Problems to Look for in Interviews of Young Children

It’s hard for anybody to attack the credibility of words spoken by a young child, but given what our clients are dealing with, it is sometimes the only option.

Even with false accusations, you end up facing disproportionate consequences that can damage your quality of life. It’s only fair that you explore every available strategy that can present some form of reasonable doubt.

One defensive approach we’ve regularly taken is seeking out problems in forensic interviews of young children falsely accusing our clients.

Note that in this situation, you aren’t necessarily “going after” the child. You might simply be questioning the methods utilized by the interviewer that led to an untrue allegation.

Through the rest of this article, we’ll discuss how the interview process can result in bad information coming from the child. We’ll also explore how forensic interviewers can overlook the lack of credibility in the answers.

Children’s Reports Can Be Distorted Without Outside Influence

Children are susceptible to being prompted into making false reports of abuse. They can also make false reports, unprompted. It comes down to factors such as social and cognitive maturity, life experience, and the context of the interview.

There was one study done in which 10 videotapes of children interviews were shown to 12 research psychologists. These psychologists were purported experts in the interviewing of children. Yet, they couldn’t distinguish fiction from fact. Primarily, this was because the false reports displayed characteristics associated with truth-telling. Namely, the children included peculiar details and would “correct” themselves on the fly.

What Kind of Techniques Lead to False Information?

Another study points out that children’s false narratives became more elaborate and convincing when faced with repeated interviews.

Other instances that contributed to similar results were direct questions about the abuse and the prompting of children with anatomically correct dolls.

Repeated questioning also plays a role in “gradual disclosures” where an adult suspects abuse has occurred. In one study, 3 out of the 4 children, referred to therapy, initially denied abuse. Slowly, they transitioned to partial disclosure, before fully disclosing an entire story of abuse.

The problem was these children were repetitively questioned based on weak evidence. For example, 28% of those involved were asked because of time spent with an alleged abuser, and 14% were interviewed due to “inappropriate sexual behavior.”

Unfortunately, the study didn’t disclose whether the children’s accounts were accurate (perhaps because no one knows), but the reasons for questioning were spurious. The problem is that child protective services agencies view these situations as “gradual disclosures” instead of “gradual invention.”

(We find the word “disclosure” to be particularly pernicious. The word is typically used when talking about facts and truths. When child protective services agencies and law enforcement use the word “disclosure” in reference to allegations, they are simply revealing their bias in assuming the statement made by the child is true.)

The Mindset of Interviewers Leads to Poor Practices

Some interview methods are highly suggestive, coercive, and are conducive to making children believe something happened that didn’t.

Why are these techniques continually relied upon by interviewers?

The research suggests that it stems from children’s reluctancy to reveal instances of genital touching, even when such touching is done by a doctor at a doctor visit. Overzealous and careless interviewers use this as justification to barrel through, sloppily so, with manipulative interviewing techniques.

That some children are hesitant to disclose some information doesn’t justify shortcuts or tactics in the interview process that could lead to poor evidence.

Coercing answers out of hesitant children on the stated grounds that getting information in other ways is challenging flies in the face of the core principle that people are presumed innocent.

How Should Interviewers Conduct Themselves with Children?

When we formulate a defense for our clients, we investigate whether proper guidelines were honored when the child was interviewed, some of which are the following:

  • Interviews should be conducted soon after the alleged incident.
  • The children are taught how to participate in the interview and benefit from a “settling in” period.
  • Open-ended questions are used, instead of inquiries that necessitate “yes” or “no” responses.
  • The interviewers remain neutral throughout the process and continue to pose questions that offer the most options when probing further.

The failure to maintain these standards brings into question the overall reliability of the interviewing process.

Don’t Let Sloppy Forensic Interviewers Hurt Your Cause

Those interviewing children – who may or may not have been abused – are tasked with immense responsibilities. While it’s understandable that emotions are in play, and the desire to get the story out of a child can be overwhelming, they must follow stringent, sound protocol.

When a forensic interviewer lacks the required objectivity in their approach, it could mean they’ve played a role in unjustly accusing you of child abuse.