To a child, everyone is an authority figure, and this can complicate the process of interviewing a victim of abuse or neglect. While you know that your goal is to elicit the best possible interview, the child’s perception may very well be that he or she is being tested and must do well. That pressure to please you can result in inaccurate testimony. Let’s talk about some of the most important factors to consider in order to reduce pressure on the child, and increase the likelihood of an interview that will hold up in court.
Keep interviews to a minimum
Success in child abuse cases is measured in part by how well you minimize the trauma of the process for the victim. This is an important aspect of the work Child Advocacy Centers do. The more times a child has to recount the abuse, the more stressful it is. This is part of what makes digital interview recordings so valuable: it may prevent the child from having to testify in court, where they might also have to face their abuser. Then there’s an additional wrinkle—repeated interviews tend to become less effective as they go on, creating inconsistencies that can call victim credibility into question and damage the prosecution’s case. For both of these reasons, it’s important to do as few interviews as possible, and to use best practices so that those interviews are highly effective.
Ask open-ended questions
There’s a fine line between asking a question and guiding a child toward a specific answer. Keeping your inquiries as open-ended as possible allows the child latitude to tell you what they actually remember. In fact, your questions should consistently be shorter than their answers. Follow-up questions should clarify details, and the interviewer should take pains not to offer or suggest details the child hasn’t already mentioned. Make sure you also give the child permission to correct you. This allows you to repeat back what the child has said while they clarify details you may have misunderstood.
Wait for it
Revisiting a memory is traumatic. It’s also a complex process. It takes time to sort through sensory data and arrive at a conclusion. That’s why wait time is so important. It’s very common for professionals who ask questions, like teachers, law enforcement officers, and child interviewers, to feel like they’ve paused for longer than they actually have. The best thing interviewers can do is work on becoming more comfortable with silence. Prompting too early creates enough pressure that a child may answer in haste, drawing the wrong conclusion or even inventing missing information in order to please the interviewer.
The U.S. Department of Justice cites video recordings as the most transparent and effective way to document child interviews—but you can go one better. Have interviewers re-watch interview recordings to see how well they’re employing the above practices, and how they’re addressing specific issues related to culture or disability, as well. Used as a training aid, recordings can improve your interview practices for future child abuse victims.