What Makes Trauma Memories Different?

Photo: adult looking at old photo of child

The sexual assault and child pornography conviction of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. The child sex abuse scandal of Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. Hundreds of priests accused of sexual misconduct that took place over many years.

These and other shocking cases — in addition to shattering public confidence in once-trusted officials and the institutions that employed them — raised the question in people’s minds: How well can anyone remember events that happened years, and even decades, earlier?

The answer from a pioneering expert on child memory at UC Davis: "Pretty well, with the greater the trauma in childhood, the more accurate the memory as an adult."

Shared new findings with Senate for Kavanaugh hearings

Psychologist Gail Goodman and colleagues reported their findings as another instance of alleged sexual misconduct unfolded on a central stage — the confirmation proceedings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

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Gail Goodman

In a Sept. 27 essay in The Hill, “Age of a Memory Alone Should Not Shut the Door on Justice,” the researchers urged a full investigation into allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers, which he denied.

“The Judiciary Committee is in a unique position to mirror for the country the legal response it believes should be afforded to both victims and defendants of alleged sexual assault,” Goodman and co-authors wrote. “Of importance, our cutting-edge research supports that victims of sexual assault can accurately recall the trauma even after decades have passed.”

A divided Senate ultimately confirmed Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the studies by Goodman and her collaborators hold implications for the handling of future cases where adults report abuse from their childhood or teens.  

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Deborah Goldfarb and Jodi Quas

“Our findings argue for extending statues of limitations that permit sexual crimes experienced in childhood, as recounted in adulthood, to move into the court system,” they write in “Trauma and Long-Term Memory of Childhood Events: Impact Matters,” in the Oct. 15 issue of the journal Child Development Perspectives.

The co-authors are both UC Davis alumni — Deborah Goldfarb (Ph.D., psychology, ’18), an assistant professor at the Florida International University, and Jodi Quas (Ph.D., psychology, ’98), a professor at UC Irvine.

Pioneering research cited in U.S. Supreme Court cases

Goodman’s research on child memory and trauma has broken new ground and led to changes in the legal system before.

When she first began studying children’s memories in the 1980s, there were few scientific studies on the reliability of child eyewitnesses.

Goodman found that while children’s memories, like those of adults, could be tainted by coercive questioning, children as young as 4 or 5 — and some children even younger — can resist false abuse suggestions under a variety of circumstances.

Her findings on children’s testimony and on their emotional reactions to legal involvement would eventually would be cited in U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Her work, in addition to helping the courts, contributed to efforts to improve interviewing methods in child-abuse cases, as well as advancing basic understanding of human memory development.

“It is not hyperbole to say that her contributions have altered the lives of children and their guardians (for the better!) across the globe.” — American Psychological Association in honoring Goodman in 2017 for distinguished contributions to psychology in the public interest.

Balancing rights of defendants and child witnesses

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Sue Hobbs 

In another recent paper, Goodman and a colleague at Sacramento State University — Sue Hobbs, an assistant professor of child development who also earned her psychology doctorate at UC Davis — called for federal legislation to protect child victims of crime from being cross-examined by defendants who choose to represent themselves in court.

Allowing a defendant to directly cross-examine his or her alleged victim risks re-traumatizing the child and causing long-term psychological damage, Hobbs and Goodman wrote in “Self-Representation: Pro se Cross-Examination and Revisiting Trauma upon Child Witnesses,” published in the International Journal on Child Maltreatment: Research, Policy and Practice.