Tele-Forensic Interviews Work with Child Witnesses

Tele-Forensic Interviews Work with Child Witnesses

Face-to-face and tele-forensic (on screen) interviews elicit similar amounts of accurate and inaccurate information from child witnesses. 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 | 2021, Vol. 45, No. 2, 97-111

Tele-Forensic Interviewing Can Be a Reasonable Alternative to Face-to- Face Interviewing of Child Witnesses


Jason J. Dickinson, Montclair State University
Nicole E. Lytle, Montclair State University
Debra Ann Poole, Central Michigan University


Objective: Tele-forensic interviews have the potential to aid investigations when children live far from interviewers, there is a risk of disease transmission, or when expertise is not locally available. However, it is unknown whether tele-forensic interviewing is an effective alternative to face-to-face interviewing, particularly for children most prone to suggestibility and lapses of attention. Hypotheses: Previous studies suggested that school-age children would provide similar amounts of information across interview modes but provided no basis for predicting how misinformation impacts accuracy across modes or how 4- and 5-year-olds would react to tele-forensic interviewing. Method: Children (4–8 years, N = 261, Mage = 6.42 years, 48% female) interacted with male assistants who violated a no-touching rule, parents read children a book containing misinformation about that event, and female assistants conducted inter- views (usually 2 weeks after the event) face-to-face or via a video conference application. Results: The children were more talkative during a practice narrative phase when interviewed face-to-face rather than on screen (incidence rate ratio [IRR] = 1.26, 95% CI [1.06, 1.51]), and 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds said more in response to open-ended prompts when interviewed face-to-face (IRR = 1.50, 95% CI [1.08, 2.09]). Children younger than 7 years also disclosed the face touch and noncompleted handshake in response to earlier and less directive prompts when interviewed face-to-face, r(53) = .28, p = .037, and r(48) = .33, p = .021, respectively. Children 8 years and older, however, disclosed the face touch more readily when they spoke on screen, r(28) = .38, p = .036, and older 7-year-olds and 8-year-olds disclosed the noncompleted handshake more readily on screen, r(30) = .36, p = .042. Across interview modes, children reported comparable numbers of touch events, however, and were equally accurate on challenging source-monitoring and detail questions. Conclusions: Tele-forensic interviewing can be a reasonable alternative to face-to-face interviewing.


forensic interviewing, children, tele-forensic interviewing, video conferencing, child witness

Summary of the Research

“Decades of studies on children’s eyewitness testimony have produced widespread consensus regarding many fundamental standards for conducting forensic interviews of children. Today, professionals in child protection, law enforcement, law, and medicine learn about these standards through an array of training opportunities, some involving web-based components that facilitate outreach across vast geographic distances. But despite advances in policy and training, many children live in regions that lack interviewing expertise and are geographically isolated from jurisdictions that employ trained interviewers. In the U.S. alone, over 60 million people (13.4 million under the age of 18) live in rural areas, many of which lack access to sufficient health care, including the specialized resources needed to investigate child abuse and other crimes involving child witnesses” (p. 98).

“As an investigative tool, tele-forensic interviewing offers several advantages when face-to-face interviewing would delay an interview or require lengthy travel. Shortening the time between alleged events and interviews could accelerate case disposition, reduce forgetting, and minimize opportunities for unwanted influence from parents, peers, or suspects. This delivery mode also makes it easier to involve highly trained or specialized interviewers who might elicit higher quality testimony (e.g., an interviewer fluent in the child’s primary language). Although face-to-face interviewing will likely remain standard practice, rapid expansion of the telehealth industry, increased Internet access, and experiences with tele-forensic interviewing during the COVID-19 pandemic suggest that tele-forensic interviewing is slated to join the suite of teleservices currently deployed by today’s child protection professionals” (p. 98).

“But even though many young children frequently use screens (e.g., smartphones, computers, tablets), and some children video chat, it is a mistake to assume that face-to-face and tele-forensic interviews will elicit comparable testimony. An obvious concern is that children use screens for entertainment, thereby raising the possibility they may not always grasp the purpose of forensic conversations and the need to relay accurate reports. Furthermore, children are more accustomed to face-to- face conversations, which could make the use of technology distracting and exacerbate the always-present challenge of keeping young witnesses on task. Anecdotally, a handful of forensic inter- viewers we spoke with voiced concern that the social distance created by tele-forensic interviewing may make it difficult to build rapport with children, resulting in fewer disclosures and increased reluctance to share sensitive or embarrassing details. All of these concerns make it important to look at age trends in children’s productivity and accuracy during tele-forensic interviews” (p. 98).

“We designed the study before the COVID-19 pandemic to address limitations of prior research on tele-forensic interviewing by including (a) a 2-week delay between the event and interviews, (b) exposure to misinformation in children’s homes, (c) children as young as 4 years, and (d) questions about touching. The target event and subsequent interview occurred in laboratory buildings, and we assumed that tele-forensic interviews in the field would also largely take place outside children’s homes (e.g., children’s advocacy centers, police stations, medical centers), partly for access to more reliable technology but also to reduce concerns about scene security (e.g., influence by parents or extraneous dis- tractions). Validating our prediction that children would rarely be in their homes during interviews, provisional guidelines issued at the start of the pandemic cautioned against home interviews being a default practice, with some children’s advocacy centers using tele-forensic interviews to reduce COVID-19 transmission by seating children and inter- viewers in separate rooms” (p. 99).

“We compared the testimony elicited by face-to-face and tele- forensic interviews to determine (a) how verbal children were during a practice narrative phase; (b) how informative and accurate they were in response to open-ended prompts about the target event; (c) the percentage of children who reported accurate and inaccurate touches, and how early in interviews they disclosed; (d) their ability to discriminate experienced from non-experienced events; and (e) the number of accurate and inaccurate responses to questions about peripheral event details. We explored age trends due to anticipated questions about young children’s attention and reality monitoring while watching a screen, and we also planned to explore whether any effects of interview mode could be explained by the reactions of children with specific characteristics, such as low exposure to screens” (p. 99).

“Although previous studies found minimal differences between face-to-face and tele-forensic interview modes, the interviewing community expressed concern during the COVID-19 pandemic that screen conversations might make it difficult to build rapport with child witnesses. The current study, which had a larger sample of young children than earlier reports, replicated previous findings in some ways while also validating interviewers’ concerns” (p. 108).

“We did not find statistically significant differences across delivery modes for the accuracy of children’s answers to open-ended prompts, the number or accuracy of touch disclosures, the accuracy of answers to source-monitoring questions, or the amount of accurate and inaccurate information provided in response to questions about event details. However, children in the tele-forensic condition were less talkative during the practice narrative phase, 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds who spoke on screen continued to be less talkative in response to open-ended prompts about the target event, and these younger children less often reported the face touch and noncompleted handshake in response to earlier, less directive prompts. On the other hand, older 7- and 8-year-olds who disclosed these events were more forthcoming on screen, suggesting there might be less social inhibition among older children in the tele-forensic condition” (p. 108-109).

Translating Research into Practice

“We do not yet know why the younger children said less in the tele-forensic condition or whether this is an issue for actual forensic interviews. An important difference between our procedure and practice in the field is that we fixed the number of prompts interviewers delivered, whereas forensic interviewers can deliver more prompts to reluctant children. It is unknown how many additional children would have disclosed in response to less directive prompts had our interviewers spent more time in early interview phases when needed. As in our data, preliminary data from an east coast children’s advocacy center, based on 473 interviews, did not show a significant difference in disclosure rates across face-to-face and tele-forensic interviews among younger (younger than 7 years) or older (7 years and older) children, but findings are not yet available on the prompts that elicited these disclosures. It is possible that interview mode will be less important in the field than in the current study, however, partly because children involved in investigations are often aware of the topic of forensic conversations. The fact that our entire sample in the tele-forensic condition was less verbal in the practice narrative phase, but only 4- to 6- year-olds were less verbal in response to open-ended prompts about target events, suggests that older children in our study gradually warmed up to—or became less distracted by—the screen. This pattern of findings supports the NICHD Revised Protocol recommendation that advises interviewers to monitor children’s behavior and avoid confronting them with more directive questions before they are ready” (p. 109).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“It is possible that young children in the tele-interview condition in our study were distracted or intimidated by the presence of an assistant. We included an assistant because we were uncomfortable leaving young children alone in an unfamiliar room, needed to reduce risk from behaviors that occur in our laboratories (e.g., tipping back chairs), and envisioned that an assistant would often be needed for the types of challenging cases that might lead investigative teams to arrange tele-interviews (e.g., cases involving children with intellectual disability). Although we minimized distractions by positioning assistants to the side of children and farther back from the screen (rather than focused on the screen), future studies should examine the impact of having another person in the interview room. That the face-to- face advantage emerged only in our higher-income site suggests that factors other than the assistant might be responsible for the condition difference, such as interviewers’ on-screen demeanors or home experiences that encourage children to relax and listen, rather than talk, to screens” (p. 109).

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Amanda Beltrani is a doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

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