Acknowledging cross-cultural differences in investigations of child sexual abuse

cultural values
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Allegations of child sexual abuse are some of the most difficult cases to investigate because of the lack of corroborating evidence. There are often no physical markers, medical injuries may have healed before the allegation is made, and investigators and others in the justice system are dependent on the completeness and accuracy of child complainants.

cultural values
Professor Kim P Roberts, PhD

The cultural diversity in many European countries brings another level of complexity to these investigations. Differences in language and cultural values and practices can all influence how, and whether, children can articulate the allegations. In this special report, consideration of South East Asian families in Canada is used as an example of some of the issues involved in the investigation of child sexual abuse in multicultural societies.

The cultural value system

Immigrants from East Asia make up 14.2% of the total number of immigrants in Canada. Individuals tend to conceptualise themselves in ways that conform to their cultural values, which will serve as a general guide that directs their overall memory processes and behaviour in general. Comparatively, East Asian cultures emphasise social harmony and family connectedness, whereas North American culture traditionally values independence and autonomy.

We focus here specifically on three areas of concern with respect to child abuse investigations: 1) Cultural differences that can impact the path of disclosure of sexual abuse; 2) Cultural differences that can shape children’s memory recall; and 3) Language differences which reduce the chances that perpetrators will be charged or prosecuted.

  • How cultural values affect disclosure

According to Canadian incidence studies, Asian Canadian children’s reporting rate of sexual abuse is disproportionally low compared to Caucasian children and other visible minorities (e.g. Indigenous Peoples) in Canada. The supreme importance of the family as a unit and valuing group harmony over personal needs may reduce the disclosure of sexual abuse. Western views are more entrenched in justice for the individual (the child, the perpetrator) which may, compared to East Asian families, increase the probability of disclosure by the alleged victims or their parents.

  • How cultural values affect memories

In some of our work (Qi & Roberts, 2018), we have found that children in China recalled the more social aspects of an event (what the group did, relationships in the group, etc.) whereas children in Canada recalled more personal and individualistic details of the same event for example, their own actions and emotions. Descriptions did not vary in accuracy rate, but rather in the type of information that was recalled.

  • How language affects event descriptions

In the English language, events are framed using temporal markers such as: yesterday, last week, on my birthday or by varying the tense. ‘I went to my dad’s house’ signifies an event that has happened, whereas ‘I am going to my dad’s house’ implies that the event is currently in motion. Chinese (Mandarin), however, is a language without tense morphology and only indirect references to time, such as, the context of a conversation. Additionally, the use of le can follow a verb: ‘I go [le] to school’ to indicate ‘I went to school’; and zai could be added to reflect ‘I [zai] go to school’ – ‘I’m going to school’. These forms, however, are not always used because they are not mandatory components of a complete Chinese sentence. Thus, the non-explicit and often ambiguous indication of time in a typical Chinese conversation may create additional challenges gathering testimony in a Western justice system.


In this special report, we have used the example of challenges that East Asian immigrant youth face in a Western justice system. The issues raised, however, are just as applicable whenever language or culture differs in investigative contexts. Even when interpreters can translate between the immigrant and host country languages, errors are clearly possible given the fundamental differences in the culture, and its impact on how memories are described.

Western justice systems prefer descriptions of individual incidents, something that might be conceptually different to how memories are described in other cultures. It is important to be both age appropriate and culturally appropriate in investigations of child sexual abuse. Different cultures have much to learn from each other.

Special Report Author Details
Author: Professor Kim P Roberts, PhD
Organisation: Wilfrid Laurier University
Telephone: 519 884 0710 ext 3225#
Website: Visit Website


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