The Effect of Repeated Questions in Child Abuse Interviews

Younger children have trouble conveying their memories correctly to others. They are more susceptible to suggestion, and their memories seem to fade quickly. As memories lapse, they are more likely to craft their own details to fill in the blanks.

Repeated questions also tend to trigger different responses, and it can be challenging to determine which responses are accurate and which answers are simply a way to fill in the blanks as a child’s memory fades. (See Thomas D. Lyon. Applying Suggestibility Research to the Real World: The Case of Repeated Questions. Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 65: No. 1, Page 97, Winter 2002.)

Why Do Interviewers Ask Repeat Questions?

Repeated questions are often used to clarify issues and give the child an additional opportunity to respond. They are also sometimes used simply because the interviewer forgot whether a particular area was covered in the interview.

Repeated questions are extremely common in child interviews. In one study, for example, a review of 42 video-taped investigations involving alleged child abuse indicated that there were repeated questions in 95% of the cases. Roughly 7% of all of the questions asked were repeated at some point in the interview.

The Problem with Repeated Questions

Repeated questions are considered a “highly suggestive technique” and a “very powerful suggestive manipulation” by some experts. Children will often change their answers when asked the same question a second time. This result applies across the board—from simple questions to investigations regarding child abuse.

Pre-school age children are particularly susceptible to suggestion compared to other age groups.

When children are asked a question more than once, researchers suspect that one of two things is happening:

  1. The child thought their answer the first time was incorrect.
  2. The child thought the interviewer was unhappy with the answer that they provided.

A child will often change their answer to please an adult. As a result, answers given to repeated questions are often not nearly as credible as the child’s first answer. Both researchers and the legal world need to be aware of the concern about the reliability of repeat questions.

In fact, the most accurate information that a child provides will not be elicited by another person at all—it is instead generally spontaneous. When a child is not prompted, he or she is more likely to give a truthful response.

Repeated Questions Versus Repeating Interviews

In ideal circumstances, forensic interviews in child abuse cases are only conducted one time. The reason for this, in large part, is so the child does not have to go through more than one interview. The reliability of conducting a second interview may also be questionable.

Much of the research on repeated questions focuses only on repeated questions in one interview, instead of across several interviews. However, the same concerns regarding reliability are often raised—but for different reasons.

Differing Viewpoints: Memory Issues

When there is more than one forensic interview, a child’s memory (or lack thereof) becomes more of an issue. A child is more likely to fill-in information that they cannot recall if later interviews are conducted.

On the other hand, some research indicates that where a child repeats the same information, they are more likely to remember it. Repetition, in that type of situation, can actually increase the child’s memory so that the interviewer gets accurate information, even in later interviews.

Research is generally not conclusive on these points. However, it appears that the younger the child is, the more likely they are to change their answer in a subsequent interview.

Repetition as a Means to Encourage Responsiveness

In many situations, a child will answer a question with an “I don’t know” response, or they may not respond. In those circumstances, interviewers will often repeat the question as a means to increase the likelihood that the child will answer the question.

The research on whether this tactic is suggestive or leads to incorrect or untruthful answers is virtually non-existent (or at least it was as of 2002). As a result, it is unclear whether asking the second question to probe whether the child will answer or actually does know the answer to a question will influence their responses.

Using Repeated Question Evidence

In general, it seems that the first response that a child provides is often regarded as the most accurate. Of course, that may not be the case in every situation. However, if a child has provided information in an interview only after being asked the same question more than once, you may be able to use research to undermine the reliability of the child’s response.

This type of tactic can be very beneficial in a child abuse allegation case. In many situations, the child’s testimony is the only evidence of any alleged abuse, so it is essential that it is accurate. If the interviewer used suggestive tactics like repeated questions, then you may be able to point that error out in a child abuse investigation.