Based on her research, Dr Kim Roberts of Wilfrid Laurier University stresses the need for specialist training for interviewers of child victims of abuse
There are many ways to interview alleged victims or suspects of crimes ranging from hostile interrogation tactics to active listening that encourages open, uninterrupted free recall of events. Naturally, different types of situations require different techniques. It is fair to say, however, that most police officers are trained to interrogate suspects but a minority are trained to interview children. Why might this be? In this article, I will provide some possible reasons and, then, suggestions for how to ensure that children are interviewed by people who are expert in child interviewing.
Why we need specialist training for interviewers of child victims
First, is there any evidence that child interviewing is an expert skill? In dozens of studies, in various countries, alleged child victims are not being given the chance to describe their memories unhindered and uninfluenced. The preferred technique to elicit descriptive narratives of events and to reduce the risk of suggestibility (believing what someone suggested happened rather than what actually did happen) is known as ‘open-ended’ questioning. Open-ended questions invite rather than demand responses and provide no direction or suggestion as to what the alleged child victim should describe. Some examples are: Tell me what happened that day, and then what happened? Tell me more, and so on. Yet, interviewers rely more often on narrow question types such as, did he touch you at home? Was it before or after your mum came home? Where were you? And so on. I now provide some possible reasons given to me by police officers for the disappointing quality of many interviews of alleged child abuse.
Lack of belief in expertise
Prosecution rates of child sexual abuse are typically low compared to other crimes. Thus, pessimism is often displayed which stems from the belief that it is difficult to get reliable, corroborated evidence so expert training is wasting time and resources. The irony here is that with expert training, interviewers would be able to get convincing and reliable testimony from children which, in turn, would improve prosecution rates (see Lamb’s study in the US showing increased closure of cases when expert interviewers investigate the cases).
The perceived failure of open-ended questions
A typical beginning to an investigative interview of an alleged child victim is to ask the child between 1 and 3 ‘open-ended’ questions which get little response from children, and then to move onto narrower questions requiring the child to choose between presented options, or answer yes or no to suggestions provided by an interviewer. While there is international consensus that open-ended questions elicit lengthier and more accurate descriptions than do narrow questions, interviewers receive little information from children. Hence, the move to narrower questions to ‘help’ the children give information. Indeed, open-ended questions are difficult for children; it requires them to retrieve memories of an event, choose what information they think is important to report, and choose whether or not they want to provide that information. Therefore, a critical component in a good investigative interview is to give the child practice answering open-ended questions about an event that they are comfortable talking about. When the child has got the hang of answering open-ended questions, the interviewer can then proceed to ask about the alleged abuse using similar questions (see Practice Narrative publications by me and my colleagues).
Lack of training
We were recently commissioned by the Canadian Department of Justice to assess the type and amount of training in child interviewing across Canada. While most relevant professionals had received some preliminary training either before or after working on these cases, there were very few instances of refresher or continued formal training. It is a common adage that you cannot be an expert just by reading about it – you have to try it and receive critique and feedback on your efforts. This is an essential part of training, and as the literature clearly shows, interviewing does not improve without this piece.
Lack of funding
The lack of training is likely to be linked to the lack of funding devoted to training child interviewers. In many countries, police services are publicly funded. Hence, police administrators with relatively small budgets must be very careful regarding where they spend their money. Providing feedback to individual interviewers, especially when an objective party is hired to provide feedback is expensive and time consuming.
Secrecy and mistrust
Police officers are very protective of their interviews. There is a very real fear that courts can subpoena external parties to divulge their critique to the courts. I, however, believe this is a flimsy argument. First, defence lawyers often hesitate to ask a collaborator to testify against the relevant party. Second, knowing that your interviews may be publicly scrutinised is an excellent motivator to get the needed critique that will improve your interviewing practices.
In sum, police interviewers of alleged child abuse victims face an extremely difficult task if they are not provided with the consistent training and feedback that has been shown to improve the quality of children’s testimony. In a 9-month training project by me and colleague Heather Price, for example, we found that social workers increased their use of open-ended questions by a third which, in turn, doubled the amount of information children produced. This project was possible only because we were able to pool our research funds with those of the community organisation, which also gave us a chance to scientifically evaluate the project and distribute our results to other agencies.
I urge research funding councils and benefactors to consider the value in the outcomes that are possible when university-community research is possible. The tangible benefits for police, the judicial system, and the children who are involved in these investigations are very clear.
Dr Kim Roberts
Professor, Child Memory Lab
Wilfrid Laurier University
Tel: +1 519 884 0710 ext. 3225
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