Typical Forensic Child Interview Protocol

Forensic interviewing is a key component of many child protective services investigations. Its purpose is to gather information from a witness or victim for use in a legal setting. The main goal is to obtain a statement, from a minor who reported abuse or is believed to have reported abuse, in an unbiased, developmentally sensitive manner.

What Factors Are Essential to Consider in Forensic Interviews?

Each forensic interview is a unique experience, as no two interviews are exactly the same. Numerous factors are critical to the understanding of forensic interviewing:

  • Age and developmental levels of the child — these factors can affect a child's comprehension, memory, sense of time, attention span, and linguistic capability.
  • Suggestibility of the child — research indicates some children are more suggestible than others. If the interviewer makes a false suggestion, the child may be susceptible to having their memories altered. This depends on a range of factors, including the child's mental state, cognitive ability, and culture.
  • Effect of trauma on the child’s memory — some children can recall traumatic and non-traumatic events with the same clarity. Still, for others, a traumatic event may shape the way they remember the event. Studies show that such an event may enhance the child’s memory.
  • Multiple interviews — some children may need more than an interview, according to research (Newlin, 2015). If multiple interviews are required, the child should be interviewed by the same person.
Forensics Interviewing Protocol Basics

Forensic interviews are hypothesis-testing, and they are not part of a treatment process. They take a child-centered approach, and according to the "Forensic Interviewing Protocol," the interviewers' goal is to rule out alternative explanations for the child abuse allegations.

Video Recording and Documentation

Interviewers are encouraged by the "Forensic Interviewing Protocol" to video or audio record the interview. If a video recording is made, it is essential that all persons present in the room are visible to the camera and can be heard clearly. A designated person that writes down the exact wording of the questions and answers is required if the interview is not being video recorded or audio recorded.

Physical Setting

The protocol requires a facility that is equipped for interviewing purposes. This type of facility generally has comfortable waiting rooms with toys and games. It also features video and audio recording equipment and lacks distractions to allow children to focus on the interview.

If the interviewer doesn't have access to a dedicated center, it's paramount that the interview takes place in a neutral location, away from parents and siblings. A principal's office or a police station are not ideal locations because they may send the child the message they are in trouble. The location chosen for the interview needs to be away from noise and distractions. Children generally pay more attention when distractions, such as toys or computers, are removed from the room.

Basic Guidelines for Interviewers

The "Forensic Interviewing Protocol" includes guidelines for interviewers, adapted from Poole & Lamb, 1998. The interviewer is expected to:

  • Maintain a friendly, relaxed atmosphere and refrain from touching the child
  • Not wear a uniform or have a gun visible
  • Refrain from using food, drink, or bathroom breaks as reinforcements for the child's cooperation
  • Refrain from making any promises
  • Acknowledge the child's feelings, but not make extensive comments about feelings
  • Refrain from using any words that suggest playing or fantasy
  • Refrain from questioning the child about why they behaved in a certain way
  • Refrain from giving any gifts to the child
Establishing Ground Rules

Protocols for forensic child interviews detail a list of phases that the interviewer can use for preparation for the interview, establishing ground rules, and closing the interview. The interview phases are variable, as they often need to be adjusted to accommodate the child's age and levels of cognitive development.

The four main ground rules that the interviewer needs to establish with the child, according to the "Forensic Interviewing Protocol," are:

  • Do not guess the answers: The child needs to understand that it's vital not to guess when answering questions.
  • Tell the interviewer if you don't understand something: The child needs to know that the interviewer will always rephrase a question if they have trouble understanding it in the first place.
  • Correct the interviewer if they make a mistake: The child needs to know they are allowed and encouraged to correct mistakes.
  • Tell the truth: The interviewer must establish that the child knows the difference between telling the truth and telling lies and commits to only tell the truth.

Forensic interviewing is considered a valuable tool for the investigation of child abuse allegations. Nevertheless, forensic interviews are complex, so child welfare officers conducting them must be properly trained. The professionals conducting interviews should not have a therapeutic relationship with the child, whether on-going or planned.