and many displayed precocious sexual knowledge. Both were signs consistent with sexual abuse, she said.

Some of the children had become hyperactive and aggressive when talking about the abuse to their parents and many showed a reduction or increase in anxiety after their disclosure interviews.

All the children had delayed their disclosure and this was particularly common in sexually abused children, she said.

Some children provided examples of unusually sad or withdrawn behaviour and some displayed a hostility and anger towards their parents.

Dr Zelas also gave the court a rundown on the ability of children aged between three and 10 to accurately recall events.

Children of pre-school age did not think in an abstract way and comprehended events believing the events rotated around themselves.

They engaged in "magical thinking" and were consequently often unrealistic about their own abilities and powers.

Their ability to be clear about what was real and what really happened was limited. Older children sometimes regressed to magical thinking when under threat, she said. Young children took threats literally.

Children's limited grammar, vocabulary, and general language skills would sometimes make their observations look muddled.

Lack of the appropriate language to describe a new event could produce a bizarre or unusual description. Children were limited to the words they knew to describe events.

She said children were not born with any knowledge, and knowledge of a sexual nature would have to come from experience perhaps acquired from information provided to them about reproduction or keeping themselves safe.

This information was not generally explicit enough to enable children to provide plausible accounts of sexual intimacy.

The ability to place events in time was also difficult for children, she said. They had some ability to order events but still had great difficulty in reporting on whether something occurred before or after an event. It was important to remember children’s recall could be as accurate as adults. However, they tended to recall far less information. Questions and other materials were required to facilitate their memory.

Central detail was recalled more accurately than peripheral detail. Children would also be more constant about the central detail and could vary on peripheral detail.

Inconsistencies about peripheral detail could result when the child did not make it clear he or she was talking about one instance or several similar events, she said.

A child of seven or eight recalling events that occurred when the child was three could only reproduce the event in the terms it was understood at the time. Recall later could therefore be implausible and difficult to understand.

Traumatic events were often retrieved piecemeal, with more information being produced as the child continued to talk about the event. Remembering one aspect could trigger a further memory. In some instances a child would push a memory aside if the emotions it triggered were frightening or unpleasant.

Children rarely wrongly identified a person they knew, she said.

Evidential interviews of children were structured to stimulate recall of events."

Open-ended questions would be asked first to see what the child recalled freely.

These questions were followed by exploratory questions about "when and how" and would in no way suggest a possible answer.

The next step was to provide aids such as diagrams, and if recall was still limited the interviewer would use more specific and direct questions.

If a child had previously disclosed to another person but had not repeated the allegation to the interviewer an anatomically correct doll could be used and leading questions could be asked.

Techniques used to validate responses to leading questions included scrutinising the responses to other leading questions and looking at the child's ability to provide further details.

Mr Justice Williamson adjourned the trial until tomorrow to allow one of the counsel in the trial to attend to a dying relative.