The Christchurch Civic Creche Case

News Reports Index

1993 Jan-May

The Press
May 25 1993.

Children 'cut off' trauma

Not all children would be wide-eyed and terrified when recalling incidents of sexual abuse, an expert told the High Court trial of a former Christchurch Civic creche worker yesterday.

Dr Karen Zelas, a child psychiatrist, said some children would be able to cut themselves off from the experience and could recall the event without traumatic emotions.

She was responding to cross-examination by Mr Robert Harrison, who represents Peter Hugh McGregor Ellis, aged 35. Ellis denies 25 charges of sexually abusing children in his care between 1986 and 1992. The trial is now in its fifth week.

Dr Zelas had earlier finished her case by case analysis of the complainant children and had explained that each of the children had exhibited clusters of behavioural symptoms consistent with sexual abuse.

During cross-examination, Mr Harrison told her a defence witness would say a complainant's failure to show fear or distress while recounting an incident where burning paper was allegedly held against his buttocks was behaviour inconsistent with his having been sexually abused.

Dr Zelas said the boy had exhibited a strong defence mechanism to protect himself from anxiety and instead of showing distress had expressed the anxiety through a change of speech and activity.

Most children would exhibit the feelings they experienced at the time of the traumatic event when recalling it, but some children would express the anxiety through listlessness or a change in speech. Some may be more composed during an interview if they had already disclosed to somebody else.

Asked if an eight-year-old could remember 80 pieces of information about an incident five years ago, as one complainant had, she said gradual assistance to stimulate the child's memory and going through one event to the other could greatly increase recall.

The fact a complainant was happy and extroverted at the creche and not at school was not necessarily inconsistent with abuse at the creche because some children had a delayed reaction, she said. Children were not necessarily afraid of the person who abused them.

She had not thought about what behaviour was inconsistent with abuse, she said. She disagreed that her pinpointing behaviour consistent with abuse only gave half the story and said her many years of experience gave her an insight into normal and abnormal behaviour.

She agreed a pre-schooler's memory would be affected by natural forgetting, the substitution of new memories, and interference. Pre-schoolers could also forget the source of the memory and consciously suppress a very unpleasant memory.

She accepted that pre-schoolers were more open to suggestion than school-age children and adults and that the effect of the surrounding circumstances on a child's openness to suggestion diminished as they aged.

Leading questions did not necessarily invalidate a child's answer, she said. The reliability of the answers could be checked by looking broadly at the responses and observing how other leading questions were answered. The detail provided by the child would also indicate the reliability of the answers.

It was possible a concept introduced by a parent by way of a leading question in stressful circumstances could lead a child to adopt the concept. A child would have great difficulty in giving a spontaneous and plausible account of a scenario put together from leading questions, she said.

She agreed that the behavioural symptoms or abuse she had outlined to the court were not confined to sexually abused children. But clusters of the symptoms raised the likelihood of abuse.

Dr Zelas could not remember details of appearing on the "Holmes" television programme on March 23, but accepted that on the show she had said parents of the creche children should avoid questioning their children. She accepted the reason she gave was that the risk of introducing ideas might make it impossible to know whether or not their children had been abused. She had also agreed there was a danger that parents may imagine changes in behaviour.

Interviewers did not spend a great deal of time asking children about what their parents had asked or told them because children could seldom provide an accurate answer. The use of different grammar and lack of detail could indicate the information came from a parent, she said.