Proper Tactics for Forensic Interviews of Children

It's not unreasonable to think the odds have been stacked against you.

In the minds of the public, especially, you're dealing with biases that will favor a young child's word over yours—despite the facts at hand.

Fortunately, the legal system hinges upon far more than what the mainstream media and other outside voices think. More specifically, what matters most are the following:

  • Due process
  • Proper evidence
  • Sticking to procedures

Without adhering to the above three aspects (amongst others), the case against you falls apart. There are mandates for how everything is to be done, including how an interview of a child is conducted.

How Does the Interview Process Impact You?

As integral as it is for you to form your best defense against these false allegations, it's most vital for government personnel trying to build a case against you to perform their duties correctly.

Even when there's a strong chance someone has committed a legal infraction, the failure to accurately follow procedures can lead impact the case.

In your case, however, you didn't do anything wrong. And for the accusation to get this far, we can make an educated guess that procedural errors have been made. The child interview process is one area that we scrutinize as defense attorneys.

It is essential for anyone interviewing an allegedly abused child to follow the best practices. A failure to do so will impact the credibility of the allegations and go a long way in helping us put this mess behind you.

Additional Context

Throughout the rest of this article, I'll be referring to a research paper called "Investigative Interviewing of the Child." (Lyon, Thomas D. Investigative interviewing of the child. In D.N. Duequette & A.M. Haralambie (Eds.) Child Welfare Law and Practice (2d Ed.).)

The initial premise for the research done for this paper stems from the 1980s. There were allegations of ritualistic abuse in daycare centers that were coerced by the interviewers via controversial questioning techniques. Follow-up studies showed how suggestible preschool children were.

Subsequently, the findings indicated that while most interviews aren't so outright, the questions being asked were still too direct.

These kinds of questions didn't allow younger children to tell the full story of the allegedly abusive experience. Interestingly, the reason why interviewers initially used the coercive questions methods was they believed the methods to be critical in overcoming the reluctance an abused child might experience in disclosing what happened to the interviewer.

However, it was found that these approaches lessen the amount of detail in truthful allegations while increasing the chance for false claims.

What Does a Proper Interview Look Like?

In the paper cited above, Dr. Lyon gives his thoughts on the correct techniques for forensic interviews of children in detail. I'll be mostly scratching the surface with these explanations—but your main takeaway should be the forensic interviewer’s accountability for adhering to these techniques.

More specifically, the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions are put under a microscope.

The author clearly establishes that open-ended questions must be at the forefront of these interviews and that closed-ended inquiries hurt investigations. Let’s examine this notion further.

What is a Closed-Ended Question?

One kind of closed-ended questions only gives the interviewee a chance to answer with either "yes" or "no," with little opportunity for anything else. Generally, these inquiries begin with the words "did" or "was."

Other closed-ended questions give forced-answer options. In these instances, a child is offered opportunities to pick, and one choice always uses the word "or." An example of this tactic would be "Was it at 5 o'clock or 6 o'clock?" with no other options.

Why Are Closed-Ended Questions a Poor Forensic Practice?

Much of the analysis performed shows an over-reliance on yes-or-no questions during forensic interviews of children.

The main knock against this type of interviewing is that it doesn't give younger children the chance to elaborate. If younger children can answer with one word, they'll give the one word answer rather than provide the information necessary.

Furthermore, closed-ended questions tend to be more suggestive, leading to answers that reflect biases.

Closed-Ended Questions Are More About the Interviewer Than Interviewee

Closed-ended questions include the information needed to answer the question within the question itself, rather than allow the interviewee to provide the information in the answer. That's why the questions only generate one-word responses.

This fact alone means the information being brought to the table is predicated on what the interviewer already knows, assumes, or guesses. Therefore, the child – most likely – won't be able to add any valuable, new information.

Plus, this approach is highly speculative and conducive to the interviewer leaning on their own imagination. What if those assumptions aren't correct? The whole process will be completely unproductive.

Another definite negative against these inquiries is that they depend so much on the words of those interviewing. With younger children, they won't necessarily be able to grasp all the terminology, nor will they have the confidence to clarify with the interviewer that they don't understand. They'll answer "yes" or "no" just to appease whoever is questioning them.

Lastly, giving distinct options for answers removes the chance for children to state outright, "I don't know." We need to always consider the challenges these children face. They won't want to seem ignorant and will say what they need to say to get through the interview.

What Are Open-Ended Questions?

When interviewers ask open-ended questions, it removes the static, or yes/no element from the equation. It's more of a statement seeking out a response that can be compared to the interviewer's already known information.

Open-ended questions tend to be framed as "tell me more about what happened" or "how did this make you feel?"

Why Are Open-Ended Questions More Forensically Effective?

Researchers found that there were distinct types of open-ended questions that promoted far more details to be provided in the response, especially when compared to their closed-ended counterparts.

The "tell me more about" approach, referred to above, is also known as an invitation. It's the most productive technique used with young children.

Don't Be Afraid to Hold Interviewers Accountable

Younger children can be highly suggestible, which can manifest itself into false accusations. It's up to forensic investigators to follow the correct procedures to get factual answers. If they don't, it's up to the defense attorney to attack the credibility of the interview.