It’s difficult, but you are doing a great job: The effect of interviewer’s support on child abuse victim’s reluctance in interviews

It’s difficult, but you are doing a great job: The effect of interviewer’s support on child abuse victim’s reluctance in interviews

Interviewer’s support can mitigate child abuse victim’s reluctance, thus increasing the informativeness of the interview. 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 | 2018, Vol. 24, No. 4, 518–527

Support, reluctance, and production in child abuse investigative interviews

Authors

Uri Blasbalg, University of Haifa
Irit Hershkowitz, University of Haifa
Yael Karni-Visel, University of Haifa

Abstract

Child abuse victims are required to participate in stressful forensic investigations but often fail to fully report details about their victimization. Especially in intrafamilial abuse cases, children’s emotional states presumably involve reluctance to report abuse. The current study examined the effects of interviewers’ support on children’s reluctance and production of information when interviewed. The sample comprised 200 interviews of 6- to 14-year-old suspected victims of physical abuse perpetrated by a family member. Interviews followed the NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) Revised Protocol (RP), which emphasizes supportive practices. All the cases were corroborated by external evidence, suggesting that the reports of abuse made by the children were valid. Coders identified instances of interviewer support and questioning, as well as indications of reluctance and the production of forensic details by the children. Expressions of reluctance predicted that information was less likely to be provided in that utterance, whereas expressions of support predicted less reluctance and increased informativeness in the following child utterance. Mediation analyses revealed that decreased reluctance partially mediated the effects of support on increased informativeness. The data indicate that support can effectively address children’s reluctance, resulting in increased informativeness and thus confirming expert recommendations that supportive interviews should be considered best practice. The findings also shed light on the underlying mechanism of support, suggesting both direct and indirect effects on children’s informativeness.

Keywords

forensic interviewing, child physical abuse, reluctance, support, informativeness

Summary of the Research

“Many suspected child abuse victims either do not disclose their abusive experiences at all or else provide limited descriptions when formally interviewed. Recent research has suggested that supportive interviewing can help reduce children’s reluctance and enhance their cooperation during forensic interviews. However, the effects of interviewers’ support with reluctant children during the substantive phase of such interviews, in which children are requested to describe the alleged abusive incidents in detail, remain unexplored. The current study tests the effect of support on (a) children’s reluctance and (b) children’s production of forensically relevant information during the substantive phase of forensic interviews.” (p. 518)

“Reluctance to disclose abuse is associated with factors such as a child’s age, gender, and abuse type and severity, as well as interview practices and relationship to the suspect. The relationship to the suspect was found to have a significant impact on children’s reluctance in investigative interviews, with low disclosure rates (as low as 50%) when intrafamilial abuse is suspected. Children often avoid disclosing abuse by family members, possibly due to their tendency to protect them or to comply with requests for secrecy.” (p. 518)

“Although many children avoid disclosure of intrafamilial abuse, children who do disclose may continue to show reluctance, compromising their forensic testimony. […] Recognizing that children’s reluctance may prevent them from reporting abuse, researchers have explored interviewers’ demeanor in response to children’s reluctance. Several studies have shown that interviewers reacted counterproductively when they encountered reluctance—by asking intrusive questions, being unsupportive, replying negatively, or prematurely engaging in the discussion of sensitive topics related to the suspected abuse, all of which may have aggravated reluctance. The researchers suggested that, when there are signs of reluctance, interviewers should provide support and avoid asking about the possible abuse, because they risk increasing the children’s reluctance” (p. 519)

“Supportive communication involves directing open, welcoming, attentive behavior toward the interviewee to foster a feeling of well-being. However, it is difficult to generalize findings regarding interviewer support, because the operationalization and measurement of support varies considerably. […] The advantageous effects of support on cognitive performance and interview outcomes were first established in analog studies involving nonreluctant children. […] Support was also associated with accurate reporting. […] scholars have revised the Standard NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) Investigative Interview Protocol (SP) to promote supportive interviewing. The Revised NICHD Protocol (RP) includes adjustments that emphasize rapport building and support.” (p. 519)

“In sum, previous research has shown that interviewer support (particularly in RP interviews) has advantageous effects on reluctant children. However, direct effects have been identified in only the presubstantive and transitional parts of the interview but not during the substantive phase of forensic interviews, during which details about the abuse are discussed. Accordingly, the current study explored whether support provided in the substantive phase of investigative interviews affected children’s informativeness and whether this effect was mediated by decreased reluctance. The effects of support were tested at the utterance level, using sequential analyses to explore whether specific behaviors (e.g., reluctance or informativeness) were more or less likely to be elicited by other specific behaviors (e.g., interviewer support), thereby elucidating the direction of effects.” (p. 520)

“Two hundred interviews with children (44.0% girls), ages 5.8–13.9 years (M = 9.69, SD = 2.09) who disclosed intrafamilial physical abuse were collected from all regions of Israel. In most cases, children reported multiple (91.0%) rather than single incidents of abuse inflicted by their parents (83.0%) rather than by other family members. Severe abuse using an object or resulting in an injury was reported in about half of the cases (50.1%), whereas hitting was reported in the other half. The interviews were conducted during an 19-month period by specialist forensic interviewers from the Israeli Ministry of Welfare and Social Services. The investigators were intensively trained to use the RP protocol, which emphasizes supportive interviewing. Interviews selected for this study were the first that met the inclusion criteria: The interviews were conducted in an educational setting (to avoid possible intervention of the perpetrator), and the allegations were supported by external evidence (eyewitnesses, 57.5%; visible signs of violence, 10.5%; medical examination, .5%; suspect’s admission, 6.5%; or preinvestigation disclosures to a professional, 25%). Thirty-four percent of the cases were validated in more than one of these ways.” (p. 520)

“In the RP, to enhance children’s emotional comfort, trust, and cooperation, the rapport building precedes (rather than follows) an explanation of the ground rules, and interviewers are encouraged to use supportive statements, such as welcoming the child, showing an interest in the child’s neutral experiences, and exploring the child’s feelings, while reinforcing effort and cooperation (but not content). The RP also encourages the interviewer to respond to reluctance and emotional expressions made by the child with supportive comments throughout the interview and offers an inventory of nonsuggestive yet supportive statements of several different types: expressions focused on building rapport with the child (“Good to meet you,” “I want to know you better,” “Would you like a glass of water?”), emphasis on the interviewer’s trustworthiness (“I am here to listen to you,” “My job is to speak with children”), positive reinforcement of the child’s efforts (“You are telling very clearly,” “Thank you for sharing with me”), emotional support (echoing–acknowledging– exploring the child’s expressions of reluctance and emotions by saying, e.g., “You say you feel embarrassed to speak about [content mentioned]; tell me more about that”), and encouragement (“It’s important that you tell me everything you remember as well as you can”).” (p. 520)

“In the current study, we found that children’s reluctance decreased when interviewers were supportive and that this enabled children to provide more forensically relevant information. The findings add to the understanding in several important ways. First, the inverse nature of the relationships between the reluctance and informativeness of children was reestablished, indicating that reluctance is associated with the production of less forensically relevant information. […] Second, this study went a step further by showing that the association between reluctance and uninformative responding is dynamic and can change from one exchange to the next, during the course of the interview. Our findings showed that, when a child’s reluctance decreased, informativeness tended to increase. In addition, an interaction between decreased reluctance and being asked a question by the interviewer resulted in additional informativeness, suggesting that efforts should be made to reduce reluctance so that questioning can be more effective. […] Third, this study established that responding to expressions of reluctance with support effectively manages reluctance.” (pp. 522–523)

“Fourth, the provision of support not only yielded decreased reluctance but also increased informativeness. […] Our findings suggest that, under supportive conditions, reluctant children can retrieve and report more information and provide more powerful statements than when interviewed nonsupportively. Thus, supportive interviewers may help children to describe their abusive experiences despite their reluctance to talk about their parents’ behavior. Support complemented the positive effects of developmentally appropriate questioning.” (p. 524)

“The present study not only provided important insights into the effect of support but also shed light on the underlying mechanism by which support operates. Some researchers have shown the direct effects of support on cognitive performance, whereas others have claimed that the effects were mediated through emotion regulation. Proponents of the mediation model have suggested that support may help children process and cope with negative emotions, thereby freeing cognitive resources to focus on the interview task, but this hypothesis has not previously been tested in studies using forensic interviews. […] the current study was the first to directly test and confirm a comprehensive mediation model. Specifically, our findings suggest that the effects of support on informativeness are partially mediated by reduced reluctance, that is, that support has both direct and indirect effects on cognitive performance. However, we caution that the mediating factor (reduced reluctance) may be associated with a host of other facilitating factors, including reduced anxiety or distress, increased self-efficacy and confidence, or lessened distractibility.” (p. 524)

“Overall, this study showed that support can effectively reduce reluctance, resulting in increased informativeness by alleged victims of child abuse. […] Furthermore, it substantiates recent claims that a supportive yet nonsuggestive style should be adopted during forensic interviews with alleged victims of child abuse.” (p. 524)

Translating Research into Practice

“Rather than ignoring signs of reluctance or discomfort and continuing to ask questions, a typical yet counterproductive reaction by interviewers, this study revealed effective and evidence-based practices. Addressing the children’s conflicts in an empathic way, discussing their reluctance and negative emotions, conveying the interviewer’s availability and concerns, or encouraging them all alleviated the children’s reluctance. This finding substantiates prior observations that supportive interviewers can help children cope with resistance and overcome mistrust, potentially reducing the stress experienced during a forensic interview.” (p. 523)

“The effect of support on (decreased) reluctance was less when the utterance included both support and a question. This finding is in line with previous recommendations that interviewers should refrain from continuing to ask questions when children express reluctance and should resume questioning only after reluctance has been successfully addressed.” (p. 523)

“Previous research has documented the beneficial effects of support on the reluctance of alleged abuse victims, albeit only in the presubstantive and transitional phases of the interview.[…] The present study showed that providing support during the substantive phase had a beneficial effect on children’s informativeness about the abuse. Reluctance expressed while forensically relevant information is being elicited may threaten the value of the children’s testimony, so the present findings have significant implications for forensic interviewers. Moreover, reluctance expressed when the child is describing specific details about the abuse is presumably more profound than is reluctance expressed while discussing neutral issues, and thus it is reassuring that supportive interviewing remains effective during the substantive phase.” (p. 523)

“Although experts have recommended that interviewers provide support when children are reluctant, field interviewers often fail to do so. Interviewers commonly act counterproductively and tend to be even less supportive and more intrusive with reluctant children, perhaps out of frustration or because it is difficult to master supportive interviewing strategies. Effective supportive interviewers need to constantly identify both explicit and implicit expressions of reluctance and master and use a variety of supportive yet nonsuggestive interventions. Managing reluctance effectively should be recognized as an additional set of skills for forensic interviewers. As the responsibilities of forensic interviewers grow, the needs for their training and supervision should be recognized.” (p. 525)

“The current study highlighted the role of the Revised Protocol, which provides structure to forensic interviews and suggests many possible interventions to target signs of reluctance. However, field interviewers may sometimes avoid working with protocols because they mistakenly perceive them as rigid guidelines that do not permit discretion. Both the Standard and Revised NICHD Protocols are in fact packages of evidence-based practices from which interviewers need to choose the most appropriate techniques for coping effectively with specific challenges. Because supportive interviewing has been deemed best practice, a responsible investigative policy should seek to implement evidence-based supportive protocols such as the Revised NICHD Protocol employed in the current study even though the necessary training may be extensive and costly, because of the need for continuing supervision and quality control. Previous attempts to employ abbreviated training programs or to avoid regular and ongoing supervision have largely failed.” (p. 525)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“The correlational nature of the data limits our ability to infer causality and to conclude that support directly affected reluctance or informativeness, rather than the reverse. […] Sequential analyses at the utterance level ignore the other aspects of the interviewer\child interaction during the interview.” (p. 524)

“Although the current study considered the presence or absence of questions, the effect of question types was not investigated. […] In particular, we do not know how support affects the utility of open-ended questions, which typically elicit the most detailed responses.” (p. 524)

“Because the current study explored only the substantive phases of the interviews, it ignored the possible effects of interviewer–child dynamics earlier in the interviews. The RP encourages supportive practices from the very beginning of the interview, and these may have shaped the interviewers’ practices and children’s responses in the substantive phase.” (p. 525)

“Including only externally validated cases may also have biased the findings, especially if evidence known to the interviewers motivated them to make additional efforts to obtain richer forensic statements. In the future, researchers might complement the current findings by comparing validated and nonvalidated cases. Similarly, they might compare the socioemotional dynamics of investigative interviews in different cultures and examine the associations between support and other features of the children’s statements, including their narrative coherence.” (p. 525)

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Kseniya Katsman

Kseniya Katsman is a Master’s student in 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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