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
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
Evidence showed many of the children had suffered from sleep, disorders,
including nightmares' and night terrors, and distress at going to bed, she
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Some children provided examples of unusually sad or withdrawn behaviour and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
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
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
Open-ended questions would be asked first to see what the child recalled
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.