Improper Methods of Interviewing Children Suspected of Being Abused and Their Negative Effects

When a child reports possible abuse, it’s common for them to undergo a forensic interview. This often takes place at a child advocacy center with a professional who has undertaken expert training in interviewing children.

The forensic interview consists of a structured conversation. This dialogue aims to gain information from the child about an event or situation they’ve experienced. The purpose of a forensic interview is to gather evidence of any possible child abuse. When forensic interviews run smoothly, they may help reach a fair verdict in criminal, family, juvenile law or CACI cases.

Here we’ll run through some of the improper methods of interviewing children that may have been abused and the negative effects they can have.

Using Closed Questions

The questions that begin a forensic interview should be open rather than closed. They should welcome a free narrative for a child to explain whether there was an event of child abuse and, if so, describe the event they’ve experienced.

For example, instead of asking, “Did something bad happen to you at the babysitter’s house?” an interviewer should say something more like, “Tell me everything that happened at the babysitter’s house.”

This allows the child to talk at length about the event without any prompts or interruptions from the interviewer. Whereas the closed question above could have been shut down with a “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know” answer.

An open-ended question lets a child freely talk about an experience, giving them complete control over their story.

Empirical research shows that children as young as three- and four-years old can, in some situations, offer precise and accurate reports of their experience when asking open questions.

Younger children, such as preschoolers, however, very often can’t give in-depth reports of their experiences. Often, their stories welcome questions or include statements that may not make sense. In these situations, more questions are often necessary to clear up any misunderstandings or to gain more information.

These questions might help obtain more information about a specific event or situation. For example, an interviewer may say, “You said Danielle hit you. Tell me everything about Danielle hitting you.”

Whatever the reason for the question, the main object at this point in the forensic interview is to gain as much information as possible in the child’s own words, with as little prompt as possible. So, that means questions must be approached in the least suggestive way possible.

Using Option-Posing Questions

Questions that offer options aren’t suggested for use in forensic interviews with children as they may feel compelled to give an answer. That’s even if they don’t understand the question or have a genuine answer to give.

If an interviewer must use multiple-choice questions, a good way to avoid a false answer is to leave out the correct response. For example, if an event took place in a bathroom, it could be rephrased as, “Where did this happen? Was it in the kitchen, the bedroom, or another room?”

That way if the “correct” answer is given, it’s more likely to be true.

Using Leading Questions

Using leading questions or suggestive questions during a forensic interview with a child is the least preferred questioning method. This is especially so when used to gain central or important details.

This is because leading questions often raise ideas or proposals that the child has not brought up. This can be about anything from a person to an action to an event.

Leading or suggestive questions may also suggest to the child that there’s a correct or desired response that the interviewer wants to gain from the child. For example, the question, “He locked you in the bedroom, didn’t he?” may wrongly prompt the answer, “yes,” from the child.

In some situations, leading questions may be difficult to avoid. If a suggestive question is crucial, it must include the least information possible that the child hasn’t already given.

When children do respond to a suggestive question, they should be asked to expand on their answers.

In all circumstances, it’s advised against asking questions that lead the child to answer in a certain way.

Following the Established Guidelines

For a forensic interview to gather the correct information and be useful evidence in the CACI grievance hearing, it’s important to follow the right guidelines on interviewing children. These guidelines are based on empirical research and are known to welcome the most honest and effective results.

The interview advice in this article has been established by state and professional organizations. By following these guidelines, a forensic interview is more likely to offer valid and reliable information in a case wherein a child has reported abuse.