The Impact of Interviewing Props on Children's Reports of Inappropriate Touching

Investigations for alleged cases of child abuse are incredibly delicate.

A sensitive aspect of this process is interviewing the child alleged to have been abused. It must be done in a way that ascertains the facts, strictly. The answers provided are much like any other evidence, whether it's an item of clothing or a strand of hair. There can't be any tampering or mishandling of the evidence, i.e., information. Otherwise, the interview becomes tainted or of questionable value.

As defense attorneys, we look for ways to discredit the interviewing process to protect our innocent clients from false allegations.

For instance, when building a defense, we do our best to examine the use of props during the interview process. These tend to act as prompts and, unless the interviewer takes great pains to remain objective, can be overly suggestive to the child. If we're able to prove that the child was subject to manipulative or even coercive interviewing tactics, it's likelier that the allegations are disproven or at least fail to hold up.

From there, our clients can move on with their lives—and not worry about being on the Central Child Abuse Index (CACI).

Further proving the lack of reliability that comes with using props is an article that discusses the problematic nature of these child interviewing techniques. The paper whose findings we’ll be reviewing here is: Debra Ann Poole & Maggie Bruck. Divining testimony? The impact of interviewing props on children's reports of touching. Developmental Review 32 (2012) 165-180.

Why Are Dolls Unreliable During Forensic Interviews of Children?

Anatomical dolls are props that have been used to "bridge the gap" for young children during the forensic interview process.

Despite its prominence as an interviewing device, it only took basic developmental research to cast a shadow of doubt over the validity of dolls.

For one thing, younger children struggle with comprehending symbol-referent relations. Given the doll acts as both object and symbol of a person, this presents a distinct problem. One study saw assistants place stickers on children, who were then asked to show where the said stickers were placed by putting them on a doll.

The younger subjects, who were between 2.5-and-3.5-years-old, found it incredibly challenging to place the stickers correctly. Keep in mind, they were still wearing large stickers.

In a similar study, 12.5% of children who were four years old also had trouble with placing stickers correctly on dolls. That doesn't sound like a significant number, but it's enough to raise concerns with forensic accuracy and reliability.

Why Are Body Diagrams Unreliable During Forensic Interviews of Children?

Another study was done with children, where they were asked to identify body parts on a clothed body diagram, a doll, and themselves.

Three-year-olds were unable to perform the tasks correctly, with only a 45% accuracy rate with diagrams. The four-year-old subjects had a 79% accuracy rate with the body diagrams. In both scenarios, the children showed more success with dolls, lending credence to the idea that drawings aren't an adequate remedy to problems with child interviews.

Two more studies assessed the cognitive abilities of 5-7-year-olds when it comes to reporting events on body diagrams. The interviewer would touch the children on their elbows, who were then expected to point out where the touching occurred on the drawing. Surprisingly, over half of the children needed to be corrected throughout the process.

Further Problems with These Interview Methods

It's troubling that even with the reality of the discussed results, these child interviewing practices are still prevalent.

Researchers looked at interviews using the NICHD protocol: applying verbal reports through rapport-building, practice interviews, and open-ended questions. The idea was for the children to do the bulk of the talking. When interviewers couldn't obtain more information, they then referred to gender-neutral, unclothed diagrams and used closed-ended yes-no questions.

Younger children, after the follow-up to the NICHD protocol, were prompted into providing additional information. This included the description of bodily contact.

There was nothing to suggest the accuracy of those answers. There was only enough information to show that even after extensive interviewing, children were happy to provide additional details when prompted.

It’s easy for interviewers to feel the need to obtain answers, feeling the instant gratification that comes with results, and also feeling it’s “their job” to obtain information and evidence of child abuse.

False Allegations Are Made Worse by Questionable Interview Tactics

You've done nothing wrong, but have been wronged by the system.

A lot of the time, the reasons false accusations of child abuse gain traction come down to poor investigative practices, such as the use of dolls and diagrams in the forensic interview process. If your defense team can discredit these protocols, you'll be able to move on from this terrible situation and clear your good name.