Repeated questioning may provoke young children to fabricate events that never occurred. Although a child may first deny an event, false memories often develop through the imagination's response to persistent inquiry. Because a certain amount of suggestive questioning may be needed to convince a child to disclose information, difficulty lies in determining whether the child's response is authentic or induced by repetition. Accounts of false memories are often quite believable. This substantiates concern over the reliance of judges and juries on a child's testimony when it is the only available evidence in a legal case.
Until recent years the testimony of small children was deemed truthful unless proven otherwise. Psychologists believed younger children, who were less inhibited, were less likely to fabricate events even in the face of repetitive interrogation.
In a 1993 study of children ages 4-6, researchers from Chicago found that after 11 weeks of personal questioning, 56% of children reported at least one false event as true. Some children reported all false events as true. The testimonies of children are often the only evidence in cases of sexual abuse, and are therefore crucial. Approximately 20,000 children testify in sexual abuse trials each year, and as many as 100,000 are involved in investigations, many of which never go on trial. In 1988 a pre-school teacher from New Jersey was convicted on 115 counts of sexually abusing 19 children. The charges were based solely on testimonies of 3- to 5-year olds, who were subject to prior interrogation. Following four years of further investigation her conviction was overturned, as researchers raised more questions about potentially unreliable evidence of children after persistent inquiry.