Child forensic interviewers often want, find helpful, and have access to pre-interview information about the child, alleged abuse, and disclosure. This information might help interviewers facilitate conversations with reluctant children and generate alternative hypotheses, but it also has the potential to compromise the accuracy of children’s reports. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.
Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2020, Vol. 44, No. 2, 167-177
Melanie B. Fessinger,Graduate Center and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York
Bradley D. McAuliff, California State University, Northridge
Objective: We surveyed a national sample of child forensic interviewers to learn the types of information they wanted to have before interviewing children, their attitudes and beliefs about forensic interviews, the characteristics of their interviews, and their professional experiences. Hypotheses: We predicted (1) interviewers would want many different types of information before interviewing children, but specifically details about the child, alleged abuse, and disclosure, and that interviewers would find this information helpful and accessible; (2) interviewers would consider their own interviews to be neutral and nonleading and to yield accurate and complete information from children; interviewers’ concern about false reports would be related to (3) the amount of pre-interview information they wanted and (4) their years of experience and amount of training. Method: Forensic interviewers (N = 781) from all 50 states and the District of Columbia completed all (n = 754) or part (n = 27) of a questionnaire that consisted of open-and closed-ended questions. Results: (1) Interviewers wanted many different types of information before interviewing children, but most often information about the child, alleged abuse, and disclosure. They thought these types of information were the most helpful and very frequently had access to that information before interviewing. (2) Interviewers thought their interviews were fairly neutral, slightly leading, mostly accurate, and fairly complete. Interviewers who were more concerned about false denials (3) wanted more preinterview information than interviewers who were more concerned about false allegations and (4) had fewer years of experience. Conclusions: Our survey results underscore the need for future research examining the effects of preinterview information on forensic interviews and children’s reports. They provide a current snapshot of forensic interviewing and a national benchmark to which local child advocacy centers can compare their practices. They highlight the inherent difficulty courts face when determining the admissibility of a child forensic interview based on its primary purpose.
forensic interviewing, pre-interview preparation, child maltreatment, confirmation bias, child advocacy center
Summary of the Research
“Child forensic interviewers are professionals trained to interview children about suspected maltreatment. In 2017, child forensic interviewers at 854 child advocacy centers in the United States interviewed 236,589 children. Interviewers generally use protocols that have been developed over the last several decades to elicit information from children about their past experiences (e.g., National Institute of Child Health and Development, National Children’s Advocacy Center, Ten Step Investigative Interview, CornerHouse, and Child- First). These protocols largely rely on the same body of research and, therefore, share many core principles, one of the most important being to encourage accurate, complete, and candid information from children” (p. 114).
“Extensive research has informed the development of forensic interviewing protocols, yet limited research has attempted to gain insight about the process of forensic interviewing from actual forensic interviewers. We designed the present survey to address this gap in the literature. We sought to understand the preferences, beliefs, and experiences of currently practicing forensic interviewers. We placed an emphasis on understanding their perspectives on pre-interview preparation, as there is some controversy in the literature about the nature and amount of information interviewers should have before conducting interviews. We begin by reviewing the literature on pre-interview preparation and then describe our survey” (p. 114).
“We surveyed a national sample of child forensic interviewers in the United States to understand current practices in forensic interviewing. Our major research questions focused on what types of pre-interview information interviewers want to have, find helpful, and have access to before interviewing children. Additional research questions focused more generally on interviewers’ beliefs and attitudes about forensic interviewing, the characteristics of their interviews, and their professional experiences” (p. 115).
“Although scholars have varying opinions on the merits of informed, blind, and hybrid interviewing, currently practicing forensic interviewers seem to overwhelmingly prefer the informed approach. The different types of information they wanted have implications for the various concerns about pre-interview preparation. Most scholars agree that basic information about the child is necessary to begin the interview, as this information is objective and verifiable and unlikely to negatively bias interviewers’ questions and children’s responses. Given this, it is not surprising that most interviewers wanted information about the child before an interview. Yet, controversy exists about access to allegation- or case- specific information before an interview, as this information may be necessary to facilitate communication with reluctant children and to ask hypothesis-testing questions but is ripe with the potential for forensic confirmation bias. Nevertheless, most interviewers wanted this information and reported that it is the most helpful type to have before an interview. It is pressing for future research to directly test how specific types of pre-interview information influence the process and outcomes of forensic interviews” (p. 124-125).
“Interviewers’ beliefs that their interviews are fairly neutral and slightly leading is interesting in light of their desire for many different types of pre-interview information. Interviewers who want, find helpful, and have access to allegation- or case-specific information are at greater risk of influencing children in ways that confirm interviewers’ expectations than those who lack this information and, therefore, may be less neutral and nonleading than those who do not want or have access to this information. This concern is at the heart of the controversy regarding pre-interview preparation and further emphasizes the need for empirical research on this topic” (p. 125).
“It is also noteworthy, and frankly a bit perplexing, that interviewers considered their interviews to be fairly neutral and slightly leading at the same time. Insight from interviewers about this particular result suggested that children’s reluctance to talk about abuse often necessitates the use of more case-specific prompts (e.g., ‘I heard that someone might have bothered you, tell me everything about that’) that are more leading than the initial open-ended prompt of ‘Tell me why you’re here today’ recommended by several protocols. Interviewers believed they could use these leading prompts but still conduct a fairly neutral interview overall” (p. 125).
“Interviewers’ overwhelming concern about false denials compared with false allegations appears to be consistent with the available statistics on the prevalence of false reports in real-world cases. Their heightened concern about false denials also makes practical sense because false denials can prevent children from receiving the help they need and allow perpetrators to remain free to continue abuse, whereas false allegations can be further evaluated during the investigatory process. However, it is still important to remain cognizant that false allegations do occur, appear to be more common in cases involving custody or access disputes, and have devastating consequences for innocent individuals who are investigated and/or convicted of crimes against children they did not commit” (p. 125).
“Concern about false reports was related to interviewers’ desire for pre-interview information and years of experience. Interviewers who were more concerned about false denials wanted more pre-interview information than those more concerned about false al- legations, which may reflect that they see value in using the information to help overcome children’s reluctance. In contrast, those who were more concerned about false allegations may see potential harm in using the information because it may unduly influence children’s reports. Interviewers who were more concerned about false denials also had fewer years of experience than those more concerned about false allegations, which may reflect changes in the field of forensic interviewing over time. In the wake of early highly publicized multivictim preschool daycare cases, research on children’s suggestibility burgeoned and focused almost exclusively on leading interviewing techniques that were believed to yield false allegations. The field—and our awareness of child sexual abuse more generally— has evolved a great deal since then, but experienced interviewers may be more familiar with the initial emphasis on false allegations than less experienced interviewers. It may also be the case that more experienced interviewers are more concerned about false allegations than false denials because they have had increased opportunity for their forensic interviews and courtroom testimony to be scrutinized by attorneys who focus on specific aspects of their interviews that may contribute to false or contaminated allegations” (p. 125).
Translating Research into Practice
“Forensic practice. Because much research remains to be done, definitive recommendations regarding the specific types of pre-interview information that are helpful versus harmful or when (if at all) interviewers should receive this information and from whom are premature. However, our survey results provide a valuable snapshot of what forensic interviewers think and do at this point in time, and will allow us to monitor whether attitudes and practices change over time. Also, though we acknowledge ‘common’ practice does not always ensure ‘best’ practice, our data serve as a national benchmark to which local child advocacy centers can compare their forensic interviews. Certain practices were fairly common (exploring polyvictimization, taking breaks to confer with multidisciplinary team members, participating in peer review), whereas others were less so (using support or therapy dogs, testifying in court). Considering how and why practices may differ at the local and national levels should help forensic interviewers improve the work they do with children alleging abuse” (p. 125-126).
“Law. Evidence from forensic interviews can make its way into courts in various formats (e.g., videorecordings, hearsay testimony). The admissibility of this evidence turns on the primary purpose for which it was made. Briefly stated, evidence made for the purpose of establishing past events relevant to a criminal prosecution is generally inadmissible whereas evidence made for the purpose of assisting an ongoing emergency is generally admissible. Courts have struggled with defining the primary purpose of a child forensic interview. Some courts have held that the primary purpose is protecting a child’s safety, which would make it admissible; some have held that the primary purpose is to assist law enforcement, which would make it inadmissible unless the child was available to testify; and some have held that it is a little bit of both” (p. 126).
“The conflicting case law demonstrates that courts lack guidance about the primary purpose of conducting forensic interviews, and our survey results provide some unique insight. Forensic interviewers most often reported that their primary goal was to gather information, allow the child to tell their story, and create a child- friendly environment. Although these goals represented the majority of interviewers’ responses, they unfortunately do not explain for what purpose interviewers are gathering information or creating that environment. Fortunately, some of the lesser-mentioned goals do speak directly to the purpose. Some forensic interviewers mentioned that their goal was to determine the child’s current level of safety (16%), to assess the child’s need for services (4%), and to gather information for child protective services (2%) or medical/ mental health professionals (0.92%), which would make the evidence admissible. Still, other forensic interviewers reported that their goal was to gather information for law enforcement (8%) and prosecutors (3%), and to maintain legal defensibility (6%), which would make the evidence inadmissible. These results highlight the inherent difficulty of identifying one single primary purpose of forensic interviews. As such, the more nuanced approach that some lower courts have adopted, holding that forensic interviews have both the purpose of protecting a child’s safety and assisting law enforcement, may be the most appropriate, if not difficult and inefficient in its own right” (p. 126).
Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians
“Research. Our survey results illuminate several promising avenues for new research. Future experiments could systematically vary the accessibility of different types of pre-interview information (child- vs. allegation-specific details), its veracity, when it is introduced (before or during interview), and its source (parent, investigator, or multidisciplinary team) to determine how these variables affect the accuracy and completeness of children’s reports, as well as interviewers’ perceptions and recollections of their interviews. Additionally, future research could examine the effects of taking breaks during interviews to confer with others. Interviewers in our sample appeared somewhat conflicted on this issue, at once indicating breaks had a moderately positive effect on their interview quality but remaining neutral about whether they asked more direct questions after breaks. They also thought the recommendations team members provided were fairly consistent, yet difficult to balance, with sound interviewing principles. With the cooperation of child advocacy centers and multidisciplinary teams, future qualitative research could record the different types and sources of recommendations provided during breaks to determine whether they are consistent with sound interviewing principles and whether the interviewer adopted them. Laboratory research could systematically vary these factors to determine their effects on interviewers’ questions, children’s reports, and both parties’ perceptions of the interviews” (p. 125).
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