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USC professor at the intersection of children and justice

Thomas Lyon, who holds a rare dual professorship in law and psychology at USC, is a leader in the field of interviewing children for abuse and criminal cases.

March 19, 2012|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • From his colorful van, USC professor Thomas Lyon runs experiments about getting kids to talk -- and tell the truth. His research has been influential in how children are treated in the justice system.
From his colorful van, USC professor Thomas Lyon runs experiments about… (Katie Falkenberg, For The…)

The interview begins on a cheerful note. USC law professor Thomas Lyon asks a 4-year-old to tell him about her last birthday. She says she took ice cream, chocolate and cake, "mixed it up and ate it." Then she shared some with her brothers.

Lyon gently turns to the tragic matter at hand. "Tell me why you came to talk to me; tell me what happened," he asks the child, the only eyewitness to a homicide. At first she mumbles "hmm" a few times and rocks in her chair as Lyon repeats the question. And then she starts talking about seeing her mother stab the child's great-grandmother in their home. "She was killing her by the bike," the girl says. "I see," Lyon continues. "And how did she kill her?" "With a sharp knife," she says.

With that exchange, Lyon, then a consultant for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, elicited key information the police could not. That videotaped session is often viewed around the country by social workers, lawyers and law enforcement authorities who want to improve how they interview children in custodial, abuse and criminal cases.

Lyon, a Harvard-trained attorney with a doctorate in psychology from Stanford, is a leader in the field. His work has helped show that open-ended, nonjudgmental questions can prompt more detailed narratives from children, whether about birthdays or murder. His federally funded research also shows that getting a child to promise to be honest actually makes it more likely that they will tell the truth.

Lyon, who is 50 and the father of two teenagers, said there is no trauma in his past that propels his interest in child abuse. In fact, he said, warm memories of his Nebraska upbringing made him want to work with children during his adult career. After law school, he worked in the Los Angeles County Counsel's children's division and then studied child psychology. At USC, where he's taught since 1995, he holds a rare dual professorship in law and psychology, combining a passion for justice with a wonkish pursuit of data.

"Actually I find abuse work often terribly depressing, but what keeps me in it is how great the kids are despite the abuse they suffer. They still tend to be really resilient, really interested in things, really excited about stuff," he said. "And that's inspiring."

His field has generated debate among psychologists and lawyers for decades. The McMartin preschool case in the 1980s — in which children's allegations of sexual abuse and satanic rituals were found to be unreliable — underscored how controversial the topic of children's memory can be. Afterward, much research focused on avoiding coercive questioning and false accusations.

That emphasis was valuable but swung too far toward skepticism and ignored larger problems of underreporting and secrecy, said Lyon, who is past president of the American Psychological Assn.'s child maltreatment division.

"Anyone who works with abused kids knows the kids are afraid and threatened and reluctant and ashamed," said Lyon, who has a soft-spoken manner.

Critics say Lyon tends to be too pro-prosecution. Elizabeth Loftus, a UC Irvine law and cognitive science professor who has consulted for the defense in abuse and murder cases, including McMartin, said she thinks Lyon's experiments on children's truth-telling are worthwhile. But she said Lyon "sometimes is so attached to the idea of child abuse, as horrible as it is, that he overlooks other things like civil liberties of accused people."

Lyon said he is not out to convict the innocent but wants the criminal justice system to understand how memories of childhood abuse can last through adulthood.

Lyon is among the experts who have trained sheriff's deputies in interviewing methods that they've subsequently used in recent abuse cases in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said L.A. County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Dan Scott. Sheriff's investigators spent months interviewing past students of a former teacher at Miramonte Elementary, who has been charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct.

Mary Murray, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, recalled a case involving a 6-year-old boy who was a key witness to the torture and murder of his mother by his father. Lyon obtained detailed videotaped statements from the child about hearing the beating and seeing his mother collapse. He was adopted by his paternal grandfather, and at trial two years later, the boy said he couldn't recall anything; the video was allowed as evidence, and the father was convicted.

"It sounds and looks really easy until you try it yourself and hit a brick wall," Murray said. Lyon "is able to mine a child for whatever information a child has to offer."

Lyon is a prolific researcher who receives substantial federal backing. Grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to him and collaborators are expected to total $3.6 million over a decade by 2015.

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