Direct Questions in Forensic Interviews of Children

Forensic interviews with children who have alleged child abuse can be extremely difficult. Sometimes children struggle to communicate effectively with adults about what happened (or didn’t happen), no matter how old they may be.

Effective training and education on the part of the interviewer are crucial in conducting trustworthy child interviews. Those who interview children in a child abuse case often include:

  • Child welfare caseworkers
  • Law enforcement
  • Child advocacy center employees

There are situations where children are more likely to make up stories because that is what they think the interviewer wants to hear. For example, when children are asked the same questions in different settings by different people, their story is likely to change, sometimes significantly.

Asking questions in a way that is more likely to trigger a truthful and more detailed response can help child interviews be a resource rather than condemning testimony.

What is a Forensic Interview?

Forensic interviews are usually just one session of question and answer. An individual trained in questioning children will ask the child about his or her experiences regarding the alleged abuse or other issues. Ideally, there is only one interview with the child, and the interviewer uses open-ended, non-leading questions to get information.

In complex situations, a forensic interview can be conducted in more than one session. While rare, this type of interview format can help give the child time to process information so that they convey what happened more accurately. On the other hand, it also gives opportunity for the child to become confused, forgetful, misdirected or manipulated.

A forensic interview is just one part of a child abuse investigation, but it is often a huge piece of the overall case. The information obtained from this type of interview is used by:

  • Prosecutors
  • Law enforcement
  • Child protection services
  • Medical and mental health practitioners

Sometimes these individuals will participate in the forensic interview, but not always.

Unfortunately, when all of these professionals get untruthful or inaccurate information from the forensic interview, it will usually lead to incorrect conclusions and recommendations.

What is a Direct Question?

Direct questions are often referred to as “open-ended” questions. They allow the child room to respond effectively, with more than a yes or no to answer the question. Questions that can only be answered with a yes or no are known as “leading” questions.

Direct questions have been shown to allow the child to provide more accurate and truthful information in a forensic interview. (See Stacia N. Stolzenberg, Shanna Williams, Kelly McWilliams, Catherine Liang, and Thomas D. Lyon. The Utility of Direct Questions in Eliciting Subjective Content from Children Disclosing Sexual Abuse. University of Southern California Law Schoool Legal Studies Working Paper Series. 2019. P. 286.) When an interviewer uses leading questions, it can trigger a response that is not truthful; the child may be just agreeing with the interviewer because that is what they think the interviewer wants. Ineffective questioning can create a bias in favor of facts that may not be true.

Proper Questioning Techniques in Forensic Interviews

In general, forensic interviews should use open-ended questions wherever possible. However, many younger children and some older children have difficultly expressing their emotions or subjective feelings about what happened (or didn’t happen). Some direction toward a particular event or emotion may be appropriate under limited circumstances.

How and Why Questions

How the question is phrased will have a huge impact on what kind of response the child will provide. “How” questions (such as “How did you feel?”) and “why” questions may not provide substantive responses, especially if the child is young.

These types of questions can often be answered with just a one- or two-word response, which is not very helpful. Interviewers can use these shorter responses to guide the child to provide more information. Using something like, “Tell me about that,” can be a helpful way for the interviewer to direct the conversation.

“What Happened?” Questions

When a child is asked what happened, they have more opportunity to talk about what actually happened versus how they felt about what was happening.

Defending Improper Questioning in Interviews

When an interviewer does not ask the right questions or present information in the right way, it can lead to false allegations, incorrect information, and details that simply are not true. You can point out to a decisionmaker that the interviewer used improper questioning methods as a defense to a false allegation of child abuse.

An interviewer’s bias or prejudice can also end up pushing a child to create stories that simply are not true. You can use this type of improper questioning to your advantage to combat false child abuse allegations.