One of the more difficult calls for service that a police officer can make is responding to a situation in which a child is the victim of, or the witness to, a criminal matter.
Unfortunately in situations such as violence in relationships (VIR), children are involved all too frequently. Either they saw the violence or experienced it first-hand. In child sexual abuse investigations, the child is often the only one able to provide information, aside from the offender.
As a result, it may be necessary for a police officer to interview a child. In a number of regions, it's mandated for a police officer to speak to a child while conducting a VIR investigation. However, if there's one segment of the population that many officers are reluctant to speak to, it's children.
In the past, interviewing children was considered impossible, unnecessary and not useful. The common view was that children were unable to provide truthful or reliable information. However, in the last number of years, in both the criminal justice world as well as academia, these views have been changing. In the proper circumstances, children can provide information that is both valid and reliable.
Care must be taken in how the child is interviewed. The interviewer carries enormous responsibility in such cases, as he or she can single-handedly determine the probability of disclosure. Some improper techniques, such as the use of reinforcements (punishments and rewards), using social influence (telling the child what others have said), asking suggestive or leading questions (introducing information that the child has not disclosed), and removing the child from direct experience (asking what might have happened) can all lead to negative consequences.
Child interviewing approaches
Gone are the days when investigators would use "just the facts" and question-and-answer format with children. There have been a number of structured techniques developed, such as the Step-Wise Interview and the NICHD Protocol, to assist in interviewing children. Many police agencies now offer training in one of these models or other similar approaches.
The goals of these approaches are similar: they aim to minimize any negative effects on the child, increase the information gained and decrease any possible negative outcomes, as discussed above.
The NICHD Protocol begins with an introduction, a truth–lie discussion and establishing ground rules for the interview. Next, the interviewer focuses on building rapport and asks the child to describe a neutral event. The interviewer then transitions into the abuse-specific questioning by asking the child to describe why he or she is being interviewed.
The Step-Wise model is similar and focuses on a number of flexible, fluid steps:
- Building rapport
- Introducing the topic
- Encouraging narrative discussion
- Enhancement of narrative
Preparing for the interview
A key step is to prepare for the child interview. There's often pressure to conduct these interviews quickly. However, any effort to learn as much as possible about the incident itself and the child before the interview begins will be helpful. For instance, talking to parents, relatives and teachers (if appropriate) can provide information on the child's likes and dislikes, their attention span, and other information that can be used to fill any gaps during the interview.
An investigator will want to consider when and where the interview occurs. Always try to determine a time when the child is most able or willing to talk, and find a place that provides privacy and where they may be most comfortable to talk (try to avoid the place where the incident occurred). As long as the interview can be video recorded, this can be done for example at the detachment, at the child and family services or child advocacy centre offices or at a school. Take care to keep the room as free from distractions as possible.
How young is too young for a child to participate? Children under two years would be considered too young, as they haven't gained the necessary cognitive or verbal skills. Children older than two years need to be individually assessed.
The next step is to decide who should be in the interview room. Perhaps the best approach is to have as few people present as possible, although there are times when it's necessary to have a support person for the child (such as a parent) and other professionals (such as a child protection worker).
How to begin
When the interview begins, the key is to put the child at ease. Always remember to use language that's age appropriate. Emphasize to the child that they are not in trouble. The concept of the 'safe room' can be discussed — the child can talk about anything they want and will not get into trouble.
Building rapport with the child is a key component. The interviewer can begin to get to know the child by talking about school, sports or hobbies. This is more than just having a conversation. The interviewer should already be encouraging the child to give detailed responses called narrative descriptions. This will help the child provide more details to open-ended prompts later in the interview. The interviewer can also begin to assess the child's level of comfort, verbal abilities and memory recall. The truth-versus-lie discussion can take place during this stage.
The discussion should then begin to focus on why the child is being interviewed. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of these types of the interviews because the interviewer will want to focus on the incident or issue without actually asking directly about it. For example, if the incident occurred on a particular day, ask the child to discuss their day from the moment of waking up onwards.
The hope is that the child — of their own accord — will begin to talk about the matter. A free narrative occurs when the child is encouraged to provide an account of the event or situation in their own words, at their own pace and without interruption. Ideally this will increase the information that's shared and minimize suggestibility. Use open-ended questions that elicit as much information from the child without any direction from the interviewer. For example, "You mentioned 'x', tell me everything about 'x'."
Techniques for talkingto children
As the interview progresses, different strategies or techniques can be used to elicit information and discussion.
- Body diagrams. These are particularly useful in sexual abuse matters. Be careful with the diagram, as some can over-represent the genitals.
- Drawings. One suggestion would be for the interviewer to make the diagrams based on what the child is saying. This helps keep the child's focus and attention.
- Themes. Use a set of questions focused on one topic or area. This can be particularly useful when it's difficult getting the child onto the topic. An example would be the discipline theme. "Tell me about the rules in your house… You said that one rule was 'x', what happens when you do not follow 'x'." Hopefully, as the interview progresses, the child will be able to discuss the key matter. At this stage, the goal will be to understand and clarify the situation.
- Using the five Ws (who, what, where, why, when and how). These types of questions will have a place at this stage. But avoid using questions that force the child to answer in a particular way, such as 'Was the car black or red?'
As the interview progresses, be conscious of time. Anyone who has children or has worked with children knows that their attention span is limited. Always assess how the young person is doing and determine how long the interview should continue.
Should there be multiple meetings with the child? If further interviews are done with care and focus, the answer is yes. If possible, additional interviews should be focused on specific issues or have a particular purpose. In fact, meeting multiple times may be the only way to gain a certain level of trust and rapport with the child.
In one instance, I was preparing to speak to a six-year-old girl who had always been told not to talk to authority figures. I scheduled three meetings in which the focus was solely on rapport building and taking an interest in the child's life. Only on the fourth meeting did she begin to open up about the issues at hand.
Child interviewing can be challenging and unpredictable. The interviewer needs to be patient and flexible. As with any skill, practice is the key to developing the confidence and knowledge to succeed. The old view that children be seen and not heard, no longer applies. Children can be reliable witnesses with a wealth of information to share.