The Forensic Interview of Children
By Dale L. Koons
Forensic interviewing establishes a child centered, truth-seeking atmosphere. The interview is structured to determine the truth rather than create evidence. A child is permitted and encouraged to relate an event or series of events in a non-judgmental setting. The child is allowed to expand upon his or her interpretation of events without the interviewer placing suggestions in the child's mind. Pertinent information gained through a forensic interview will enable the interviewer to make a legally competent judgment regarding the allegations. This truth seeking focus results in better outcomes for the child, family, and legal system in these critical situations.
The location of the interview is an important consideration toward establishing the proper atmosphere for the child interview. The interview room should be specifically designed: comfortable, quiet, and free from distractions. There must be only one interviewer responsible for interviewing the child. In joint investigations two professionals may be present but only one in the primary role. To protect against outside influence no person having a direct relationship with the child can be present, even for support. A trained victim advocate may accompany the child during the interview. The interview room needs to be equipped with non-intrusive video and audio equipment, and all interviews must be recorded. Such recordings document the interviewer’s technique; capture the child’s demeanor and statements.
The victim interview is the cornerstone of every investigation into child sexual abuse. Structuring the interview to determine the truth rather than create evidence involves achieving specific goals. Three important goals for every child interview are:
To reach these goals the interviewer must first take into consideration the level of a child’s developmental stage. Young children do not have well-developed memory retrieval strategies and may require more specific questions to produce descriptions of events. A child’s cognitive and language capacities improve with age, as does their ability to provide a narrative account of events. The interviewer must adjust language, content, and questioning approaches with children for a successful, competent interview.
Basic questions fall into four categories and each carries different risks of influencing answers.
Open-ended questioning is recommended because interviewer influence is minimized and the probability of the resulting information being accurate is increased. Specific questions and sometimes leading questions will be necessary to clarify information given by the interviewee but the interviewer should quickly return to open-ended questioning. Leading questions may be necessary at times but remember these are “high risk questions” in the forensic setting. Suggestive questions must be avoided in these interviews.
Stepwise Interview. An interview approach I have successfully used throughout my career has in recent years been coined the Stepwise Interview by John Yuille, Ph.D., a psychologist on the faculty at the University of British Columbia.
The underlying premise of this approach is that reports about events are most likely to be accurate when the interviewee generates them. The interviewers seek to create a questioning environment that enhances free recall and minimizes interviewer influence.
The interview is organized as follows
Rapport Building. This is the first and most important step and involves establishing a rapport by discussing neutral topics. The goal is for the child to become comfortable with the interviewer. During this process the interviewer makes informal observations about the child’s communication skills and developmental level. If the interviewer is unable to establish an adequate rapport with the child the interview should ended.
Describing Two Events. During the rapport-building phase a child is encouraged to describe two specific past experiences that have no relation to the abuse allegations. This provides an opportunity for the interviewer to show interest in the child's experiences and develop further rapport. The interviewer also can gauge the amount and quality of detail the child is capable of providing. By encouraging a child to provide narrative accounts and then to respond to the interviewers non-leading, open-ended questions a more detailed statement is obtained.
Telling the Truth. It is necessary for the interviewer to establish the importance of telling the truth. This is often accomplished toward the end of the rapport-building phase. Questions about truth, lies and consequences related to general childhood experiences can go far towards attaining this goal. Communicate the importance of telling the truth and reach an agreement with the child that only the truth will be discussed during the interview. Caution: This must be done delicately because children are sometimes threatened that others will not believe them if they tell. If the interviewer approaches this topic wrongfully the child may become defensive, withdraw from the interview.
Introducing the Topic of Concern. Introduce the purpose of the interview in an indirect fashion by asking very general, open-ended questions. “Do you know why you have come to talk with me today?” Several attempts using indirect questions may be necessary in some interviews. If necessary, proceed to somewhat more specific questions in order to elicit a response related to the topic of concern. Reviews of videotaped interviews find that interviewers do not always use the recommended approaches, especially open-ended questioning. Return quickly to open-ended questioning. General questions about people the child has relationships with can be productive towards getting the child to reveal negative feelings about the abuser and disclose abuse.
Free Narrative. When the child discloses an event of abuse, the interviewer encourages the child to give a free narrative account of the event(s). The child is asked to draw a picture with words describing the activities experienced. It is important to listen and not interrupt, correct, or challenge the child during the narrative account. Prompts to keep the narrative flowing are sometimes necessary (Then what happened? Tell me about that.).
Probing and Clarification. Follow-up questions are required to obtain forensically relevant information that is unfamiliar to children. The use of general and specific questions to follow-up on information the child has provided during the free-narrative account is necessary to draw out explicit details of the child’s experience. Determining whether the child experienced the described sexual activity or merely witnessed such an event is important. The sexually abused child can give detailed accounts of explicit sexual activities, describing feelings (emotional, physical), aromas, taste and textures. Their account can and should go way beyond “He touched my ____”. The goal is to draw out such details that only a person experiencing the abuse can articulate. Inconsistencies or age-inappropriate answers should be gently probed. The interviewer has the responsibility of making a legally competent judgment regarding the allegations.
Concluding the Interview. In concluding the interview its focus is shifted back to neutral topics. This allows the interview to end on a positive note. After the child is relaxed and re-focused the child is thanked for participating regardless of any conclusions the interviewer may have drawn. If the child has any questions that the interviewer can answer, they should be answered prior to concluding the interview.
Reuniting Child & Guardian. Upon concluding the child interview, special attention must be given to how and when the child is reunited with their caregiver. The caregiver is often a parent or other significant relative. These persons often need information about what has happened to the child so that appropriate follow-up care (medical/therapeutic) can be provided. Hearing the extent of the child’s hurt can be overwhelming for the caregiver. If the child and caregiver are brought together before the emotions of the caregiver have subsided, the child will suffer. The child will take upon themselves the responsibility for the pain their loved one is experiencing. For that reason it is important that the caregiver be allowed time for their emotions to subside before bringing the child and caregiver together. Educating the parent/caregiver is important, so that they understand that allowing the child to experience the parent’s pain can be too big of a burden. The child may feel responsible for the pain and feel guilt that is compounding to their original trauma from abuse.
How important is this final step? Not long ago I interviewed a six-year-old girl. She’d disclosed to her mother about being fondled, without penetration, in the vaginal area. The mother, a molest victim herself, became hysterical upon hearing this from her only daughter and immediately called the police. The interview took place the following morning. I found the child still upset over her disclosure experience. Tiffany (not her real name) is a bright young lady and very friendly. She has very good communication skills for her age and could easily talk with me about general events in her life. Gradually the issue of sexual abuse was explored and Tiffany, piece by piece, began to disclose multiple events of abuse. The interview was quite difficult and many times I withdrew from the topic of abuse and lightened the conversation before returning to the abuse. Each time, she appeared to be evaluating my responses to what she’d just added. In the end she’d disclosed multiple events of vaginal and oral penetration. Tiffany emotionally described her disclosure to her mother. When I asked her why she had not told her mother everything she said, “Mommy cried when I hurt her.” Upon concluding the thirty minute interview, I left Tiffany in the care of our victim advocate and spent some time with Tiffany’s mother. I informed her that Tiffany had disclosed more abuse and that penetration was indicated. Tiffany’s mother exploded hysterically. Forty-five tumultuous minutes passed before she composed herself enough to be reunited with her daughter.
Today, when I happen to see Tiffany, she smiles. The interview experience for Tiffany was not a scary, bad experience. If Tiffany had been exposed to her mother’s breakdown, would she smile at me today?