Interviewing a child witness or victim: how to get an accurate testimony without further traumatising the child
Why is it important that a child victim of abuse is questioned/interviewed correctly?
It is often the case that the child is the only one who can give a reliable account on what happened.
Most of those accused of child abuse often don’t get a convicted because the investigation was not carried out properly and the child wasn’t correctly questioned.
The justice system needs the children victims or witnesses to be ‘reliable witnesses’ and give a clear and chronological testimony of the events without a delay.
Who can be regarded as a ‘reliable witness’? Someone who can:
Give an account of what happened as fully and precisely as possible.
Differentiate between truth and lies.
Ask for clarification when they don’t understand a question.
Spot and resist leading questions.
In reality, when a child victim or witness is questioned or interviewed, a number of difficulties can arise which can go unnoticed by those leading the questioning or the interview. This has a negative impact on the child and can lead them to give a less complete and reliable testimony.
For example, being in strange and unfamiliar surroundings makes the child highly sensitive, which impacts on the accuracy of the information that they provide. Moreover, when talking about a sensitive subject, incorrectly posed questions threaten the reliability of the given answers. Furthermore, an incorrectly carried out questioning revives the traumatic experiences in the child, who is made to feel like a victim once more.
It is important to always remember that children who are reluctant to talk about their abuse during questioning, need to be supported rather than pressured.
In order to get the most complete and accurate testimony from the child victim/witness, the NICHD model should be used during a questioning or interview. The NICHD is the USA’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s structured method of questioning/interviewing. Of course there are a number of valid methods of questioning/interviewing children, but this particular method stands out among the rest as it was created based on the findings of numerous scientific studies. These studies aimed to use the existing knowledge in the field on a child’s memory and communication and social abilities to create practical guidelines which could improve the quality of a questioning. The studies involved both lab and field experiments and took place over a period of ten years with equal involvement from lab and field researchers.
A number of significant findings were revealed by the studies about topics where a consensus was previously lacking among the professionals. For example, it was found that
A child has the capacity to remember what happens around them.
It is possible to get reliable information from a child, but in order to achieve this it is necessary to follow a careful investigative procedure and to take into account the child’s abilities.
How reliable and complete the information given by the child is depends on the professionalism of the questioner.
In order to receive reliable information, the questioner needs to feed the child as little information as possible during questioning.
The questioner should use broad questions such as ‘tell me about what happened’, so that the child may give as much information as possible.
More than half of the information received from children is through free association (irrespective of age).
Information received through free association was 3 5o 5 times more informative and reliable than information received through direct and narrow questions.
By using free association, children of a younger age can answer nearly all of the questions which are relevant to the investigation.
Leading questions, which are in any case best avoided, especially pose a risk for children under 6.
On the whole, using the NICHD structured forensic interview protocol allows us to significantly improve the quality of child questionings or interviews. No other method has produced a similar result. It is thanks to the studies which were carried that there exists a consensus regarding a child’s ability and competence when giving a testimony.
NICHD allows law enforcement to get quality information from a child victim/witness, which means that a fair and just conviction procedure may follow.
The importance of the questions posed to children
Why is it important to bring our attention to the types of questions being asked?
A successful questioning/interview should fulfil the following criteria:
significantly lower the child’s stress levels
increase the amount of reliable information given by the child
reduce to a minimum the influence of any factors which may lead to the information given by the child being ‘warped’
Following these criteria is almost completely dependent on the types of questions addressed to the children, their wording, their order and the words used.
Types of questions and their order according to the NICHD Protocol
1. Open-ended questions – prompting a free narrative: “tell me what happened”, “what happened next?”, etc.
• Questions aiming to clarify/elaborate the answer: “you mentioned … tell me more about that” and so on.
2. Focused questions
• What? – e.g. “what colour was the shirt he was wearing?” (if the child mentioned a shirt)
• Who? – e.g. “who was with him”
• Where? – e.g. “where did he touch you?” (if the child mentioned that he was touched)
• When? – e.g. “when did this happen?”
• How? – e.g. “how did you get away?”
• Why? – e.g. “why did he hit you?” (as a side note, it is important to note that with child victims of abuse, it is better to avoid the question “why?” because this type of questions implies an element of fault).
3. Close-ended questions
• “yes/no” – for example, “did he threaten you?”
• multiple choice questions – e.g. “was he standing up or sitting down?”
4. leading/suggestive questions – for example “he kissed, isn’t that so?”
The NICHD Protocol Structure
Introductions, explanations on the video/audio recording, the process, code of conduct
“I want to get to know you better. Tell me your hobbies”
Training in Episodic Memory
Talk about a memorable event from yesterday and from today.
The Substantive Part of the Interview
• Open-ended questions on why they’re there, their discussions with other specialist, physical signs of abuse, what was said by other (without going into too much detail).
• Investigating the events – open-ended questions: how did it start/what exactly happened/how it ended.
• Differentiating the events – “did this happen just once, or more?”, what happened at the end/at the beginning/other time, whenever they can remember best.
The information given by the child is discussed, the rest of the session is planned. Clarifying questions must be developed and prepared in written form.
Eliciting Information That Has Not Been Mentioned by the Child
The relevant addresses are used, if:
• You know that a conversation took place during which the child revealed some information or mentioned some details.
• The child has/had traumas and physical signs of abuse.
• The information was given in someone else’s presence.
Information About the Disclosure
Who knows about what happened? How did they find out? Who was the first to find out? Is there anyone else who knows?
Repeat for every event described by the child.
Express gratitude for their help.
“is there anything else that you think I should know?”
“Is there anything that you want to tell me?”
“Is there anything that you want to ask me?”
Hand out a card with your name, surname and telephone number.
Spend a couple of minutes talking about a neutral topic:
“What are you going to do today after you leave here?”
potentially “risky” questions should be asked to the child victims/witnesses as late as possible during the questioning.
What should not be happening
• starting the questioning/interview without establishing the rules of behaviour and by skipping the 'introduction’ step
• asking a question using the word ‘why’
• asking suggestive/leading questions
• influencing behaviour
• hurrying the child
• asking unclear or difficult questions
• asking the child to imagine or to guess
What should be happening
• following the protocol structure
• explaining the aim and significance of the questioning/interview
• establishing contact
• prompting a free narrative
• using open-ended questions to their fullest and in an adequate manner
• highlighting the specific piece of information mentioned by the child in order to specify some details
Children who are reluctant to talk about their experience of abuse need to be supported and not pressured.
Usually, questioners/interviewers cannot achieve their best practice even when they know the methods and rules of questioning/interviewing and think that they are following them.
Developing and honing the skills of questioning/interviewing a child is not an easy task.
Psychologist at Public Health Foundation of Georgia (PHF)