ROCKPORT — Six days after Caleigh Harrison disappeared from Long Beach — and after three days when the weather prevented the search for the toddler from continuing — Massachusetts State Police troopers and divers are due to renew their efforts on land and water this morning.
While part of the probe shifts to any information that can be gleaned from interviews with other beach-goers, including Caleigh's older sister, an area child psychologist Tuesday questioned how much the 4-year-old girl — the only known witness at the scene — may be capable of offering regarding the almost 3-year-old Caleigh's disappearance.
Elizabeth Harrison, 4, was at the beach with Caleigh and the girls' mother, Allison Hammond, shortly after noon and high tide last Thursday, when Hammond reportedly turned away from the girls for a minute to fetch a ball. When Hammond returned, Caleigh was gone.
Elizabeth walked through the sequence of events with a Rockport police officer in the hours immediately after Caleigh was reported missing. Elizabeth reportedly told state police that she could not recall the events, and a child expert was called in to speak with her Saturday. Authorities have not told the family the results of that interview, a family spokesman said Monday.
While many have said they hope the specialist's Saturday interview will lead to new developments, child psychologist Don Sugai told the Times on Tuesday he would not expect a child that young to be able to offer much in the way of concrete information.
"Four-year-olds don't have the ability to think abstractly. They don't associate events with danger or consequences," said Sugai, who has worked 26 years for Lahey Clinic, now transitioning to Lahey Health System and incorporating Northeast Health System and Addison Gilbert Hospital.
Sugai explained that, for example, while Elizabeth might be able to say where she was standing, she would not know exactly where anyone else was, or be able to explain the sequence of events in a way an adult could understand.
"To me, it is unlikely that a child would have an accurate recollection," said Sugai, though he noted that, given that children develop at different rates, it's possible that a child could be capable of more than was expected.
Sugai explained that a 4-year-old's inability to link events and consequences would make giving an accurate timeline of events nearly impossible.
"Recalling sequentially isn't something a 4-year-old could do," said Sugai.
Sugai said that an interview in a play-based setting could elicit more information than a traditional interview, but that, in either case, leading questions would be needed in order to organize the information, a situation that could impose its own problems. Officials have discussed the format of Elizabeth's interview.
"The danger (with asking leading questions) is seeding a thought that might not be accurate," said Sugai. If a question is asked in a certain way, it could convince the child that a piece of information, true or not, is true.
The state of Massachusetts has accepted the testimony of 4-year-olds before, though the interviews with Elizabeth are not at the same level as testimony. In a 1989 case, the Commonwealth vs. Dockham, the court accepted the testimony of a 4-year-old boy who said he had been abused by his mother and a man he called his father.
Sugai said that there is a difference between the way children understand things happening to them and things happening around them.
"If there is an event that happens to them, there is a physical response," said Sugai. Events happening around the child are learned visually and make not stick in the memory, Sugai said.
While the search for Caleigh has focused on the premise that the toddler likely went into the water — on a day when the National Weather Service issued a warning of dangerous surf and in an area of the beach prone to riptides, state police continue to emphasize they have not ruled out foul play — though they did not and still have not issued an amber alert signifying an abduction.
With state police unable to rule out abduction, Sugai sounded another word of investigative concern; he said that, unless a person standing nearby seemed particularly ominous, Elizabeth might not have noticed such a person, and would be very unlikely to remember the proximity at all.
Investigators with the Essex County District Attorney's Office are conducting interviews with people who were on the beach when Caleigh disappeared, though the office would not say how many people have been interviewed.
Approximately 20 divers are scheduled to re-enter the water off Long Beach today at 9 a.m. to resume the search.
Stephanie Bergman can contacted at 978-283-7000 x3451 or email@example.com