Professionals who conduct questionings/interviews face a difficult task. On the one hand, they have to get the most complete and reliable account possible from the child, and on the other hand, they have to be careful not to cause a ‘second blow’ to the child, who is trying to talk about the details of an emotionally traumatic experience in their life.
In order to be successful, it is necessary for the person conducting the questioning/interview to be aware of what the child could be feeling during the process and acknowledging the possible effect of past abuse and neglect on the child’s state and development. These feelings and influences should be taken into account during the whole process, during the investigation as well as during the trial.
Social and psychological factors
“As shyness and anxiety in front of strangers makes a child more vulnerable to suggestibility, any measures taken to reduce these factors can significantly increase the reliability of the information received” (Drake 2009).
Professionals who assess factors supporting suggestibility take steps to reduce them during their interaction with a child. Although, many questioners/interviewers do not realise that what they do or fail to do has an effect on a child’s suggestibility. Moreover, often the child’s preconceptions of the questioning/interview and their personal perception of the process already conditions their suggestibility, unrelated to the actions of the questioner/interviewer. So, for example if a child goes to a questioning with a negative mind-set and is tense and nervous during the whole process, this will have a negative impact on the quality of the information received.
This is why it is very important that the questioners/interviews can put themselves in the child’s shoes. A qualified questioner/interviewer can build and sustain a bridge with the adult world in which they live in and the world of the child that they are questioning/interviewing. What is meant by the process of questioning/interviewing? How does the questioner/interviewer understand its purpose? Who prepared them for the questioning/interview process and how? If the child is informed from the very beginning on the process and its purpose, this will put the child more at ease and limit their suggestibility.
When questioning a child who has chronically experienced traumas, it is important for the questioning/interview to start by reassuring the child that nothing unexpected or dangerous will happen during the process. This will be one of the steps taken to reduce the child’s suggestibility.
A professional should take into account the child’s age and stage of development when speaking with them. Failing this, the child may not understand or fully realise what the questioner/interviewer is asking, which will make them feel confused and out of place, and even more tense and uptight.
The emotional environment
In order to get information from a child the questioner/interviewer in some cases resort to threats, rewards or blackmail. Many questioners/interviewers deny this and express with shock: “Not me! I never did this!”. The problem is that many questioners/interviewers subconsciously carry out such questioning/interviewing tactics. One of the most important skills of a questioner/interviewer is to constantly and without fail realise all nuances of how they act towards and address the child.
When a child opens up during a questioning/interview, the questioner/interviewer always shows a sense of satisfaction (or even joy!). Often in these cases they may even openly congratulate and praise the child: “well done, you’re telling the story really well. Carry on like this”. Usually the motivation of the questioner/interviewer in these cases is to support the child and to encourage them to open up on something they find difficult to talk about. Although, it is better if the questioner/interviewer refrains from such verbal and non-verbal social encouragement.
The questioner/interviewer can non-verbally express their dissatisfaction when the child does not provide them with the right information, which can put the child in a state of stress. This is why it is important that the questioner/interviewer keeps a neutral position and a consistent emotional tone during the whole questioning/interview. Although it must be noted that this does not mean that they should keep a distance from the child and not respond to a child’s needs and their efforts to initiate communication.
If the questioner/interviewer sees that the child displays signs of fear, anxiety and tension, he should not ignore these signs and shouldn’t try to finish the questioning/interview at any cost. When these signs are not addressed in an appropriate and adequate manner, the child will feel an increasing sense of discomfort which will have a negative impact on the questioning/interview.
Remembering – Retelling
Usually, many of the horrible things that happen to children are left untold. Children speak less with the police, social workers or anyone else, about what they can recollect or what they later remember about their experience of abuse. Many children experience something which they do not wish to talk about. The reason for this can be that they are ashamed about what happened or that remembering what happened is emotionally traumatic. Children are also afraid that revealing what happened may cause difficulties in the future.
Children can deny what happened or say that they can’t remember it. If there is undisputed evidence that something definitely happened, but the child is refusing to say anything about it, the questioner/interviewer should consider which one of the circumstances listed below are relevant:
1. Nothing happened to the child, which is why they don’t remember anything
2. Something definitely happened to the child, they remember it, but they find it hard to talk about it in detail
3. The child experienced something, this is recorded in their memory and they can remember it, but they do not want to talk about it.
The professional should determine which of these circumstances are relevant in a specific case. This can be achieved by asking the child the following question: “you don’t remember it or you don’t want to talk about?”.
Quite often, when a child names someone who carried out the abuse, the questioner/interviewer through their actions or words expresses their view on the abuser. they can tell the child “he’s a bad person”, “he should not have done such a horrible thing to you”, or something similar. It is of outmost importance that in response to when a child names the abuser, the questioner/interviewer keeps a neutral position and refrains from expressing their personal opinions, especially when dealing with an alleged or suspected abuser who has not yet been proven guilty.
Psychologist at Public Health Foundation of Georgia (PHF)