Increasing emotional support and rapport building in forensic interviews of child abuse victims

Increasing emotional support and rapport building in forensic interviews of child abuse victims

Utilizing the Revised National Institute of Child and Health Development Protocol while interviewing alleged child abuse victims increased the odds that children would make allegations and that their statements would be deemed credible. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2020, Vol. 26, No. 2, 176–184

Allegation rates and credibility assessment in forensic interviews of alleged child abuse victims: Comparing the revised and standard NICHD protocols


Irit Hershkowitz, University of Haifa
Michael E. Lamb, University of Cambridge


The Standard National Institute of Child and Health Development Protocol (SP) models the use of cognitively focused techniques for forensic interviewing, whereas the Revised Protocol (RP) also emphasizes intensive rapport building and the provision of emotional support. Interviewers trained to use the RP build rapport better and are more supportive than those using the SP, thereby enhancing children’s cooperation and performance. This study was designed to determine whether (a) children were more likely to make allegations of abuse and (b) their statements would be deemed more credible when they were interviewed using the RP rather than the SP. We used administrative data from the years immediately before and after the Israeli government mandated use of the RP, rather than the SP, in official investigative interviews nationwide. A Generalized Linear Mixed Model (GLMM) was used to test the rates of allegations as well as ratings of interviewee credibility as a function of the Protocol version, while controlling for the nesting of children within interviewers as well as various child and abuse characteristics. Protocol version significantly predicted allegation rates and perceived “credibility” once the effects of other factors (child age, gender, relationship, type of abuse) were taken into account. Using the RP significantly increased the odds that children would make allegations by 14.3% and the odds that interviewers would deem allegations “credible” by 10.2%. Supportive interviewing based on better rapport between children and interviewers appeared to enhance children’s willingness to make credible allegations. Implications for improving practice and policy are discussed.


child abuse, forensic investigations, allegation, credibility assessment

Summary of the Research

“Investigative protocols, including the National Institute of Child and Health Development (NICHD) Standard Protocol (SP), were designed to enhance the informativeness of young suspected victims of child abuse by helping them generate and organize their accounts of experienced events. However, many suspected victims of child maltreatment are reluctant to report being abused when they are formally interviewed, even when such allegations would be valid. Research examining the dynamics of interviews with reluctant children thus prompted thorough revisions of the NICHD Protocol.” (p. 176)

“Use of a preliminary Revised Protocol (RP) was associated with a significant increase in the willingness of abused children (whose victimization had been substantiated using independent information) to make allegations when they were interviewed. A further revision of the Protocol was examined in the present study, which focused on allegation rates in Israel in the years immediately before and after the nationwide implementation of a thoroughly Revised Protocol in 2016. Because other studies (reviewed below) have shown that use of the RP is associated with higher quality informativeness, a second goal of the study was to determine whether allegations elicited using the RP were rated as more credible than those elicited using the SP.” (p. 176)

“Among the many factors affecting nondisclosure, researchers pointed to the interaction between the child and the interviewer. In the course of SP interviews, reluctant children were less responsive to their interviewers’ attempts to build rapport and signaled their reluctance verbally and nonverbally in the presubstantive phase of the interview, with manifest reluctance increasing as the interviews proceeded.” (p. 176)

“Whether children are being interviewed in clinical, evaluative, or investigative contexts, meaningful rapport between children and interviewers seems to facilitate communication and to encourage children to affirm and describe their traumatic experiences. Effective rapport building is believed to help children cope better with anxiety, empower them, and increase their levels of trust and engagement, thereby motivating them to discuss their experiences of abuse.” (p. 177)

“Laboratory analogue studies further suggest that supportiveness both improves the accuracy of information provided by children and reduces their suggestibility. […] Children in supportive conditions are more resistant to misleading questions.” (p. 177)

“The SP emphasized cognitively focused techniques that help motivated children to report information about experienced events but paid less attention to the motivational factors that make some children reluctant to disclose some of their experiences. […] While still relying predominantly on open-ended questions and avoiding leading or suggestive questions, interviewers using a preliminary RP established better rapport and provided interviewees with more support than did interviewers using the SP. The association between use of the initial RP and children’s willingness to make allegations was then tested by Hershkowitz et al. (2014) in a study of 426 children for whom there was independent evidence of intrafamilial abuse. Proportionately more of these children made valid allegations of abuse when interviewed using the RP rather than the SP.” (p. 177)

“However, close examination of the RP interviews showed that the interviewers’ enhanced supportiveness was limited to the presubstantive portions of the interviews. As a result, Hershkowitz and her colleagues further revised the Protocol and developed an intensive and detailed training program that was implemented throughout Israel in 2015–2016. Analysis of interviews conducted during and after this training showed that interviewers remained more supportive throughout their interviews than interviewers not using the latest RP. Supportiveness during the substantive phase of RP interviews was associated with reduced reluctance and with more spontaneous, informative, emotionally expressive, and coherent statements made by the children.” (p. 177)

“However, it remains unknown whether use of the latest version of the RP increases the likelihood that children will make allegations of abuse when formally interviewed. We addressed this question in the present study by comparing rates of allegations in the years immediately before and after the Israeli government mandated use of the RP, rather than the SP, in official investigative interviews nationwide. We expected that this new version of the RP would be associated with increased allegation rates.” (p. 177)

“Evaluation of children’s statements during forensic interviews is challenging for professionals. There is no reliable way to distinguish accurately between truthful and false statements, and mounting evidence casts doubt on professionals’ ability to accurately evaluate children’s testimony. […] In many cases, professionals are unable to distinguish between events that have actually taken place and those that have not. In fact, professional judgments tend to be no more accurate than chance or those by laypersons. […] The few extant field studies using transcripts from real forensic interviews have reported disconcertingly low interrater reliability, with assessment of a given report typically distributed across the whole range, from certainty that the abuse had occurred to certainty that it had not occurred.” (pp. 177–178)

“Further, many investigations or forensic interviews are rated “No Judgment Possible” (NJP) because the available evidentiary material is insufficient, typically leading to cases being closed, thereby leaving many vulnerable children unprotected and exposed to further abuse. Although most children do not make false allegations of abuse in forensic interviews, a considerable percentage of sexual abuse allegations—as high as 43%— is assessed as either “unreliable” or “inconclusive.” A second aim of this study was thus to test whether use of the latest RP would allow more accounts to be deemed “credible” while fewer were rated as NJP.” (p. 178)

“The study focused on 14,874 Israeli children, 7,889 boys (53%) and 6,985 girls aged 4–14 years (M = 9.04, SD = 2.88) who were referred to the Israeli authorities for investigation into suspicions that they had been physically (n = 11,355, 76.3%) or sexually (n = 3,519) abused. Most suspected perpetrators were parents, relatives, or caretakers (n = 12,071, 81.2%), but 2,803 were not family members or people responsible for the care of the children. The SP and RP groups differed with respect to age, abuse type, and child–suspect relationship but not gender. […] Sixty-four investigative interviewers from all regions of Israel conducted 5,837 (39.2%) interviews using the SP and thereafter conducted 9,037 interviews using the RP, whose use became mandatory in April 2015.” (p. 178)

“The analyses clearly showed that proportionately more of these children made allegations of abuse when interviewed using the RP rather than the SP. Although this effect was small, it was significant when we controlled for several factors known to affect allegation rates as well as individual differences among interviewers. Intriguingly, some interviewers were less likely than others to obtain allegations, what may reflect differences in interviewing skills despite use of the same Protocol.” (p. 180)

“As expected, the data also replicated some previously reported trends regarding suspected victims’ willingness to make allegations. Younger children, alleged victims of physical abuse, and those whose suspects were family members were all less likely to make allegations, as was the case in previous studies using data from various countries, including Israel.” (p. 180)

“The children were indeed significantly more likely to make allegations when the RP rather than the SP was used. […] The present findings suggest that the RP is superior to the SP when used to motivate alleged victims of abuse to disclose their experiences, thereby underlining the effectiveness of the RP regardless of the suspected victims’ anticipated cooperativeness. Even cooperative children may find it emotionally difficult to describe sexual abuse or physical assault, especially in an investigative context, and it seems that better rapport building at the outset of the interview and the provision of emotional support throughout can enhance their trust and engagement.” (pp. 180–181)

“Use of the RP rather than the SP appeared to make it easier for interviewers to conclude that the children’s allegations or denials were credible rather than that no judgment was possible (NJP). Although this effect was small, it is important because there is a strong tendency among child investigators to conclude that no judgment is possible. In the current study, as in previous research from Israel and the United States, many statements were deemed not credible or inconclusive, typically leading to the closure of those cases.” (p. 181)

“Because most children do not allege abuse falsely, truthful allegations may be underidentified. The disconcertingly large proportion of cases deemed NJP in this study (about two thirds) implies that many potentially truthful allegations of child abuse may have been screened out by the welfare and justice systems, leaving little remedy for the victims. Thus, the decrease, albeit small, in the numbers of NJP judgments following RP rather than SP interviews and the interviewers’ increased ability or willingness to rate statements as credible may enhance the likelihood that appropriate interventions can be considered or implemented.” (p. 181)

“It is possible that use of the RP resulted in more affirmative judgments of credibility because use of the RP is associated with the production of more spontaneous, informative, and coherent statements. The more detailed, elaborate, consistent, and clear the descriptions of events, the better those events can be understood, and the more confident interviewers can be when assessing veracity. In the absence of valid credibility assessment tools, interviewers likely base their judgments on impressions of children’s narratives, so the quality of those statements becomes a key predictor of “credible” judgments.” (p. 181)

“A complementary thesis suggests that RP statements are deemed credible more often because they contain more expressions of emotion. Although expressions of emotion do not confirm the veracity of a statement, their presence is known to enhance judgments of credibility by professionals. […] Perhaps the RP also facilitates the nonverbal expression of emotion, and the increased emotionality of children in RP interviews increases interviewers’ confidence in their veracity. It is also possible that statements provided under supportive conditions are more likely to be truthful because rapport building and reassurance enhance children’s truth-telling.” (p. 181)

Translating Research into Practice

“Professionals need to be provided with the best available scientific evidence to ensure that all potential victims are given the opportunity to report their experiences accurately and completely. Using national administrative data, the current study showed that the RP was an effective tool for motivating suspected victims to disclose abuse. This tool, which enhances disclosure by reluctant children, has now been validated in a large-scale study involving a nonselected sample.” (p. 181)

“The present study also showed that use of the RP allowed more cases to proceed for further investigation, thereby addressing another widespread problem, namely, the failure to substantiate cases and consequently the premature termination of child abuse investigations.” (p. 182)

“It is important to caution that the mere provision of the RP manual to professionals is not sufficient; many researchers have shown that, in the absence of intensive and prolonged training, changes in interviewing practices tend to be limited and often temporary. This was the case for the SP, which includes cognitively based strategies, and is even truer for the revised version, which requires the integration of various skills for addressing children’s distress effectively. Thus, a responsible and evidence-based policy should recognize the indispensable role of training and ongoing supervision and allocate the necessary resources when attempting to implement the RP.” (p. 182)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“The major limitation is the lack of case evidence to support the validity of the children’s statements and the interviewers’ judgments. Although rates of allegation increased when the RP was used, we simply do not know that the allegations made by the children were valid. When it comes to credibility judgments made by interviewers, the uncertainty is even higher because the validity of such judgments is known to be remarkably low. Thus, some of the denials really could be true negatives and vice versa. Future research should examine the effects of the RP on the validity of credibility assessment in samples of validated cases.” (p. 181)

“Administrative data are always limited; in the current study, only the investigators’ judgments were recorded, without objective records of the interviews. However, previous examinations of RP interviews have shown that the interviewers were highly trained and did follow the Protocol, providing more support than they did in SP interviews.” (p. 181)

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Authored By Kseniya Katsman

Kseniya Katsman is a Master’s student in the Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her interests include forensic application of dialectical behavior therapy, cultural competence in forensic assessment, and risk assessment, specifically suicide risk. She plans to continue her education and pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

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